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Reviewed by:
  • Eau sur eau: Les dictionnaires de Mallarmé, Flaubert, Bataille, Michaux, Leiris et Ponge
  • Peter Connor (bio)
Christophe Lamiot, Eau sur eau: Les dictionnaires de Mallarmé, Flaubert, Bataille, Michaux, Leiris et Ponge. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997. 172pp.

In an essay on Swedenborg, Paul Valéry remarks that the principal terms used by the mystics possess both “an ordinary, or ‘dictionary’ meaning” and “another meaning whose reverberations are perceived only in the interior regions of a given individual.” In the best of cases—in the writings of Swedenborg and Huysmans, for example—the mystics’ use of a “personal dictionary” opens up thrillingly new perspectives—a “fresh arrangement of things” as Valéry puts it. Himself the creator of Monsieur Teste, mystique sans Dieu, Valéry understood that what prompts the mystic to reach beyond dictionary meanings is the “mal aigu de la précision,” the burning need to make language conform, precisely, to thought and experience. He knew also that the pursuit of “precision” does not involve rummaging around in the dictionary hoping for a happy trouvaille; the poetic word is never some mot juste, lying in wait in one of the immense verbal cemeteries tended by the professional lexicographer, but emerges only through “a certain sacrifice of the intellect,” which implies, in turn, a certain sacrifice of accepted meaning. Precision, in the sense of adequation or, to use Valéry’s word, “netteté,” is an illusion: the task of the poet is to “plier le verbe commun à des fins imprévues.” In so doing, he cajoles words into disclosing a meaning that the lexicographer, no matter how many rubrics he allows, must always disallow. [End Page 985] For Valéry, as for most of the “poètes lexicographes” whom Laimot brings together in Eau sur eau, words are haunted and haunting: their meanings come and go like spirits, moving and mutating in mysterious ways. “Le sens enseveli se muet et dispose, en choeur, des feuillets,” writes Mallarmé.

To the lexicographically conservative, the idea of a “personal dictionary” is an anathema, and anyone with a low threshold for deviant etymologies, fanciful filiations, and “the poetic perversion of words” (Bataille) should steel themselves in advance for the horrors contained within the pages of this book. (The spectacle of Bataille wrenching words from their familiar, dictionary-assigned tasks in order to explode their meaning is not for the faint of heart.) From the outset. Lamiot insists on the enormous social and political significance of the respective and collective endeavor(s) of his six authors. “Toute écriture lexicographique correspond à une idéologie qui le parcourt,” he observes. By challenging, extending, shifting and replacing accepted definitions of words. Mallarmé, Flaubert, Bataille, Michaux, Leiris and Ponge, each of whom compiled his own “personal dictionary” (or lexicon, glossary, wordbook), engage in skirmishes with “un discours qui se donne souvent pour un absolu ne souffrant nulle contradiction” (12). Unruly players in a sometimes surreal game of conceptual scrabble, they contest the exclusive right of Littré, Robert, Larousse et al. to have the Last Word on the subject of sense. The battle is joined: on one side, the guardians of stable meaning, righteous protectors of the sensu stricto; on the other, a band of linguistic renegades for whom semantic drift is something of an aphrodisiac.

In attempting to liberate words from the semantic straightjacket to which the lexicographer would confine them, each one of these pseudo-lexicographers contributes, Lamiot argues, to a reformulation of the definitional enterprise itself. The techniques employed by Lamiot’s authors vary, but Michel Leiris’ description of how he goes about “dissecting” words reveals a broadly shared reliance on some form of free association: “En disséquant les mots que nous aimons, sans nous soucier de suivre ni l’étymologie, ni la signification admise, nous découvrons leurs vertus les plus cachées et les ramifications secrètes qui se propagent à travers tout le langage, canalisées par les associations de sons, de formes, et d’idées. Alors le langage se transforme en oracle et nous avons là (si tenu qu’il soit) un fil pour nous guider dans la Babel de notre esprit” (39). If words are to attain the oracular...

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