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universale Menstruum

Dissolution)1 (Literary NANCY JEAN-LUC

"Tell me, oh tell!whatkind of thingis Wit, Thou who Master of it; art loves Varietyless; matter For the First Less Women lov't,eitherin Love or Dress. A thousand diff'rent shapes it bears in Comely thousand shapes appears; Yonder we saw it plain, and here 'tisnow, Like Spiritsin a Place, we knownot How. Cowley,Ode ofWit,1656 (1618-1667) "Witzas a principleof affinities is at the same timethe menstruum " universale. Novalis

We are about to examine a subjectwhichhas been virtually neglectedin the of literature and philosophy, subjectwhichup to thispointhas never a history reallybeen givenitsdue in eitherof thesehistories, namelyWit,or in German, the language to whichitbelongs (whileEnglishliterature, fromSternetoJoyce, is its favoriteplayingfield),Witz.Witzis barely,or onlytangentially, partof a literature:itis neithergenre nor style, even a figure rhetoric. nor of Nor does it belong to philosophy,being neitherconcept,norjudgment,nor argument.It could nonethelessplay all these roles,but in a derisivemanner. Yet it can also occupy strategically decisivepositionsin all seriousness:on rare but noteworthy occasions in historyWitzhas, in fact,appeared in such crucial positions. In his preface to Tristram Shandy,Sterne argues against Locke in the name of Wit,and in doing so ascribesto ittheessentialproperty of the entire philosophical genre. The founders of German romanticism-the Schlegels, Novalis, Bernhardi, along withJean Paul and later Solger-made Witza dominant motif, indeed made itthe principleof a theory whichclaimed to be aesthetic,literary, even social and political,all at the same metaphysical, time. Finally, Freud's firstwork devoted to aesthetics was on Witz and established what would remain to the veryend of his work his definition of aestheticpleasure. But such is the nature of these occurences (apparitions) that, on every occasion, it is their disappearance that seems remarkable. Sterne himself admitted that his arguments against Locke are so triflingthat neither
Sub-Stance No 21, 1978



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philosophy nor theory can "really" deal with them. In the theoryof the romantics of Jena Witz,even more than other motifs,is confined to the to moment.It is limited this existencewhichcharacterizes theoretical transitory a handful of fragmentary texts,almost completelyunproductiveof literary As works, and easily replaced by what is usually called "romanticism." for Freud, despite the importanceof many of the questions he addressed in Der Witz,he never again took up either the theme or the work itselfafter 1905 of (except for fleetingallusions), in contrastto the frequentreworkings the 2 and Essayson Sexuality. Traumdeutung the Three Witz does not hold the positions that theory-any theorywhatsoeverit mightwant itto occupy. It does <occupythem-in romanticism even ventures Absolute("The essence the to occupy,at one stroke, positionof a metaphysical of all of truthis to be Witz;forall science is a Witzof the intellect, art is a Witz witticism (Pointe)is witzig only in so far as it evokes the Witzof fantasy,any truth,"saysBernhardi in 1803 in his Theory Language)-but itdoes notsettle of a or in them. It does not constitute, it barelyconstitutes, system;it does not a or constitute, itbarelyconstitutes, school; itsomehowavoidsbecominga work are as it avoids becoming thought.Its constructions as stunningas theyare unstable. totally neglected,unsubstantial, Why consider a subject that is practically concern ourselveswiththisminutecategory-hardlya inconsequential? Why and inconstant-usually no more than a witticism? category really,indistinct not to enjoy the now fashionablepleasure of savingyetanotherof Certainly Cinderellas,nor to dazzle theworldbyshowingthemajorimportance history's of what everyonehad thoughtinsignificant. Our intentionis all the less likelyto be the above because today nearly everyone is in agreementthat Witzhas a decisiveimportance.Never set forth per se, this near-consensusis evidenced by the respect-at timeseven veneration-according to Witz,as an indispensableelement of the psychoanalytical whichclaims apparatus as wellas an equally indispensableelementof literature to be modern (always at least in part inseparable froma Joycean"tradition," in whetherin the European nouveauroman, Faulkner,in Burroughs,or even in Such recognitionverges on the to limit the referencesarbitrarily). Borges, virtuesof thatthe aestheticand theoretical it is almost tacitly agreed religious: Witzare withoutequal. 3 The question thatmust be asked is exceedinglysimple: how can insignifiand whatare theimplications thisoperation? of cance assume such importance, of but From thisfirst at least,itis not theinsignificance Witz, on the standpoint and its "fullnessof meaning" that must concern us, in its literary contrary philosophical history. of This immediately impliesa second question: If the"fullness meaning"of or Witzcan neverbe maintained,ifitis alwaysvanishing slowly disappearing,in where does it lead us? This is the pointat what way are we implicatedin Witz, of which the insignificance Witz should--ifitcan be said-interest us. But then it will no longer be possible simplyto transcendand establishitsinsignificance as has previouslybeen done.



