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  • The Simplest of Signs: Victor Hugo and the Language of Images in France, 1850-1950
Raser, Timothy. The Simplest of Signs: Victor Hugo and the Language of Images in France, 1850-1950. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2004. Pp. 217. ISBN 0-87413-867-1.

The Simplest of Signs combines two sets of essays: semiotic approaches to Victor Hugo (21-104) and studies of later authors' art criticism (105-187), loosely linked by three initial paragraphs and one at the end. Most of the documentation is twenty years old. However, one finds much of interest throughout. Nearly all the footnotes offer [End Page 422] thoughtful comments on the theoretical issues raised in the main text. The second section is the more noteworthy, but both parts are thought provoking.

Raser begins by noting 19th-century French authors' strong interest in writing art criticism. Liberation from classical esthetics, the proliferation of monuments during kaleidoscopic regime changes, and the public display of artworks in museums during the latter decades of the century undoubtedly contributed to this trend. Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris. 1482 (with the date, as usual, unmentioned) provides the locus classicus of the synthesis of the arts that Raser traces forward to Sartre.

Raser's first chapter problematizes the notion of reference by saying that signs point not to things, but to other signs. He offers four case studies. 1 – Many dates of composition in Les Contemplations are altered so that they refer not to historical events, but to poetic or political meanings. 2 – Hugo's "performative" utterances in his theater often misfire, and the revelation of overwhelming, sinister power at the conclusions of his plays mocks human attempts to control the world with language. Raser really means commissives here, not performatives. Equating performatives with speech acts in general, and neglecting the polysemy of Grice's "implicatures," Raser cannot analyze the rich texture of the middle ground (between performatives and assertorics) of directives, commissives, and expressives, which form the terrain where the interpersonal negotiations essential to theater occur. 3 – Raser presents an intriguing discussion of apostrophe as anthropomorphic projection in "Tristesse d'Olympio," where, he holds, it clashes with the narrative impulse. But here and later he appears to hypostatize the complementary trope of prosopopoeia, defining it as "resurrection" instead of recognizing it as merely another projection in reverse ("X, the nonhuman, absent, or dead entity can send me a message, rather than receive mine"). Unless the notion is unpacked, we risk confusing Galatea, Mercury, and Lazarus. 4 – Quatrevingt-Treize should not be labeled "pastoral," but "regional" (like Les Travailleurs de la mer) – which pastorals depict a world at war? Concerning the debates in that work, we should speak of "citation," "dialogue," or "discourse" rather than "prosopopoeia" (51, 57), because the characters are alive onstage in the present time of narration.

Chapter 2, "Hugo's Textual Systems: Antithesis, Inscription, Ekphrasis" reads Bug-Jargal as reflecting the dilemma of choosing between politics and esthetics. "This choice defined [Hugo's] later esthetics and rendered some of his later political positions ambiguous" (63). It would be clearer to say that Hugo initially engaged in the politics of esthetics, a typically Restoration pose, before exploring the esthetics of politics in later novels such as L'Homme qui rit and Quatrevingt-treize. Moreover, it is necessary to refer to Les Travailleurs de la mer to understand that the "fatality" evoked by Claude Frollo's inscription in Notre-Dame de Paris. 1482 is only one panel of Hugo's visionary triptych of enslavement to religious dogma (ND), history (QVT – and the date 1482), and natural forces (TM). The graffiti inside Notre Dame, which Raser considers in isolation, form part of a rhetoric of human transience (compare Quasimodo's skeleton, which falls to dust) that contrasts dramatically – not only with cosmic and historical forces, but also with other inscriptions such as the individual workmen's signatures on each stone, and the cultural code of Catholic faith inscribed through the architectural form and the building materials themselves. The latter, as Hugo laments elsewhere, can be dismantled and reused (and thus, "reinterpreted") through human violence that exceeds the destructiveness of nature. [End Page 423]

Hugo evokes binaries only to deconstruct them at a deeper level, through syllepsis. Therefore, for example, seeing Hugo's sentence in his 1859 letter concerning John Brown – "Devant Dieu, toutes les âmes sont blanches" – Raser finds a racist conceptual weakness: "the aesthetic value of whiteness is so compelling that, in addition to assuming that 'white' is a complimentary adjective, for its sake Hugo sacrifices the political argument that the difference between black and white is of no consequence" (72). No; instead, Hugo uses the same term in two different ways on separate occasions, referring in the sentence quoted above to moral rather than material "whiteness" – as Bug-Jargal's heroism had made clear. One often observes similar syllepses elsewhere, as in the title and the text of Les Misérables (materially or morally wretched–the former state does not necessarily presuppose the latter), or when Azelma, as a hired bacchante, observes Cosette and Marius's wedding procession and comments to her father "[there's a noce, but] c'est nous qui sommes la vraie!"

