Creative Absurdity (Houellebecq)

[Translation of “L’absurdité créatrice”*, p. 71-81 in Michel Houellebecq, Interventions 2: traces (Paris, Flammarion: 2009), by Timothy Lavenz (2019)]

Structure of Poetic Language satisfies the criteria of seriousness for the university; this is not necessarily a criticism. John Cohen observes there that in relation to prosaic, ordinary language, which serves to transmit information, poetry allows for considerable deviations. It repeatedly employs irrelevant attributes (“blank dusks,” Mallarme; “black scents,” Rimbaud).  It does not resist the pleasure of stating the obvious (“Don’t tear it up with your two white hands,” Verlaine; the prosaic mind snickers: would she have three?). It does not back down from a certain incoherence (“Ruth wondered and Booz dreamed; the grass was black,” Hugo; two juxtaposed notations, Cohen points out, whose logical unity one perceives with difficulty). It basks with delight in redundancy, prohibited in prose under the name of repetition; an extreme case would be Garcia Lorca’s poem, “Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias,” where the words cinco de la tarde return thirty times in the first fifty-two lines.

To establish his thesis, the author engages in a comparative statistical analysis of poetic and prose texts (the pinnacle of prose being for him – and this is very important – the writings of the great scientists at the end of the 19th century: Pasteur, Claude Bernard, Marcelin Berthelot). The same method reveals to him that the breadth of poetic deviation is much stronger in the romantics than in the classics, and is augmented even further in the symbolists. Intuitively, one might expect as much; it is still nice to see it revealed with such clarity. Upon finishing the book, one is certain of one thing: the author has indeed identified some characteristic deviations of poetry; but what do all these deviations tend toward? What is their goal, if they have one?


A few weeks into the journey, Christopher Columbus was informed that half the supplies were used up; no sign indicated the approach of land. It is at this exact moment that his adventure tipped over into the heroic: at the moment when he decides to continue West knowing it is no longer humanly possible to return. From the introduction to Elevated Language, Jean Cohen shows his cards: on the question of the nature of poetry, he will diverge from the set of existing theories. What makes poetry, he says, is not the addition of a certain music to prose (as was believed for a long time when every poem had to be in verse); nor is it the addition of an implicit meaning to an explicit meaning (Marxist, Freudian interpretations, etc.). It is not even the multiplication of secret meanings hidden beneath the primary meaning (polysemic theory). In sum, poetry is not prose plus something else: it is not more than prose, it is other. Structure of Poetic Language ended with an observation: poetry distances itself from common language, and it distances itself from it more and more. One theory then naturally comes to mind: the goal of poetry is to introduce a maximal deviation, to break, to deconstruct all existing codes of communication. This theory Jean Cohen rejects as well; all language, he assures us, assumes a function of intersubjectivity, and poetic langauge does not escape from this rule: poetry speaks about the world otherwise, but it still does speak about the world, such as humans perceive it. It is right at this point that he takes a considerable risk: for if the deviant strategies of poetry are not their own end in themselves, if poetry is really more than an investigation or play with language, if it really aims at creating a different speech about the same reality, then we are dealing with two irreducible visions of the world.

The Marchioness went out at five seventeen; she could have gone out at six thirty-two. Water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The volume of financial transactions increased considerably in 1995. To get free of the terrestrial pull, a rocket must build up to a lift-off thrust directly proportional to its mass. Prose language organizes reflections, arguments, facts; at bottom, it is organized around facts. Arbitrary events, although described with great precision, crisscross each other in a neutral time and space. Every qualitative or emotional aspect disappears from our vision of the world. It is the perfect realization of Democritus’ sentence: “Sweet and bitter, hot and cold, color are only opinions; nothing is true but atoms and the void.” A text with real but limited beauty, it irresistibly recalls the famous Midnight writing, whose influence has continued for about forty tears, simply because it corresponds to a Democritean metaphysics that to a large extent has remained in the majority; so much in the majority that fit is sometimes confused with the scientific program as a whole, whereas it only reached a circumstantial alliance with it – even if this alliance lasted several centuries – designed to combat religious thinking.

“When the low and heavy sky weighs like a lid…” This terribly charged line, like so many lines in Baudelaire, aims at something completely different from the transmission of information. It is not just the sky, it is the entire world, the being of the one who speaks, the soul of the one who listens that are invested with a tone of anxiety and oppression. Poetry happens [se produit]; the pathos-laden signification overwhelms the world.

Poetry according to Jean Cohen aims at producing a fundamentally alogical discourse, in which every possibility of negation is suspended. For language that informs, what is could not be, or else it could be differently, elsewhere, or in a different time. Poetic deviations aim on the contrary at creating an “effect of limitlessness” where the field of affirmation overwhelms the whole of the world, without allowing the outside of the contradiction to continue. This brings the poem close to the most primitive expressions, such as the lamentation or the howl. The category, it is true, is considerably extensive; but words are deep down of the same nature as the cry. In poetry they are set to vibrate, they rediscover their original vibration; but this vibration is not simply musical. Through the words, the reality they designate rediscovers its power of horror or enchantment, its primary pathos. Azure is an immediate experience. Just as, when daylight wanes, objects lose their colors and contours, blend slowly into a darkening grey, man feels alone in the world. This was true since his first days on earth, this was true even before he was man; this is much more ancient than language. Poetry seeks to rediscover these deeply moving, deeply distressing perceptions; of course it uses language, the “signifier”; but language is for it only a means. Jean Cohen sums up the theory with this formula: “Poetry is the song of the signified.”