In other words, if Novalis-for reasons and in a contextthatremain to be defined--could call Witzthe menstruum universale, meaning"universalsolvent" in the vocabularyof alchemy,then it is in the end (but could it bringabout an in have withwhichwe inevitably end?) dissolutionitself, Witzand of Witzitself, to deal (avoir a faire).But nothingcan be done (rien'a faire)withdissolutionperhaps it is not even possible to develop a discourseon "it." But nothing can be precisely done with this either: should our own discourse dissolve, we can neitherdecide it, nor foresee it, nor wish it, nor masterit. And this,on principle,even thoughall discourse-this one as wellas others--can take no other form than the project of such masteryand its cut as as calculation. We must,therefore, our introduction abruptly possible: can only be to attemptto master as our purpose as such, what we propose, completelyas possible a subjectknownunder the name of Witz. II What is meant by Witz?Several thingsin any case, sometimes interrelated, the period and the context.At the same sometimes distinct, depending upon time then and separately,Witzis: kindof utterance namedwordplay, witticisms all the of -the particular (Qnonce) this can varioustypes category include (from punsto plays uponpurelogic); to and of -a procedure thissortextended therealmof literature artbutof a different naturethana strict utterance theblackpage which (e.g. appearsin Tristram); -the psychological which is faculty capableof suchproductions, especially'that known English and French as wit definesse, esprit subtlety, ingenieux, esprit (esprit etc.); ingeniousness, -the concept themost of form assumed these an by general productions: always association combination is unexpected, or that or notsanctioned by surprising, in In it rules. thestate which cametheclosest being true to a ordinary conceptthe the with Romantics--Witz generally the most (or designated union, melange 4 thedissolution) heterogeneous of elements. It is not a question of choosing between these accepted meanings,nor of organizing them in order to study them one by one. Neither are these the distinct meanings,or successivemeanings,ofthesame term.Up to a point,each one is inseparable fromall others:Witz the"structure" a production, is of Witz, which requires a faculty, Witz.Which means, furthermore, that "Witz" is in some way inseparable even in its semanticdetermination, fromexpression can 'faire du Witz."This is to say that Witzin general (if such "generality" be determined)--or some Witz-is inseparable fromthe formand the natureof utterance(enonce) froman utterancewhichis,in itsturn,inseparablefromthat whichutters(inoncer) (fromWitz, utterer it the thus (inonciateur)), also fromthe act of utterance (6nonciation) and, by an inescapable contiguity, from the or of context,theoccasion,thecircumstances, thesituation theactof utterance. Witzis inextricably-we shall prove it-a logical,semiotic, semantic, psycholog-


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ical, philosophical, sociological notion. Cowley's Ode to Wit-an excerpt of to whichwe used as our epigraph--attests thisfact.We quote froma textof the in same period no doubt stillpertinent today,whichapproaches Witz a manner frombut as legitimate ours: as completelydifferent troublethemselves about the name of Wit,fewer Few people of distinction it their In class understand and hardly havehonored with it, example. thenext any most and but of peopleitseemsbestknown, admired, most practiced; frequently todazzleus intoimitation.5 in their stations lifeare noteminent enough To findour bearingsin the space or the game determined thisword,we by of begin withwhat the simple history the word offersus (its German history, of since we use the German term; but the history EnglishWit is forthe most to it). part homologous in to Witzacquired ratherlate the meaningswe now attribute it. Witzi, old if not thefaculty and middle-highGerman, designates an intellectual faculty itselfof intelligence,intelligenceas sagacity, the natural power of discernas ment. In retracingits etymologicalpath, we come upon the whole primitive familyof savoir,to know, in the sense of voir,to see: the SandskritVeda,the but instead of Greek eidos (the Platonic Idea), the Latin-Cartesianevidentia; of likeorganicgrowth a primary thehistory thisword root, from spreading out, withitsWitz, leads us awayfromtheproper sense of knowledge(savoir). family, Witzi is knowledge linked to List: this word, which later will only mean technicalskill, "cunning,"signifies savoir-faire, especiallyin theartof magicand in war. Witzi, of of Thus it then,is the knowledgeof skills, calculation, strategy. accounts for Wissen,-knowledge possessed which can be systematized and a accounted for-and willremaincloserto itstwin, Wise, conceptof aristocratic and courtlyculture, and of knowledge understood as refinement. Weisheit, to wisdom, will come later. Witzitself willalwaysremaincloser to sagacity, the of perspicacity a keen mind whichis discerningand nimble,and consequently to that intelligencewhich nature is presumed to bestowand whichcannot be the taught: the Latin ingenium, capacityof themindwhichis innateratherthan acquired. The firstWitz,then, is knowledge which cannot be acquired, which is unprovable (as opposed to mathemata), knowledgewhichperceives(savoir-voir), which grasps the idea at a glance and distinguishes withlucidity. The word Witzretainsthe meaning of the faculty sightuntilthe 17th of to thispointitsgender is feminine. Later itwillbecome masculine, century.Up and its sense will be displaced-not transformed, but endowed witha new position and a new function.The sex-changeand displacementdo not simply occur within German language. In a strange the of waytheintervention foreign languages is needed to accomplish it. English Wit-we shall meet it againBut on the Continent, a as already occupies part of the futuredomain of Witz. result of the cultural privilege claimed by the French language-and the assumes thisrole. In reality, consequent ignorance of all thingsforeign-esprit in the sense of avoirdel'esprit, be witty, farshortof thescope ofWitz. to falls esprit Yet the Germans cannot translatethis word; in German the expression is



