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Last Orders: An Anatomy of Emotion

Last Orders: anatomie des émotions
Michel Morel
p. 61-72

Résumés

Distinguant entre l’affect (immédiat et quasiment inconscient) et l’émotion (consciente et donc en capacité de distance), l’analyse passe en revue deux séries de faits textuels. Elle aborde tout d’abord le tabou qui s’attache à la mort et à sa représentation dans l’Angleterre contemporaine, et le refoulement de l’émotion qui en résulte chez les protagonistes du roman, pour passer ensuite aux moyens narratifs utilisés pour rendre cette situation de presque blocage: le partage du récit entre sept narrateurs, les surprises de la mémoire, ses ‘corrélatifs objectifs’, les interruptions et silences. Elle termine alors par des remarques portant sur le mélange proustien entre émotion et distance qui caractérise le texte dans son ensemble.

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Texte intégral

1In reference to a question and answer in a debate thirteen years ago, in Nice, on the occasion recalled by Graham Swift in ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside: Nice, 1997’ in Making an Elephant, I would like to revisit an intuition of mine which our liberal and courteous guest had smiled away and gently denied at the time, that is the presence of a Proustian strain in his approach to the delicacy and intricacy of emotions.

  • 1 This is persuasiely demonstrated by Antonio Damasio in his ground-breaking study.

2In this particular domain, two preliminary points should immediately be made. The first concerns the essential difference between affects and emotions. One must be careful not to mistake the second for the first. Affects accompany the perception of any of the numerous stimuli that bombard the brain in everyday life, an instantaneous and spontaneous process whose rapidity precludes cognitive awareness. They consist of sudden, brutal responses from our reptilian brain, in a matter of a few thousandths of seconds.1 This quasi immediate somatic reaction then gives rise to the more conscious replies that we call ‘emotions’. Affects belong to the cognitive processes, while emotions refer us to the affective. This is a crucial point to remember, and not only in criticism, since the quality of any exchange depends on whether it privileges such easy and primitive reactions, and the type of unreflecting emotion immediately dependent on them, or manages to keep free from their apparent plausibility, approaching them through more distanced and vigilant procedures. A pertinent hierarchy might easily be established on such functional bases in the various domains of artistic production. In matters of literary genres, for instance, this is what differentiates and opposes revenge tragedy and high tragedy, farce and comedy, gothic or detective stories and classic novels.

  • 2 Last Orders, London: Picador, 1996. All the references are to this edition.

3Be it said from the start that Last Orders2 belongs to the class of works that manage to look into the rough-and-tumble of raw affect without ever falling a prey to it. What characterises it is the discreet alertness of its treatment of emotion in its most delicate complexities, a pre-eminent quality which might sometimes seem to equate what Proust achieves on another terrain. This is the special feature that is so outstanding in it: how it succeeds again and again in bringing forth both the uniqueness of the individual’s susceptibility and vulnerability to feelings, and its general relevance in terms of humanity; a fragile balance that could easily be distorted by analysis, were this not so light-footed and adjusted. Hence my approach here: to observe the textual channels of perceptiveness, hopefully to adumbrate the tenuous lines of interpretation they allow the novel to elaborate.

Death in Anglo-land

4With the inevitable hindsight attending a rereading of the novel, we may notice that Last Orders constantly, if diffidently, keeps striking a contemporary chord. In spite of the relative anachronism, one may contrast it with the recent obsessive reflections on personal death in Julian Barnes’s Nothing To Be Frightened Of or with Howard Barker’s stark confrontation with the ultimate impassable in Death The One and the Art of Theatre.

