Visual Readings

I would submit that no repeated signal in a literary text should be dismissed a priori from any type of formal analysis on what are essentially ideological grounds. That no dictionaries, native-speaker responses, or other such sociolectic supports exist yet to verify a stylistic feature’s relevance should not, in theory, undermine a critical reader’s attempt to consider seriously any minute linguistic elements that might eventually justify critical commentary. For, once again, the ontological status of all stylistic features as perceived iterative signals forces us to come to grips with these less traditional, less visible, pertinent features. Thus, the relevance or irrelevance of all potential textual signals depends precisely on the reader’s willingness to accept, and to learn about the possible semiotic function of, certain hitherto unrecognized formal features.

What I propose to do here is to sketch out a sub-category of primarily visual, stylistic features in literature that includes every meaningful graphemic aspect of a poetic text, from letters to accent marks to punctuation points. When I say “meaningful” I understand that it will be precisely my readerly duty to demonstrate in persuasive fashion just how such textual aspects mean what I say they do. A study of this type demands many more examples than I can possibly give here, and therefore must be evaluated, at least, in terms of other iconic features that I and others have commented on elsewhere. But I would hope that the scriptural possibilities advanced herein will be regarded as the tip of a relatively unexplored semiotic iceberg, one that might lead to more detailed and extensive visual analyses of poetry and prose alike. more…

An example: “Le Jaguar”

My first example is found in Leconte de Lisle’s poem “Le Jaguar” which first appeared in 1855 in La Revue contemporaine, and which reappears in his well-known collection, Les Poèmes barbares, in 1862. As one of the major Parnassian poets, Leconte de Lisle is known for his extraordinary poetic portraits of animals, ancient heroes, and landscapes. In this particular piece, the reader finds an extremely vivid depiction of a jaguar in its natural surroundings about to pounce on its unfortunate prey, “un grand boeuf des pampas.” He smells a subtle odor that is “égaré dans le vent” and begins to tense up, getting himself ready as the poet says for “son oeuvre de mort.” Suddenly he becomes absolutely still and stares ahead with deadly intent. The scene, spectacular in its cinematographic precision, reads as follows:

The picture of the ox and jaguar is fixed in the reader’s mind just as these jungle beasts are fixed in the clearing, with everyone waiting anxiously to see what will transpire next.
As it happens, the poet’s attention is especially drawn to the   vision   of the jaguar’s   eyes.   The   ambiguity   of my characterization of this narrative situation is intentional, because what de Lisle stresses most is not only the incendiary nature of the jaguar’s stare itself, but also the tangible effect of this stare on the skin of this ox. Indeed, the jaguar’s “deux yeux zébrés d’or, d’agate et de sang” are said to burn with blood (“flambent”) and, at the same time, to plant themselves (“Plantés”), so to speak, in the very skin of his imminent victim, who feels a sudden chill from these two eyes. It is a dual question, therefore, of seeing as well as of being seen by the jaguar’s two eyes. I should like to insist on the pertinence of the number two here since most every other detail expressed in these quatrains seems to involve a precise number: either the number one as in “un bloc,” “un grand boeuf,” “un tronc noir,” un froid de glace”; the number two, as in “deux jets de fumées,” “deux yeux”; or even the num­ber three, found in the count of steps taken by the ox, “trois pas.” Given this almost theatrical precision in setting the scene, it is clear then, that these two burning eyes are its focal point. Everything about to happen in the poem depends on them. Here is where our first visual signal comes into play. The reader of a poem’s iconic dimension notes a curious feature about the punctuation in these two particular quatrains. They are the only ones out of thirteen in the whole poem that contain any colons (in French, “deux points,” literally, two points). Considering how they each contain one colon apiece, I would contend that the ambiguity suggested above, concerning the jaguar’s seeing and the ox’s being seen by two eyes, is graphemically dramatized by the sudden, repeated use of a specific punctuation point that is otherwise completely absent from the rest of the poem. To put it simply, these two “points” re-present twice in visual or pictorial fashion the same eyes that have already taken center stage, thematically, at this very point in the poem: first, when the jaguar sees the ox and immobilizes himself; second, when the ox notices the jaguar and is in turn frozen by fear in his very tracks. The question we have to ask is whether or not the poet meant to write such a fascinating, albeit subtle, feature into his poem. The answer is that we will probably never know. But one thing is nonetheless certain: these two visual signals are there for us to read, if we want to, and also, if we know how to. more…