Of rhythm : voice and relation

(ci-dessous ma communication au symposium Meschonnic à Londres le 22 septembre 2017. Un grand merci à R. Costa Mendes pour sa traduction vers l’anglais. S.M.)

Translated by Rafael Costa Mendes


Seul le poème peut nous mettre en voix, nous faire

passer de voix en voix, faire de nous une écoute.

Henri Meschonnic[1]



Laurent Jenny, reviewing Philippe Jousset’s book Anthropologie du style[2], adds a re-reading of Critique du rythme to his critical commentary, linking both books as “the call for an anthropology of style always has the meaning of a fight against the rhetoricalization of style “[3]. Jenny adds that this anthropoligization “by literary scholars […] constitutes an auto-injunction for the restitution to literary style of a value that is not only semiotic but also creative and pragmatic”. Nevertheless, the Genevan stylistics scholar reproaches each of them, Jousset and Meschonnic, thus, for not “going beyond a purely programmatic stage” and he therefore concludes that they “no doubt find themselves in the same type of dead-end”. It is interesting to observe closely what Jenny re-reads in Meschonnic “beyond more than a quarter of a century of history” and in “a different theoretical time”. Three reproaches follow each other: first the “lack of argumentative progression” which stems from an inability to take the program that was initially planned through to the end, aiming to give a method for theory; then, inscribed in a thinking about continuity and nourished by “monistic presuppositions,” Meschonnic’s theory has allegedly solved the dualisms “through a systematic use of a hyphen […], showing more an incantation of continuity than a conceptual articulation”; and finally the mistake of “making” significance and meaning “connect” since signification would have been divided “into two areas” which stand in contradiction to the hypothesis of continuity and of monism and prevent any comprehensible method, at the very risk of promoting senselessness. Jenny doesn’t lack any coherence, all the more so as he aims at “a phenomenological stylistic” that would go with “the development of his method”. Without prejudging the clichés that nourish each of these arguments (method as application-result of a theory; confusions between continuum and continuity and between representation and activity in and through language), it seems to me that Jenny doesn’t read Critique du rythme closely enough or maybe that he’s taking a critical approach that is strongly questionable in unmaking Meschonnic’s “argumentative progression”. In fact, the two quotations that he presents (p. 98 and p. 102) to prove the construction of a “sub-symbolic” or “a sort of pre-meaning that is destitute of meaning, a ‘significance’ suspending all signified, a subject after the subject” in Meschonnic are clearly out of their own context. They show that Jenny refuses to consider the problems that Meschonnic cares about regarding hermeneutics, which Jenny claims he adheres to, and regarding phenomenology, which Jenny claims as an epistemology of literary critique. All the same, he remarks that the thinking of language in Merleau-Ponty, which he claims he adheres to, “is still unfinished” all the more so as, according to him, his “philosophy of style is not a stylistics” in the sense of a “methodology of style”. Jenny indeed wants “description” and “formalization” to serve to elaborate a method, and thereby presents himself as an indispensable successor to the great phenomenologist.

                  Within Meschonnic’s master work, Critique du rythme, Jenny thus rely on two small quotes from the long essay “L’enjeu de la théorie du rythme” (p. 65-115). He borrows them from the seventh section of the essay (“Le rythme avant le sens”, p. 98-105) which comes after the last section of that central chapter (“8. Le discours, non la langue”). We should not take the title of this section as a fixed definition of rhythm – there aren’t any, ever, in Meschonnic’s work, who knows very well, as Jenny reminds us with Charles Bally and the “new theoretical doxa” in stylistics, that the modulization or “the stylistic reduction makes us shift from variation to variant”, losing the virtue of a “meaning process” because of the “belonging symptom”. After anchoring the subjectivation process, the subject or the trans-subject, as Meschonnic sees it, into the attention given to individualisation in and through language, and after refusing the functionalist framework which dehistoricizes the processes of individualisation and ignores their functioning to the advantage of universals, Meschonnic clarifyingly reminds us of the modes of interiority that rhythm has always triggered regarding the process of signification, and therefore of individuation in language. We know that, with the notion of rhythm, all the work of conceptualisation is a work of dissociation – of rhythm and meter, of rhythm and scansion, among other things: here, Jenny is merely satisfied with taking up statements that identify definitions of rhythm which Meschonnic doesn’t use as his own and where it is well specified that “there are two interiorities to distinguish from one another”. And Meschonnic defeats Jenny’s critics since he, for one, says that “being discourse, [rhythm] is not anterior to the particular discourse where it’s other from meaning. If there is an anteriority of rhythm, it precedes the meaning of words, but not the words themselves. Anteriority only to the usual priority of meaning” (p. 99). But because of his non-reading of the argumentative progression, Jenny would thus elude the fact that Meschonnic doesn’t want to change the theory of meaning: which is, we know it, fastened to a theory of hermeneutics that indeed aims at interpretation, when Meschonnic seeks to answer about the continued functioning of literary works, through their trans- and re-enunciation – we can see here the divergence in their viewpoints about literature and society.

