The French Review 58.6 (1985): 894-895.
DENTAN, MICHEL. Le Texte et son lecteur: études sur Benjamin Constant, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Ramuz, Cendrars, Bernanos, Gracq. Lausanne: Editions de l'Aire 1983. Pp. 132.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
In this slender volume, Michel Dentan explores the relationship
of the reader and text through studies of chosen works by six
authors. His "Avant-Propos" situates the particular
reader-response perspective, inspired by the work of Wolfgang
Iser, which is the generative force of these studies: wishing
to avoid both the extreme of author-oriented analysis (e.g., biographical
and psychoanalyzing critiques which define a unique interpretation
based on the author's life and/or psyche) and the extreme of the
infinite multiplicity and eventual undecidability of interpretations,
Dentan recognizes, following
Gadamer, the importance of "horizon," the work's horizon, or "les systèmes de sens l'époque où elle est née" (p. 9), and the reader's horizon, the current critical questions that inevitably orient the interpretive enterprise. Thus, for Dentan, "il s'agit non de déchiffrer le sens, comme une substance, mais plutôt de décrire d'abord les conditions de la constitution de sens" (p. 9), an analysis of "la façon dont s'articulent, dans l'oeuvre, la question et la réponse ou, si l'on veut, comment l'oeuvre répond aux questions de son temps" (p. 10) as well as how the reader responds to this textual horizon with his/her own critical orientation.
We can therefore understand these six studies as successive steps in Dentan's enterprise of articulating the constitutive conditions by which meaning is produced. In Constant's Cécile, for example, the conditions lie in the inherent "modèles à orienter la lecture" (p. 19), models that Dentan situates in the narrator-reader relationship. But, in Cécile, even as the reader perceives particular models, they are immediately undercut by narrative strategies that negate the models' existence, or, at least, contradict their effects. The resultant "système déceptif" entretient, chez le lecteur, une persistante hésitation"(which the incomplete ending of Cécile only increases) and finally "récuse d'avance toute interpretation" (pp. 31-32). This "systime déceptif" appears in other works that Dentan studies: the various narrative texts by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam reveal a double-edged irony of which the reader must constantly be aware in order to understand both the author's particular "horizon" and the demonstrative rhetoric ultimately undermining the truth or certitude seemingly expounded. In C. F. Ramuz's Les Circonstances de la vie, behind the narrator's apparently "naïve" ideology, there churns a subversive desire posed by "une intrusion de 1'extérieur (bouleversante, dérangeante ou transfiguratrice)" (p. 80), the potential for social transformation through an explosion of liberating conflict. Further, in Cendrars's Moravagine, where the "discours sur la folie" intermingles with a "discours de la folie' (p. 83), Dentan exaxines how madness spoken beyond the speaking subject necessarily implicates and disrupts the reading orientation through the "figures" on which the author constructs this aberrant discourse. In the final two studies, Dentan analyzes the "disorientation" of the reader: first, the difficulty for the "lecteur incroyant" of Bernanos's novels to "adhérer à un monde romanesque où la presence divine est une réalité agissante" (p. 102); and in Gracq's Le Rivage des Syrtes, the system by which the reader is disoriented through the vertiginous transformation of fictional topography.
These studies are incisive and illuminating, and Dentan makes excellent use of each author's critical corpus without losing sight of his own goals. Yet, he clearly understands the hazardous balancing act that he is attempting, and "en guise de conclusion,' Dentan returns to Ramuz's fiction, La Beauté sur la terre, to underscore the enigmatic play of contradictions by which "l'oeuvre d'art illumine ou problématise la réalité" (p. 127), and which allows the reader, in the act of interpretation, to seize, however fleetingly, the text's discursive power. Dentan finally maintains that beyond this paradoxical contact of reader with text, there remains the enigmatic rapport between the reader's search for textual coherence and the endless proliferation of meanings, an oscillation that marks a work's ultimate defiance of interpretive closure.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University