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Thursday, February 11, 2016


I was reading an article by Benveniste of the system of French verbs. The reason was because I found great material for my theoretical chapter in a few other articles of his so curiosity led me to see what else he had to say.

We all know from high school French that there are two ways of talking about a past event (what you would use the preterit for in Spanish.) The passé composé is a perfect tense using a compound form, like "Je suis allé." The passé simple is a simple tense. The former is used almost exclusively in speech, the latter almost exclusively in writing. But Benveniste says that this is not a distinction between speech and writing, but between two systems, which he calls histoire and discours.

Histoire is an impersonal mode, forbidding first and second person pronouns and verbal forms as well as deictics like here, now, tomorrow, there. The passé simple is used in this (largely written) mode. Discours is a largely spoken mode, but of course it can be written, as a written transcription or representation of speech. In this mode, the relation between the I and the you is primary. You never use the passé simple in this mode, only the passé composé.

So the French verb can be marked not just for aspect (perfective vs. imperfect), but also for its discursive mode. I read this very article in French very quickly but its lucidity was such that I grasped the point with no effort.

So the lyric is interesting, because it is a fictive representation of discours. Here, the relation between the speaker and the addressee is primary, and deictics are extremely important. Even the impersonal lyric is discours, I would think.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
petals on a wet, black bough.

The word these is key here. With the red wheelbarrow, even, with its absence of deictics? Or certain poems of Lorca that don't have a first or second person?

It would follow that the first and second persons are intimately linked, in opposition to the third. Perhaps the lyric is a third mode, one that seems to be discours but is really not.

1 comment:

Leslie said...

Interesting indeed, and it does seem that only French deploys the simple past in this way and to this effect. Hmmmmmmm. Lyric as mode that appears to be discours but is really not, hmmmmmm.