From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 19.1 (1999): 138-41.
Copyright © 1999, The Cervantes Society of America
REVIEW

Lezra, Jacques. Unspeakable Subjects: The Genealogy of the Event in Early Modern Europe. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. vi + 413 pp.

     In Unspeakable Subjects, Jacques Lezra explores the origins, the nature, and the “consequences” of an essential theme in post-modern critical discourse: the “incommensurability” between materiality and the aesthetic principles that inform history, between accidents of nature and their “sublimation” in language as “events.” Lezra's central chapters focus on Descartes's Second Meditation (chapter 2), Cervantes's Don Quixote (chapters 3 and 4), and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (chapter 5). In these and other texts contemporary to them, Lezra explores the divergence between language as rhetorical strategy and truth. The scope of the book, however, reaches much farther, from Lucretius, Aristotle, and Plato to Freud, Derrida, Foucault and Lacan, embracing in-between writings by a host of the main figures of the Western intellectual tradition. The selection of secondary sources on Descartes, Cervantes, and Shakespeare is equally comprehensive, as are his copious endnotes, covering pp. 297-375. The extensive bibliography (35 pp.) completes the abundant detail of this intertextual tour de force.
     If remarkable breadth is one of the defining characteristics of Unspeakable Subjects, another is the stylistic and conceptual density. Lezra's introductory chapter, “Eventful Reading,” lays out the scope and the aim of his project with references to Lucretius, Virgil, Pico, Ficino, Nietzsche, and Foucault framing his approach. In Lezra's words, Unspeakable Subjects “traces the movement between the ‘singularities’ of material history —the documents of official and nonofficial history and proclamation, the institutional setting and conditions for literary and philosophical speech acts, the graphic constraints of the author's historical body— and the ‘singularities’ of textual events, their impasses and over-determinations. . . .  More: it seeks to understand the status of that ‘tracing’ itself as neither an act nor an event alone —as itself a habitual ‘principle of singularity’ whose paradox properly constitutes our contingent post-modernity” (33). Lezra speaks to a select readership, one fully initiated to post-modern literary and psychoanalytic theory and willing to follow the author on an astonishing

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intellectual voyage. Readers with a closer horizon will find this book approaches the limit where the investment of effort may outweigh the reward.
     In chapter 1, “Freud's Sickle,” Lezra discusses “the discursive conditions under which any thought about events comes to us today in the wake or in the throes of philosophical and discursive revolutions . . .” (37). His metaphor, “Freud's Sickle,” describes “the knot of discursive impasses that mark for us . . . the inadequacy of the speculative act to its object” (37). The distinction between “act” and “event” allows Lezra to explore the contingencies of discourse which separate them: “Certain occurrences thus may or may not have the status of events for reasons intrinsic, not to them but to the system of symbolic and material exchanges in which they occur or at which they arrive. . . .  Events are what was silently predicted in the system to which they come” (40). In Freud's Interpretation of Dreams Lezra finds the material on which to construct an understanding of this “impasse” or “knot.” As the dreams studied by Freud, so too all “linguistic events” take “the form of improper ‘naming’ of what has no proper name, as the pseudo-trope of catachresis,” which in turn “structures the effort to tell as an allegory of resistance the relation between ‘events’ and their transformations” (70). The “sickle” is also Lezra's chosen metaphor for “omission,” for the “cutting out” of what language fails properly to name. The inadequacy of discourse to link act with idea, matter with language, comprises the “unspeakability” of events to which Lezra refers. His study of Descartes, Cervantes, and Shakespeare focuses on their discovery and their struggle with this incapacity of language.
     “The Ontology of the Letter in Descartes's Second Meditation,” chapter 2, pursues the problem of “unspeakability” in terms of Descartes's epistemological proposition of “reading like a novel.” In the novel, “fabula” accompanies and complements “historia”; questions of memory, knowing, and doubt which arise in the process of reading are resolved by continuing without stopping and allowing the flow of narrative and the context to fill in gaps or discrepancies. On this path to truth, intuition and deduction become “structurally and functionally indistinguishable” (92). Lezra identifies this “Cartesian paradox” with three linguistic and rhetorical patterns, which he maps out in detail: “the metonymic passage from opinion to certainty, the proleptic structuring of metaphor's liberalization, [and] the deictic positioning of the figure of the reader in the place of such pre-metaphor's existing term” (100-01). Thus, “the relation between these three strategies for articulating thought and reading . . . can be conceived paradoxically as a way of reaching intuitive truth deductively, by invoking momentarily one or the other of these correlative strategies” (100-01). Lezra joins the linguistic and rhetorical patterns of Descartes's writing with his attempts to understand the phenomenon of perception, especially Descartes's dissections and diagrams of the human eye, where he seeks to understand the relation between eye, spirit, understanding, and written language.
     Chapter 3, “The Matter of Naming in Don Quixote,” engages the epistemological problems posed by Cervantes's novel and the rhetorical and stylistic structures Cervantes uses to exploit these problems. For Lezra, Cervantes offers


