Jean-Pierre Depétris

About Antibodies,
a surrealist novella by J. Karl Bogartte

Karl Bogartte and I met lately, too late to look for reciprocal influences between us. It is therefore surprising to find ourselves so often on nearby territories, after each of us followed for half a century our own path in worlds as different as Wisconsin and Provence may be, especially when one considers others with whom we started earlier, on the same way and at the same pace. Of course, we had from the start a common surrealist orientation, and a taste for alchemical literature.

But Surrealism is not an art school, it can feed an infinite number of postures as regards writing, it certainly does not provide for a common one. It may stimulate invention of literary forms, it does not propose any specific one. Alchemical literature itself is a literary genre, even if among those who had interest for it, few people first approached it this way.

Alchemy as a literary genre

“Alchemy” means at least two things. First, the Arabic word which means chemistry: science of materials, their composition and properties, and has, over time, lost its article “al” and even its “y”. There has been a great number of books and treatises of chemistry since antiquity, more or less practical or philosophical, and when confronted with them, the main difficulty is to identify the ancient and local materials names.

Alchemy is also a publishing phenomenon that came with the printing press, and reached its peak in the eighteenth century. Books are often supposed to be translations of ancient authors, often Arab ones (Ibn Hayyan, Alphidius...). When it is possible to compare with the original works, we must admit that these later works are forgeries. There are also more recent European works (Basil Valentine, Solomon Trimosin…), in a style close by the alleged translations, themselves often very loosely translated from latin, and published much later after they were written. The common ground of these works is that we never know exactly what they are talking about. They are constructed as rebus, and illustrations that often accompany them also look like rebus. But usually a rebus has only one meaning, may it be a difficult one to find, but a unique one. Here, a rebus leads to another. What is it? Metal? Planets? Religious myths? The signified becomes the signifier for another referent, and this endlessly: there is no ultimate meaning.

This is a very interesting way of thinking. But is it actually a way of thinking ? Isn't it the mere production of strange and beautiful sentences perhaps, but meaningless? And yet it works, it works just as well as mathematics do as soon as we don't use numbers to count something, or when we replace them with variables. A thought works, proceeds, finds enough consistency to move, even if it seems difficult to comment and paraphrase it. There is meaning; a meaning progression, even if this assertion somewhat questions the meaning of meaning.

The meaning of meaning

This might be a variant of automatic writing; surrealists were early interested in alchemical literature. However the critical point is not automatism here — there remains a part of automatism even in the most conventional writing anyway — nor even is it an attempt to escape the control of consciousness; the question is the emancipation of the mind of any ultimate reference.

Karl Bogartte, myself and some others, played online with texts chosen by him, modifying nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives, while retaining the syntax. The results were uneven depending on the text and how we chose the terms of substitution. They were sometimes funny, but always interesting.

They show that the interest, the consistency, the strength of a statement, depend less on its object than we might believe. And this, not because this object would possibly hide another, hidden meaning, a more or less masked interpretation yet more or less unique. Quite the opposite: because there is no ultimate meaning. The purpose would then be to provide conditions for a greater freedom of thought, like when we dream. Everything in every moment may become something else, but not because nothing would have any meaning, but rather because none of the possible meanings would lead to an end point. This teaches us at least something: thought is less this tautological relationship — be it metaphorical, that is, incomplete — between the signifiers and the signified, than a progression from a signifier-signified couple to a next one: the opening of a path.

Thought as a movement

We must come back here to the proposal of Pierre Reverdy as quoted in André Breton's Manifesto: “Image is a pure creation of mind. It can't arise from a comparison, but from the connection between two more or less remote realities. The more the relationships between the two connected realities will be distant and accurate, the stronger the image — the more emotional power and poetic reality it will get.1

It is noteworthy that for Reverdy the result from this distance and this accuracy is not beauty but strength. The relationship he establishes between distance and strength is of course dynamic. Not a static one. The poetic image is not “beautiful as a picture”, but strong as a powerful movement, which gains strength and speed from the very move. The “accuracy” then — the other term, often forgotten by those who quote this sentence — is entirely in the movement, in the process, the progress… The image is accurate as it entails, provides, the move. The image is accurate as it is in the dynamic continuation of thought, and causes it.

There is a surprising relationship between Reverdy's poetic image, and Poincaré's mathematical inference. Both merge in William James' pragmatist conception of thought that conceives it as a movement, a process, and certainly not a thing.