the "esprit,as French say."And in France one hears and reads thattheGermans A lack esprit.6 German poet (ChristianWernicke)countersthat German has Witzin its verylanguage. But the poet's motherwas English. if in Witzitself, one can speak in these terms, the language where itsentire is concept willbe formulated, thustheproductof a peculiarnationalist quarrel. Various cultures and languages presenting themselves as identities and or a boastoftheirown Witz despise claimingforthemselves particular ingenium, themselves for not having any. Those that have none cannot acquire it by nor translatable-but it turnsout importation-Witz is neithertransportable that by chance or fate theyalready possessed it withoutbeing aware of it. In that time,Kant willbe able to writein hisAnthropologie theGermanlanguagehas the advantage of possessingtwodistinct Witz and Geist, whereasFrench, terms, less fortunate, has onlythe word esprit. But where did esprit .. come from?7 III We shall tryto describe the originof esprit, Witz, more precisely of or what we mightcall the generation Witzin a double sense: both the genesisor the of engendermentof Witzand-as we say in theexpressionthe"beat generation," the age or the era of Witz.Witzappears matterof factly and characterizes an entireera almostunexpectedly-and at thesame timeitcorresponds a process to of permanentengenderment thehistory literature philosophy. in of and Neither a pure genesis nor a pure event, Witzis continually born and reborn like its is of hero, TristramShandy,whose identity the identity a Witz:althoughborn fromthe normal generativeprocess,Tristramowes his birthto an accidenthis mother disturbinghis fatherat the crucial momentby remindinghim to wind the clock-and, as explained by Tristram, an "unhappyassociationof by ideas which have no connection in nature." This causes him immediately to evoke Locke, long beforethe preface,at thebeginningof thestory: .. which ". understood strange combinationof ideas, the sagacious Locke, who certainly the nature of these thingsbetterthan most men, affirms have produced to more wryactionsthan all other sources or prejudice whatsoever." Tristram's birth is the uncontrolledbirthof Wit, of a Wit-the parodic birth of the hero which caricatures or parodies philosophy,the birth of literaturein philosophy,of literature the Witz philosophy, of the Witz as of or "literatureand philosophy,"or else of the dissolvingunion of these heterogeneous elements. All these formulasmustremainprovisionaland open to question,untilthe generation of Witzhas been established.However, Tristram'sbirthindicates of immediately the difficulty such an endeavor. It would, in fact,require sametime divisionof literature a and philosophy whichhas always assumingat the taken place in the history the West,and the emergence,fromwithin of already i.e. our age. philosophy,of the genrationof literature, the age of Tristram, The firstdirection compels us to go back to the firstknown formsof grotesque and carnivalesqueliterature, beyondtheLatinsaturaand itsmixture of genres and prosodies, beyond the scraps of textsof the Cynics,withtheir


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beyondthewordplays sprinkled witty sayingsand theirparodies of philosophy, Plato's dialogues, beyond the very genre of the dialogue, a throughout hauntof "witticisms" 8-and thusas farback as sophisticgenre and the favorite as of the first mimesand the birthof comedyand tragedy, faras the Witz their "strange combination"... The lesson is clear: in such an endeavor we could neverreach an origin,or we would reach itas a Witz, a genesis takingtheformof viciouscircles--but by modern at the same timewe would have lost Witz, extendingitsspecifically by character to all kinds of literature and philosophy. In a way,itis the lesson of Witz;the uncontrolled and uncontrollable birth, the jumbling of genres, or of what one is temptedto call theWestern genre, literature and philosophy, neither literaturenor philosophy,literatureor only means the philosophy. In short, literarydissolution-where "literary" in domain of letters, writing general. of But even this-literary dissolution-has also occurred once before in history.Witzappeared, dissolutionoccurred again under the name and in the sense has absolutely no modern form of Witz (Witz in its strictest strictly equivalent in ancient languages). It is thisrecurrenceand thisemergencethat in we musttrace; theyare situatedwithin philosophy, the philosophicalrebirth of literary dissolution. in We mustgo back again to thequestion: wheredid esprit, the 17thcentury French sense, come from? In schematizing much as itis possiblewithout as we distortion9 willsaythis: is the specific,modern outgrowth the philosophicalcrisisofjudgment. of esprit What we designate as the "philosophicalcrisisofjudgment" is the modern of recurrence of a "crisis"constitutive philosophicaldiscourse: to be exact,of the crisis of the Greek krisis. In philosophy, krisis,krinein-judgment, appreciation, decision-has meant from the outset (from the Poem of Parmenides on) the act of choice, of decision,and of the execution of that decision, an act exteriorto the logos,and necessaryin order forthe (proper) krisis whichis not logosto be sustained. Outside of the logos, produces a tonos markstheelementor the structure "undecidability" limitedby it.Thus krisis of of the "logical" decision itself. and words of the same family, such as judicium, source of Moreover, krisis are words of a practical or pragmatic origin in the fields of 'judgment," medicine, ofjudicial practiceand of politicalaction. Stoic semiologydesignateskrisis the decisionwhichrelatesthesignto the as If it is true,it positsthe idioma the thing;ifit is false,itconveysonlya of thing. and dangerous phantasma. is Thereforejudgment the act proper to troubling the combinationof signs with thingsand the combinationof the compositio, One has to have recoursetocompositio whenthereis no signsamong themselves. that is to say when there is no immediate auto-adequation (or conceptio, simultaneousproduction)of the thingand itsconcept. is Compositio a deficiency in conception,a deflectionor deferredengenderment, birthuncertainof its a control.