Meschonnic’s approach, for one, doesn’t include an analytics of description that presents his own method, when, a little further on, he shows that his research is firstly a critique working on its relationship with what it is bound to: “Before words, after the comprehension of meaning, after the individual, and yet in its discourse, rhythm is the involuntary” (p. 101). The reversive conjunction (“et pourtant”; “and yet”) restarts the problem until its reformulation: “the parable to theorize the unknown in the subject is what the poem, the rhythm, makes” (p. 102). For Jenny, “rhythm” should be at best an element of the literary fact which would possibly participate in a comprehension-interpretation methodological hold. For Meschonnic, it’s an operator in the thinking about language and even an equivalent to the aim, not at a discourse about but at a discourse with (in and through) the poem. In fact, the apposition (“poem, rhythm”) is much different from what Jenny indicates as an example of the “chain of synonyms” which he reads in Meschonnic to suggest an impossibility to theorize, since no concept could be stabilised in it – they are first considered in their active congruence, in a constellation of conceptualisations. If Jenny reproaches Meschonnic for positing the rhythm as anteriority, the latter precisely answers that “rhythm is of all the discourse, and of all discourse, like meaning” (p. 109), after noticing in Valéry such an “uncontrollable anteriority” that has “led him to a semantic of ambiguity” and to “a negative theory of the subject” that “comes to a sudden end” as it crystalizes in the impersonal he (“il”) and ends in an essentialised heterogeneity of the history of poetry.

It also seems to me that Jenny doesn’t want to consider the fact that, in Meschonnic’s argumentation, rhythm as “disposition, organization of significance” (p. 115) can only be conceptualized by recognizing the historicity of discourses, including that of the discourse about rhythm where critique tells more about its own discourse than about its object. Jenny likens theory to a searching for a method when Meschonnic keeps working on a “theory” that “is a search for theory. It cannot absolutely merge with a theory, whatever it is” because, for him, “a poetics of discourse is an unaccomplished theory” (p. 33).

It’s within this “unaccomplished” concept that I want to think. If “rhythm” isn’t a method but, on the contrary, because “significance is infinite”, “the primacy of rhythm contributes to locate meaning in non-totality, in non-truth, in non-unity”, I would like to continue this “critical effect” (p. 272) by moving it to the work of historicization I pursue in my own research: from language to voice as a stronger and certainly tighter hold even if the extension also seems infinite with relation. Just as for Meschonnic, “the critical effect” keeps toying and forcing us to reconsider everything, to (re)start everything. We can say that it’s one of the illusions in research that everything consists in repetitions, but we can assume that it’s one of its opportunities never to forget to work on its situation, to question its presuppositions, to observe its consequences. Criticism isn’t the claim for a method – here I don’t claim I’m a follower of “rhythm” – but it’s the attention given to the historicity of language and of relation. It isn’t looking for applications but it awakens experiences. It isn’t satisfied with what is known but bounces back with the unknown. Finally, the critique of dualisms that frequently nourish the thinking about language and society, what we are used to calling “science de l’homme” (humanities), doesn’t lead us to a monistic impasse, as Jenny claims, when the empirical—which is, “in its historicity,” “irreducible to the all in two” (p. 715), as Meschonnic reminds us—is not more irreducible to the all in one either. Voice and relation, even when they are “synthématisé” (voice-relation) don’t make one or two or a third term stemming from any dialectic either: their interpenetration is only possible in and through their historicity regarding the work, in language works, in poems, in the infinite of their re-enunciation, of their voices and relations, of an unknown that is always to come in this very interpenetration. Here is all the stake of a critique of voice and relation.

The dialogism of the poem: listening


For all the contributors of a collection dedicated to the “practices of lonely discourse in theatre”, “the monologue proves to be a complex object” and, more precisely, the “monological” often ends up “dialogised itself, that is, it can break up not only into the tightening of a contradiction but into the expansion of multiple internal voices[4]”. And very directly, the two collective directors underline from the start, without explicitly making it clear, that they are in contradiction with the Bakhtinian doxa as “far from being one, the monologue proves to be protean; far from being a canonical simple form, it proves to be paradoxical and transgressive, constantly pushing the boundaries that can define it […]”. Exemplarily, I will stick to the simple and direct playwright Jean Delabroy’s formula that he confided to Françoise Dubor[5]: “We are made of voice…” That is understood as the pluralization at work once voice and, further on, “the wrenching invention of a voice”, of any voice, its constitutive plurality.

