- La Stylistique française en mutation?
In a 1969 special number of Langue française, Michel Arrivé announced the (imminent) death of stylistics. The discipline had led an agitated life and known many periods of good health. It had also suffered considerably from methodological weakness, impressionism and subjectivism, the temptations of stylistic criticism or explication de texte, the difficulties of reaching a satisfactory definition of its domain. The end seemed to have come. But Arrivé’s announcement proved premature. The last ten or twelve years have witnessed the recovery of stylistics (at least in the francophone world) and, with La Stylistique francaise en mutation?, Madeleine Frédéric proposes to characterize the reinvigorated discipline, specify the conditions for its continued life, and provide illustrations of the healthy performances it can accomplish.
After a brief foreword which spells out the nature and goals of her endeavor, Frédéric draws, in the first chapter, a sketch of stylistics from its birth to its near death and newfound strength. In the second chapter, she offers a definition of the field and distinguishes it from related fields like pragmatics or text linguistics. Taking into account several important concepts developed by or around the latter (coherence and cohesion, for instance, text as oriented whole, polyphony, dialogism), chapter III gives examples of a stylistic approach to poetry (the work of Saint-John Perse) and to prose (C ‘est toujours les autres qui meurent, a detective novel by Jean-François Vilar). Finally, chapter IV presents the systematic analysis of a text (Blaise Cendrars’s J’ai tué) in its literary and historical context and a short conclusion allows the author to summarize her view of stylistics.
For Madeleine Frédéric, stylistics is not a theoretical but a practical field, one whose very essence resides in textual study. Specifically, stylistics can be defined as the “analysis of the form of a text, the form of the expression as well as that of the content” (39). Though it should be linguistically aware, stylistics cannot be restricted to linguistic facts since a text also relates to the world and to history. Stylistics is not a science: it focuses on a particular text (or body of work) as opposed to the text in general. It is not normative or evaluative either. It provides more than a mere descriptive inventory of the various components of a text and it should not be confused with interpretive commentary or criticism. Rather, stylistics constitutes a plural attempt (graphic, phonic, morpho-syntactic, rhythmic, etc.) to show how a text signifies and functions.
Frédéric does much more than define and situate stylistics or underline the importance of exploiting the germinal work of Hjelmslev and Bakhtin. She not only sheds light on Saint-John Perse but also on Robert Desnos and Paul Nougé. She clarifies the role of isotopies and that of strategies like enumeration or bracketing. She demonstrates that Jean-François Vilar’s detective [End Page 984] novel dialogues with Duchamp, the surrealists, and Walter Benjamin, and that it can itself be considered a ready-made. She convincingly argues that, through its rhetoric and its evocation of prototypes, Cendrars’s war narrative functions as poetry.
If Frédéric’s accomplishments are indisputable, her very definition of the discipline is perhaps more problematic. In her resolve to grasp a text as both structure and meaning (for her, “le style, c’est le texte”) and in her insistence on considering its links to the world and to history, she radically extends the domain of stylistics, making it difficult to distinguish from that of verbal semiotics and leaving many questions unanswered: which world? whose history? how much of it? Maybe these questions are unanswerable. But, given her emphasis on stylistics as praxis, I suspect that Frédéric would say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the case of La Stylistique francaise en mutation?, the pudding is very good.
Gerald Prince is Magnin Family Term Professor of...