5Last Orders reconstructs a lower middle-class social milieu in the 1980s, with its various inhibitions and suppressions, especially in the disruptive territory of death. Generally speaking, death seems to have absconded from contemporary Western and more specifically British society. It has been all but erased from everyday life, except on rare occasions like the collective catharsis set off by Princess Diana’s tragic demise in 1997, one year after the publication of Last Orders. Such a deletion is made even more telling in the novel by the radical choice of cremation, even though this alternative to interment now seems to have become more generally accepted. The 2009 statistics for England indicate that 76 % of burials took the form of cremation. The text is found repeatedly to lay bare the suppressed anguishes inherent in its abrasive finality, for instance when a hand is disturbingly dipped into Jack’s ashes, first by Vince in the hop-country of Kent and then twice by the four protagonists at Margate. The abhorrent idea of fingering what is, and no longer is, a man’s body seems to lie more on the side of affect than of emotion, but it has been defused in advance, and burlesqued by the names given to the urn that is alternately a ‘jar’ (10), a ‘box’, ‘hogg[ed]’ by Vic (46), held ‘like . . . a toy’ by Lenny (150), that becomes the ‘bag’ after the stop in Rochester, and is called Jack in Canterbury Cathedral (193). It is coveted and bandied around as a thing to nurse or a missile-like object of contention. And yet there remains a vague malaise in us, also reinforced by the theatrical framing of cremation itself, the coffin disappearing behind a stage curtain (79 and 272) and the door of the incinerator looking like the ‘back exit of a cinema’ (214). As if to confirm our deep-seated unease, Vic, the undertaker by profession, is described as ‘half lord and half leper’ (214). Added to this, abortion as the deliberate termination of a new life, keeps surfacing in Lenny’s tortured memories (208), and as a refused possibility for Amy in the case of June (253 and 275). Such tensions centring on death culminate obliquely and all the more poignantly in the moments before Amy’s last visit to her vegetative daughter on her fiftieth birthday, in her final admission of defeat, facing a pointlessly continued ‘life’ and her husband’s death: ‘What I’m trying to say is Goodbye June. Goodbye Jack. They seem like one and the same thing’ (278).

6In reality the apparent taboo concerning death in contemporary England is only a component of the restriction and the repression of emotion itself, or rather of the public show of emotion, and the dreaded loss of self-control it is usually taken to be, particularly for men, English men possibly more than others. Ray’s distanced and often disparaging ways of alluding to tears epitomise this kind of self- and group deprecation: ‘leaking at both ends’ (111), ‘pissy eyes’ (112), ‘blubbing’ (114, 140), ‘wet’, ‘gooey’ (150), ‘spluttering’ (151), ‘wiping his face’ (151), ‘what’s going on in my face’ (290), ‘a blur’ (294), etc., are some of the derogatory words or purposely factual renderings used to allude to tears. Such strategies are all the more telling as they refer to the secret side of the private sphere, and make us intuit the pathetic comedy of extenuating pretences on the shy arena of the self. Conversely, Vince sees himself as ‘straight’, ‘tall’, ‘proud and stiff’, ‘upright’ (199), ‘a tower’, ‘a mast’ for Jack ‘to climb up [him]’ (188); his neck is said to have ‘gone all tight and rigid’ (141), whereas Lenny, the ‘sloucher’ (129), suggests physiological decay in his temperamental and belligerent physical weakness. The latter admits moreover, still privately, that ‘there never was much brain there in the first place’ (176). In their opposite ways both rigidity and frailty denote corresponding, if inverted, ways of both repressing and expressing emotion. The proscription about showing it is compounded by the fact this expedition to Margate is a sort of stag-party—Amy sneers: ‘Boys’ outing. Do’em good’ (19)—between pub buddies who have chummed up for ages and are all on edge concerning what each thinks of each (Vince v. Lenny Vic above and Ray in-between). Ray’s remark when Vic starts speeding after the visit to Chatham ‘I can feel Vic feeling it’s all his fault’ (142) could apply to each of them, how their hypersensitivity makes them vibrate and react to the least remark or response of any member in the group.