It’s necessary to remember the “critique of monologue”[6] started by Meschonnic as, more particularly after Bakhtine, “the extreme logic of the opposition between prose and poetry has turned poetry into a monologue, and prose, the matter of dialogue, into a novel”[7] (p. 447). The accurate notes of Dominique Rabaté notes about the novel, in his chapter “Bakhtine chez Beckett et Bernhard (voix, idée et personage dans la théorie dialogique)”[8] meet Meschonnic’s criticism which agrees with Bakhtin about his fundamental dialogism that the vulgate has erased to the advantage of “Romanesque dialogism” (vs. poetic monologism). This “Romanesque dialogism” forces us to take the voice of a character and his thoughts as unitary, even if this “personalist theory of voice stands with difficulty to the test of dark and destructive texts”, as Rabaté has written[9]. Let me simply remind you that for Meschonnic, the monologue “isn’t any lonelier than the individual is asocial”. Dialogism pertains to all of language” (p. 454 – italics by author). This dialogical principle as a universalism of language isn’t only linked to literature but it involves, particularly regarding the latter, the continuity from enunciation to socialisation as relational activity constructing the social or common connection, and “the inter-subjective essential to language”, that is, the fact that there isn’t “a poetry of I that isn’t in itself a poetry of YOU, through the reciprocity that is the person” (p. 455). Meschonnic also underlines what is maybe relevant for any literary work as a dialogical intersubjective and trans-subjective relation:

Le dialogisme du poème est à la fois une position du sujet de l’énonciation et du sujet de la lecture, tous deux mutuellement impliqués d’une manière que le poème invente, qui lui propre. (p. 456)

[The poem’s dialogism is at the same time a position of the subject of the enunciation and of the subject of the reading, both mutually involved in a way that the poem invents, in its own way]

Such a dialogism doesn’t involve any typology or topology as it’s more of an active principle, of a force, or also of the interpenetration that Humboldt evoked[10]. “Force” is what Rabaté notices in Bakhtine as something “beyond the form[11] of a text. But “the form” would be better off not just staying stuck in the stasis of a topic all the more so since the separation between force/form and its possible Hegelian surpassing (“a theoretical shaping constantly forcing it to surpass itself”[12]) brings us  to a doxa of substance and form, of system and out of system, of norm and difference, too much. And when Meschonnic suggests that “a poem directly summons a dialogue”, and adds immediately that “it presents it without representing it” (p. 456), such a remark is not limited to a genre, to poetry, but demands to be historicized each time, in poetry or in novels, or even in theatre, and everywhere else, as “the very question of alterity,” that is, of the “disintegration of this notion of unitary identity, and consequently of the very notion of character, and of the presupposition about a fictive definition of the persona that is represented, and that is thus somehow dislocated under the flow of a speech that auto-engenders itself”, as it is summarized by Françoise Dubor and Catherine Triau in the foreword of La Licorne’s issue dedicated to the monologue in theatre [13]. We should mention, as a counterpoint to this journal issue, the collection directed by Jean-Pierre Ryangaert, Nouveaux Territoires du dialogue[14], not forgetting a double issue of the journal Étude théâtrales[15]. Jean-Pierre Sarrazac who coordinated that issue takes up his theme about “sharing voices” in the work directed by Ryngaert[16]. He borrows it from Jean-Luc Nancy[17]. Sarrazac is part of the same Bakhtinian problematic to get a look at the “reconfiguration of dramatic dialogue” in contemporary theatre. Contemporary theatre “dialogizes itself” because, as Sarrazac specifies regarding Théorie du drame moderne by Peter Szondi[18], it organises “the dialogical confrontation of these singular voices”, including that of the “rhapsodic subject” rather than that of the “epic” one. Sarrazac’s reflections are exciting but his reading of Maeterlink seems debatable to me. The latter, when talking about an “other dialogue”, has never suggested that such a dialogue “express[ed] the ‘ineffable,’” as Sarrazac says: “it’s the quality and the extension of this useless dialogue that determines the quality and the ineffable impact of a work”, Maeterlinck asserted[19]. Sarrazac doubly reiterates a dualism of both dialogues and of both times; but Maeterlinck doesn’t conceive, like Nathalie Sarraute and Michel Vinaver whom Sarrazac mentions, of “a second-degree dialogue”, because he looks for the continuity of meaning and significance, and maybe more for the dependence of meaning on significance, on its force. In the end, it isn’t a “sharing of voices” as suggested by Nancy that guides all of Ryngaert’s reflection from his foreword on[20], and thus throughout the collective book: logically Ryngaert talks of the “third-party spectator”[21] when it should be about a spectator-actor, no matter what the theatrical forms are, whether they are addressed or not to the spectator, as suggested by Claude Régy in all his texts[22]. More than a “sharing of voices”, it would be another form of listening, a passing of a continued, intensified, replayed voice: all the meaning that we are searching here.

We should not mistake such a dialogical principle for some expressions of the return of the subject in literature, or even of the return of the “Other”, what we could call “the alterity pole”[23]. Thus, with this first foothold from Critique du rythme, I would really like to associate to this work, as long as it is a poem too, not “the very question of alterity” nor “the question of the subject”, but “the primacy of subjectivity” (p. 298) as relational subjectivation in literary works.

