Playful theory Georges Poulet's

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            Playful theory: Georges Poulet’s phenomenological thematics

I want to do two things in this paper which don’t necessarily belong together, although
I’m going to claim eventually that a helpful relation can be made between the two. The
first of these will be to consider the place of what was variously called phenomenological
or Geneva school criticism — or sometimes in French, quite simply, la critique
thématique, thematic criticism. The second part of my paper will present some brief
observations about the uses to which this kind of critical work was put in the teaching of
literature, especially in progressive literature programs in French in the 1970s and 1980s.

I should say at the outset that there must be some uncertainty about whether
phenomenological thematics counts unequivocally as “theory”. When Ian Hunter referred
in the paper that began this series to “transcendental phenomenology”, he was seeking to
characterise a habit of thinking which, in his view, underpins theoretical reflection of
various kinds during the period which interests us, and I have no doubt that he could
apply this characterisation quite straightforwardly to the work of the Geneva school. I’ll
take that for granted in order to make the narrower point, which I expect Ian would
accept, that his philosophical account functions as diagnosis rather than dialogue. It does
not pretend to engage with the writings of Poulet and his colleagues, or to “do”
phenomenological theory. Indeed, it does not even pretend to undo it. Of course, Ian
proceeds to open up questions of persona or demeanour, and I will return to those myself.

But there is more to my point than the location of Ian’s critique. I’m struck by the fact
that the works of the Geneva school are often oblique in their dealings with philosophical
questions, and I’m inclined to think that that may itself be the sign of a quite particular
philosophical position. One of the things that interests me about Poulet and co is that their
work was often seen as having theoretical import without being “theory” in some narrow
sense. How did they get away with that? And if they did get away with it, was it worth
getting away with, and where did it leave them? Their lack of a strong polemical stance, I
suspect, left them less exposed to the slanging-matches of the French theoretical market-
place and its overseas travelling circuses. But it also meant that Geneva school voices
tended to be lost to the ear amid a chorus of more vocal theories.

I don’t want to suppose that all of you know the work of this school, even if the names of
its leaders continue to circulate among literary scholars. So let me say in the simplest
terms what kind of writing this was. Georges Poulet, the most prominent figure in the
group, wrote about human time, about human experiences of space — with no trace of
inverted commas around the word “human” — and sought to highlight the particular
ordering of experience found in the works of a given literary writer. In The
Metamorphoses of the Circle, he took the image of concentric rings made when a stone is
thrown into a pool of still water, finding variations of it across centuries of literary and
philosophical thought, and showing how this figure often served to mediate between
continuity and discontinuity. He also characterised originary or initial images in Proust,
Baudelaire, Racine and many others, elaborating in each case a narrative of increasing

complexity that gave an account of the way in which these writers thought — or more
precisely, the way in which their subjectivity could be understood as a characteristic set
of intended objects. The narrative he constructed made no attempt to follow the
syntagmatic dimension of any given work, and paid no regard to any chronology in the
corpus it considered. Statements of purpose by the author were not taken as guides to
orthodox interpretation, but simply as further texts. They were grist to the thematic mill,
as the critic followed the dynamic logic of imaginative activity. This was literary
criticism grounded in intentionality: it made the assumption that an act or a work was
properly understood in terms of an inscribed or implicit subjective tendency, “as if” it had
been intended that way. But it was certainly not grounded in stated intention, and that
appears to be the first reason why it was sometimes called “phenomenological”. It was
not about “the man and the work”, to use the classic expression of French university
criticism coined by Gustave Lanson, but about a distinctively individual subjectivity
inferred from a set of texts. It was literary criticism focussed almost entirely on canonical
writers, yet with little or no sense of rhetorical address, and in fact no doctrine of
authorship, or at least no sense of writerly authority.

As far as I know, the term “Geneva school” was never used by Poulet himself, so that
there never was a school of thought in the classical sense. There was no explicit
allegiance to a set of propositions, and certainly no manifesto. And since one of the
working assumptions among those involved was that critical method was itself a matter
of individual intellectual style, even the notion of conformity was problematic. Belonging
to this group amounted to being engaged in a certain set of reading and writing practices
that were seen as congenial. So I need to avoid misunderstanding when I talk about it as
part of the historical “moment of theory”, which it undeniably was. It is opportune to
recall Ian Hunter’s characterisation of theoretical histories of theory. Such historical
accounts have largely constructed the Geneva school as a theoretical school stricto sensu
in more or less external and retrospective accounts of it.

