On Yves Bonnefoy’s ‘The Tombs of Ravenna’

In my last blog I was discussing Keats’ ideas about Negative Capability, provoked by a visit to Keats House and a discussion there about Negative Capability and psychoanalysis. The speakers were Dr Margot Waddell, a child psychotherapist from the Tavistock Clinic, and Dr Toni Griffiths, Trustee of the Keats Foundation. Waddell focused on the acknowledged influence of Keats’ idea on the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. In the aftermath of such major stimulation, the new issue of PN Review fell through the front door, containing John Naughton’s excellent new translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s 1953 essay, The Tombs of Ravenna. Keats and Bonnefoy melded in my mind and I was reading the latter in terms of the former as follows.

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Bonnefoy observes that though many philosophers have discussed death, few have bothered to ponder the places where we traditionally lodge the dead: sepulchers and tombs. The explanation he offers introduces a key term for both his prose and poetry from 1953 to the present day: the concept. The concept, as in conceptual thinking, is a human creation, abstracted from the plentitude, the flood and flux of actual, particular human experience. It is “always a means of escape” into a more fixed abode. The concept denies time and is “a profound rejection of death”. It denies the fact of death as our inevitable fate and constructs an illusory “dwelling place of logic”, a more alluring place of “permanence and identity”. Also, and crucially, the concept is “made of words”. Language is a similar construct, also seeming to promise the same sort of escape into the timeless, the unchanging. All forms of conceptual thinking seem to promise an achievable resolution but, Bonnefoy argues, “what is pondered is no longer the real object”. Instead, we contemplate “a dubious knowledge” though it may soothe our “initial anguish and trivialises that most somber melody with words that mask the reality of death”.

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So the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality” – which, of course, we can and readily do. One reason is that there are general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It “allows thinking” of a certain kind; it is linked with “the vast power of words”. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing “world of things”. Conceptual thinking is “systematized”, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its “flight” from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks “Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]”

Elevation of Tomb of Theodoric, Ravenna

In his letters, Keats calls this sort of non-particular thinking “preresolved” and he encountered it especially in his friend Charles Dilke: “a man who [. . . ] has made his Mind up about every thing” (303; page numbers in brackets are to John Keats: Selected Letters (Oxford World Classics, newly revised 2002)). Dilke is one of the “stubborn arguers” who never begin on any subject “they have not preresolved upon” (303). In contrast, Keats argues the only means of strengthening one’s intellect and identity “is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (303). Keats’ best formulation of this idea arises when several things “dovetailed” in his mind after a frustrating debate with Dilke. The quality that marks out the artist – Shakespeare especially, he says – is Negative Capability. He defines this as consisting of a passive openness to the full range of particular human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, preresolved ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (41/2). Bonnefoy’s insight is that rather than being an occasional tendency, this reaching after fact and reason (conceptual thinking rather than direct, particular, various experience) is our default status. We pass our days in a delusion of resolution and systematization because if we did not we might fry our brains with the overload. In his last ever letter, Keats laments “the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense)” as having become a great enemy to his “recovery” from his present state of illness. (369).

Yet the dully pragmatic ought not to be allowed to displace truth: Keats in better health argued this and Bonnefoy does the same in The Tombs of Ravenna. Bonnefoy’s essay for several paragraphs plays devil’s advocate, expecting to find “horror” in visiting the tombs of the dead, yet admitting that he felt “nothing but lightheartedness”. Initially, he locates this sense of up-lift in the ornamentation of the tombs, the “braids and interlacing [. . .] bows and foliage”. The essay playfully misleads its reader, suggesting that this effect of the ornamentation must be because it is comparable to the “concept” in denying the fact of death. Bonnefoy says he believed (note the past tense here) that ornamentation also abstracted towards the universal from the real, that the ornamentation presented “a closed world”, a world of “harmony”. Hence, just as the concept “seeks to establish truth without death [. . .] It seemed to me that ornamentation sought to build a dwelling place for us without death, and to have death no longer be here”. Visiting Ravenna, Bonnefoy felt lighthearted beside the tombs because its skilled and delicate ornamentation persuaded him of a world of permanence and consoling abstraction (beyond death, other than death).

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But the essay now turns dramatically to deny the validity of such consoling sophistry. It’s invalid because Bonnefoy had failed to understand “the power of stone”. His insight is that it is not the ornamentation which is at the root of his lightheartedness but the very material out of which it has been carved. Stone is “unfathomable, and this abyss of plentitude, this night covered by an eternal light, is for [Bonnefoy] the exemplary form of the real”. What he means is that stone deflects the grasp of conceptual thought; conceptual thought distances itself from stone as it does from death. Stone is or represents “the difficult real” and it is or represents the “dawn of the sensory world”. Stone’s resistance, its very hardness, gestures towards the fullness and particularity of human experience (what Keats calls a “Life of Sensations”), towards “everything that has flesh, heartbeat, immanence”. The stone leads us towards the “truth tenaciously present beneath the truth of the concept”. And it is the latter ‘truth’ that Bonnefoy declares he must “tenaciously contest”.

The battle in Bonnefoy’s thought between the sensory world and the concept reflects Existentialism’s concern for existence rather than essence. His faith in a world resistant to and actually prior to the draining, withering forces of the intellect, his resistance to post-modernism, are reasons why he strikes many as such an inspiring figure. He says: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us. In what can be felt and sensed”. In The Tombs of Ravenna he names this underlying truth, not as existence, but “presence”. It is “what is perceived by the senses” and it was a dimly stirring awareness of this truth that constituted the “lightheartedness” he felt before the tombs of Ravenna. Through an encounter with the stone from which the tombs are constructed, the resistance of both life and death to the abstracting processes of conceptual thought was made clear and the pleasure induced arose from his closer approach to a fundamental truth.

Just as for Keats, such ideas have consequences for art and poetry. For Bonnefoy, poetry seeks to represent the real particular truths of human experience, to convey what it can of the “dawn of the sensory world”, as opposed to succumbing to the lure of conceptual thinking, even that conceptual thinking inherent in the very fabric of language itself. This specific paradox is not explored very far in The Tombs of Ravenna in which he confines himself to declaring that we require “another language than that of the concept” to articulate such truths. He concludes poetry’s only concern is “for that spot in the world I can sense” and because it must, as far as possible, resist the lure of conceptual truths (truth without death) it follows that “poetry and journey are of the same substance, the same blood”.

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What such a poem might look like is suggested in those few moments when Bonnefoy himself resorts to “minute particulars”. On one such occasion, drawing from his own life, he tells us of “the cry of a bird I heard as a child, at the crest of a kind of cliff. I don’t know where that valley is anymore, or why or when I was there. The light is the light of dawn or of evening, it doesn’t matter. Through the brushwood runs the pungent smoke of a fire. The bird sang. Rather I should say, to be exact, it spoke, raucous on its misty height, for a moment of perfect solitude”.

Or as Keats put it in 1819, having listened to a nightingale singing on Hampstead Heath:

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

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2 thoughts on “On Yves Bonnefoy’s ‘The Tombs of Ravenna’

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