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  • Secret Passages, Memory WorksOn Some Benjaminian Motifs in Matei Călinescu
  • Adina Camelia Arvatu (bio)

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Călinescu and Borges, 1980.

Photograph by Willis Barnstone.

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In a short paper published in 19791 that in many ways anticipates his book on Rereading, Matei Călinescu examines the relative merits of two rival approaches to literary studies—hermeneutics and poetics—and re-affirms, at the term of his inquiry, his faith in interpretation as that which allows us to read the “essential book that is in us—our true life: lived meaning, lost and regained in the dialectic between passingness and recurrence” (HP 17). The Proustian ring of this sentence is not haphazard and we shall return to it. My reason for starting here is not haphazard either, though it is also more personal. In his exposition of structuralist poetics as a “science of literature” or “literariness,” Călinescu discusses Tzvetan Todorov, “one of the most cogent, intellectually versatile, and unprejudiced proponents of poetics” (HP 10). Before outlining the main criticisms to Todorov’s poetics, Călinescu commends the readability of his prose:

[Todorov’s] contributions to the subject [poetics] also have the merit of being highly readable, a quality not to be despised in a discipline whose representatives, with few exceptions, seem more interested in concocting new terminologies (made up of whimsical coinages and borrowings from the most heterogeneous sciences, from algebra to psychoanalysis) than in addressing themselves to the existing issues—what they have to say about these, once the terminological barrage is successfully traversed, is very often poignantly naïve if not self-evident.

(Ibid.) [End Page 7]

Mere decades later, terminological barroquismos and feral jargons are very much the norm in arts and humanities. Literature, not just in the restricted, institutional sense, but also in the older, general sense of that which is being written on a topic (academic or intellectual prose), is—with Barthes’ distinction in S/Z—less and less ‘readerly’ and more and more ‘writerly,’ driven by impossible demands of productivity, originality, and radicalism, which do not so much stake out a field of intellectual autonomy as register this literature’s entrenched heteronomy. Thankfully, however, university studies in the age of globalization are not my topic today. I merely wanted to express, from the outset, my admiration for what appears to me to be the most subversive gesture of contemporary academic indenture, namely the effort to de-naturalize as much as possible such ‘terminological barrages.’ This gesture is essential to Matei Călinescu’s theoretical and critical work, which not only treats with scholarly sophistication of aesthetic (re)readibility, but also embodies, to my mind, a rare ethics of readability. I hold myself responsible to honour both today, though modest be my means and poignantly naïve my mind.

From Aesthetic (Re)readability to Historical Legibility

I shall limit my remarks to the problem of historical readability or legibility, as one can reconstruct it from Călinescu’s work, more specifically from his books on the (Five) Faces of Modernity (1977, 1987)2 and Rereading (1993). In what follows I set out to test the tensile strength of Călinescu’s phenomenology of literary reading—with its normative emphasis on rereading as an expansively circular, hermeneutic process of understanding that engages ever more works, “ideally (…) all other works, the totality of what has been written” (R 8)—against a historical method that, instead, seeks to “read what was never written,” as Walter Benjamin was fond of saying, quoting Hugo von Hofmannsthal.3 This latter materialist method, it seems to me, is subterraneously—if intermittently—at work in Călinescu’s own production as a historian of cultural modernity. I propose to test the one impossibility [End Page 8] (pace Mallarmé, one has never read all the books) against the other (how does one read what was never written?) and trace the paradoxes to which they give rise in Călinescu’s theoretical and historical work.

My Ansatzpunkt is likely to elicit two major objections. First off, literary (re)readability is essentially textual, whereas historical legibility is only secondarily or...


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