I don’t wish to suggest by this that it was not a concerted enterprise, but simply that
whatever tendencies, whatever concertedness were in play made very light use of the
rhetoric of theory in its most recognisable forms. Poulet was fond of referring to members
of this group as his “friends”. That may of course be thought of as falsely ingenuous, and
I’ll give an example of how it was so construed later, but the notion of friendship
functioned here in a quasi-theoretical manner. The practice of friendship consisted for
Poulet in the happy recurrence of understanding. As a philosophical coeval of Sartre, he
was no doubt sceptical of the possibility of genuinely intersubjective encounters, and may
well have shared Sartre’s view that ostensible subject-subject relations typically take the
form of subject-object ones. But friendship in and through the reading of literature
provided a happy exception to that rule. By reading a text, one espoused the intentional
objects of another’s consciousness. And by understanding how other readers went about
the business of understanding, one was able to see and know things, by a singular
exception to an existential rule, in quite the same way as they did. Fellow critics Jean-
Pierre Richard and Jean Starobinski were Poulet’s friends. And so were Baudelaire and

That is why, let me say in passing, Poulet profoundly disapproved of Jean-Pierre
Richard’s writing a book on Céline. For Poulet, Céline was a racist and a fascist
collaborator: he could never be — should never be — a friend. And Richard was
suddenly less of a friend for writing about him. So it can be seen that friendship was in
Poulet’s eyes a kind of discipline. It is tempting to say onetheless — and I’m going to
return to this — that Poulet and his colleagues were the wets of French nouvelle critique.
Not for them the militancy of psychoanalytical, marxist, or radical formalist theories.
They saw the reading of literature as the privileged occasion of intersubjective routines.
Theirs was, one might say, a gently reflexive style of thinking and writing whose
gentleness bespoke a mixture of qualities: confidence in the institution of literature, and
quiet resignation about the effective impossibility of certain other moral and intellectual
endeavours. That was, if you will, the form of their self-cultivation.

“So wasn’t the Geneva school just a gentlemen’s club?” I hear you ask. I think it was to a
degree. It is striking how often Poulet and Richard speak of literary knowledge, not as
discovered but as remembered. “Remember that passage in Proust where he speaks of...”
“Have you noticed how Baudelaire always...” “Every time Sainte-Beuve talks about a
lake, it always has the following characteristics...” These are standard protocols in
Geneva school writing. They invite us to recall our understanding of canonical texts.
Indeed they confirm an “us” as the subjects of this shared recollection. To the extent that
they invite us to new knowledge, it is to a more limpid understanding of what we
somehow already knew. What is being read here are not “texts” framed by shiny new
interpretive grids, but well-worn books from familiar libraries, books that fall open at the
best-loved places.

It seems helpful here to make a contrastive point with respect to Wayne Hudson’s
characterisation of capital-T Theory. I actually find Wayne’s general account quite
persuasive: there is indeed a high degree of recurrence in the poetics of which he spoke.
But I want to insist that the so-called Geneva school is an exception, and not just one of
those cosy little exceptions that can be said to prove the rule. The relative success of the
Geneva school shows that there is a rhetorical dimension to writing theory which does
not reliably coincide with the poetics Wayne described. Geneva school writing was softly
spoken. It was utterly without “grandiloquence”. In fact, two of its most seductive
qualities were its understated tone, and its quiet display of ethical poise.