a under the name of critica, specific formulated, Long beforescholasticism or critica alreadyestablishedas the particular was study discipline ofjudgment, neitherscience nor art-which examines, commentsupon discipline-being and judges texts. It was literarycriticismbefore the fact, the exercise of judgment in itsmost"proper" domain: the domain of worksnotdependenton pure "logic" wich do not give rise to any pure "conception."The theoryof judgment and literarycriticismgo hand in hand: they are--and exchange indefinitely-the orders of the sign, of combination, and of their own interaction,as well as that of the act whichdeterminesthese relations.Thus of at theyshare-and even intersect the locationof-the indispensablesubject the this act, a subject not to be taken in the sense of sub-jectum, substratum but (Aristotle's hypokeimenon), rather as the author and performerof the of decision, the author or performer the idiom or phantasm. Such a subject-let's call it the criticalsubject-is not the "impersonal" it of subjectivity theSubject. On the contrary, existsonly in the inequalityof subjects: if reason is distributedequally in everyone (except for madmen), unequally. We are all endowed withsound judgment judgment is distributed (by nature, God or chance) to a greateror lesser degree. and judicium that It is preciselyfromthe already scholasticdivisionof ratio the modern metaphysicsof subjectivity and "the generation of Witz"are formulatedtogether. The methodof Descartesconsists ascribing of to beingand truth thesubject of decision itself,not in the sense that the subjectjudges, but ratherthat it in and conceives itself, even thatitconceivesitself the act of conceiving.In a way the cogito formulates (re)conquestof substantiality thesubject-performer the by of the decision. (But apart fromthe certainty the cogito, else isjudgment all of which must be guided, enlightened,guaranteed or rectified that unique by certainty.) In fact,the Cartesian act of the cogito in splitsitself two10and produces its own double: l'homme the man of wit. Instead of being unique and d'esprit, the double proliferatesand immediately becomes a unitary like the cogito, of figures.The courtier(Castiglione'sor Gracian's,to mentionthe multiplicity best-known the treatises), man of taste,the man of the"salon,"and thewoman all as well, the woman of taste, the woman of esprit, these constitutethe character of the subject of judgment who findshis certainty polymorphous withinhimself. differs He fromhisdouble in thathe does notfindthiscertainty the lightof intuition, in the penumbrawhichis the productof a natural but by but as gift;in thathe does not discoveritas the truth, onlyas precisean entity a or strategy guarantee,in thathe does not establishitas a substance, can glance but cultivates it as an exercise of his talent; in that he does not link the deductions of a science to it, but derives works of politicalcalculation,love in wisdomfromit; finally, thathe does not propose strategiesand circumspect but ratherworksof thegenreof "miscellany," where,bymeans any Meditations, of dialogue, fable or aphorism,the saying(sentence) alwaysreignssupreme. Discourse it yields(or wantsto yield)thewayto the truth presents;thesaying is "true" only by the forceof itsstyleand theextremity itspoint. Discourse of


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causes conception, the saying plays with the concetto. Discourse develops in terms of the methodical order of science; the saying,throughmixtureand tends at any givenmomentto produce a maxim, themaxima i.e. fragmentation, the sententia, greatestthoughtpossible.The man of discourseconsidershimself to be only mind (esprit), man of wit(l'homme the can as d'esprit), see himself part of the game of representation.'1 That the former necessarily is limitedto therepresentation hissubstance, of and that the latterconsiders his game to be the verybeing of the subject,is perhaps what everyone admits secretlyto himself,but must deny publicly. The formerre-invents the literature-the man of philosophy, latterre-invents of thought and the man of wit. They are one and the same, but the history to thatdivides themand linksthemirremediably each judgment is the history other.

of Esprit,wit, Witzwill henceforth-through the incessantmodifications and their figure,theirsex, theirgenre, theiraspect-manipulate belles-lettres beaux-arts (and the art of theircriticism). They are the doubles ofjudgment in so much as judgment has already, through the logic of discourse,excluded lackin thought,and itselffromconception. They are the doubles of the first thereforedoubly lackingin thought. From the 17thto the 19thcentury, philosophycould not be severeenough toward Witz: Witz is found to be uncertain,confused, too obscure or too as brilliant, deceptive,and to offerphantasmsof literature its limp,effeminate, to Hobbes and Locke are thefirst decree itsexclusionwithout idioms. appeal: it is dangerous. of But preciselythis exclusion brings about the definition Witz.In 1689, Locke writes: of with For witlying mostin theassemblage ideas,and putting thosetogether and can or any thereby quickness variety wherein be found resemblance congruity, in on to makeup pleasant and visions thefancy: judgment, the pictures agreeable ideas onefrom another inseparating liesquiteon theother side, carefully contrary, wherecan be foundtheleastdifference.12 Thus Witzreceivesitsconcept fromphilosophy-the conceptthatunitesall of While the witty of its diversifiedand dispersivemanifestations. analysts wit of it withthe ultimate"propriety" a 'je ne sais quoi,"to use an always equated ascribeto it a rationalanalysts expression thatfloweredin the 17thcentury,13 because Locke's witassemblesonly function;none otherthancompositio specific similarto one another-but in its practicealready then, thingsthat are fairly of the and soon afterin its theory,Witzconsistsin inventing similarity things of dissimilar,i.e. in bringingabout the necessarysynthesis those thingswhose receives at moment its is of exclusion, disparity limitedto discovering).ThusWitz, the be itselfwould tendentially theprimary "Judgment" of qualification judgment. defined as an organizationof conceptions...



