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Théorie de la ré-écriture

Rewriting, Literariness, Literary History

Réécriture, littérarité, histoire littéraire
Didier Coste
p. 8-25


La réécriture est aussi ancienne que le système littéraire lui-même, elle a permis de cristalliser ce qui a fini par recevoir le nom de littérature au milieu du XVIIIe siècle, car elle était essentielle à la construction d’une tradition créatrice (en tant que mimesis de grandes actions artistiques) et d’une épistémologie critique partagée. S’il peut sembler paradoxal que la « littérature » émerge précisément au moment où l’esthétique romantique de l’originalité prétend remplacer l’esthétique classique de l’imitation, ce paradoxe doit toutefois être exploré en fonction de la tentative d’autonomiser l’esthétique, du statut social à la fois radieux et précaire du discours littéraire, et de la croissante division du travail de production de savoir et de valeur discursive.
Il faudrait alors envisager le « long romantisme » (jusqu’aux avant-gardes au moins) sous l’angle du déni de réécriture. Mais le contexte post-moderne et post-colonial dans lequel nous sommes censés opérer a certes attiré notre attention sur l’omniprésence des phénomènes de réécriture et sur les enjeux de cette notion : au cours des trois dernières décennies environ, la réécriture systématique est devenue un outil multifonctionnel et une arme à double tranchant qui manifeste la mondialisation culturelle et y résiste à la fois. Dans un seul geste, elle couple l’ironie et la légitimation par le lignage ; elle révèle enfin la nature « bâtarde » de la littérature, son « roman familial » idéalisé.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

20th century, XXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

literature, littérature, société, society
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Texte intégral

1As I was going to begin this paper with these words: “Rewriting may be considered as old as the literary system itself,” a rather annoying, mildly thought-provoking question occurred to me: why not older? Is not all writing a “rewriting”? A question similar to that often asked about metafiction: is not all fiction about itself as fiction? Does not all literature represent, interrogate or somehow comment its own production? There are two usual answers to these questions. One is based on the pragmatic argument against asking it: if all fiction is metafictional, then the notion becomes useless (it does not allow us to differentiate categories of fiction). The other relies on the threshold argument: there are fictions that exhibit more salient and/or more conscious/intentional features of self-commentary and self-consciousness; those fictions deserve to be labelled metafictional. These two answers are almost equally unsatisfactory. A critical or descriptive concept may be useful to analyse a component of all literary texts without being a valid criterion for generic classification; and there is no way of determining a threshold shared by all members of the literary community (writers, readers, critics and theorists) beyond which textual self-reflexiveness would be decidedly relevant, while it would not be noteworthy under this threshold.

  • 1 “As a form of language, this ‘Life’ must show a development that mirrors in every respect the story (...)

2One could argue that writing, as transcription of thoughts and speech (scriptural versus oral) is secondary in essence; from this point of view, the act of writing would involve no such thing as an actual beginning or novelty. Everything being pre-written, by destiny, life narrative, inner speech, conversations, or even language properties and generic constraints, all writing would be at best an “afterwrit,” and all writers mere scribes. Gilgamesh returned from the nether world and had his deeds inscribed on the walls of Uruk, where you can still see them (written). The case of the generation and transmission of the Legenda Aurea could be examined in this light. First of all comes the Word, revealed in the form of the Gospel or Holy Scripture; in Catholic faith, Scripture is primarily the written life of Christ, flesh made text. Then the just imitate Christ’s life in their deeds and become saints, their lives are written, and others, who read what must be read, the legenda, imitate the saints’ lives, and so on and so forth. In this framework, writing is certainly dependent upon repetition, especially since the Lives written by Jacobus de Voragine are closely associated with liturgical demands (i.e. the narratives take place not only in linear historical time, but in a calendar for every year of the Lord) and interspersed with non-hagiographic liturgical material; but this repetition is mediated, in its very principle, by an active imitation of action in life, not only Aristotelian mimesis1. It then appears in any case that not all writing is rewriting in the same sense. Where the biographical matrix of the literary text comes to play, writing will be rewriting insofar as “life” is understood and lived out as “life story” or a virtual text, but form will depend on mimetic constraints with moral, if not moralizing views. In fact, every time “rewriting” is taken in a metaphorical or otherwise relaxed meaning (the rewriting of history, of genre or gender, etc.)—and it is very often nowadays, we shall see why later—alethic and deontic considerations are lurking in the shadows.