Subjectivation with the poem: relation


On the occasion of a reflection about the voice, Meschonnic decisively dares to think about a theory of the subject in and through language. Previously, the anchorage into a theory of discourse referring mainly to Benveniste but also to his own activity as a poet and a translator made it possible to dismantle “the old tripartition” (“which located lyricism in the I, represented drama with the you, linked the epic to the he”) saying that “I is an impersonal subjective, as it is the switch in the function of the subject, on top of being the “first” person” (p. 102)[24]. Meschonnic adds that this decisive anchorage appeared at the very moment when “structuralism moved towards a tendency to forget the voice”[25] (p. 275). Admittedly, since then, we would have by far found the voice again – I will come back to this further on – but without granting it its own criticism power and often even ignoring the relation which constitutes it. Meschonnic wrote about this in 1982 – and it’s the starting point of all my research: “The voice is relation” (p. 294). Here I try to dissociate and to reassociate these two notions in many works and literary studies which have been focusing on the voice again these past few years,[26] but which have often forgotten Critique du rythme. Thus, there would be a vocal turning point and a different vocal turning point…

At first reading, this study of Meschonnic’s work follows a historical approach as it’s interested in the traditions of saying seen as the relations between the voice and diction, as a test of a form of orality at work in discourse, and therefore, of a form of subjectivation:

The voice and diction, in their necessarily close relationship, reveal this: the voice, which seems to be the most personal element, the most intimate one, is, just like the subject, immediately traversed by everything that constitutes a given time, an environment, a way of situating literature, and more particularly poetry, as much as it is a way of situating oneself. It isn’t only one’s voice that we situate. It’s a social piece, which any individual is. All dualisms are to be found in the voice. For and through the poem as a revealing element,  they essentially come down to the dualism of anteriority and exteriority, to the opposition between author and reader, which is maybe not a contradiction.

[La voix et la diction, dans leur rapport nécessairement étroit, découvrent ceci, que la voix, qui semble l’élément le plus personnel, le plus intime, est, comme le sujet, immédiatement traversée par tout ce qui fait une époque, un milieu, une manière de placer la littérature, et particulièrement la poésie, autant qu’une manière de se placer. Ce n’est pas seulement sa voix qu’on place. C’est une pièce du social, qu’est tout individu. Tous les dualismes se retrouvent dans la voix. Ils se ramènent essentiellement, pour et par le poème comme révélateur, au dualisme de l’intériorité et de l’extériorité, à l’opposition, qui n’est peut-être pas une contradiction, entre l’auteur et le lecteur]. (p. 284-285)


As often in Meschonnic’s work, the phrasing of the essay allows interactions that are sometimes hard to follow but indispensable to extend. The necessary relation between voice and diction is immediately displaced, or, more emblematically, carried by the relation between voice and subject, which are consubstantial: the more of a voice there is, the more of a subject there is; or also: the more we pay attention to the voice, the more we pay attention to the subject and vice versa. The cleavage between the individual and what is social is then challenged to the advantage of a continuity of which the voice is evidence, because individuation is fundamentally social in it as in Marcel Mauss’s work which is significantly mentionned by Meschonnic[27]. Mauss also questions the whole series of dualisms that generally follow as a consequence, first and foremost that of anteriority and exteriority. In other words, when literature is the topos of expression, if that isn’t that of expressivity, which is also challenged. Also, the opposition between author and reader, and consequently, the categories that have been creating doxa since then, such as “the horizon of expectations”[28] or older categories regarding inspiration, are all challenged too, or at least revealed by the strong relation between voice and poem as so many cultural representations of a given time. In Meschonnic’s work, there isn’t any claim to define the voice other than by constantly working on what makes it function that way in literary works: its continuity with the subject, rhythm, prosody. Yet, in the work of the rhythm poetician, there is also a strong focus on historicities, on very diverse cultural and linguistic areas, and concomitantly on the anthropological aim at a universalism of language. This is what Meschonnic highlights near the end of his study, starting with what is obvious and transforming its range:

The voice unifies, brings the subject back together; his age, his gender, his conditions. It’s an oral portrait. We like a voice, or it doesn’t appeal to us. Éros is in the voice, as it is in the eyes, in the hands, in all the body. The voice is relation. Through communication, where sense is exchanged, it constitutes a specific environment. As in discourse, in the voice there is more signified than there is some signifier: an overflow of signification by significance. We hear, we know and we recognize a voice – we never know all of what a voice says, independently of what it says. It’s maybe this perpetual overflow of significance, as in the poem, that makes it possible for the voice to be the metaphor of the subject, the symbol of its most “interior” originality, while being historicized.

[La voix unifie, rassemble le sujet ; son âge, son sexe, ses états. C’est un portrait oral. On aime une voix, ou elle ne vous dit rien. Éros est dans la voix, comme dans les yeux, les mains, tout le corps. La voix est relation. Par la communication, où du sens s’échange, elle constitue un milieu. Comme dans le discours, il y a dans la voix plus de signifiant que de signifié : un débordement de la signification par la signifiance. On entend, on connaît et reconnaît une voix – on ne sait jamais tout ce que dit une voix, indépendamment de ce qu’elle dit. C’est peut-être ce perpétuel débordement de signifiance, comme dans le poème, qui fait que la voix peut être la métaphore du sujet, le symbole de son originalité la plus « intérieure », tout en étant historicisée.] (p. 294)