One thus understands how he comes to develop another thesis: certain modes of perceiving the world are in themselves poetic. Everything that contributes to dissolving limits, to making the world a homogeneous and poorly differentiated whole will be marked with a poetic power (this is true of mist, or of dusk). Certain objects have a poetic impact, not insofar as they are objects, but because by cracking, through their presence alone, the delimitation of space and time, they induce a particular psychological state (and it must be admitted that his analyses of the ocean, ruins, and ships are unsettling). Poetry is not just a different language; it is a different look. A way of seeing the world, all the things of the world (highways as well as serpents, parking lots as well as flowers). At this stage of the book, Jean Cohen’s poetics no longer belong to linguistics at all; it is linked directly with philosophy.

Every perception is organized along a double difference: between the object and the subject, between the object and the world. The sharpness with which these distinctions are envisioned has profound philosophical implications, and that one could allocate the existing metaphysics along these two axes is not arbitrary. Poetry according to Jean Cohen effects a general dissolution of reference points: object, subject, world merge into the same moving and lyrical ambiance. Democritus’s metaphysics, on the contrary, carries these two distinctions to their maximal level of clarity (a blinding clarity, like the sun on white stones, a mid-afternoon in August: “It is nothing but atoms and the void.”)

In principle the case seems closed, and poetry condemned – sympathetic residue of a pre-logical mentality, that of primitives or infants. The problem is that Democritus’s metaphysics is wrong. To be precise: it is no longer compatible with the advances of 20th-century physics. Indeed, quantum mechanics invalidates every possibility of a materialist metaphysics and leads to a reconsideration from top to bottom of the distinctions between the object, the subject, and the world.

Starting in 1927, Niels Bohr was led to propose what is called the “Copenhagen interpretation.” Product of a laborious and at times tragic compromise, the Copenhagen interpretation insists on the instruments, the protocols of measurement. Giving Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle its fullest meaning, it establishes the act of knowledge on new foundations: if it is impossible to simultaneously measure all the parameters of a physical system with precision, this is not simply because they are “disturbed by the measurement”; more profoundly, they do not exist outside it. To speak of their antecedent state therefore has no meaning. The Copenhagen interpretation frees the scientific act by placing the observer-observed couple in place of a hypothetically real world; it makes it possible to re-found science in all its generality as a means of communications between humans about “what we have observed, what we have learned” – to use Bohr’s terms.

On the whole, physicists of this century stayed faithful to the Copenhagen interpretation; it is not a very comfortable position to be in. Of course, in the day-to-day practice of doing research, the best way to make progress is to adhere to a hard positivist approach, which can be summarized as follows: “We are content to collect observations, human observations, and correlate them together with laws. The idea of reality is not scientific, it does not interest us.” But nonetheless it must be unpleasant, sometimes, to realize that the theory one is in the process of producing is absolutely unformulable in clear language.

It is at this point that one sees the outline of some strange comparisons. For a long time I was struck by the fact that theoretical physicists, once they get away from the spectral decompositions, the Hilbert spaces, the Hermite operators, etc., which constitute the ordinary fare of their publications, render an emphatic homage to poetic language each time they’re asked about it. Not to the detective novel, not to serial music: no, what interests and troubles them is poetry specifically. Before having read Jean Cohen, I didn’t fully understood why; in discovering his poetics, I realized that something was really going on here; and that it was not without relation to Niels Bohr’s propositions.

In the ambiance of conceptual catastrophe brought about by the first quantum discoveries, it was sometimes suggested that it would be opportune to create a new language, a new logic, or both. Clearly, the old language and logic are poorly equipped to represent the quantum universe. Nonetheless, Bohr had his reservations. Poetry, he emphasized, proves that subtle and partially contradictory use of everyday language makes it possible to go beyond its limitations. The principle of complementarity introduced by Bohr is a sort of refined handling of contradiction: complementary points of view on the world are introduced simultaneously; each of them, taken in isolation, can be expressed without ambiguity in clear language; each of them, taken in isolation, is false. Their conjoined presence creates a new situation, uncomfortable for reason; but it is uniquely through this conceptual malaise that we can access a correct representation of the world. In parallel, Jean Cohen affirms that the absurd usage poetry makes of language is not in itself its own goal. Poetry breaks the causal chain and plays constantly with the explosive power of the absurd; but it is not an absurdity. It is absurdity rendered creative; creative of a different sense, strange but immediate, limitless, emotional.


*[The text is preceded by the following note: Theoretician of poetry, Jean Cohen is the author of two works: Structure du langage poétique (Flammarion/Champs, 1966) and Le Haut Langage (Flammarion, 1979). The second was republished by José Corti in 1995, shortly after the author’s death. This article appeared in Les Inrockuptibles (number 13) on the occasion of its republication, and in Interventions, 1998.]

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