I don’t wish to be heard as saying that such poise was well-founded, but I do want to
insist that it can be translated or interpreted in philosophical terms. In 1966, Poulet’s
status as a leading figure was consecrated when he presided over a prestigious conference
at Cerisy entitled Les Chemins actuels de la critique, a title which can be translated
expressly, if sententiously, as “The Current Directions taken by criticism”. In his
introductory paper he talked of “our immediate predecessors”, meaning by that a number
of literary critics, Jacques Rivière, Charles Du Bos, and Ramon Fernandez, who had been
active in the Nouvelle Revue Française during the earlier part of the twentieth century, as
well as Gide, Valéry, and especially Proust. These names, for Poulet, seem to constitute a
list, rather than a school: he considers them severally, noting the distinctive way in which
each goes about the business of reading. But there is a move right at the end of his paper

towards greater explicitness. In his conclusion, he indicates what allows him to speak in
this way of predecessors, and to use the first person plural so freely:
      If it is true what has been said of Proust and what Proust says of himself, that
      his novel only takes on meaning as the reader moves into it reluctantly [the
      French is à reculons, which implies moving backwards], then a Proustian form
      of criticism can only be the set of moves whereby the reader, who is immersed
      in the apparent disorder that almost always characterises the full set of works
      by the same author, discovers, also by advancing backwards [en s’y avançant
      lui aussi à reculons], the themes common to all these works. Rivière, Du Bos,
      and Fernandez were perhaps not the founders but the first great representatives
      in the twentieth century of identificatory criticism. And Marcel Proust is more
      than that. He is quite simply the founder of thematic criticism.i

Note how the figure of “advancing backwards” carries a strong load here. This is not the
“aesthetic erotic of a largely modernist kind” of which Wayne Hudson spoke, since it in
no way seeks to abolish the past. The figures to whom Poulet refers might well be
considered the most accomplished exponents of French literary modernism, but his key
move is to work backwards from his current situation in the 1960s to a group of
predecessors, in order better to understand how they themselves worked backwards. By
this retrospective orientation, he hardly seems to recognise the “current” circumstance
referred to in the conference title. This is certainly not a “situation” in the strong sense
which Sartre gave to that word. The authority of Poulet’s writing depends entirely on the
quality of his identification with Proust and others. On the quality of his identificatory
understanding of Proustian themes, of course, but also on the quality of writing and
thinking that may allow his own work to be in some sense identified with that of his
illustrious predecessor.

In the discussion that followed Poulet’s talk, which was published along with the papers
themselves, there occurred a series of conversational exchanges with other participants
such as Marcel Raymond and Jean Rousset whose names are included in any list of
Geneva school critics. Raymond agreed with Poulet’s description of Rivière, but added
some details drawn from his own dealings with Rivière’s work. And Jean Rousset took
up the notion of “superposition of works” which Poulet had drawn from Proust, in order
to apply it to Hardy and Barbey d’Aurevilly. This is, I suggest, the school at work,
finding forms of agreement which introduced new refinements and new complexities to
an already developed literary culture. It was conversational literary knowledge of a quite
refined sort, and the fact that it was going in in Normandy rather than Geneva mattered
not a bit. Being a school was no more or less than that.

But there was someone at the conference who wanted to spoil the party. Jean Ricardou,
who was about thirty years younger than Poulet and had published his first novel five
years earlier, sprang into action. Ricardou, along with Alain Robbe-Grillet, was a leading
proponent of the French nouveau roman or new novel, and was better known at that time
for his polemical advocacy of literary formalism than for his literary accomplishments.
Ricardou saw Sartre and littérature engagée as the enemy of formal invention, and
advocated novelistic writing in which the play of the signifier would of itself produce

new signifieds. In short, he had most of the qualities which Wayne Hudson identified as
those of big-T Theory, and his radical modernism could not fail to be provoked by
Poulet’s paper. I’m going to quote Ricardou’s intervention at some length because I want
to focus on a contrast in rhetorical styles.
      I noted in Georges Poulet’s talk the following definition of criticism: it is a
      coming to consciousness [la prise de conscience] of the consciousness of
      another. Now if I look more closely at this definition, it occurs to me that it
      could apply equally well to activities that bear no relation to criticism:
      friendship or love are also ways of coming to consciousness of the
      consciousness of another. So that renders the definition just a little vague. But
      what ought most particularly to cause concern is that this definition succeeds
      perfectly in eliminating literature. According to this view, literature would
      seem to be merely an adjunct, a way of going towards another, something one
      has to pass through in order to enter into another soul. I wonder myself whether
      literature does not have an opacity which makes it irreducible to any
      transparency that would allow it to serve as a passage towards the other. I
      wonder, indeed, whether literature itself ought not to be the primary object of
      our investigation.ii

