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  • Essays From The English Institute 2015:Figure
  • Martin Harries, Seth Lerer, and Martin Harries


When members of the Board chose the keyword "figure" for the first meeting of the English Institute away from Harvard in a generation, they were aware that they would be hosting a weekend's discussion of the term at Yale, a place once closely associated with thinking about figuration in language. With all the differences that always marked the members of the so-called Yale School, it is also true that each of them was interested in figuration. Paul de Man, reading Friedrich Nietzsche, had insisted on "the figurality of all language."1 Barbara Johnson, in one of the first books to emerge from the School, described the protocols of rhetorical reading with unmatched clarity:

The de-construction of a text does not proceed by random doubt or arbitrary subversion, but by the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text itself. If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another. A deconstructive reading is a reading that analyzes the specificity of a text's critical difference from itself.2

Johnson's invocation of "warring forces" within the text recalls the phrase from Nietzsche that immediately inspires de Man's sweeping comment about "figurality"—that is, Nietzsche's often-invoked claim that truth is "a moving army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms."3 The place where this army struggled, where those "warring forces" met, was among figures.

The 74th meeting of the Institute, in September 2015, could have become a reconsideration of rhetorical reading, of the work of the Yale School and its aftermath. It didn't. It didn't in part because of the directions thinking about literature has taken since the early 1980s; in part because of the interests of that year's slate of speakers, which reflect those directions; and also, it may be, because of the choice of Erich Auerbach's 1938 essay "Figura" as the common text for that year's conference. To an unusual degree, that year the conference text shaped not only the papers delivered but also the discussion that is a hallmark of the Institute's meetings. This is not to say that the [End Page 287] conference represented a repudiation of rhetorical reading. The choice of Auerbach's text did signal, however, a more general interest in the historicity of figuration and in the range of practices that "figure" points to, from questions having to do with the historicity of figuration in language to questions of the figuring of race and racialized figures to the question of what kind of figure a literary character embodies.

In his essay, Auerbach suggests that Dante Alighieri becomes newly legible if one understands the way the Church Fathers conceived of figuration. In the interests of opening up the different—if not necessarily "warring"—meanings of figura and "figure" that inform the essays gathered here, this introduction will make a short foray through an author as central to the canon of English literature as Dante is to Italian. Did William Shakespeare understand figura in anything like Auerbach's sense? In A Midsummer Night's Dream, having established that the moon will indeed shine on the night of the mechanicals' performance, Peter Quince nevertheless suggests that rather than relying on real moonlight one of their number could play the moon: "one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern, and say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine."4 In a very different context, in the second part of Henry IV Warwick responds to the King's thoughts about reading the future in the past:

There is a history in all men's lives,Figuring the natures of the times deceas'd,The which observ'd, a man may prophesy,With a near aim, of the main chance of thingsAs yet not come to life, who in their seedsAnd weak beginning lie intreasured.Such things become the hatch and brood of time[.]5

The Riverside Shakespeare glosses Quince's "disfigure" as "blunder for...


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