The obvious as common sense has its own validity, as Meschonnic reminds us, but poetics is a work of transformation of this knowledge in a non-knowledge of which the activity is the source of a far more decisive value. Indeed, here the hypothetical modulator (“maybe”) achieves the dissociation and reassociation of these notions, as often in other parts in Meschonnic’s work: “the overflow of significance” is the operator that makes it possible to modify simultaneously the conceptualizing of the voice and that of the subject which previously constructed common sense. Interiority has become a passage of subject. Originality is no longer an essence but a force: “The voice is a force, as much as a matter, a middle. It has efficiency. Like the significance of rhythm and of prosody. It’s both natural and exceeds understanding” (p. 294). Meschonnic considerably broadens the attention that should be paid to what voice makes to literature and more generally to language through the poem: not only does he dare to stay tuned to what often pertains to an imperceptible relational order – “the link we don’t see is stronger than the one we see,”[29] Meschonnic wrote in his last works –, but it also forces us to conceive of the continuity of the activity of the voice, without ever separating what constitutes it, what it constitutes, and what in addition carries it beyond itself.

The epic and the voice: the relation of relation


It is precisely at this turning point that I start my third argumentative part for a theory of voice relying on Critique du rythme, following that about dialogism and that about the relational subject: that about the relation of relation.

The pragmatic dimension of voice is well known by ethnologists[30]. We can’t however circumscribe it only to a prehistory of orality, without reducing ethnological works to such prehistory either even if many scholars, more attentive to language, don’t carry out its criticism until poetics[31]. Mallarmé knew that a “divination” carries the text as long as it’s a poem: “L’air ou chant sous le texte, conduisant la divination d’ici là, y applique son motif en fleuron et cul-de-lampe invisibles »[32]. In other words, « the historicity of voice includes the historicity of writing”, and not only those of what is spoken and of dictions. Meschonic insists on it – it’s underlined by the author: “All that dehisistoricizes one of them, dehistoricizes the other” (p. 296). That’s why orality constitutes a decisive stake: its theorization as well as its practice and its listening to, its anthropology as well as its poetics and its politics. That’s where all dehistoricizations are permanently at work to avoid carrying out a decisive “epistemological leap” which, for Meschonnic, goes through the fact that “rhythm as semantics, and as orality, is a specific subjectivation of language” (p. 600). The interpolated phrase (“and orality”) is decisive here for the theory and the practice of the voice with the poem: out of any physiologism, because it’s an activity pertaining to a semantics, Meschonnic asserts that “voice, not breathing, is the matter of orality” (p. 660). Thus, the voice gets back to language, to body-language, through the poem. It’s the constitutive activity of it. On one decisive condition: “working on its own narrativity. On its prose” (p. 504), as Meschonnic says.

It’s not about restoring the voice of the poem to the narrative or to his narrator either. Meschonnic starts with the decisive relation between being said and saying (dit and dire) and then between the voice and the epic. This last notion is reconceptualised by drawing from Meschonnic’s own biblical translations, but also by relying on the beginning of De Interpretatione by Aristotle: not “the sounds emitted by the voice” in Tricot’s[33] translation but “what is in the voice”. Then, Meschonnic introduces the notion of recitative and that of phrasing, adjacent to the first one. It seems to me that the notion of racontage (telling)[34] could expand these last notions, not towards a possible reception but towards a relational activity of poeticity, associating vocality and listening in a history of voice passage, as Walter Benjamin outlined it in his study of Leskov[35]. However, Benjamin, through his apocalyptical tone which he likes to give to his studies, makes this “narration” drift towards muthos which, as Meschonnic reminds us, “in Homero’s work defines the content of words” when the latter starts the epos, the voice in the sense according to which “epea are the words of the epic”[36]. Yet, it seems to me that there might be a mistake in dissociating what is being said from saying, while perfectly knowing that Meschonnic’s critique is decisive and that the primacy of saying is part of the very principle of the poem as an activity of transubjectivity and even of hypersubjectivity. If epos must carry muthos, it’s maybe through the relation of relation where they mutually expand each other’s active semantics of narration, which we should really understand as something deverbal, and of the intersubjective relation.

This third argumentative point consequently excludes any heroism on the part of the subject to focus instead on its weakness even, on its very dehiscence, the voice as an invention of orality, relation of relation, subject turning into a subject through another subject, in and through “prose in action, and not in narrative”, as Boris Pasternak said; that is, as Meschonnic explained it, “the passage of the “organic fact”, of what is living, in language”[37] (p. 460-461). Pasternak talks about “the pure prose in its tension of transference”. About this, Meschonnic specifies: “not translation” but “transference, transmission”. This last term very precisely suggests the relational value of this “voice of prose” which we could thus call racontage[38]. Passage of voice and passing voice: the relation of relation. Or also: voice in the voice, because the strongest interaction of the narrative relation and of the intersubjective relation is the condition of an internal pluralization of the voice, of its echoization in the meaning given in Hebrew for which echo is the daughter of the voice[39]. One single phrase in parentheses in Mallarmé’s “autobiography” to Verlaine November 16, 1885, would perform this last etymological metaphor: “(à côté de mon travail personnel qui, je crois, sera anonyme, le Texte y parlant de lui-même et sans voix d’auteur)”[40]. This confidence, found in a biographical note sent to the poet of Romances sans paroles, points to the continuity of the personal and of the anonymous to make us hear the echo of what is left without a voice… Yet, as I have already suggested, is not “the Text” sheer orality?