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a most subtle and accomplished laying bare of the “failure” of language to “reconcile an act with its representation” (135-36). In Don Quixote Lezra finds a “combat” or play of discrepancies between “events and the various languages deployed to name them . . .” (137). The analysis begins with the “reflective” game involving the position and function of the reader, who Cervantes names “Desocupado lector” in the Prologue to Part I. This self-critical play and the “impasses” it reveals repeat themselves in various forms throughout the novel: “the various figurations and materializations of names (‘reader,’ ‘Knight of the Sad Countenance’), bodies and organs (the first narrator's ear, Don Quixote's hand, Sancho's mother . . .), institutions (the law, the Inquisition, the Monarchy) and events (the publication of Don Quixote, the loss of Cervantes's arm in the battle of Lepanto, etc.) . . .” (137-38). Lezra devotes chapters 3 and 4 to his analysis of the nature and effect of this repetition.
     Reading Don Quixote against López de Velasco's Orthographia y pronunciacion castellana, and El Pinciano's Philosophia antigua poetica, Lezra situates Cervantes's novel in the context of debates on grammar and the relation of language to event in the sixteenth century. The game of naming in Don Quixote both relies on the medieval idea of the totality of language and matter and at the same time deconstructs its fallibility, spoiling the relation of language to truth necessary in a theocratic society. Cervantes “both requires that the relation between textual and historical events be read as an allegory and makes it impossible to understand this allegory as representing, relying upon, or producing the consonance of part and totality, soul and body, matter and form” (156). Naming emerges as the template for the game in which Cervantes both reveals and pretends to solve the “formal aporias” posed in his novel.
     “Cervantes's Hand,” chapter 4, explores “the nature of the bodies that a novelistic reading . . . can form, and the means and consequences of that formation . . .” (177). Beginning with the concept of the hand as an instrument of narration, Lezra expands his psychoanalytic anatomy of the novel to “the eroticized architecture and topography of La Mancha” (177). Drawing on Freud and recent psychoanalytic theory, he associates narrative with “madre” and endows narrative form, limits, and impasses with maternal and phallic significance: “. . . ‘man's’ experience of the body is born and reborn in, and as, the discourse of the novel” (191). The episode in Part I, where the servant, Maritornes, snares Don Quixote's hand serves as a window to understand the Lezran principles of Cervantes's novelistic structure: the “morphology of representation,” the “image of the body,” and “the law of desire” (199).
     Through an examination of the rhetorical, linguistic, psychoanalytic associations underlying word play in the novel, Lezra moves the discussion from the ordering principles of narrative to those of the state. In Quevedo's Política de Dios, the “semiotics” of the terms “cetro” and “corona” and the justification for the power and right of monarchy unconsciously reveal the aporias in the episteme of the theocratic state. Language and materiality separate at the seam where the monarch is to be the embodiment rather than the sign of God's truth. Similarly, Cervantes's linguistic structures also deconstruct the state: “The novel's privileged figures for tropological systems —the hand, scepter, and


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crown, for instance, that stand in for anatomical, ideological, or semantic otras cosas . . . lose much of their epistemological and descriptive power as a result of their systematic liberalization throughout Don Quixote” (229). Lezra argues that signs in Don Quixote dissociate from intention and from determinate meaning, that they “obey a semiotic law that functions independently of human cognition” and of “any transcendent subject” (248-51). Lezra's analysis leads him to the conclusions that in Don Quixote: “. . . there is neither ‘form’ nor ‘matter’ but the permanent and permanently suspended, circle drawn by the materialization of form, and the formalization of matter. The novel, and Don Quixote more than any other, ‘Don Quixote’ por antonomasia, has as its perverse task to tell the story of this ‘exorbitant circling’” (245-46).
     Lezra closes Unspeakable Subjects with his fifth chapter, “The Appearance of History in Measure for Measure.” With one of the play's minor characters, Barnardine, Lezra finds Shakespeare's “most probing reflection on the limit of his art before the materiality, the resistance of events that cannot be made to speak” (257). As an emblem for both life and history, the head of the pirate, Ragozine, who is executed in place of Barnardine, achieves the status of both act and event, only to erase itself necessarily and paradoxically: “. . . the appearance of Ragozine's head —a part which no metatheatrical discourse can square with the spectacle it glosses or with the muzzy, absolute negative whose absence it supplies— calls for and acquires the status of an act and event. Like criticism, it does so only to the extent that its consuming reliance on the materiality of the letter is never raised (again). The mechanism by which the pirate's head, or any man's, is brought to the block, by which an act such as a proclamation or the giving of a name inevitably returns to the play, is founded and erased constantly by this gesture of denial” (294).
     Unspeakable Subjects sets for itself a goal equal to that of seminal works such as Erich Auerbach's Mimesis or E. C. Riley's Cervantes's Theory of the Novel. In comparison with them, however, the intellectual and linguistic density of Lezra's construct will very likely limit its impact. Recognizing the intrinsic inadequacy or “failure” of language to fuse itself with life, Unspeakable Subjects seems to surrender deliberately to the game of intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and open semiosis. Poetic in its own way, intuitive, and self-conscious, Lezra's book makes the game of language not only the topic but also the method for spinning an intertextual genealogy in which it also locates itself. Lezra succeeds convincingly in placing Descartes, Cervantes, and Shakespeare in the transition between devolutionary and evolutionary world views, where language begins to be understood as a system of signs rather than a receptacle for meaning. As such, Unspeakable Subjects offers a challenging labyrinth of thought, a clever weaving of Classical, Renaissance, and Modern ideas about the relation of language to truth, matter to reason, accident to history. It also offers a remarkable example of Cervantine irony (la razón de la sin razón) compounded exponentially by the post-modern perspective.

Robert M. Johnston
Northern Arizona University


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