7All react to death in a typically contemporary way. They tend to approach it sideways, to sidle along in its direction. Their itinerary to Margate vividly illustrates their hesitating strategy, their tangential, nearly zigzag approach to the terminal moment when scattering the ashes cannot be escaped. They temporise and procrastinate on their way to this unbearably mandatory goal. Not for them Howard Barker’s direct and repeated confrontation with its unbridgeable unknowing as in Death the One and the Art of Theatre. And religion is no help either, beyond vague superstitions about the dead seeing them (225) or the decorum Vic ‘the [c]aptain on the bridge’ (291), or the ‘vicar’ (215), tries to preserve. Anxiety and dread keep surfacing in the text and explain the pitiable stratagems of the protagonists, one moment nearly getting drunk, the next traipsing the ashes round Canterbury cathedral, before fighting over them. The agonising factuality of decaying flesh, with the half-suppressed spectacle of Ray’s body eaten up by cancer, transpires in Vince’s painfully distanced observation: ‘his belly all swolled up like he’s pregnant’ (266). Again, the unease we are then made to experience bears witness to responses rooted in elementary affects, originating in a proprioceptive menace causing a kind of repressed counter-identification. But the text never plays up to such disturbing material. Its achievement is to keep to its symptoms as manifested in the diverse members of the group, to lay open its piercing violence and the pathetic, because partially bottled-up, reactions it causes, while not giving in to them, not surrendering to any melodramatic dimension.

  • 3Par l’art seulement nous pouvons sortir de nous, savoir ce que voit un autre de cet univers qui n’ (...)

8The group finally reaches the ‘journey’s end’, as Ray says, which might seem to ring Shakespearian bells, like the cryptically desolate and lyrical ultimate sentence. In that final moment, even more than in the rest of the text, we are penetratingly shown four men in the throes of a mourning which makes sense by not making sense. Again and again, we are struck by the eyrie faithfulness to the lived dimension of perception, in the line of what Proust so often does. Due to the reticent rendering of these diverse inner dramas, one then experiences the truth of what Le Temps retrouvé says about art as the only possibility ever to get out of oneself and to know what another person sees of this world (Proust 894).3

Telling and Showing

9This keen foray into the illogical logic of emotion is achieved through both telling and showing, the first one relying on a multifocal narration, the second on ways of writing that might be said to be close to the poetic.

10‘Telling’, first. The narrative means resorted to are perfectly adapted to such a vigilant delineation of the variables in feelings, their mysteries and inconclusiveness. The story is told by seven narrators, Ray’s frequent return to the pulpit giving him the overarching function of framing the progression of the group towards Margate. As a protagonist though, his reactions are just as relative, highly strung and comically or tragically biased as those of the others. The strength, but also the difficulty of this procedure for us readers, is that it conjoins seven disparate and in medias res visions and consequently necessarily diverging experiential worlds. Its advantages, and its dangers, are those of what could be called structural dramatic irony. We are exposed to the illusions of a kind of omniscience since we understand more about each character than any of them can ever hope to. A typical example is Vince’s ‘chapter’ limited to his ‘Old buggers’ (130), each of the said ‘buggers’ being unaware of what Vince thinks. On the other hand, the often reminiscing characters refer to more than we can understand since what they think steeps us into private streams of thought, forcing us to piece together meanings we cannot fully grasp yet, and are never quite sure to have actually understood. Knowing both too much and not enough is the constant spring of the story that impels our reading. The general structure might be said to be that of a puzzle, with the risk attached to a finished and immovable arrangement, were it not that certain elements find no place anywhere in the grid or remain doubtful and even hypothetical. Amy, and her daughter June, stand for such missing slots whose absence fractures the whole construction, conferring it openness, in Umberto Eco’s conception of the simultaneous presence of conflicting, but equally valid, lines of interpretation. The two physical itineraries of Amy’s bus ride to her last visit to June, and the erratic progression of the men to Margate, never fit together. The gap in each protagonist’s understanding, the impossibility of even bridging it now that death has foreclosed any future concord or unity, leaves them all, especially Amy, in the grip of dilemmas now become unsolvable. Such is the ruthless truth of death which the most moving moments in the text uncover, in the dereliction it causes and in its finality.

11On the other hand, one must recognise the perilous facility attached to this narrative technique, that of suspense itself: trying to know what happened and anticipate what is going to happen, we might seem to feel more than reflect. Which is also the case of identification, with its own dangers: for instance, we side with the powerful, though reticent, figure of Vince in the pleasing illusion of being more alert to his rather tortured emotions, than he himself is. And this tends to be repeated with all the other protagonists. In a way, the juxtaposition of separate destinies united in this last journey might seem to reinforce the diverse effects of the structural dramatic irony. Most importantly though, the collage of voices keeps suggesting the contrary idea of a world in which nothing really fits with anything. Nobody can ever know what the persons around actually think, and what happens is never quite what was expected. The result is that if a general enlightenment, at once emotional and philosophical, is somehow brought about, the text never stops foregrounding at the same time the irremediably enigmatic nature of the facts of life.

