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Hamóthen, Contingency and Progression in Poetic Creation

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La Lettre du Collège de France • 36

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1In response to an invitation to give four lectures within the framework of an ongoing research on artistic creation, I comparatively explored representations of poetic creation in Ancient Greek and modern poetry, under the heading “ἁμόθεν. Contingency and Progression in Poetic Creation”.

2As I wished to show the articulation between Contingency and Progression, I started out from the adverb ἁμόθεν, meaning “from any point”, in the tenth line of the first book of the Odyssey – the “point” in question being, in all the traditional themes specific to the Return of Ulysses, one which the Muse chooses for the bard who has asked for her assistance. It is the Muse’s choice which is to guide the composition of our Odyssey, hitherto an “open case” which might have unfolded differently, without the traditional theme of the Return of Ulysses being contradicted.

3A few twentieth-century French poems were introduced in order to provide a perspective on the open field where the Muse intervenes and on the blank page of the modern poet, especially Desnos, Ponge, or even Apollinaire with “Le Musicien de Saint-Merry”. The latter relates the journey of a blind flute player in the Beaubourg area, a journey spurred on not by a religious authority, like Homer’s Muse, but by what Apollinaire calls the “joy of wandering”, thereby situating his endeavour under the sign of Contingency and demonstrating a solid faith in creative fate.

4We examined “Bread” and more briefly “The Cycle of Seasons” by Francis Ponge who, while being true to Mallarmé’s poetry, remained open to the randomness of the French dictionary. The first of these poems describes the making of bread, which is an allegorical figure of the poem in the process of being written or, more precisely, of the bread taking shape in the oven. This is a self-shaping observed by the poet, who thus does not occupy the position of the “creator”, but who, following Apollinaire and Desnos’s example, has become the observer of a creative process that the poet does not control. “The Cycle of Seasons” by Ponge was studied for the language act that it depicts: “It will fall into place as it can! However, in reality, it falls into place.”

5I thereafter sought to delve deeper into the relation between the concept of the pathway and creation. I discussed the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, studied by Norman O. Brown (1947) and Laurence Kahn (1978), as a narrative mapping Greece, from Olympus to Arcadia. From Ancient Rome, I turned my attention to twentieth-century capitalism and, in Walter Benjamin’s vein, to the world of Parisian arcades, the shrines of triumphant capitalism. In this world, under Lautréamont’s pen, sprang one of the most famous images of the surrealist “chance encounter”, which here expresses beauty: “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”. The image originates from rue Vivienne, as that is precisely where the “handsome” young man was, not far from Lautréamont’s own address: 15 rue Vivienne. While the “chance encounter” placed Lautréamont on the side of Contingency, it is perhaps even more surprising to find him associated with the theme of Progression. This is nevertheless confirmed by rereading the first sentence of the Chants de Maldoror. The author considers that a path cuts right across the Chants, one that is warned against by the Old Crane, who shows no less caution than Asunção’s Diomedes. At the beginning of the Odyssey, it is for the bard to “choose”, with the help of the Muse, whereas at the beginning of the Chants, it is up to the reader to do so, assisted by the Old Crane – in order to avoid the dangers of a distant point of arrival.

6Turning to the Greeks, I looked at the figure of the crane, in order to situate Lautréamont’s cranes better. It seemed especially clear to me that the Old Crane, with its “old bald neck whose falling feathers have measured three generations of cranes”, was modeled on the Homeric hero γερήνιος Νέστωρ, “Nestor the Gerenian”, an epithet meaning “of Gerenia”, since Nestor, raised in Gerenia, was said to have reigned over three generations of men. Lautréamont undoubtedly understood the epithet as referring to the crane, γέρανος (rather than to the small city), thus meaning “of-the-crane”, especially since Nestor epitomized “caution”. But the Old Crane wished to spare the reader from the misfortune threatening him or her at the end of their journey through the Chants. On the other hand, the reader who defies the Old Crane’s warnings will arrive at Chant 6 and at the scene with the young man “as beautiful as the chance encounter”, in an urban landscape very similar to the one explored by Apollinaire’s blind flute player.

7To conclude, I read the translation of a long poem, “Hermès βουκόλος”, which I wrote in 1988. The poem depicts quite a few of the elements found in the four lectures, thus assembled in the account of the Theft of Apollo’s Cattle by the young Hermes, god of the revival of metaphor and signatory of the first Surrealist Manifesto. Hermes led his herd to the very edge of Desnos’ deep precipice by appropriating a sentence already cited from Ponge’s “Cycle des saisons”, before being caught up by a furious Reader who is none other than Apollo, asking for his stolen cattle back. The four lectures thus unfolded as the scholia in the margins of this poem on poetic creation, the “cattle theft” from which they arose.

• The videos of the conferences can be found on the Collège de France’s website (, on Prof. John Scheid’s pages.

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Jesper SVENBRO, « Hamóthen, Contingency and Progression in Poetic Creation », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 12 août 2015, consulté le 23 janvier 2018. URL :

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Honorary Research Director, CNRS. Member of the Swedish Academy

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