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modernity in "Literary History and Literary Modernity," Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, second ed. (London: Methuen, 1983), 142-65. In his comments on chiasmus in "Tropes (Rilke)," there seems to be a confusion or contradiction between de Man's pictures of |1~ the figural entities of the chiasmus as "the poles around which the rotation of the chiasmus takes place" (40) and |2~ the "void" or "lack that allows for the rotating motion of the polarities" (49).
15 The details of a close reading of this kind are my main concern in Dryden and the Abyss of Light (note 13). See, for I am sorry that Wordsworth is likely to be displeased at my praise of Dryden, extremely limited as it is. The vigour of Drydens mind, and of his poetry too, is far beyond the vigour of Wordsworths. Nothing was ever written in rhyme equal to the beginning of the Religio Laici, the eleven first lines.
|part of a letter from Landor to Robinson; the words in italics have not been printed before~(1)
This essay is part of an effort to understand how literary tradition is made. My concern, in other words, is how tradition is brought into being, not merely handed down or duplicated. Thus my larger aim is to describe the activity of tradition-making per se. In the following pages I consider an aspect of literary history which may seem magical, even what is called psychic, though it depends only on everyday uses of language. My subject is the way in which the writings of an earlier and a later writer--each exemplary of their periods--can form configurations which are not only strongly oppositional, but also powerfully reciprocal, even what I will define as co-subjective. Elements of such reciprocity may well manifest themselves within matched oppositions, where such opposition is expressed both temporally backwards (a later writer contra a remembered earlier writer) and temporally forwards (an earlier writer contra an anticipated later writer). What is distinctive about this pattern of oppositions, however, is that it occurs within a set of reciprocal relations that oppose opposition as such. It will remain for me an open question just whose historical experience or co-subjectivity such a reciprocal symmetry of oppositions may be said to constitute, since it clearly cannot belong to either writer individually. We may wonder, indeed, why any individual writer should enter into configurations of this partially self-eclipsing kind. In other places I have speculated about a variety of possible motives for this sort of partial self-eclipse, especially in the less likely case of an earlier writer, prospectively, with regard to a later one. Roughly speaking those speculations concern, first, Kierkegaards's notion of a repetition "forwards." Repetition forwards, according to Kierkegaard, is generated within each individual by an anxiety of the "Nothing" and an anxiety of the "future." Second, they concern Freud's suggestion (as I read him) that an individual may get beyond individual being or "the pleasure principle" by working through an alternation of "life instincts" and "death instincts."(2) In the present essay, however, my interest is not principally in understanding why these symmetries of fractional selves come into being, but rather in demonstrating that they do indeed exist and that they comprise meanings all their own.
My focus in this essay, then, is on the details of a symmetrical correspondence--forwards and backwards, oppositionally and reciprocally--between poets of different periods of a literary tradition. I will be adducing various existent, even if half-hidden, tracings of the oppositional-reciprocal relations which form such correspondence. It is no historical accident that poetic tracings of this correspondence bear striking affinities to the rhetorical figure known as chiasmus, since chiasmus is a diagram of the simultaneous occurrence of opposition and reciprocity, as in the pattern AB:BA. The formal objective of this essay is to describe the chiasmus that occurs as much between writers of different periods as within the writings of any individual author, whether neoclassical, romantic, or post-romantic.
As an example of chiasmus I offer a couplet from Pope's elegy on Elizabeth Corbet. In Wordsworth's effort to distance himself from Pope, Wordsworth cites exactly half of this couplet as an example of what he specifically brands the hateful antitheses of neoclassical verse. Here is Pope's couplet:
Heav'n as its purest gold by tortures tried;
The Saint sustain'd it, but the Woman died.
The second line of this couplet--
|Y~ |X~ "The Saint sustain'd it, but the Woman died"--
furnishes Wordsworth's example of "antithesis."(3)
To be sure, each of these verses is made up of antithetical elements. The second verse, which is more obviously antithetical, makes explicit and confirms the antithesis between "Heav'n" and "tortures" deployed in the first. Yet as a whole the couplet engenders a figuration of chiasmus which is not primarily an activity of exclusion or appropriation, such as antithesis alone would produce. A large part of my argument in this essay has to do with the fact that Wordsworth is wondrously forgetful of this wholly different working of chiasmus--forgetful of it in this couplet of Pope, as well as in neoclassical poetry in general. I will indicate, however, that in other ways he is also wondrously mindful of it: namely, when he sets his own chiastic structures into motion. Wordsworth's doubleness on this score, I claim, is a function of the co-subjective potential of chiasmus. This co-subjective potential comes about because chiasmus itself entails recreating an emptiness or obliviousness within language. This emptiness results in the reachings out of language, from its incompleteness or obliviousness, towards symmetry with other language. It will emerge that in Wordsworth's own writing he is partly forgetful, partly mindful, of the way the neoclassical counterparts to his own use of chiasmus half-form his poetic tradition.
In order to appreciate the frequency of such half-forgettings, together with their half-rememberings, it is necessary to see that occurrences of chiasmus are far more common than we may imagine. Handbooks of rhetorical terms only say that chiasmus consists of a reversal of syntactic elements, or signs, which form an X or chi within the pattern AB:BA. For one phase of chiasmus this is certainly true, and it is therefore legitimate to think of chiasmus in terms of antithesis or opposition. Yet formally as well as historically considered, it is more accurate to say that a chiasmus is a movement of two sets of opposed signs (two binarisms) in which the pattern AB:BA is only one interim possibility. Because of the multiple meanings of all language, any one reading (at a given juncture of possible combinations) of any sign or syntactic element or binarism is always to some extent an arbitrary decision. In Pope's couplet, for example, this is the case with each of the four binary terms located by his four half-lines. Each binary term is poised for a change of its sign (A or B) within the couplet's network of signs. Henri Suhamy has recently emphasized this feature of shifting signs within the structure and movements of any chiasmus. He notes that in its mirror arrangement the binary terms, passing from one syntactic element to the next, as much reflect as oppose each other.(4) Suhamy's formulation is useful, but it is necessary to add that the potential reversibility of all signs in any two pairs of binarisms can set the stage for the emergence of chiastic correspondences not only within any given writer's language, but also, I would especially emphasize, in the historical chiastic relations between chiasma of different writers who concur only in sharing materials for their symmetrical disagreement.
In the case of Pope's particular couplet, we can see that even the second of these verses by itself, the one restrictively called "antithesis" by Wordsworth, is rendered intermittently, yet powerfully, chiastic by the doubleness of its components. Both nouns and both verbs in this verse are markedly dual. "Saint" may signify either an earthly paragon of endurance or a spirit departed for heaven; "sustain'd it" may mean either kept in being or submitted to the loss, the injury, the death; "Woman" may evoke either a mere mortal or an unbounded feminine potential; while the word "died" is split in two by the utter ambiguity of the appearance called death. Within this verse alone, as within the couplet, all the binary terms whirl and twist at incalculable speed. Instead of a formula of exclusion, A not B, or even a cross drawn in only two lines of a chiasmus, we experience a continuous circulation of relations both direct and inverse: namely, AB, BA', A'B', B'A, AA', BB', each of which may be encountered separately and in combinations, forward and reverse. We can begin to describe the X experienced in chiasmus only by this illimitable circulation. By virtue of the cross-reading it sets in motion, chiasmus uncovers endless changes in its component antitheses, sometimes to discomposing effect. Thus within the activity of this couplet's binary terms, we are not mistaken if we also descry, as two possibilities, the male poet (who survives and writes) versus the female victim (who is silent and dies). I will later recur to this disturbing …