Poem, form: voice, life


Since its publication in 1982, Critique du rythme has constituted a decisive operator for thinking about the poem, as this work permits a critical view drawing from a vehicular notion that is often left to the unthinkable. It has also elaborated a conceptualization that had started with the whole of Meschonnic’s publications by Gallimard editions since 1970. Thus, this “historical anthropology of language”, which is the subtitle of this book, would enable a re-reading of this conceptualization movement as a broad theoretical experience. From “form-meaning”, which we often forget to link to “form-history”[41], to rhythm, a critique of sign has been written, in and through the tireless activity of a great reader, combing through the publications from many fields, and of a poet and translator thinking out his multiple experiences as elements of this “historical anthropology of language”. However, it’s in the extension of it that the notion of poem has launched the conceptualization movement in a more recent work again, which took the title[42] of an unpublished foreword to Ève Malleret’s translations of poems by Marina Tsvetaieva[43]. Ève Malleret participated in the seminar on poetics directed by Meschonnic at Paris VIII-Vincennes, and she shared with him the same knowledge and certainly the same passion for the Russian field. For Meschonnic, this linguistic and literary realm, particularly in poetry, testifies to a “failure” (p. 261) (ratage), a “non-relation” (p. 260) between two traditions, the Russian and the French ones. Let me leave here all the reflection about “this non-relation” that “doesn’t prejudge possibilities”: “the delay of the bottle in the ocean” which Meschonnic had sensed with Mailleret, and that has been later confirmed through plenty of works of mutual retranslation, rereading and reconsideration between the two Russian and French cultural and linguistic fields[44]. In fact, it seems to me now that we no longer pay attention to “an information without voice” (p. 266). Thus, I pick the almost legendary example that Meschonnic shows with Tsvetaieva’s poetry which performs “an overflow of tradition through excess” since in his poems “the rime eats the words” (p. 266) or even “the air carries the words” (p. 267) – those are comments that Meschonnic certainly drew from his reading of Clio by Peguy. But here, I merely indicate what will enable the “poem” to move forward into conceptualization. Meschonnic thus remarks that “in prose just as in verse”, in Tsvetaieva’s work, “it’s a thinking through rime, from rime to rime” (p. 269); that is, “the rime ends up being not only matter of the poem anymore, but subject of the poem” (p. 270). That’s why, as “Tsvetaieva is a figure of poetry where rime and life have joined in a same matter of language” (p. 270), Meschonnic comes to this decisive formulation: “The rhythm-rime appears as a form of life” (p. 271). Further on this formulation is reversely turned into the following one, which shows the continuity of a matter and of a form, one in and through the other one: “The rime-life turns life into listening” (p. 272). The gloss just before this quote (“Poetry and life in an indistinction anterior to their separation, that nevertheless goes through the technicity of language p. 272) announces the conclusion that this essay is progressively constructing: “Rime is an ethics” (p. 273). Since it is through this tautology (I reverse the formula: the ethics of language, it’s the rime) coming from the empiricism of Tsvetaieva’s poem whose “shout” (p. 268) may well echo and resonate in the Meschonnic-poem, that Wittgenstein’s thinking linked to Humboldt’s thinking allowed Meschonnic to develop the formulation, that is constantly being remade, of what a poem makes in its historical anthropology of language: “a form of life transforms a form of language, a form of language transforms a form of life, both are inseparable.”[45]

In fact, it’s through Wittgenstein[46] that the notions of “forms of life” (Lebensform) and “games of language” have been linked: “se représenter un langage signifie se représenter une forme de vie” (§19) and “le parler du langage fait partie d’une activité ou d’une forme de vie” (§23). Some make the notion of form of life oscillate from naturalism to culturalism and vice versa, considering two levels or two sides of the notion, which amounts to maintaining an anthropological dualism out of language whereas the aim is to go beyond the traditional cleavage which many still reinforce by choosing one term against another[47]. Which Meschonnic doesn’t do. The viewpoint that he develops in his anthropology isn’t that of representation, that of the signist schema, but that of the transformative activity, and thus, of the paradigm of discourse: “language taken as continuity, as a physicality of the signifier, is first and foremost orality” (p. 243) or, in other words, “the I that is generalized as an organization of discourse, its radical historicity” (ibid.). Thus, it’s as a “form-subject” that the poem invents an interpenetration of the forms of life and of the forms of language, where the form of life makes language and the form of language makes life, that Meschonnic forces us to think about the specificity of this activity at the heart of a relational anthropology:

That is why, to think poetry, the poem, we must think everything about language, and about all the relation between language, art, ethics and politics, anew. Continuity. Rhythm. The subject of the poem. The poetical thinking as a transformation of poetry through the poem, form-subject.