  • 4 ‘ . . . leur [ces réminiscences] premier caractère était que je n’étais pas libre de les choisir, q (...)
  • 5 ‘He takes a deep breath then another one, quick, and I reckon he wanted to change his mind, but he (...)
  • 6 ‘Like all the while we’ve been teetering and tottering towards some edge, and now there aint no mor (...)

12On the side of showing, most elements work in the same direction. The progress of the four men towards Margate is literally memory driven, and this in several ways. Memory seems to take the protagonists by surprise. Its explosive emotional force erupts in them and drives them with the force of obsession. One of the most eloquent moments in the story stages the exquisite strength of an affect triggered off by the sudden return of a buried and deliberately disallowed past. In a move that comes as a total surprise to the others, but was apparently festering deep under the suppressed demands of his unblunted sensibility, Vince ‘like a man perched on the edge of a cliff’ (147) uncaps the urn and throws some of the white dust in the wind: ‘“This is where”, he says, wiping his face. “This is where”’ (150), this being the place in ‘the Garden of England’ (64) where Jack and Amy first made love. The pressure of the past, forcing each to return to a central moment in their own lives, interacts with the associative logic of the story-line that possibly answers it. Again, one may recall Proust, though Last Orders neither stands on quite the same ground, nor uses reminiscences to quite the same effect.4 Taken all together, the separate contribution of each in the group compose an indirect memorial to the dead man, the best that could ever be thought of, the four participants finally ‘teetering and tottering towards some edge’, a sentence that comes twice, the first time when Vince consigns some of Jack’s ashes to the love-scene of his youth (65),5 the second time when Ray describes the group confronting the pier in Margate (288).6 The ‘edge’ they were heading to, is thus conclusively materialised by their collective shedding of the ashes in the teeth of the wind.

13The intricacies of emotion and memory are made so to speak tangible by a series of objective correlatives whose return has the musical quality of leitmotifs. Among the most indirectly powerful, beyond the urn itself, is what Vince calls ‘motorvation’ (71): ‘passion wagons’ in reference to Vince and Mandy and their love-making on back seats (102), and the inextricable linkage between car mechanics love (Vince’s ‘handiwork on the latest motor’ [102], and his affair with Mandy); the Mercedes, a kind of hearse, especially in the final moments of its approach to Margate pier, both a symbol of elegance and decadence or even corruption since Vince has ‘sold’ his daughter to a prospective ‘Ayrab’ buyer (166) (in the same line as his luxurious suit and shoes finally bespattered with mud); the camper and the illicit love séances, the bus taking Amy in her weekly visit to her daughter and its mechanical to-and-fros (as in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Kew Gardens’), like the armies moving, retreating and moving back again from Egypt to Lybia, during World War Two (90); and behind it all, the enlargement to the arbitrary assignment of destiny in ‘Civvy Street’, which Lenny calls a ‘bleeding billet’ (132). The central correlative is obviously the double jetty and pier at Margate. It is first the site of Amy’s lost love in the shape of a teddy-bear thrown into the sea at the extremity of the now derelict jetty by young Jack. The shedding of his ashes at the jutting end of the pier may be seen as conclusively reversing and confirming this initially catastrophic gesture. Also the ‘Garden of England’, four times referred to: twice by Vince (64 and 106), and twice by Amy (234 and 240). The expression echoes jeeringly in Vince’s ‘bleeding garden of Aden’ (157). The reference to the original love scene is at once accompanied and reverberated by the elliptic ‘This is where’. Vince refers to it, as a sort of illicit sesame to his love affair with Mandy: ‘I never took her further—down Memory Lane. I could’ve stopped, just like Jack did, and said, This is where’ (102). It first appears in Vince’s description of the family’s visit to the spot when he was still a boy: ‘That’s where your mum and me first met’ (64). It comes back, as a kind of cryptic and solemn formula, at the emotional climax in Kent when Vince throws some of Jack’s ashes from the very edge of the hill: ‘“This is where,” he says, wiping his face. “This is where”’ (151). It finally returns in Amy’s reminiscences, as if in answer to Vince, the formula now somehow assuming the tone of an interrupted litany: ‘Yes it was here, Vince, here. This was where. Here in the garden of’ (240). These, and others, like borrowed money, compose a sort of emotion garnering chain. They are catalysts whose affective potency transforms them into local keys, elusively condensed emblems of the book as a whole. All are positive, if sometimes enigmatic, determinants of emotion.