Philosophy banishes Witz-it banishes literatureas elegance, enjoyment, But of and imagination. by and invention,ingenuity, as thecomposition figures the same token philosophybaptizes them. at Witzwithinitself the And thus most importantly, philosophyreinstates off because philosophycannot cut itself from momentof itsbanishment, very judgment withoutat the same time excluding itselffromdiscourse. Indeed, whenever it is not dedicated to finding a "well-formedlanguage," a of "characteristic" Leibniz, or a "language of calculations"in the manner of all of 18thcenturyphilosophycould be describedas the attempt to Condillac, transfer the resources of Witz to the account of knowledge and truth. Thereafter truthwill have to be embellishedor adorned in order to be made and fiction14 mustbe sought; On intelligible. the one hand, thehelp of rhetoric on the other hand, truthitself, henceforth the truthof the mankind'struth, did not last any longer than the Cartesian moment,this subject whose cogito truthalso has to be found in the unstableand non-assignable functions taste, of and Aestheticsarises from talent,the facultyof inventing, combining creating. a philosophyas the projectfora scienceof Witz, scienceof artand literature-a science of the Other that had been excluded-and since this exclusion is excludes and samewhich it: of impossible, a science of thesameness theOther ofthe philosophy wishes to become the Witzwhichis knowledgeablein philosophy 15 and in Witz. But literature claimno less. The prefaceto Tristram can whichbrings Shandy, of begun together all the essentials of the "defense and illustration" Witz16 more than a century as before,mustbe read bothas a parodyof philosophy, a debate withphilosophy,and at the same timeas a philosophicaldebate. Sterne insistson placing wit,in termsof rank,dignity, radiance and necessity, the on same level as judgment. Thus Sterne claims thatall of Tristram is Shandy the to the philosophicalpact and treatise-making up indispensable supplement foritslack and perfecting presentation. its this Furthermore, preface,setdown as itwas in themiddle of thenovel,as in itsheartor center,pointsto theliterary of thus indicating thevery at leastthat self-production the theoryof literature, is and (or criticism) the mostproper supplementto philosophy, literary theory at the most thatliterature withitsown theory suffices insuretheknowledgeor to the idea of the identity philosophyand literature-and can thereforedo of withoutphilosophy. Thus arisesthe specifically modernpossibility literature that and/orliterary or (criticism, etc.) conceive themselves are conceived to be the theory poetics, locus of truth-and reciprocally possibility the thatphilosophy willhenceforth conceive itselfin termsof the questionof itsown stagingof the truth, short, in of its aptitude for literary composition and thus for Witz-this double has emerged fromthe schismand the chiasmuswhichWitzeffects possibility fromthe crisis Witz. of simultaneously,


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The foregoingdoes not mean thatwe are dealingwitha simpleexchangeof has Witz no no doubt gained an identity roles, or witha simple splitin identity. from its definitionas the combinationof heterogeneouselements-and in a literature wantsto produce, or to be, in exactly same the way thisis the identity we in as philosophy.This identity, mightadd, is nothingbut identity itself, way mediationof the non-identical: so far as it can be posited,or thought, onlyby therein lies that which defines the fundamental"dialectic" of all Western would be nothing thought,as characterizedby Heidegger.17In thatcase Witz the thoughtof the of more than the dialecticthinking identity,and primarily in itself, the dialecticof the 'je ne sais quoi" and of reason, of identity "esprit" of and demonstration, "witticism" discourse,of of and "phantastic"construction We and conceptio. may even forthe sake of rigourhave to conclude compositio that the totalseparation and oppositionof Witzand Reason occurredonlyfor has of the the purpose offacilitating functioning thisdialectic.Literature been over theirpartition. to philosophyonly the betterto insure mastery opposed in The Jena group of German romanticism18 represents, itsinitialaspect, to the thoughtof thisidentity. Romanticism we maybe allowed so to refer this (if to save space) wantedto be, so to speak,the thought thenovel, of romanticism, or the novel as thought:thoughtin and as the mdlangeof genres,generalized in Satura,and not onlyliterary genresbut genresof themind (esprit) general,if we may ventureto sayso; hence thethought a superiorfusionofphilosophy, of and society. Withoutfuther commentwe quote some of art, science, literature 19 F. Schlegel's fragments: of of and is (. philosophy. .) thescience "( ..) Witz theprinciple theorgan universal and with allsciences chemistry logical mingling eachother separating,a perpetually Witz them eachother." to is writing philosophical, links "Languageis poetical, universalis atthesame and caracteristica be Witz "The supreme would thetrue lingua time combinatoria." ars ethics poetry." and of the "Witz, perhaps pureprinciple philosophy,

(. . . ))"

For thisthoughtWitz mustthenalso reconquerspiritual unity, wipe out the differencebetween mind and esprit: "Whatwas Witz then,ifnot the originally, most intimate mdlange and interpenetration reason and fantasy?"(F. of Schlegel). Thus Witzcame to occupy the supreme position of the mind (esprit) in relation to philosophy as well as to literature:Witzis creative,it produces resemblances." (Novalis). It would be too easy and too naive to label these formulas"unbridled idealism" or "wild romanticism." hope to have shown to whatextentthey We are the logical outcome of the crisisconstitutive the entire modern era. of is Romanticism, then,is theclosureof the crisis:"Witz the pointof indifference where everything saturated,"wroteF. Schlegel,in transposing is onto Witz the firstprinciple of Schelling'smetaphysics.20



