Critical Inquiry 6 (4):625-638 (1980)

Ambiguity is not the polysemy most words display as dictionary entries but results from the context's blocking of the reader's choice among competing meanings, as when, to use an example from Derrida, a French context hinders the reader from deciding whether plus de means "lack" or "excess" .1 In this case, the undecidability is due entirely to the fact that the reader is playing a score, the syntax, that will not let him choose. This must be because the score is badly written; yet it is precisely this sort of willful neglect that critics have labeled poetic license, thereby underlining its literary nature. Undecidability has become a central feature in Derrida's analyses of literariness, and it is also the main underpinning of his creative writing.2 Better still, his own critical discourse has put undecidability to use, not a rare case of metalanguage imitating the very devices of the language it purports to analyze. My example are therefore drawn from Derrida on the assumption that his conscious practice of écriture, backed up by a sophisticated theory, will be particularly illuminating. For my own analysis of these phenomena, I shall be using a special word that Derrida has adopted and adapted from the terminology of ancient rhetoric. He proposes it in his commentary on this sentence of Mallarmé's: "La scène n'illustre que l'idée, pas une action effective, dans une hymen . . . entre le désir et l'accomplissement, la perpétration et son souvenir."3 Our critic points out that the grammar prevents the reader from choosing between hymen as "marriage," a symbolic union or fusion, and as "vaginal membrane," the barrier is broken through if desire is to reach what it desires. Undecidability is the effective mechanism of pantomime as an art form since from mimicry alone, without words, the spectator cannot tell whether a dreamed, or a remembered, or a present act is being set forth. This, in turn, Derrida shows to be fundamental to Mallarmé's concept of poetry. It is simply a pun or, as Derrida prefers to call it, a "syllepsis,"4 the trope that consists in understanding the same word in two different ways at the same time, one meaning being literal or primary, the other figurative.5 The second meaning is not just different from and incompatible with the first: it is tied to the first as its polar opposite or the way the reverse of a coin is bound to its obverse—the hymen as unbroken membrane is also metaphorical in both its meanings is irrelevant to its undecidability. What makes it undecidable is not that it is an image but that it embodies a structure, that is, the syllepsis. · 1. See Jacques Derrida's La Dissémination , p. 307.· 2. Because Derrida is a philosopher by trade, one would expect his undecidability to reflect the very precise logical and mathematical concepts of that discipline - which is to say, the limitations inherent in the axiomatic method. Kristeva, for example, tries to do this in her Le Texts du roman: Approche sèmiologique d'une structure discursive transformationnelle , pp. 76-78. So far as I can make out, however , Derrida's critical theory and reading practice do not pack more into the word "undecidable" than does the definition I offer in this paper.· 3. Stephane Mallarmé, Mimique, Oeuvres complètes , p. 310: "the scene [a drama, or rather a pantomime] bodies forth only an idea, not an action: it is like a hymen between desire and its realization, or between an act committed and the memory of it"; here and elsewhere, my translation unless otherwise cited. Derrida's commentary, "La Double Séance," has been rpt. in La Dissémination, pp. 199-317; see esp. pp. 240 ff.· 4. See La Dissémination, p. 249.· 5. This definition has prevailed ever since Dumarsais' treatise, Des Tropes . That syllepsis must be distinguished from the so-called grammatical syllepsis or the zeugma is apparent in Heinrich Lausberg's Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik , pars. 702-7; on the acceptation chosen by Derrida, see pars. 7-8. Michael Riffaterre, Blanche W. Knopf Professor of French Literature and chairman of the department of French and Romance literatures at Columbia University, is the editor of Romantic Review. He is the author of Semiotics of Poetry, La Production du Texte, Typology of Intertextuality and A Grammar of Descriptive Poetry. "Syllepsis" developed out of seminars he led at the Irvine School of Criticism and Theory and at Johns Hopkins University
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