3On the other hand, rewriting as formal imitation, recycling, reprocessing, reworking and (im)mutation (changing) of forms—whatever the thematic and ideological implications of that imitation—has to do with an internal history of artistic production and communication in two different, even contrary ways, it is bifrons and double-edged. As repetition and recycling, it has a transmissive, traditional, conservative and stabilising function, it builds up a canon and confirms it, it provides, together with gloss, commentary, academic criticism, standard editions, and so on, the building blocks of the institution of literature; it is on the side of ritual, commemoration, community-building as maintenance of habits, we could call it “underwriting.” As recontextualisation and defamiliarisation, as reshaping, distortion, deconstruction and mutation, it is iconoclastic and subversive more than adaptive and accommodating, it is on the side of defacement and revolution, new starts (whether by uniting or dividing the extant) and closure of an era, we could call it “overwriting.”

  • 2 See, for example, Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody, [1985] University of Illinois Press, Urbana a (...)

4The problem is that these two sides of the coin cannot be easily separated, as all the studies of parody, pastiche and intertextual irony show very well2. In this paper I shall therefore limit myself to an approach of a few historical and theoretical aspects of rewriting that will stress its essential duplicity, while noting, along with its functional and phenomenal diversity, some of its invariant features, namely 1) it always transhistorically informs and supports literariness, 2) it provides one of the most visible sites of intentionality, with all the accompanying structuring of attitudes, techniques and value production at the reception end of literary communication, and 3) through its typical intertextual mediation, it privileges intraliterary reference and makes external reference (i.e. reference to material, non-discursive reality, to the world-out-there) further recede in the background, possibly reducing it to a mere discarded possibility.

5Along these lines, I shall try to identify the significance of particular manifestations of rewriting across anecdotal testimonies, the historical location of a practice in denial, and the textual facts of a Greek “legend”. Please do not laugh, this is a true, touching story: “A Modern-Day ‘Hero and Leander’ on Paws:”

April 9, 2001, Aka Island, Japan
Perhaps the most touching story in all of Greek mythology is that of Hero and Leander [...]. In 1986, a mongrel named Shiro accompanied his master Toshikazu Nakamura across the Kerama Islands strait.  There, in a place called Zamami, Shiro the dog met and instantly fell in love with Marilyn the dog.
After that, the locals frequently sighted Shiro dog-paddling across the (3km) strait.  This feat was so amazing that it gained a national reputation; even a movie, Marilyn ni Aitai (I want to see Marilyn), was made, featuring Shiro.

  • 3  Anon., “A Modern-Day ‘Hero and Leander’ on Paws” in, Volume I - Issue 4 - Ap (...)

Marilyn died in August 1987, bringing an end to Shiro’s seafaring days, and last November, he himself died at the advanced age of 17.
µThe people of Aka Island have been raising money in order to construct a monument honoring the two; on Nishihama beach (Shiro’s point of departure), they will build a statue of Shiro at the edge of the coast, facing Zamami Island.
Meanwhile, the people of Zamami are constructing a monument of Marilyn on their bank, facing Shiro.  They expect both statues to be finished by the first anniversary of Shiro’s death.
Monument or no monument, here’s hoping that the two are finally reunited in some shadowy world3.

