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  • Redefining Resistance: The Poetic Wartime Discourses of Francis Ponge, Benjamin Péret, Henri Michaux and Antonin Artaud
Redefining Resistance: The Poetic Wartime Discourses of Francis Ponge, Benjamin Péret, Henri Michaux and Antonin Artaud. By Esther Rowlands . Amsterdam — New York: Rodopi, 2004. 200 pp. Pb $50.00; €40.00.

This book seeks to examine 'the way in which language may be defined as a locus of resistance' and 'reposition' the war-time discourses of four writers not normally associated with the French Resistance canon. Rowlands has in her sights the Anthology of Second World War French Poetry edited by Ian Higgins, who, she claims, treated Péret as a 'culprit' and gave 'minimal' attention to Ponge. Her study argues for the rehabilitation of writers whose work is characterized by 'reversal', 'inversion', 'abolition' and 'reconfiguration', poems where 'the subversive effect of style and resistance arise from polymorphism, movement and germinativity'. We are presented with Ponge and 'language turned against itself', Peret's annihilation of 'the logical limits of language', Michaux 'strangled by a language broken by centuries of compromise' (since exactly when?, we ask) and Artaud probing the 'extremes' of language in his wartime Cahiers de Rodez. We find ourselves in the suspiciously familiar and canonical company of Barthes, Lyotard, Foucault and Deleuze, along with the slightly more exotic Michel de Certeau and Ross Chambers. As far as polemic goes, this is fine. But alarm bells begin to ring when the reader stumbles upon the very rare allusions to the historical period supposedly in question: 'in 1939, Peret was imprisoned, in Rennes, by the Nazis'; 'illegitimate power' is a category into which 'any totalitarian regime, such as Nazism, Capitalism and Colonialism may, naturally, fall'; the other C-word eventually arrives when we learn that 'when the Communist revolution occurred in Russia, the Stalinist state accepted avant-garde, [sic] art only for a brief period, before enforcing its suppression of all modernist movements'. As for her attack on Higgins, when, in her reading of Ponge's 'L'orange', she writes that 'the functioning of the object is reliant upon its specificity, its sense of uniqueness and mystery, its relations between its impact on the human senses and its linguistic representability', it is difficult to see how such an assessment differs radically from that made [End Page 413] by Higgins more than two decades ago. But the external world is of little consequence when what matters is 'resistance' to langue. So we are assured that in Peret's 'Pue pue pue/Qu'est-ce qui pue/C'est Louis XVI l'œuf mal couvé' (written, incidentally, before the outbreak of war), 'alliterative signifier and argotic signified, [sic] aspire towards the creation of a subversive, infantile chant which tears holes in the empirical'. But the curious and bemused reader may well ask: what was the impact of such childish gibberish on empirical reality? Did the screams of Artaud give the Gestapo and Milice sleepless nights? Why did Péret's 'Ah fromage voilà du bon pays/Voilà du bon pays au lait' not enter French popular culture in the same way as 'Celui qui croyait au ciel/Celui qui n'y croyait pas'? Sometimes it can be so hard to pin down a floating signifier.

Gavin Bowd
University of St Andrews

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