There is, I think, something quite striking about this exchange — if indeed it really is an
exchange. It is certainly a rather juicy example of misunderstanding, but what interests
me most about it is that it exemplifies a non-encounter of rhetorics, and of ways of
performing theory. Poulet might have replied: “What is the philosophical point of your
ironic condescension?” But he didn’t. He merely answered:
      I accept that the consciousness of consciousness means more or less the same
      thing as a relation of friendship or love. I can see no other possible relation in
      the domain of literary criticism.iii
This is not just a soft answer meant to turn away wrath. It adopts a rhetoric of affirmation
in the face of contradiction, refusing to accept the assumptions of the would-be adversary
for long enough even to engage in polemics. If Poulet had had a minder by his side, a
philosophical Dennis Waterman, the minder might have said to Ricardou something like:
“What would you know about Nietzsche and Heidegger, you punk? What outworn
positivist epistemology allows you to speak with such confidence of the material opacity
of literary form?” But to answer in this way would have been to suppose that
misunderstanding could be overcome by haggling. For Poulet, it could serve no purpose
to pursue this kind of non-conversation. Better to hold to the instances where
understanding did occur, as if by the happiest of accidents. Better to treasure and to
savour those. Better just to converse with your friends.

Poulet did in fact come fairly late in the piece to write what might be called a theoretical
book, the very lateness of this event being entirely consistent with the intellectual style
I’m describing. In 1971, he published La Conscience critique, “Critical Consciousness”.
That text begins with an expression, “the act of reading”, that was later to become a
catchphrase of Wolfgang Iser’s phenomenological theory of literary understanding: “The
act of reading,” says Poulet, “which underlies all true critical thought, implies the
coincidence of two consciousnesses: that of a reader and that of an author.” iv Yet quite

unlike Iser, who is deeply indebted to Ingarden, Poulet does not find antecedents for his
work in other attempts at phenomenological description of reading. He quotes no
philosophers and no theorists, even though he certainly knew German philosophy well,
and referred freely to Husserl and Heidegger in informal discussion. Once again, Poulet’s
concern is with predecessors of his work. He claims first of all that “the conjunction of
two consciousnesses is precisely what characterises criticism in our time”.v This is what
is called la nouvelle critique, with the emphasis on the definite article, just as people now
speak of le nouveau roman. He gives, as one might expect, a list of the exponents of each,
leaving himself out of the list of new critics and Ricardou out of the list of new novelists.
He then attempts to generalise about the group of critics:
       As far as the critics listed above are concerned, the homogeneity of the group
       depends on a common preoccupation with the phenomena of consciousness.
       Each of them seeks to relive and rethink through themselves the experiences
       lived and the ideas thought by other minds.
Then, without any forceful antithesis — one wonders sometimes whether Poulet disliked
using the word “but” — he goes straight on to say: “This tendency is not absolutely new.”
He finds predecessors for it in European Romanticism: in Bodmer, and the Schlegel
brothers, in Coleridge and Hazlitt and, closer to hand, in de Staël and Baudelaire. The
latter two are taken as exemplary for their “authentic” practice of critical

