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  • Yves Bonnefoy and the “Genius” of Language
  • Alexander Dickow (bio)

Along with poets such as Eugène Guillevic and Philippe Jaccottet, Yves Bonnefoy represents part of a wave of poets who contributed to reorienting post-World War II French poetry towards the everyday and the here and now, as opposed to the world of dreams and the marvelous glorified by Surrealism. For more than a half-century, Bonnefoy’s writings have constantly returned to that here and now, which he calls “Presence.” For Bonnefoy, poetry ought to open onto the epiphanic experience of Presence. Bonnefoy’s most famous work, Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve, is an elegy dedicated to the perpetual demise and rebirth of a fictional being called Douve, herself emblematic of the perpetually fleeing here and now.

Immensely influential and widely read, Bonnefoy represents one of the most canonical French poets living today. Remarkably, he has also emerged as one of France’s premier translators, especially of the works of Shakespeare, Yeats and Leopardi, and as a prolific essayist on the topic of translation. Throughout his approaches to the topic, Bonnefoy repeatedly engages the notion that each language, with its particular configurations and characteristics, somehow influences or determines the worldview of a community of speakers. To describe this notion of language’s intrinsic character or determining force, Henri Meschonnic borrows the expression “le génie des langues” from the Swiss Romantic writer Germaine de Staël (36, 117 and passim). In de Staël’s work, this “genius of language” is intimately tied to the genius of nations: in other words, national character and linguistic character, according to de Staël, mirror one another. Other thinkers have explored the notion quite differently; as a group, such positions constitute forms of what is called “linguistic relativism.”1

Bonnefoy discusses the “genius” of English and French in distinctly metaphysical terms, characterizing English as “Aristotelian” and centered in the manifold appearances and contingencies of the real, while the French language’s “Platonic” structure lends itself to the expression of Ideas. As the present essay will demonstrate, Bonnefoy sometimes suggests that French must overcome its Platonic structure in order to accede to true Presence, while at other times, he suggests that this Platonism grants privileged access to Presence. One accedes to Presence either by way of the concrete real in all its contingency and perceptual immediacy, or by way of Ideas and essences that bypass and exclude superficial appearances. [End Page 158] As a result of this confusion, Presence appears as a problematic and potentially contradictory notion, if not as a false presence absent to itself, another Beyond or Elsewhere, rather than the here and now sought by Bonnefoy. In other words, Bonnefoy’s recourse to the notion of the “genius” of English and French ends up undermining the integrity of his central poetic principle: translation, in short, destabilizes theory.

The majority of Bonnefoy’s essays on translation have been collected in four books: L’Autre langue à portée de voix, La Communauté des traducteurs, Théâtre et poésie: Shakespeare et Yeats, and La Petite Phrase et la longue phrase.2 Only two of these many essays examine the genius of the French and English languages at length, both produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s: “Shakespeare and the French Poet” and “French Poetry and the Principle of Identity” (the present essay will focus on these two major essays, the latter of which John E. Jackson places among Bonnefoy’s most important critical essays [43-44]).3 In turn, only one brief critical essay by Dominique Combe has examined this aspect of Bonnefoy’s translation theory (299-308). As of the year 2000, Bonnefoy explicitly reaffirms his position concerning English and French: “French is Platonic, English Aristotelian, and I am unrepentant about this” (La Communauté 54; my translation).4 And many passages in Bonnefoy’s L’Autre langue à portée de voix suggest that Bonnefoy has continued to maintain his positions in respect to the “genius” of French and English.

What is the “Presence” to which Bonnefoy so often returns? John Naughton refers to the notion as “the key term in Bonnefoy’s vision and quest” (18...


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pp. 158-171
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