  • 7 ‘Naked came I  out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither . . .’ (Book of Job 1: 21)
  • 8 ‘And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, bec (...)

14Other more perplexing ones work negatively on the reader. Such are the numerous interruptions, suspensions and stoppages in mid-sentence rhetorically called ‘aposiopesis’. A few examples: Lenny and his frustration and thwarted violence, ‘It may be fifteen years since I stepped into the ring, but.’ (45); Vince alluding to the Book of Job at the spectacle of Jack’s dead body: ‘Because naked we come and naked we’ (199)7; Amy: ‘This was where. Here in the garden of’ (240), and ‘I suppose you’d be there, wouldn’t you. If it wasn’t for’ (258) (for ‘what’s happening to Jack’); Amy again, about June, in reference to Genesis: ‘Flesh of my’ (274)8; Jack’s inability to face up to the initial catastrophe (275): ‘Best thing we can do Ame is’ (275) (‘is forget all about her’ [253]). The most poignant example of all comes when Amy imagines her farewell to June (this being the last sentence of a chapter deprived of any final period): ‘That your own daddy who never came to see you, who you never knew because he never wanted to know you, that your own daddy’ (278). Such interruptions radicalise the stylistic compass of the clipped sentences that abound in the text, and the fact-noticing present. We are thus repeatedly forced to fill in gaps and voids. Elsewhere, the absence of commentary plays the same part in its very abstention. Oftentimes, the gesture is given but not its meaning: ‘Vince glances up quickly at Lenny but don’t say nothing’ (115): this silence is left without any interpretation; how to interpret it: impatience, contempt, self-repression, discretion? Explicit or implicit aposiopesis is the figure of emotion; in the initial moment of reading it can also be said to embody affects, if only because it mimes the brutal encounter with what cannot be said.

  • 9 ‘I suppose you should say that life’s never so unfair that there’s not worse unfirness than yours, (...)

15By-passing the expression of emotion works in the same direction: through understatements, local parlance or proverbs, and more generally the idiosyncratic use of language, like Ray’s convoluted sentence about unfairness (173),9 or the frequent use of puns and double-entendre. As Amy repeats twice (238 and 240): ‘The things that do and don’t get told’; which might be a general commentary on the novel as a whole, and on the silent excruciating juxtaposition of as many private dramas as there are narrators in this multiple first person story.

Distance

  • 10 ‘ . . . ce qu’il s’agit de faire sortir, d’amener à la lumière, ce sont nos sentiments, nos passion (...)

16Last Orders achieves a curious and fascinating mix of identification and distance. We experience each protagonist’s predicament from inside and yet at the same time are made to somehow sense what lies behind each inner truth in its contradictoriness with the others. We are given the capacity of penetrating the complications of emotion as such, in the distorted logic specific to each, each separate diffident world being united for us in the general equivalence of pain. Emotion is not sought for itself but in itself, in the delicacy of its precious evanescent unfolding. The mutual enrichment of feeling and distance causes a heady illumination in us since each character is shown to be totally individualised while all are treated as case studies in a common humanity.10 Each separate occurrence in the plot keeps surprising us by the absolutely personal yet archetypal confrontation with the idea and the fact of death. This creates a poetic revelation effect—if the poetic is what lays bare, in the image of Joyce’s early epiphanies which are nothing but undeviating descriptions stripping moments of life to their essentials—that makes us both feel and understand: an empathic, close and unswerving vision which equates, in its own specific ways, Proust’s achievements in other domains, this being the very operation that the French artist effects again and again.

  • 11 ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’ (Shakesp (...)