It is the predecessors as such who make up a corpus for study, as La Conscience critique
devotes no fewer than sixteen chapters to the various critical styles of predecessors and
contemporaries. Proust is there, of course, as well as the early critics of the Nouvelle
Revue Française, Rivière and Du Bos. In addition, there are chapters on Poulet’s
contemporaries, including Raymond and Rousset, Richard and Starobinski, but also
Gaston Bachelard and Roland Barthes. At the risk of quoting excessively, I’d like to offer
an example in which a discourse of intellectuallity is characteristically interwoven with a
discourse of friendship. Chapter eight of the book is devoted to a Swiss critic, Albert
Béguin, and most of chapter nine to another, Jean Rousset. Here is a long quotation from
an early part of the chapter on Rousset:
       How different from the work of Albert Béguin seems the work of his Swiss
       compatriot Jean Rousset, who was a friend and disciple of [Marcel] Raymond!
       Béguin’s work is impatient, vehement, and intensely “concerned”; it is oriented
       towards action, and beyond action towards an eschatological, supernatural
       truth. Rousset’s, on the other hand, has a tempo which is infinitely less
       precipitate, an equable temperament; it takes the finest account of the different
       faces presented by the work and thought of the artists being analysed. In view
       of this close attention to forms, one might be tempted to associate Rousset’s
       criticism, probably not with the hedonistic, dilettante criticism of an Anatole
       France or a Jules Lemaître, but to some extent with that form of contemplative
       criticism marked by Cyrenaic sensualism which one finds in the great English
       critic Walter Pater, who was so dear to Charles Du Bos.vii
This is how it goes: Rousset is strikingly different from one of his compatriots, although a
disciple of another. He is not without relation to some late nineteenth-century French
critics, and interestingly similar to Walter Pater, who was so much admired by that
influential critic of the Nouvelle Revue Française, our own close predecessor Charles Du

Bos. Out of this play of individual differences and similarities, a rich network of
understandings and practices is made. Instead of the dogmatic alignment which might be
expected within a school, we find the attentive celebration of individualities. But in that
very distinction-making among critical authors a finely ramified understanding continues
to develop. The implication, what I am calling the philosophical import, is that there may
be no other quality of knowledge worthy of value, no other breadth or depth to be known.
Literary culture is, in this quite elaborate sense, a network of friends.

I cannot resist saying something here about Poulet’s reading of Barthes as critic. It has to
be remembered that at this time Barthes had published only his Degré zéro de l’écriture,
“Degree zero of writing”, and Eléments de sémiologie, “Elements of semiology”. S/Z was
just out, but it is highly unlikely that Poulet would have had the time to read it before
producing this chapter. I am struck by the account Poulet gives in his own terms of
Barthes’s “structuralism”, for structuralism too is taken here to be a particular form of
      A maximum of objectivity, a minimum of subjectivity, or, to use Roland
      Barthes’s celebrated expression, degree zero of writing, that is the scarcely
      mental environment to which structuralism seeks to confine itself. But what
      ought we to understand by this “degree zero”? Is it not the act whereby the
      mind reduces to zero its intervention in the interior comprehension of the work,
      so that the work presents in the form of a plurality of linguistic functions
      coming together as a network and constituting a structure? In sum, what is
      most striking about structuralist criticism is the will that consciousness no
      longer be allowed an active role.viii
In this view, the will to maximal objectivity is itself a quite particular form of
subjectivity. So you can see, for all the modesty of demeanour, the considerable reach —
one could also say, the recuperative power — of Poulet’s understanding of critical
consciousness. If the Geneva school was a club, it was very much an open one. A
structuralist could certainly count as a friend, even if a fascist couldn’t.

In the final section of La Conscience critique, Poulet offers a chapter entitled “A
Phenomenology of Critical Consciousness”. Only at the end of his quite long essay does
he offer a piece of theoretical writing bearing a philosophical title. Here, it seems, we will
find at last a proper phenomenological reduction of the act of reading a literary work. We
can expect that every attempt will be made to bracket out established and extraneous
knowledge, thus describing the act of reading as it presents unadorned to consciousness.

Poulet begins this key chapter with an appeal to the cultivated memory of his readers:
“Let us recall the beginning of Igitur.”ix The most rudimentary, the most originary
experience does not occur before literature is present. This is not an “approach” in any
metaphorical sense, not a movement from absence to presence, or from distance to
proximity. The experience of reading is already to be found in literature, and most
especially in literature which, like the Mallarmé text to which Poulet is referring, talks
about the literary. Poulet goes on: “in an empty room, on a table, a book awaits its
reader.” This, he suggests, is the “initial situation” of all literary works. In the spirit of
phenomenological inquiry, he is seeking a beginning of experience via an experience of

beginning. So at the outset, he suggests, books are waiting, on the shelves of libraries or
in shop windows. “Books”, he says, “are waiting for someone to free them from their
materiality and their immobility.” “But are they really waiting?” he asks. Are they
looking out for the person who will bring about “the great change in them with which we
are all familiar”. That seems rather unlikely, he muses. In keeping with the rules of
phenomenological reduction, Poulet seems to be attempting to maintain strict neutrality
about that which does not present to his own consciousness. All we can be sure of, he
says, is that, until their reader arrives, books remain where they are. Are they in fact
troubled by a longing to be transformed? “Sadly”, he says, “it really seems that books do
not know the agony of waiting. As with all material objects, it must be the case that they
are satisfied with their situation.”x

