Brinda Bose & Prasanta Chakravarty
The self-reflexive Stephane Mallarme, acutely aware of the limitations of language, acknowledges in his essay ‘Bucolique’ the inability of language to contain grandeur. Language cannot and should not accommodate what lies beyond its grasp, he says. But writing necessitates a human language to be in cooperation with the inexpressible. The moment the poet realizes that his expressions are not sufficiently elevated for his purpose, his language collapses into denial. Hence, his frequent refuge in inspiration.
Surely, however, language can create its own grandeur if it concedes the ineffability of expressing the fleeting: smells, colors, a woman’s features, nature and sound? Mallarme is, thus, explorative in his blancs, emphasizing the white spaces surrounding the poem: the image disintegrates, but so does the syntax which once sustained it.
The idea of the inexpressible, that words are inadequate in expressing the sublimity of a divine nature, reflects a continuance of two traditions: the rhetorical-literary and the mystical-religious. The first attests to the speaker’s self-confessed inadequacy or modesty or is employed to laud a creature who is indescribable: Dante exploits this device, especially in his praise of Beatrice. The mystical-religious tradition of ineffability, on the other hand, relies on the belief that God exists beyond the limits of human reason and language.
This ‘inexpressibility topos,’ as Ernst Robert Curtius calls it in his majestic work European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, has made a grand return in affirming a new formalism in literary scholarship. The expressive material is self-sufficient, aver Isobel Armstrong in The Radical Aesthetic and Sianne Ngai in Categories of the Aesthetic; writing about ‘air’ in Victorian Poetry in an earlier work, Armstrong says: “An air is a song and by association it is that which is breathed out, exhaled or expressed as breath, an expiration; and by further association it can be that which is breathed in, literally an ‘influence’, a flowing in, the air of the environment which sustains life; inspiration, a breathing in. All these meanings are present in the elegy, as perfume, breezes, breath or sighs…” In The Radical Aesthetic, Armstrong tarries with a judicious anxiety somewhere in the broken middle between world and word, with a certain rhetoric of approximation and curtailment, a cordon sanitaire that the critical act seems sometimes to want to throw around its object of analysis. But there is an impulse to strive for that inexpressible form: in her remarkable investigation of the cultural history of glass, for instance. This is before the biographical ineffability of cultural artefacts such as cod, nutmeg, salt, dust, TB and the colour mauve became fashionable. Her work on glass implies the active participation of the substance itself in forming consciousness, what she evocatively calls ‘glass consciousness,’ a phrase which is meant to evoke not just heightened awareness and sensitivity to glass in the new culture of lustre and transparency that burgeoned in the nineteenth century, but a kind of thought and awareness into which vitreous form and organisation have entered and begun to operate.
In place of struggle, there is now regulated play. She wants us to be able to see the many ways in which experience is art-work, even as it furnishes raw material for works of art: a notion of the aesthetic which must find a way of having to do with dreams, dancing and gunfire as well as odes and sculptures. The aesthetic will be preserved as the name of the form-giving propensity lifted up to its highest form. As such, it will be what ‘quite simply keeps us alive.’ The aesthetic holds play and disintegration together in Armstrong, which is a return to the cognitive purchase of the inexpressible.
In order to re-imagine the inexpressible topos, Sianne Ngai rotates the repertoire of aesthetic categories to contemporize them, in both her earlier work Ugly Feelings and this new one. She is interested in the petite bon¬heur – the charmingly irrelevant and infectious. In Our Aesthetic Categories, Ngai offers us a quotidian triad of aesthetic categories: the zany, the interesting, and the cute – categories which are supposedly marginal to historical accounts of postmodernism as well as to canonical aesthetic theory. Ngai argues that the idea of ‘the aesthetic’ has been transformed by the performance-driven, information-saturated, networked, hyper-commodified world of late capitalism, when im¬material labor is being increasingly aestheticized.
The zany, the cute, and the interesting correspond to major representational modes: comedy, in the case of zaniness; romance, in cuteness; realism, in interesting. It is an aesthetic disclosing a surprisingly wide spectrum of feelings – ranging from tenderness to aggression – which we harbour toward ostensibly subordinate and unthreat¬ening commodities. If cute is cool, then zany is its obverse: hot. Hot under the collar, hot and bothered, hot to trot. Naturally hot is the aesthetic unit that shares the space of performance: dance, theatre, happenings, television, film. Ngai is absolutely aware of the inconsequentiality and ‘mereness’ of her formulations, but it is this precise intangibility – the ‘inexpressibility topos’ – that she returns to by making these fleeting moments deeply aesthetic, as opposed to the classical aesthetic categories of the beautiful or the sublime. When reverence for the aesthetic as such, though still advocated by many, no longer seems self-evidently desirable or definable, Ngai makes fun and unfun, interest and boredom, tenderness and aggression part of her new aesthetic repertoire.
What does it mean to work with a poetics of air and odour, a philosophy of tremor – that is, to think about the inexpressible once again for our times? Previously blind and insensate material forms prove to be alive with information for the new formalists – who have arrived after theory, as it were. How, they ask, will an aesthetics founded upon the laborious, informing confrontations of the material and the mental, help us to manoeuvre life in which the prerogatives of living seem so little assured and in which material processes, from viruses to hurricanes, have come to seem so unnervingly vivacious? It is through the inexpressible aesthetics of interfaces and probabilities, reciprocities and the turbulent circulation of energies that the new aesthetic scholars are trying to think about art and its objects.
The question remains: can such a new aesthetics of the inexpressible be materialized by writing? Can form be related to the life-world or are these new-formalist ventures, in celebrating the inconsequential, if heightened, spark-and-glow, actually taking refuge in the consumptive private sphere and detaching art and literature from all material processes that even the inexpressible has to negotiate in its making?
In Mallarme’s ‘The White Water Lily’, the poet makes a short boat trip to see a lady and as he approaches her neighbourhood, he feels the signs of her invisible presence in her faint footsteps. In order to maintain the secrecy of their proximity, the poet departs silently without ever seeing her or being seen by her. Mallarme sums up this enactment of the inexpressible as a moment in which “Apart, we are together.” This creation of distance, by invoking the solitude of being together, elides forms of relationships and their discontents. The inexpressible has often been aesthetically thus deployed in self-denial. The first thing about maintaining the irreverent charge of the aesthetic is to skirt solitude and contemplation even as we celebrate circulation. The vibrations, clichés and openings of various tortured material conflicts that inform all aesthetics must be underlined in opposition to the aesthetics of sonority and sensation. The mode of reverie has to be radically transformed, so that ordinary experience is made extraordinary and not the other way round.
It is this mediation of the everyday and the specific – through creativity – that Jacques Ranciere describes as a distribution of the sensible taking place across a spectrum. The suffering, resistance, cries and writhings of individuals, groups of performers and poets lead to a community that is heavily invested in the inexpressible, and is yet able to keep at bay a premature consensus that the new formalists are trying to develop. Merely breaking away from a regime of mimesis or representation, and trying to forge relationships between the ephemeral and spectral, cannot qualify as a radical aesthetic. Aesthetic efficiency means a certain kind of paradoxical efficiency which ruptures the very links of the private and the harmonious that is in circulation. It is important, we suggest, to mark the new stirrings of the aesthetic of the inexpressible, and to rigorously distinguish the cosy from the dissensual.
Brinda Bose & Prasanta Chakravarty teach in the Department of English at Delhi University.