restricted access The Graphic Unconscious in Early Modern Writing by Tom Conley (review)
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Book Reviews Tom Conley. T h e G r a p h ic U n c o n s c io u s in E a r l y M o d e r n W r i tin g . Cambridge Univer­ sity Press, 1992. Pp. xi + 226. The Graphic Unconscious is a stunning piece of work, a true exercise in substantive vir­ tuosity. This piece of scholarship is brilliantly creative, yet never self-important. It seeks to enter into a cultural mentality. With supple, provocative prose, Conley invites us to reenvision the sixteenth century according to its own views and approaches. This study is thus itself a readerly text, in Roland Barthes’ sense. The methodology is neo-Freudian with a rich dollop of film studies, but the groundwork remains traditional explication de texte in its best guise: the evocative elucidation of a text through attentiveness to undercurrents, puns, syntactical shifts and hinted-at potentials. Tom Conley brings his interdisciplinary expertise to bear on the thorny question of the opacity of sixteenth-century systems of signifying, the seemingly deliberately enigmatic character of the work. He observes that media phenomena in the sixteenth century, despite their air of strangeness, really are not all that different from modern and post-modern uses of media, and may indeed inform our understanding of the latter. The sixteenth-century penchant to play with typography and graphics both verbally and visually aims at creating a perfect equivalence between word and thing: a hieroglyph rendering absolute meaning. Of course, the attainment of perfection where signification is concerned is never possible, since the lines of communication between sender and recipient become distorted. However, Conley shows that this goal does illuminate much of the poetics of sixteenth-century French literature, often providing a visual sub-text parallel to, juxtaposed with, or even contrary to, the text-line. A montage or collage effect may result, which deepens and extends the possible valences of interpretation. A few reservations. I am unsure about the accuracy of the term “ unconscious” in the title. Admittedly, there are Freudian overtones to the study, but because no systematic attempt is made to define what the unconscious might consist of, but rather to display how such sublimal sensitivities functioned, a more appropriate term might be “ the graphic sen­ sibility.” Some of Conley’s speculations are even more audacious than others. He wisely uses such vocabulary as “ it would seem” or “ it appears” to mark such points, acknowledg­ ing their hypothetical tenor. But one wonders why he stops short: other such assertions are brilliantly substantiated, why not these? A few examples are found on pages 105, 109 and 110, in which there is not sufficient textual motivation to legitimize Conley’s theorizing. However, he can nearly persuade us even here that fiction is more real than whatever “ fact” might be—and in this unbridled invention he resembles the figures he studies in their quasi-mystical excavation of a letter’s sense such as that performed by Geoffrey Tory. There is a slight jargonesque flavor to The Graphic Unconscious, not enough to put a reader off, and perhaps deriving from Conley’s bilingualism; such terms as “ instaured,” “ decipherment” and “ ostensive” seem formed on the French, but jar a bit in the reading. There are a few anachronisms, such as that on page 23, where Conley bases an interpreta­ tion on CM = seme, a term that did not exist at the time. Finally, the translations are often appalling, characterized by surprising awkwardness from one who is such a skilled trans­ lator (these may in fact not be Conley’s translations, but I couldn’t find an acknowledg­ ment of any other translator). Pages 107, 123 and 147 are cases in point. On page 123, Montaigne’s “ Un cheval bien aise, mais non guiere ferme” is rendered “ . .. a scarcely firm horse.” I defy any equestrian to decipher that one. Perhaps “ a hardly reliable horse” would work better? These caveats aside—and they really should be set aside so that the Vol. XXXV, NO. 2 101 L ’E sp r it C r éa te u r ingenuity and sheen of the study can shine forth— The Graphic Unconscious only demon­ strates...