It is then that Poulet makes a characteristic move. Having rather circuitously reached this
commonsensical view at the end of his first paragraph, he calls it into question at the
beginning of the second:
        However I cannot quite convince myself of their indifference. When I see
        books on display, I compare them to those animals which pet shop owners put
        in little cages, and which so clearly hope that a purchaser will choose them. For
        there can hardly be any doubt that animals know what destiny awaits them
        through human intervention, thanks to which they will be freed from the shame
        of being treated as mere objects. And is it not the same with books? Shut in on
        themselves, ignored, humiliated, they remain where they lie until such time as
        a reader takes interest in them. Do they know that this person could confer on
        them another form of existence? At times, one has the impression that hope is
        alive in them. “Read me”, they seem to say. I have difficulty resisting their call.
        No, books are not objects like others.xi
So books are like animals in little cages. They seem to know that reading will transform
them, and they long to be read. One can only imagine what Ricardou would have had to
say if he had still been bothering to read Poulet’s work in 1971. He would no doubt have
seen this as a lamentable example of soft-headedness, as a particularly wet form of
theoretical vagueness. Ricardou and his fellow big-T Theorists would probably have
failed to identify the whimsy in this text, and would certainly have struggled to see the
point of it. The point of it is, I suggest, to perform theoretical writing in a manner which
undoes its high pretentiousness while maintaining something of its ambition. There is a
serious point to this description, and Poulet, while continuing to invoke his puppies and
kittens,xii goes on to focus on the difference between vases and books. The former, he
says, oblige us to view them from the outside, the mouth of a vase being only a “false
orifice”, whereas books “offer themselves, open themselves”.xiii The French says
“s’offrir, s’ouvrir”, and plays on the double function of such pronomial verbs, which
could be translated into English either as reflexives, “to open oneself”, or as passives, “to
be opened”. The space in which those two senses coexist, the domain where the
“objective” almost coincides with the “subjective”, is the space of Poulet’s
phenomenological reverie.

Please note, by the way, that there is no commentary in Poulet’s text on this play on
words. To point to it would in fact be to break cover, to undo the rhetoric of naivety

which, in a paradoxically sophisticated way, signifies the phenomenological bracketing
of prior knowledge. Wayne Hudson referred to certain pieces of writing by Foucault and
Derrida as “jokes”. Poulet’s phenomenology of critical consciousness has something of
that quality, although in an understated way. It is an example of theoretical humour, with
the connotations of pince-sans-rire which the French habitually give to that word.

Having spoken about the way in which this kind of writing presented itself, I should say a
little more about its place in theoretical or genealogical histories of theory. The irony of
its place, given Poulet’s preoccupation with predecessors, is that “phenomenology” is so
often located in modernist narratives of theoretical progress as the immediate predecessor
of structuralism. But the predecessors of radical modernism, by contrast with those
honoured by Poulet, are its old fogies, left behind by the pace of change. Many of the
leading figures of French theory had a training in some form of phenomenology and
practised or advocated it to some degree. Phenomenology is a constituent element of their
murky pasts — perhaps even the theoretical “murk” itself. That is the case with Roland
Barthes, as Poulet knew well. It is also true of Foucault, who published very early in his
career a eulogious account of Ludwig Binswanger.