Resistance and displacement

In Antibodies, Karl Bogartte does not reuse the old form of alchemical treaties, as I often did. He uses most specifically their vocabulary. He also reuses the language, this old English in which he read most of the same books that I discovered in French myself. He merges this strange language with a modern American, the alloy of which is not easy to render in French. This is what stimulated me the most in translating Antibodies, and I hope that the attention I gave to style and language did not distract me to the point of falling into misinterpretations which is only too easy when dealing with such texts.

I could always question him. He then often answered me that he did not know more than I what he meant. One may imagine how it could then have looked like a sort of psychoanalysis. It was however a psychoanalysis very different from the Freudian kind. The type of resistance on which we had to work was much more, obviously, a resistance of the language than a resistance of the self. And on the whole, it finally appeared much more as a support for thought than as an obstacle.

A comparison with the mathematical language can again be enlightening here: for instance, each one of the notations ¼, 25% and 0.25 may be more expressive in various circumstances for different reasons. ¼ facilitates comparison with the unit, 25% simplifies the comparison with other proportions, 0.25 provides for decimal operations.

A French word does not always oppose the same resistance to the thought as its equivalent in English, and we did not have to look for translation accuracy in the author's self, nor even for things like the most precise lexical equivalence, we rather had to focus on the text movement.

Alchemy of verb

I often wondered why alchemy — a science of materials, of their alloys and of their transformations, sometimes applied to dyes, to pharmacy or to silverware — gave birth to this quasi-literary genre, while mechanics or optics did not. At the same time, these two gave birth to modern sciences and philosophy, while chemistry had great difficulties to free itself from empirical practices and strange meditations.

We may wonder what this alchemical literature flowering owed to unscrupulous publishers, manipulators of readers credulity, or to deliberated and lucid poetic invention. The answer is probably not simple, given how the duper is often the first fooled.

I find it more interesting to first observe how the old chemistry moved and evolved, in a way largely unknown to all, to generate an alchemy of verb during the historical period when it failed to become a real science. It all looks as if its practices and rationales moved from the physical bodies to their names, from things to words, revealing a curious relationship between words and things.

Then, as a poor parent of modern science, alchemy had reached this blind-spot which delayed so much the coming of an actual science of chemistry, as well as of an actual science of language. From a science of metamorphosis, it became a literature of metaphors, at least if we understand metaphor in its literal meaning of displacement. And at the same time, through its own metamorphosis and its own metaphors, it still was a quest for life.

A form of life

When one compares “the Earth is blue like an orange” to other images made any poet since Homer, such as “Mars is red like an orange”, it clearly appears that the first one has a family air with “this is not a pipe” by Magritte.

Jakobson gave this sentence “green ideas dream furiously” as an example of a grammatically correct but yet meaningless construct. I'm not sure that it is so easy to propose a statement that would definitely be devoid of any meaning. For me, Jakobson's sentence may paraphrase another one in my book Quelques temps ici, where I describe vegetation as a dream emerging from the sleeping Earth.

Wittgenstein, depicting “something like a form of life in language”, gives as an example “the teeth of the rose”. A rose does not bite nor does it chew. It feeds on the dung that cows releases after grazing. In this case, the rose teeth may be in the cow's mouth.2

Wittgenstein's reasoning is vividly confirmed by the title of the well-known film “Jaws”, translated into French by “les dents de la mer” (Jaws of the sea). Everyone understands that the jaws of the sea are actually in the mouth of the shark.

But this evidence could suggest that there is only one available meaning, and that the image is merely a little more dramatic way of saying, but on the whole, equivalent to its prosaic interpretation. Not the slightest. “Jaws” may have many other meanings, such as the crest of the waves breaking the ship's hull that the sea finally swallows, or such as the teeth that crunch the cliff, or the white sails that eat distances, or reefs, or icebergs, or…

Language, its syntax and its lexicon, then resists as water does with a ricocheting stone. It suffices when image has strength and actuality enough.

“When I use a word,” said Humpty with a scornful tone, it means what I want it to mean, neither more nor less. — The question is, said Alice, if you can give a word so many different meanings. — The question is, said Humpty, who is the master, that's all.”3

Jean-Pierre Depetris, June 2009

1Pierre Reverdy, Nord-Sud, 1918. Quoted by André Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto, 1924.

2Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, 1949.

3Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

© nov 2009, Jean-Pierre Depétris
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