17The plot is focussed, unified, impelled by this anatomy of feeling which reaches its zenith in the last scene; especially in the unpunctuated, rather convoluted and nearly tautological syntax of a conclusive sentence ultimately touched off by something like an echo from Prospero’s fabled words in The Tempest: ‘and the ash which was the Jack who once walked around is carried away by the wind till the ash becomes wind and the wind becomes Jack what we’re made of’ (294).11 The terminal suspension makes us hear the music of a broken consort of finally concordant, but silent voices. Its interruption, at the end of such a strange burial scene, leaves us paradoxically suspended in the lastingly fleeting intuition of a living moment.

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Bibliographie

Barker, Howard, Death The One and the Art of Theatre, London: Routledge 2005.

Barnes, Julian, Nothing to Be Frightened of. London: Jonathan Cape, 2008.

Damasio, Antonio, L’Erreur de Descartes: la raison des émotions (1994), Paris: Odile Jacob, 1995.

Proust, Marcel, Le Temps retrouvé, Pléiade III, Paris: Gallimard, 1965.

Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, London: Arden, 1999.

Swift, Graham, Last Orders, London: Picador, 1996.

Swift, Graham, Making an Elephant, Written from Within, London: Picador, 2009.

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Notes

1 This is persuasiely demonstrated by Antonio Damasio in his ground-breaking study.

2 Last Orders, London: Picador, 1996. All the references are to this edition.

3Par l’art seulement nous pouvons sortir de nous, savoir ce que voit un autre de cet univers qui n’est pas le même que le nôtre, et dont les paysages nous seraient restés aussi inconnus que ceux qu’il peut y avoir dans la lune. Grâce à l’art, au lieu de voir un seul monde, le nôtre, nous le voyons se multiplier, et autant qu’il y a d’artistes originaux, autant nous avons de mondes à notre disposition, plus différents les uns les autres que ceux qui roulent dans l’infini, et bien des siècles après qu’est éteint le foyer dont ils émanaient, qu’il s’appelât Rembrandt ou Ver Meer, nous envoient encore leur rayon spécial’ (Proust 894-895).

4 ‘ . . . leur [ces réminiscences] premier caractère était que je n’étais pas libre de les choisir, qu’elles m’étaient données telles quelles. Et je sentais que ce devait être la griffe de leur authenticité. . . . Mais justement la façon fortuite, inévitable, dont la sensation avait été rencontrée, contrôlait la vérité du passé qu’elle ressuscitait . . .’ (Proust 879).

5 ‘He takes a deep breath then another one, quick, and I reckon he wanted to change his mind, but he was already teetering, toppling, on top of that hill, and he couldn’t stop himself’.

6 ‘Like all the while we’ve been teetering and tottering towards some edge, and now there aint no more hanging back.’

7 ‘Naked came I  out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither . . .’ (Book of Job 1: 21).

8 ‘And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man’ (Genesis 2: 23).

9 ‘I suppose you should say that life’s never so unfair that there’s not worse unfirness than yours, and that you can’t ever get so stuck in your ways that there aren’t worse ways of being stuck, like from the word go and for always.’

10 ‘ . . . ce qu’il s’agit de faire sortir, d’amener à la lumière, ce sont nos sentiments, nos passions, c’est-à-dire les passions, les sentiments de tous’ (Proust 907).

11 ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’ (Shakespeare IV.1, 156–157).

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Michel Morel, « Last Orders: An Anatomy of Emotion », Études britanniques contemporaines, 41 | 2011, 61-72.

Référence électronique

Michel Morel, « Last Orders: An Anatomy of Emotion », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 41 | 2011, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2015, consulté le 17 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/2347 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.2347

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Auteur

Michel Morel

Université Nancy 2.
Michel Morel is Professor emeritus at Nancy 2. His field of research is the processes of reading activated by all kinds of text (from the press and popular writings to high literature). He is particularly interested in the affects, the original causes of our emotions, triggered at the double level of the actualization of genre by the individual text and its concretization by the reader. He consequently investigates generic processes, in particular narrative ones, and the critical valuations dependent on them. His approach is multidisciplinary. He has recently extended his study of forms to the axiological contents of rhetorical figures, and also to other domains of expression like poster, painting and architecture.

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