The French Review 62.1 (1988): 154-155.
MELTZER, FRANÇOISE. Salome and the Dance of Writing: Portraits of Mimesis in Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. Pp. 226.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
This challenging study addresses the problems of representation and writing as manifested by the literary depiction of portraits, and while basing her rich tapestry of analyses on works from an intriguing array of periods and literary traditions, Prof. Meltzer does not limit her goals merely to readings of literary texts. The problem of representation in literature allows her to develop, on the one hand, an historical perspective how the text "re-presents" the world to the reader, and on the other hand, a specular dimension, how the text "also re-presents itself" (2). While thoroughly informed by the works of Jacques Derrida, Meltzer's approach is neither exclusively nor oppressively so: she draws profitably both from various philosophical sources (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Ricoeur) and from theorists as diverse as Erich Auerbach and Roland Barthes, in order to elucidate the Derridean "politics of mimesis" and to justify her concentration on a particular object of study, the textual portrait, "at once the mimetic gesture of writing (writing seeking to control the eidetic other, to reduce it to its own terms), and the moment when 'otherness'--because it is contextualized in a place where, like Auerbach, it is homeless--grants us a better perspective on the 'home' of literature" (11).
Meltzer's strategy for developing this "politics of mimesis" consists in building on focal metaphors announced in the titles and sub-titles of each of the five chapters. Thus, in the first chapter, which provides the book's title, she first isolates Huysmans's extreme use in A Rebours of the key rhetorical device of description in detail, ecphrasis, in re-presenting Moreau's paintings "Salome Dancing" and "The Apparition." Suggesting how Huysmans's celebration of the inanimate, of artifice, transforms the novel itself into "a prolonged ecphrasis" (28), Meltzer then juxtaposes these "hypotactical' descriptions to the paratactical prose of the Biblical analogues in Matthew, Mark and Luke to demonstrate that Huysmans's "filling in" of their gaps results in the "mimetic elaboration, both ideological and figural, of the logocentrism informing the writings of the Gospels" (42-43). And it is precisely the aporia of Salome's dance, undepicted by the Christian and the Huysmatis texts, that serves, Meltzer argues, as a metaphor for "writing in the logocentric perspective" which she proposes to examine in this study of the portrait's "radical otherness," of "how and not what it means in the text' (44-46).
The subsequent chapters raise problems of fictional and historical representation in terms of textual portraiture by means of a similar strategy of juxtaposition: questions of the inscription and trace of writing in light of Virgil's Aeneid and Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir (Ch. 2, "The Spearhead of Troilus"); problems of writing as too much or too little mimesis constituting opposed ideologies of representation in light of Exodus, Apuleius's The Golden Ass, and Poe's 'The Oval Portrait" (Ch. 4, 'The Golden Calf and the Golden Ass); uncanny displacements of writing, its mise en abyme, produced in texts where an image is contemplated, a photograph in Kafka's Amerika, the engravings for Rousseau's Julie as well as the portrait that is the subject of his play, Narcisse, ou l'amant de lui-même (Ch. 4, "Still Life"). The final chapter, "Sleight of Hand," reveals Meltzer's own skillful legerdemain; by focusing on multiple aspects of inscription and representation from the perspective of "the hand," she addresses its various functions--as agent of production, of synthesis; its singularity versus its ambidextrous plurality; its extension as manifesto, as portrayal of power and as caricature--with analyses of a stunning range of works, thereby closing her study with a textual crescendo whose "Echos" (the book's final statement) are clearly meant to resound without resolution. While such a final strategy might frustrate readers seeking the security of analytical closure, Meltzer deliberately expands the "politics of mimesis' to encompass the dangers of the repression of literature's particular brand of representation, and thus to propose a politics whose implications also must be made to resound lest they be permanently repressed.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University