can Conversely,we mustconsiderhow thisromanticism at thesame timebe the "radicalization"of the same crisis. the whichmustbe Schematically, crisiscan be recognizedby threefeatures enumerated separatelybefore theycan be interpreted together: the 1) Considered fromthepointofviewofWitz, workoftheJenaromantics As is characterizedbyits ... absence of works.21 faras theory concerned,the is of Witz is somehow summed up in the reiterationof the absolute theory of affirmation Witz,, and in the circlewhichdecrees thatWitzcan be posited, and justifiedonlybyor in termsof Witz:"Language and Witzbelong explained to metaphysics; a metaphysicswhich is not witzig useless." (F. Schlegel). is all Ultimately, is based upon the magic of one word,in the same mannerthat "The innermostessence of Witzcan be explained onlyby the magic of ideas" is (ibid). As far as the theoryof literature concerned,Witzauthorizesnothing but Witz-which remainsat the level of a wish: "A theoryof the novel should itselfbe a novel." Finally, literature, romantic as the Witz moreor less limited is to the production of the two unfinishednovelsof Novalis and Schlegel.22 2) Although in principleonly one Witzexists("Witzis the principleof the novel, of mythologyand of the encyclopaedia" F. Schlegel), there remains nonetheless an irreduciblemultiplicity above all a hierarchy Witz.The and of romanticstherebyrepeat a criticalgesturebelongingto the whole history of Witzand which we have so far neglected: the condemnationof vulgar Witz, "low" Witz, simple pun (in the textquoted above Bernhardiadds thatwhat the he saysshould notbe takenfora verbalpirouette, witzeln. .). Since the 17th for . the celebrationof Witzhas alwaysconsistedin separating century, good from bad Witz-and especially in criticizing and obscene Witz.23 aggressive,cynical There exists a vulgarization of Witzone must guard "Witz as an against: instrument revenge is as ignoble as art as a means of sensual titillation" of (F. worksof Witz, thoseof Sterneand Jean Paul, Schlegel). That is whythe fertile are acknowledged by the romanticsonlywiththe precautionsimposed by the criticism theirpoortaste, of their"morbid"(Schlegel) excessesin the grotesque. But it mustbe noted how Sterne and Jean Paul themselves, the riskof selfat criticism and self-mockery, on insist distinguishing "great"Witz a from minor, a or inconsistent even ignoble one. 3) Finally,a lastaspect we have so farleftaside. Since Shakespeare'sfamous is "maxim" in Hamlet(constantly repeated even by Freud), "brevity the soul of of wit,"the only "genre" or the only"form"alwaysrecognizedas the property is the of Witz,as peculiar to all Witz, succinctness, swiftness the utterancethat carries the point. The romanticswere to express it by means of the much reiterated German Witz: Witzist ein Blitz,wit is a flash of lightning.Flash, in lightning, explosion, are the formsof the double of the cogito so faras it is instantaneous. as much as the quicknessof Witz recognizedas essentialto But is its "being" and to pleasureand inseparable fromthem,24 thissame quickness dismays and staggers the thought of Witz: "In Witz there occur sudden petrifaction,dread and coagulation:" (F. Schlegel). Lightning blinds, an the of explosion deafens,pleasure benumbs.Witz gorgonizes thought Witz-and whereitwas lodged: "Witz therebytopples thisthoughtfromthesupremeunity


Jean-Luc Nancy

is the proper formof our consciousness,in so far as we are potentialorganic beings who are "chaotic." This last featureallows us to understandall threetraits in together:Witz, withthe disassociationto whichitowes itsbirth, nevercorrespondsto keeping the necessaryorganicism a synthesis a completedwork,and even less to the of or of the synthesis the (philosophical)synthesis of superior organism consisting and the (literary) like work.It merely to causes such a synthesis fulgurate chaos. That is why Novalis calls it menstruum universale well as the "principleof as of of affinities." This fragment, course, is in itselfthe synthesis a Witz:total is the same thingas totaldissolution.But obstinately, the (petrified) in affinity for of to heart of romanticism, remainsnecessary the utterance thissynthesis it sinceitis incapable of controlling synthesis the dissolve somehow upon itself, it uttersby means other than Witz. Yet Witz does not control: thatis whyphilosophy began byexcludingit.Witz it effects combinations without knowledge; remains heterogeneous to the assemblages of heterogeneous elements it produces; it seduces without it as proving; it couples withoutimpregnating; merits much all our fearsas all do our hopes; itcan literally anything As soon as thereis a literary projector ... elegance, whichremains"elegance" even when it mixeswith purpose, literary debased forms,is a protectionagainst this"anything," againstchaos-just as philosophical reasoningremains"reasoning"even whenituses theresourcesof a fulguratingWitz. and the lack of consistency witticisms of have chitchat, feminity Vulgarity, always corroded and threatenedthe worksof Witzfrombelow, even though these workshad also derived fromsuch humble sourcestheir.very matterand to justification.Indeed, it is alwayspossible to controlWitz, dispose it forthe of production of knowledgeand of worksthathave alwaysassured the finality judgment.Butbecause they reached the culmination of this mastery,the romantics also saw it dissolve in their hands, in a flash. In theirattemptto generate everythingby means of Witzthere recurred what most properly constitutesWitz(or ratherwhat never constitutes but a Witz,what can Witz, never be appropriated in any way,what can never be injectedinto any work its (not even, especiallynot, into Tristram Shandy): uncontrolledbirth. The whole romantic"quest" forWitz, whole crisis, perhaps summed its are in Schlegel's fragment: "One should have Witz notwantto have it,lestit but up become Witzelei, Alexandrian styleof Witz." the 25 If all the differences between cogito and espritwere obliterated in would remain: one cannot willWitz.But speculative Witz, only one difference what cannot be willed, and whatnot-to-will philosophyhas neverbeen able to is, thinknor literatureto practice. Unless, at thispoint,we give in to acceptingtheirown dissolution, and only retain something which is still withouta name in philosophyas well as in not literature-somethingwhichcould notbear anyname inall seriousness, even the laughable name of Witz:something having the non-assignableformand nature of thisposthumousfragment Novalis,notintended a fragment a of as but



note sketchedfortheunfinishedsequel to his novel,a notesufficient even in its fragmentedstate for the execution of that part of the program it notes--of what ought to be the program of the menstruum universale it could be or if such a program,but being unable26to do so, can onlybe resolvedor produce dissolved in thisremarkwhichmustremainincomplete:
Dissolution a poetin hissong:he willbe sacrificed of among savages. Universitide Strasbourg