When structuralism and its offshoots and variants represent themselves as “leaving
behind” phenomenology, they tend to do so in two rather different ways. The first and
undoubtedly the less radical of these is to reorganise thematic knowledge according to
new principles. Julien Greimas, who is well known for his elaborate reworking of Propp’s
analysis of Russian folk tales, actually did some broadly comparable work on a thematic
analysis of the works of the French novelist Bernanos. He used Propp to build a general
model of the act, resolving various components of it into “actants” and considering their
recombination into “actors”, and he used another scholar’s thematic analysis of Bernanos
in order to reorder it so that the themes could be read as “isotopes”, organised according
to a square of oppositions.xiv I once asked Greimas directly about his relation to
phenomenology, and he said that what he did was “de la phénoménologie bien faite”,
phenomenology done properly. To do it “properly” was to render thematic knowledge,
not with the lightness of touch and fine differentiation favoured by Poulet and co, but in
terms that applied scientific terminological discipline in order to produce shareable
outcomes. This was not a complete renovation of phenomenological method, so much as
a radically different way of ordering its findings — or rather, it made the assumption that
the locus of method was precisely the disciplined ordering of the already known. Another
leading figure of French structuralism, Gilbert Durand, can be considered to have done
much the same thing. Durand produced what he called a “repertoire” of “imaginary
dynamisms”, setting out their full range in anthropological and “mythical” terms.What
made his work structuralist was that the repertoire was itself, to use his terms,
“inventoried and classified”.xv The images of which he spoke were held together in
purportedly universal “regimes”, rather than being located in distinctive and exquisitely
differentiated literary places. So while Poulet’s work was of some interest to Durand, it
could hardly have served as a model. Metamorphoses of the Circle was in the
bibliography of Durand’s magnum opus, but not in the index. For both Durand and
Greimas, as indeed for Barthes in his structuralist phase, the vocabulary of simplicity
practised by Poulet and friends was quite unworthy of their theoretical ambition. They

left it behind in order to launch into a brave new lexical world in which neologisms were
the very stuff of method.

A second way of leaving behind phenomenology was to declare that themes as such were
not the primary object of literary study. This is effectively what Ricardou was doing in
the exchange I quoted earlier. He, Genette, and others positioned themselves as the
champions of “form”, and regarded any critical focus on themes as a distraction. If there
had to be themes, let them emerge post hoc, after the formal elements of the text had
worked together to produce them in a quite material fashion. And even then, themes were
to be seen as incidental — no more than a by-product of genuine literary knowledge. To
claim to have grasped a theme was, in the eyes of such formalists, to make the text falsely
transparent. It was to suppose that the point of reading was to find the ideas and images
which the author had put into the text. This critique of thematics, by supposing the
authorial installation of themes, happened to miss Poulet’s point about intentionality
completely. But by the late 1960s that point had in fact been so well assimilated by all
involved in literary theory as to have become uncontentious. For the purposes of
formalist polemic, the reading of themes simply became associated with the oldest and
dullest forms of university criticism. Certain thesis titles became infamous, and one poor
doctoral student became an object of fun for having written a thesis entitled “Glass
objects in Proust”. Any thematic “thing” in any author’s work could be the target of the
same irony, for thematic criticism was now seen in French literary circles sympathetic to
the nouveau roman as a vacuous distraction from the material appreciation of textuality.
It had to be the text or the theme. To my knowledge, no member of the Geneva school
counter-attacked on that front. They might well have argued that the very notion of form
was now being taken as the theme par excellence, and that is after all not so far what
Poulet said about Barthes. But counter-attacking was of no interest to Poulet. When there
was eventually a critique — or better, a profound complication — of formalism, that
came most strikingly from the Yale school, with powerful contributions from a couple of
Poulet’s friends: a self-styled disciple, J. Hillis Miller, and a compatriot, Paul De Man.

In conclusion, I want to say a few words about the significance of phenomenological
thematics for the teaching of literature in progressive French programs in Australia.
During the 1970s, there was one outstanding figure who led a reforming movement in
French literature teaching, and indeed in French studies more generally: Ross Chambers.
Chambers, it must be understood, was no forerunner of the critical literacy trend. He and
those influenced by him were little concerned with the teaching of theory as such, since
they were far more preoccupied with rethinking literature teaching in the light of the
understandings they had gleaned from new theorical writing. You should not be surprised
to learn that Chambers’ early work was in phenomenological thematics: he was published
in French by the favoured publisher of the Geneva school, José Corti. But it could be said
without undue schematisation that he moved quickly in the 1970s to doing broadly
structuralist work. Chambers was Head of French at Sydney University, which had long
been, along with the Universities of Melbourne and Adelaide, a bastion of high quality
work on modern French poetry. But the most profound renovation of teaching practice
did not happen in those prestigious places. As with the development of cultural studies
described in John Frow’s paper, the most thoroughly systematic changes occurred during

the 1970s in some of the lesser departments, although these were not as marginal as those
listed by John, since they were within the scope of what is now called the Group of Eight.
Such theoretically-driven renovation of teaching occurred at Monash, UNSW, and, most
radically, at Queensland.

