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  • Supplementarity and the Sonnet A Reading of Ronsard’s Les Amours Diverses 45
  • Matthew Gumpert

[these imitations are mere nonsense]

Lysistrata l.1591

Introduction: Examples and Supplements

Les Amours Diverses 45 is almost certainly Ronsard's most obscene poem. Critics in the past have not been kind to it. And while it appears to have lost much of its shock value today, it continues to be neglected. But there may be something to learn from this sonnet, and this neglect. One of the questions we might want to ask is whether it is the subject itself we find distasteful, or the fact that it is represented so explicitly. It is possible that what sets Ronsard's sonnet apart, and has made it something of an embarrassment to its readers, is simply the explicitness with which it tells the story most sonnets—and in particular Petrarchan sonnets—tell: that of desire as supplementarity, a matter of substitution and deferral. Looked at in this way, the scenario of substitution sketched out by Ronsard's sonnet appears, perversely enough, less perverse. Read against the background of early modern writings on sex as something scandalous, Ronsard's Les Amours Diverses 45 may remind us to what extent there is something scandalous about all writing, and something scandalous about the fact that we enjoy it.

I am suggesting, in effect, that Les Amours Diverses 45 is an exemplary piece of writing. But what does it mean, in fact, to be exemplary? To answer that question, let me begin with the example of Derrida, whose now famous—indeed, exemplary—discussion of the supplement in Of Grammatology (141–64) relies to a large extent, in turn, on the example of Rousseau. In both the Confessions and Emile, Derrida points out (150), Rousseau calls masturbation a "dangerous [End Page 17] supplement," an addition to and substitute for "normal" sexuality. Of course Derrida does not begin his meditations on the supplement with this example. Supplements, Derrida points out, play key roles throughout Rousseau's writings, and indeed, in all writing: education is a supplement to nature, fantasy a supplement to physical contact, and writing a supplement to speech. In each pair something culturally privileged and normative is compensated for, and potentially replaced by, something ancillary and perverse:2

The supplement adds itself, it is a surplus. . . . But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. . . . This second signification of the supplement [i.e., replacement] cannot be separated from the first [completion].


The fact, however, that the supplement can replace that which it was asked to complete suggests that the supplement is prior to and constitutive of that which it called upon to supplement. Writing may appear to be an adjunct to speech, but "[i]f 'writing' signifies inscription and especially the durable institution of a sign . . . then writing in general covers the entire field of linguistic signs" (Grammatology 44). Both "speech" and "writing" are thus, potentially, only variant forms of what Derrida sometimes calls archi-écriture ["archi-writing"]. In just the same way, the more Rousseau tries to distance masturbation from "true" or "natural" sexuality, the more the aberration proves central to the norm. Masturbation begins as a specialized and aberrant form of sex, but in the end both sex and masturbation are shown to be specialized cases of a more generalized masturbation, an archi-masturbation.3

Few would characterize Derrida's reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology as either a treatise on masturbation or Rousseau; the subject, if we had to choose one, would more likely be something along the lines of "writing as supplementarity." Masturbation, then, like Rousseau, is merely an example4 —and, as such, subsidiary to the theoretical problem it is meant to illustrate. Examples, to state the obvious, are (examples of) supplements: they support and/or supplant the theories they are supposed to exemplify. For writing is only one of a set of privileged terms in Of Grammatology, all of which describe supplementarity in different ways (245).5 Viewed as standing outside and after speech (phoné), for which it is merely...


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