Translated by Paula Moddel

NOTES I. The textwhichfollowsformedpartof a seminarpresentedin the Departmentof Frenchand Italian at the University California,Irvine,in the fallquarterof 1976. It is not of possiblein this limitedspace to publishtheentireseriesof lectures they as weregiven(besidesthefactthata writing down afterthe factdistorts and deformseven the order of an oral presentation). have triedto We summarize the main passages and only mentionin passing or footnotethose we had to omit. A comment regardingthe workcentralto thiswork;we were compelled to use German Witz rather than English Wit,as it is only in German language and theorythatthistermhas acquired all the values and functionswhose system propose to disassemble. we 2. The question of Witzin Freud mustbe omittedfrom thesepages. In thelectures undertook we a preliminary analysiswhichwill be developed elsewhere.Let us simplynote thata studyof Witz seems absolutely Freud, along the lineswe suggest, before of indispensabletoanystudy Freud. Even or to of though Freud himself, his intentionally not,barelyrefers theprevioushistory Witz, workon Witzand all thatit entailsconcerningpsychoanalysis general depends in a in complex manneron thathistory. would also liketo mention We Mehimann'sarticle, "How to Read Freud on the Jeffrey Winter1975, and Samuel Weber'sessay,"The Divaricator:Remarks Joke," in NewLiterary History, on Freud's Witz,"Glyph Baltimore1977,whichcould be showntojustify I, our reasoningin so faras it concerns the relationsbetween Witzand thought. 3. This is the place to showhow,in theirstyle, theirpuns (good or bad), inthe in construction very of their "problematic,"a number of contemporary theoretical discourses (on literature, psychoanor alysis,criticism science) derive keyresourcesfromWitz.To note thisfactby no means implies thatone can contestsimply fully legitimacy. thisquestionshould be asked: to whatextent or its But is the use of Witzinevitably linked to the repetition what Witzhas already of put into play in our and especiallyin romanticism? otherwords,an outlineof thehistory Witz In of should raise history these questions: to what extentare we stillromantic? Can we stillbe romantic without knowingit: Plainlyand simply,can we stillbe romantic? 4. Thus once again, and in manydifferent ways,we findthe union of the sexes whichobeys in This aspectofthesexuality Witz, of everyrespectthe entire"logic"of Witz. whichobviously needs to be linked to what we shall later say of itspleasure, not be will developed here. 5. Anonymousessay on witin TheWeekly Register, London,July22, 1732, No. 119-We willshow on further thata particularcommonness of is (bassesse) Witz alwaysrejected,even bythe partisansof Witz.The factthatthiscommonnessalso correspondsto the socialconditions thosewho have no of part in literatureor philosophyis surelynot without significance. 6. Pare Bouhours, for example, in Entretiens et d'Ariste d'Eugene(1671). The same reproachwill etgermaniques Mauvillon.To be exact, of reappear much later,e.g. in 1740 in theLettresfrancaises thisreproach continued to be expressed even in Germany. Accordingto F. Schlegeland Jean Paul, the Germans lack Witz.This "guiltyconscience," felt neitherby the English nor the French, characterizesthose who make Witzintoa supreme principle:as ifthishigh rankcould be granted thatit is vanishing. only when Witzvanishes,or at leastfeels


Jean-Luc Nancy

7. We know that this motifof the genius proper to language willbecome a trulyphilosophical motifwith Kant, Herder, the romanticsand later Hegel and (more politically than speculatively) with Fichte. Witzis the symptomor the symbolof the metaphysicalassignationof thoughtin of of language, in the originationand the livingidentity a language, of the presentation sense itself in words. It is even its matrix;because it is alwaysas a gameand as a gathering heterogeneous of elements thatsense appears directly words (and not behind them). Thus, when Hegel sees the in of in he proximity truthin language, i.e., the presence of the thing thought, hears the assonance of the words Ding-Denken To on (thing-thought). questionmetaphysics thispoint-as was done in an essential and complex manner by Heidegger and laterby Derrida-is to question Witz. 8. Therefore beyond what the age of literature has at timeswanted to resuscitate and at other timesconsidered as theoriginof thegenrewhichcombinesall genreswithin itself: novel.In this the contextwe referthe reader to theessaywe publishedwithPhilippeLacoue-Labarthe,"Le Dialogue des genres," in Poitique,no. 21, 1975. 9. Here we must cut and summarize considerablythe properlyphilosophicalexpose on the question ofjudgement. What followsshould be regarded as a synopsis. 10. Since even before Descartes: here Renaissance Italy,Spain and England should be explored. But we know that the cogito also implied "antecedents"in the same period: cf. L. Blanchet,Les de antcidentshistoriques '"Je pensedonc suis,"Paris, 1920. je 11. It is not possible here to cite and analyze all the texts where this debate occupies the of La de ou foreground.As a whole theycan be symbolized thejuxtaposition twotitles: logique l'art by devoted tojudgment), (the Logic or theartofthinking famous"logic"of Port-Royal, penser, entirely and La manidre bien de the have to penser, properwayto think, Pere Bouhours. But we would first by consider Castiglione,Gracian,Cervantes,Shakespeare, Malebranche,Shaftesburty, RochefouLa of cauld, etc. And we would have to analyze the constellation termsthatsurroundl'esprit (1758), which admirablyrepresentsthe annexation of the values of Witzto philosophy(to a philosophy to of sentiment, striving be anti-Cartesian):genius (theinvention combinations), imagination, esprit itselfas an "assembling of ideas and new combination"-but also the renewed distrustof the and qualifiesas good or bad l'espritfin, delicate with, philospher whose judgement distinguishes the enlightened mind, I'esprit tendu,the fort, the free thinker, l'espritde lumiere, l'esprit the the taste,le belesprit, elegantmind(in comprehensivemind, l'esprit penitrant, keen mind,legoalt, the sense of speaking and writing du of and l'esprit well),I'esprit sicle, the spirit the times, juste,the sense to see thingsas theyare... 12. In the EssayConcerning Human Understanding chapter 11,2. II, 13. Bouhours does not hesitate, onlypretendsto hesitate, see a divineelementin theje nesais or to quoi. 14. This is what should be understood throughoutLeibniz'sNewEssays.It is in facta questionof of making truthaccessible-in a systemwhere the absolute intuition the cogito belongs only to God-and to give to thissame truth supplementary a radiance.A supplement(in thesense Derrida and henceforth in intervene the presentation of gives to the word in his Grammatologie) beautymust the truth. 15. Here we must deliberatelyleave aside all thatconcernsKant. For ifhe belongs-as he surely does-to this logic, he also raises the question of the existenceof such a logic as a fundamental is without that question. The Kantian Critique thethoughtof thought conception; is whyitis a critique, and its only object ifjudgment. That is also whyit treatsWitzratherambiguously(examined in Le discours la syncope Logodaedalus, de I, Paris, 1976). 16. Essentiallythatof the novel, fromthe Englishnovel to the Goethean novel (mutatis mutandis), and according to a movementalong a pathwhosedetoursand returns itself on could be tracedup to the contemporarynovel. But it is also the aesthetics romantic of drama, particularly Hugo's (here the preface to Cromwell should be reread). As a counterproof could be shownhow,from it thispoint on in literature,an other literature-which to express it verybriefly would go from Flaubert, or Baudelaire, Mallarme,Rilke,Valery,to Eliot-branches offfromWitz, thewillful choiceof Witz, and thus maintainsan entirely different withphilosophy. relationship der 17. In Schelling'sAbhandlund das Wesen menschlichen Freiheit, iiber Tiibingen, 1971, p. 98-99: "In all philosophy,decisive propositionsare always'dialectic';we givethisexpressiona verybroad but decisive sense, namely that a thing,when it is essential,can be trulyconceived only throughits