[C’est pourquoi, pour penser la poésie, le poème, il y a à repenser tout le langage, et tout le rapport entre le langage, l’art, l’éthique et le politique. Le continu. Le rythme. Le sujet du poème. La pensée poétique comme transformation de la poésie par le poème, forme-sujet.][48]


Here is what should be taken up from its active principle: a universalism which the empiricism keeps working on, multiplying, carrying to an infinite dimension through what “eludes” us:


Because it is always about significance with language. Even and maybe above all when meaning is elusive, or when it is lost. What is alusive is a force. This force pertains to the subject. A historicity. Because it is necessarily the passage of a subject to another subject, which turns them into subjects. Thereby turning the poem into the allegory of the subject.

[Parce qu’il s’agit toujours de signifiance avec le langage. Même et peut-être surtout quand le sens échappe, ou qu’il est perdu. Ce qui échappe est une force. Cette force est du sujet. Une historicité. Parce qu’elle est nécessairement le passage d’un sujet à un autre sujet, ce qui les constitue sujets. Faisant du poème l’allégorie du sujet.][49]


Thus, the voice-relation as a poem is perhaps also the allegory of what Dominique Rabaté has limited to the “modern novel” but which I would extend to any “great globalizing form” – which we can’t measure according to the number of pages or to any other discreet unit – revealing what he calls “the meaning of life”, that is, “the possibility, relentlessly, to carry on giving a form to what resists on the side of shapelessness and chaos, to carry on inventing new configurations for what no gaze nor tongue could stop.”[50]

[1] H. Meschonnic, Célébration de la poésie, Lagrasse, Verdier, 2001, p. 249

[2] Ph. Jousset, Anthropologie du style, Pessac, Presses universitaire de Bordeaux, 2008.

[3] L. Jenny, “Une difficulté dans la pensée du style”, Critique nº 752-753 (« Du style ! »), Minuit, janvier-février 2010, p. 36-46. All of Jenny’s quotes refer to these pages. The information about page numbers in parentheses refer to Critique du rythme (Lagrasse, Verdier, 1982).

[4] F. Dubor et C. Triau (dir.), La Licorne nº 85 (« Monologuer. Pratiques du discours solitaire au théâtre »), Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009. The quotes that follow refer to « Avant-propos/Monologuer/Pratiques du discours solitaires/au théâtre », p. 7-17 signed by the directors.

[5] F. Dubor, « L’espace d’une voix désolée » / (La séparation des songes, / de Jean Delabroy) / Entretien avec Jean Delabroy » dans F. Dubor et C. Triau (dir.), La Licorne nº 85, quoted journal, p. 221-229. The quotes correspond to these pages.

[6] It is the eleventh chapter (p.447-457) of the important essay entitled “Prose, poésie” (p. 391-518) in H. Meschonnic, Critique du rythme, op. cit.

[7] H. Meschonnic criticizes the Bakhtinian theory in detail on p. 448-455, which I refer to for more details.

[8] D. Rabaté, Poétique de la voix, Paris, Corti, 1999, p. 225-245

[9] Ibid., p. 244.

[10] W. von Humboldt, Introduction à l’oeuvre sur le kavi et autres essais, trans. P. Caussat, Paris, Seuil, « L’ordre philosophique », 1974, p. 73. I shall take the liberty of referring to the 17th chapter of my dissertation (« La volubilité: une force amoureuse ») and more particularly to the “six principles of volubility” taken from the 1820 essay which was only published in 1906.

[11] D. Rabaté, Poétique de la voix, op. cit., p. 245.

[12] Ibid.

[13] F. Dubor and C. Triau (dir.), “Avant-propos / Monologuer / Pratiques du discours solitaire / au théâtre », La Licorne nº 85, revue citée, p. 15.

[14] Jean-Pierre Ryngaert, Nouveaux Territoires du dialogues, Arles, Actes Sud / CNSAD, 2005

[15] Études théâtrales,  nº 31 and 32 (“Dialoguer, vers um nouveau partage des voix”), 2004 and 2005

[16] J.-P. Ryngaert, Nouveaux Territoires du dialogue, op. cit., p. 11.16.

[17] J.-L. Nancy, Le partage des voix, Paris, Galilée, « Débats », 1982.

[18] P. Szondi, Théorie du drame moderne, Lausanne, L’Âge d’homme, 1983.

[19] M. Maeterlinck, “Le tragique quotidien”, in Le trésor des humbles, Bruxelles, Labor, 1986, p. 107.

[20] J.-P. Ryngaert, Nouveau Territoires du dialogue, op. cit., p. 5.

[21] Ibid., p. 6.

[22] See for example: Cl. Régy, Au-delà des larmes, Besançon, Les Solitaires intempestifs, 2007.

[23] See, among other references, the conference proceedings from June 1988 collected by M. Collot and J.-CL. Mathieu (dir.), Poésie et altérité (Actes du colloque de juin 1988), Paris, Presse de l’École Normale Supérieur « Poésie, relation et altérité ») in Langage et relation, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, p. 94-96.