Raser's claim that Hugo's theory of justice "presupposes the essential good of man" (77) misfires by substituting "man" for "Providence." Javert's "good" is delusional; Thénardier is one of those deformed souls that, crabwise, instinctively seek to withdraw from the light into evil. Hugo's vision cannot be mapped on a binary grid, because it contains places of indeterminacy and self-questioning. We must give Hugo credit for recognizing (to quote Raser's summary of Barthes' Éléments de sémiologie) that "a single sign could have multiple significations in different codes," and recall that Hugo also knew that different signifiers could have the same signified: "C'est dans trois langues le même mot."

In chapter 3, Raser's teacherly review of "literary accounts of the visual arts: narrative, citation, and attribution" (107-116), moving from Saussure to Proust, Ruskin, Barthes, Gombrich, and Sartre, effectively prepares discussions of writers' views of painting. The discussion of Barthes and Proust is particularly suggestive. Further development of two points would have been desirable. First, the artist's choice of images to include is itself a form of interpretation – as Nicolas Poussin forcefully showed in one painting by focusing the figures' gaze on the intrusive inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO: "I (Death) too can be found in Arcady." Second, although the formulation "the prosopopeia [sic] underlying art criticism – resurrection" [jacket copy] does appropriately identify the interpretation of the visual arts as an act of reading into rather than seeing – Raser's main theme – but does not distinguish a critic's speaking on her own behalf in an essay [not a trope per se] from her ventriloquizing in the prosopopoeias of the lyric, when discourse is specifically attributed to an entity that is "offstage," non-human, or deceased. One may anthropomorphize by saying that a critic's interpretation claims to make a work of art speak to us, but the salient difference is that through critical discourse she presents herself as the sender of the message, whereas through prosopopoeia the lyric poet presents herself as the receiver.

In the brief Verlaine section (116-23), the discussion of "Aegri somnia" as a poem with no denotation would require more contextualization. As John Porter Houston demonstrated, the "mood poem" became commonplace in and after romanticism. In a sense, any modal poem – such as the "jussive" "Art poétique" – lacks a denotation, referring as it does to a hypothetical state of affairs that is feared, desired, or commanded to exist. The referent of "Aegri somnia" is pain, an internal state that can be communicated only by metaphors (see, e.g., Elaine Scarry's classic The Body in Pain: [End Page 424] The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford, 1985).

Raser hits his stride in two illuminating essays relating Baudelaire's Le Peintre de la vie moderne to the rest of the poet's art criticism (123-50). He cogently analyzes Baudelaire's self-contradictory claims regarding his article on the Exposition Universelle of 1855 (a exhibition he has not seen / of which he has seen only the catalogue / that he walked through quickly), and the poet's curious focus on two artists whose work was not shown there at all – Boudin and Meryon. Raser relates these anomalies to Baudelaire's treatment of Delacroix's "Ovide chez les Scythes" and "La Descente au Tombeau," synthesizing his observations with a view of Baudelaire's imagination as primarily nostalgic, performing resurrections through narrative, which in turn avoids denotation by fleeing to theory. In other words, theory emphasizes a way of seeing rather than what is seen. This sounds blatantly obvious, but it means that Baudelaire has transcended the formerly dominant modes of normative criticism and the "critique of beauties" in literary and art criticism.

The spirited concluding essay explains that all Sartre's writing on Tintoretto, some 200 pages, became accessible only after the writer's death. In shrewd analyses, Raser argues that Tintoretto is a materialist painter with trompe-l'œil trajectories that threaten, disquietingly, to intersect and disrupt our world. The painter's version of "Saint George and the Dragon" is alienating rather than consoling. Terrified, the liberated virgin flees into the wilderness from the townspeople who tried to sacrifice her, and from her unknown rescuer as well. So Tintoretto became a pariah – a historical type for which Sartre felt a special predilection – for having failed to celebrate the established order. The variety and originality of Timothy Raser's book leads one to anticipate his future work with pleasure.

Laurence M. Porter
Michigan State University

Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0172
Print ISSN
0146-7891
Launched on MUSE
2006-09-27
Open Access
No
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