"FriedrichSchlegel sayssomewhere(Athenaeum "a 82): changing into another thing,"and further definitionthat is not witzig worthnothing."Here we can see a romantictransposition the is of idealist dialectic. 18. It is not possible in thisspace to givethe desirablehistorical detailson the fewyears'existence and activity thisgroup. In essence theyconcernthebrothers of Schlegeland Novalis,and the texts between 1798 and 1800. We shall published in thejournal founded by the Schlegels,Athenaeum, a quote only a few significant excerptsfromthese texts,whichwillnot constitute reading of the texts,but the outline of such a reading. 19. These are textswritten the asfragments, fragment (accordingto thelogicof the sayingand the maxim mentioned above) being thegenre of Witzforthe romantics. 20. It would therefore(thisis theessentialpart)be naiveto ignorethoseelements literature in and thisromanticism. philosophy-and in psychoanalysis-whicheven todayreiterate 21. It is not by chance-though it is by Witz-that we go back to Maurice Blanchot'sformula:the it on. (inaction)as he formulates is obscurelyraised fromromanticism question of disoeuvrement and 22. Henri d'Offerdingen, Lucinde.On the latter, Ph. Lacoue-Labarthe,"L'avortement la de cf. in litterature," Poitique,no. 21. 23. Hence the essential functionsFreud willattribute Witz, the whileassigningthemto his to all "logical" function. 24. That is to say the pleasure of surprise (but is there a pleasure other than by surprise?)long recognized in Witz; e.g. "Wit is the qualificationsof the Mind, that raises and enlivens cold sentimentsand plain Propositions,by givingtheman elegant and surprising turn."(Sir Richard Blackmore, An Essay upon Wit, 1716)-which does not prevent the same author from later of or also be condemningat greatlengththe unseemlysurprises obscenity aggressiveness. It-should noted that,withthe romantics, swiftness Witz the of refers thechemical alchemicanalogiesof to and Witzand milangein general: dissolution, all combination, precipitation, have theirequivalentsin a whichis intermediary betweentheorganicand theinorganic.Cf. PeterKapitza,Diefriihchemistry romantische Theorie Mischung der (The Theory M langein early Miinchen, 1968. Romanticism), of 25. Cf., on the permanence of the crisis,these words by Derrida: "When Witzis practiced, the of authorized, cultivated,thereis alwaysthe economicalvulgarity (Precisely vulgarity ourera) which claims to condense beforehand-ideally order to controlthem as cheaply as possiblein of appropriatingand signinga blankcheckforwhathas even been thought in thelanguage: 'effects of sense' " (Pas, in Gramma, no.3/4, 1976). 26. Which means thatthere no menstruum is that if universale, insteaduniversality whatdissolution excludes. Beyond theanalysisof Witz, would be led to theanalysis thevery we of character particular of menstruum. in particularto thatof the singularconception And whichis at theoriginof theword and the thingin alchemy:menstrue is (masculine),the dissolvant, named by analogy withmenstrue to (feminine),menstruation, supposedlyendowed withthe capability dissolve.It is thuslinkedto the negativesign of fertility; also to a sexual taboo,whichcorrespondsmoreoverto thispower but of dissolution;but also to one of the major differences betweenthesexes--and, more precisely, to the difference whose masculinecounterpart withFreud,found Fliess,at the timeofhisconnection in the "menstrual" swellingof the nose. Well, the nose,thoughoutthe literatureof grosteque in milanges(and particularly some pages of Sterne and Jean Paul), bringsus back to Witz:"The Romans knew thatWitzpossesses a propheticfaculty; theygave itthe name of nose." (F. Schlegel) Cf. our Rhinologia, be published. to