[24] The notion of the « function of the subject » is also linked to Michel Foucault. See, among other references, Henri Meschonnic, Politique du rythme Politique du sujet, op. cit., p. 241.

[25] This quote relevantly sheds light on the essay « Le poème et la voix” (p. 273-296) in Critique du rythme, op.cit.

[26] In the journals, this would significantly start with Poétiques nº 102, April 1995, Seuil [which includes a feature entitled “La parole et la voix”, p. 131-192]. For more references, see Jean-Pierre Martin’s very useful bibliography at the end of his work La Bande sonore, op. cit., p. 287 – yet, it doesn’t mention that issue of Poétique.

[27] Ibid. p. 293 and 294. Also see p. 648-651.

[28] H. R. Jauss, Pour une esthétique de la réception (texts from 1972 to 1974), trans. Cl. Maillard revised by the author, forewords by J. Starobinski, Paris, Gallimard, « Tel », 1978. The differences between Jauss’s works and the doxa prevailing in literary studies at school should be evaluated– see, among other references, Le Français aujourd’hui nº 160 (“La critique pour quoi faire?”), mars 2008.

[29] H. Meschonnic, Dans le Bois de la langue, Paris, Laurence Teper, 2008, p. 80-81

[30] See, for example, N. Belmont and J.-Fr Gossiaux, De la Voix au texte. L’ethnologie contemporaine entre l’oral et l’écrit, Paris, Comité des travaux historique et scientifiques, 1997 – It is made of the proceeding of the 119th congress of historical and scientific societies (French anthropology and ethnology sections) at Amiens in October 1994.

[31] See, for example, the fascinating works by D. Laborde (La Mémoire et l’instant Les improvisations chantées du bertsulari basque, Bayonne, Elkar, 2005) and by Francis Zimmermann (see his site, accessed on October 23, 2016 : http://ginger.tessitures.org/index.php?id=8).

[32] S. Mallarmé, Œuvres complètes, op. cit., p. 387.

[33] Aristote, Catégories, De l’interprétation, Organon I et II, tr. J. Tricot, Paris, Vrin, 1984, p. 89-90.

[34] See my work, Quelle littérature pour la jeunesse ?, Paris, Klincksieck, « 50 questions », 2009.

[35] W. Benjamin « Le narrateur » in Écrits français, intr. and notices by J.-M. Monnoyer, Gallimard, “Folio essais”, 1991, p. 264-298. Also see “Le Conteur”, translation from the German version by P. Rusch in Oeuvres III (Paris, Gallimard, “Folio essais”, 2000, p. 114-151), and more recently Le Raconteur, trans. by S. Muller, Paris, Circé, 2014.

[36] H. Meschonnic, Politique du rythme Politique du sujet, op. cit., p. 358-359

[37] H. Meschonnic quotes this text from the Russian version (Boris Pasternak, paper given during the 1st Congress of Soviet Writers on August 29, 1934)

[38] See my work “Poétique de la voix…, op. cit., p. 33-47

[39] See Critique du rythme, op. cit., p. 293

[40] S. Mallarmé, Oeuvres Complètes, op. cit., p. 663.

[41] H. Meschonnic thus wrote: “It’s the syntagmatic unity of vision work and the rhythmic and prosodic unity of diction work -, system and creativity, object and subject, form-meaning, form-history” in Pour la poétique, Paris, Gallimard, “Le Chemin”, 1970, p. 62.

[42] H. Meschonnic, “La rime et la vie” in La rime et la vie (1989), Gallimard, « Folio essais », 2006, p. 247-273. Henceforth I will give the page number only.

[43] M. Tsvetaieva, Tentative de jalousie, trans. and intro. by È. Malleret, Paris, La Découverte, 1986. She had taken part in the team directed by H. Meschonnic for the collective translation of « A. Fournier, B. Kreise, and J. Young de Iouri Lotman, La Structure du texte artistique, Paris, Gallimard, 1973.

[44] It would be enough to evoke the numerous translations by André Markowicz. I very vividly remember the onstage translation workshop.

[45] H. Meschonnic, Célébration de la poésie, op. cit. p. 35.

[46] L. Wittgenstein, Investigation philosophique (1945), trans. Pierre Klossowski, Paris, Gallimard, “Tel”, 1986.

[47] See the overview of F. Clément’s works, “Une nouvelle “forme de vie” pour les sciences sociales”, Revue européenne des sciences sociales, XXXIV, 106, p. 155-168. My criticism of Vincent Descombes is at the beginning of the second part of my dissertation.

[48]. H. Meschonnic, Célébration de la poésie, op. cit., p. 216.

[49]. H. Meschonnic, La Rime et la vie, op. cit., p. 246.

[50] D. Rabaté. Le Roman et le sens de la vie, Paris, Corti, “Les essais”, 2010, p. 18.

Citer ce billet
Serge Martin (2017, 26 septembre). Of rhythm : voice and relation. Henri Meschonnic : actualités et recherches, relations et résonances. Consulté le 4 mars 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/re0j

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