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  • Searching For Presence: Yves Bonnefoy’s Writings on Art
  • James Petterson
Robert W. Greene. Searching For Presence: Yves Bonnefoy’s Writings on Art. Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2004. 204 pp.

Searching For Presence: Yves Bonnefoy's Writings on Art is Robert Greene's personal, heartfelt "attempt to elucidate the role of presence in Bonnefoy's art criticism" (9). As such there is little attempt at impartiality here, which the author rapidly makes clear by endorsing Baudelaire's observation that for criticism to be juste it must be "partial and impassioned" (15). Accordingly, many of the suppositions and conclusions in Searching For Presence bid its readers to share the author's faith (the word comes up often) in a certain reading of Yves Bonnefoy's poetic and art-critical project. For these readers, Greene's study will reconfirm the centrality of Bonnefoy's œuvre in the French literary-critical canon. Given that the first half of Searching For Presence is a broad overview of the origins of that peculiarly French form of art criticism written for the most part by poets, other readers will gain insight into the many poets and artists from previous generations who inform Yves Bonnefoy's writing.

The first chapter of Part I recounts the origins of French art criticism from Diderot's Salons to Baudelaire's art-critical "impeccable naïveté" (40). For Greene, both authors "appear to have operated on the same bipartite assumption that mnemonic, not ocular, acuity enables both artists and critics to perform their distinct but homologous tasks" (19), where what is key is the mnemonic "répertoire de souvenirs" (19) rather than the immediacy of ocular perception. Ranging from Baudelaire and Mallarmé in the nineteenth century, to Apollinaire, Cocteau, Breton, Ponge, Char, Michaux and André du Bouchet in the twentieth century, the next chapter offers an overview of the origins of poésie critique, defined simply as "the art criticism of a poet" (57). The first chapter of Part II suggests that "the art critical corpuses of Apollinaire and Malraux opened a space in which poésie critique generally and Bonnefoy's texts in particular have flourished" (54), while the subsequent two chapters develop the twentieth-century influences and counter-influences of Ponge, of Char, and of the Catholic poet Pierre Jean Jouve whose insistence on the "redemptive, even sanctifying work of art" (75) Greene argues was particularly crucial for Bonnefoy.

Part III considers the core assertion that Bonnefoy is a "poet of presence" (86) who pursues a concern for presence throughout art-critical writings ranging from monumental studies on French Gothic [End Page 146] murals, on the early Italian Baroque and on Alberto Giacometti, to numerous other art-critical essays. Here, for those readers who might be simply less conversant or less inclined to accept on faith alone a certain reading of Bonnefoy's notion of presence, the impassioned partiality of Searching For Presence does not provide a compelling examination of the extraordinary tensions inherent to the notion of presence woven into Bonnefoy's writings. This is due mainly to the author's again taking for granted the unwavering centrality of this notion linked to an ethics of Otherness—one of the more established currents in Bonnefidian studies. Thus, though Searching for Presence offers a number of brief descriptions of the role of presence in Bonnefoy's writings, it rests its hope on the fact that "the poet himself has addressed the subject so often in his essays and interviews that we, his readers, have a reasonably secure sense of what the term means to him" (140). Read otherwise, Bonnefoy's near sixty years of reiterating his ever altered approach to presence also speaks against feeling "reasonably secure" with regards to the meaning or existential efficacy of poetic presence. Which brings me back to naïveté and to a mnemonic, versus ocular, model for art. If presence there is, it is oddly manifest only through the media of poetry, the visual arts and poésie critique, and as Bonnefoy has written repeatedly, in ever varying forms, "tout emploi de mots est un oubli de la finitude" (94). Bonnefoy certainly has not quit hoping in presence, finitude and, perhaps...


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