I don’t intend to launch into a long discussion of French teaching here. Quite a lot of that
was done in a book which I co-edited over ten years ago with Anne Freadman and Jean-
Claude Lacherez entitled In the Place of French.xvi I am merely interested in the kinds of
questions that arose when progressive teachers of French literature took as references for
their teaching aspects of phenomenological and structuralist theory. If one takes as a
starting point a Geneva school view of literary culture, it is hard to see what application it
might have in an Australian classroom in which the great majority of students could see
themselves as alienated — alienated not only by virtue of being foreigners with a limited
knowledge of the language, but also by having read relatively few texts. How could they
hope to take as objects of knowledge the full set of works by Proust or Baudelaire? How
could they hope to enter into the kinds of networks described and practised by Poulet and
his colleagues? How could they even marshal enough knowledge to understand what
such a network was, and how it functioned? This is where the school really did assume
the shape the of a club, and a thoroughly exclusive one at that. Structuralism, by contrast,
especially of the Jakobsonian variety, typically took as objects of study individual works
of considerable density, most often short poems. And it offered a method of analysis in
which the constituent elements of the text could be examined in detail. Two hours spent
on a Baudelaire sonnet could be thoroughly rewarding, even for a second-year Australian
student. The key rhetorical fiction of structuralist method in the classroom was that the
understanding of a poem was not initially given as an “experience”, but needed to be put
together piece by piece. It was not marked with the sign of memory, but with that of
construction. And this fiction was a thoroughly enabling one. Dan O’Neill once said to
me many years ago: “The big advantage you have in teaching French literature is that the
students, unlike those we have in English, don’t take it for granted that they can read the
texts.” We often saw it as a positive advantage that the student knew nothing at the
outset, and did not have a mind filled with tired academic notions about Romanticism or
cluttered with rows of glass objects. There is of course an irony here, and it’s the kind of
irony we’ve found more than once in this series. Poulet’s rhetoric of naivety might have
made his phenomenology of critical consciousness more or less accessible as theory if in
fact reading theory had been the main pedagogical concern, whereas Jakobson’s writing
in French would have appeared somewhat rebarbative. But the business of classroom
application reversed the roles, and that is what mattered more in the long run. That is
how, having done my doctoral thesis under the supervision of Georges Poulet, I gradually
learned to become, at least for teaching purposes, a de facto structuralist. It did indeed
seem to many of us in the 1970s as if the only way to do phenomenology was to have
already done it, as if the only kind of good phenomenologist was an ex-phenomenologist.

   Georges Poulet (ed.), Les Chemins actuels de la critique (Paris: Union Générale des
Editions, 10/18, 1968), p. 23.
    Les Chemins actuels de la critique, p. 30.
    Les Chemins actuels de la critique, p. 31.
    Georges Poulet, La Conscience critique (Paris: Corti, 1971), p. 9.
    La Conscience critique, p. 9.
    La Conscience critique, pp. 9-10.
     La Conscience critique, p. 159.
     La Conscience critique, p. 268.
    La Conscience critique, p. 275.
    La Conscience critique, p. 275.
    La Conscience critique, pp. 275-276.
     La Conscience critique, p. 277.
     La Conscience critique, p. 276.
     See Algirdas Julien Greimas, Sémantique structurale: recherche de méthode (Paris:
Larousse, 1966).
     Gilbert Durand, Les Structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire: Introduction à
l’archétypologie générale (Paris: Bordas, 1969), p. 9.
     Peter Cryle, Anne Freadman, and Jean-Claude Lacherez (eds), In the Place of French:
Essays on and around French Studies in Honour of Michael Spencer (St. Lucia:
University of Queensland, 1992).