6You can also find this story told on more web pages in English4, with the notable difference that the other versions do not evoke the ghosts of ancient human characters. Similarly, in the 16th century, the Piacevole Notti of Straparola, which invert the roles of the boy and the girl, while they reproduce the structure of events, do not use the original names of the characters, but many authors do keep the names in spite of serious genre and mode alterations, such as substituting a happy ending for a tragic outcome, or prose for verse narrative, drama (Bracciolini, Lefranc de Pompignan, Grillparzer) or novel (Paviç) for epic or epistle. Expansions (amplificatio) of all sorts, including additional characters and incidents (Grillparzer, Haraucourt), embedded myths (Boscán) and rhetorical embellishment (Bernardo Tasso) do not prevent the rewriters from being faithful to the original onomastics. This may be an indication that the semes “human” and “male/female” are of utmost importance for literature, and the rewritten text shows an awareness of it in that the name does or does not change. The title of the story quoted above is also interesting in that the “Hero and Leander” title is bracketed between “modern day” and “paws”: modernisation is equated, as is very often the case in anachronistic literary games5, both to permanence and reviviscence (true love is still on in contemporary nature, humans are able to feel its reality and pay homage to it when it occurs), and to degradation (typically in Scarron), here through the debased, animal status of the characters. On a much larger scale, we could submit that, if distinctive, provocative anachronism is a probable index of rewriting, all rewriting is anachronistic in essence, since it places differently dated texts or fragments of text in the same reading space (the present of the reader); the “palimpsest” nature of the rewritten can be immediately detected by the competent reader, but detection does not entail splitting the context along historical lines. On the other hand, rewriting is not, by far, the only way of producing an anachronistic effect, quotations from older or foundational texts and occasional linguistic archaisms do the trick as well. One particularity of the marked rewritten which differentiates it from other temporal superpositions generated by anachronism, is that it is often self-reflexive, not only a text made of other texts, but a text about literary textuality, about itself as a literary text.

7Let us now turn to the description of Hero’s attire in the opening lines of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander:

  • 6  Marlowe and Chapman, Héro et Léandre. Ed. Joseph Barthélémy Fort. Collection bilingue des classiqu (...)

09 The outside of her garments were of lawne,
10 The lining, purple silke, with guilt starres drawne,
11 Her wide sleeves greene, and bordered with a grove,
12 Where Venus in her naked glory strove [...]
17 Upon her head she ware a myrtle wreath,
18 From whence her vaile reacht to the ground beneath.
19 Her vaile was artificiall flowers and leaves,
20 Whose workmanship both man and beast deceaves.
21 Many would praise the sweet smell as she past,
22 When t’was the odour which her breath foorth cast.
23 And there for honie, bees have sought in vaine,
24 And beat from thence, have lighted there againe. [...]
31 Buskins of shels all silvered, used she,
32 And brancht with blushing corall to the knee;
33 Where sparrowes pearcht, of hollow pearle and gold,
34 Such as the world would woonder to behold:
35 Those with sweet water oft her handmaid fils,
36 Which as shee went would cherupe through the bils6.

8The sestiad begins with an hypotypic allegory of Hero as Venus; the goddess she is deep down, in her true nature, is represented, for all to behold, on the surface of the garment which hides her. Art (poetic or otherwise) reveals what it covers. Hero’s dress is saturated with images; a cross between tableau vivant and still life, it retains the traces, in the form of blood stains, of the past murders of Hero’s looks; the poetic text is also saturated with the reverberating, dazzling play of the signifier, constellated with mirroring puns and diffracting associations (“lawn” as linen and “lawn” as grass; gaze, grove and [graze]; “guilt” as gold and as guilt; grove, ground and [grave]...).  Hero’s revealing veil is indeed artificial, crafted and grafted, but its deceptive power all the more effective and universal, casting the same spell on man and beast, including the bees of Aristeus and the cherry-eating birds of Apelles, avid sparrows, fleeting swallows or singing nightingales (Philomel), in one breath. Obviously, we find here much of the same stock as in “The Passionate Shepherd” and Elizabethan conceits in general, but the condensation level of lexical plurivocity is extremely high and an underlying oxymoric proliferation (sweet cruelty, fresh heat, and so on), derived and converted from “secret exhibition,” bubbles to the surface.

  • 7 Ibidem, 62.

51 Amorous Leander, beautifull and yoong,
52 (Whose tragedie divine Musaeus soong)
53 Dwelt at Abidus; since him, dwelt there none,
54 For whom succeeding times make greater mone7 .

  • 8 Hero’s name is virile in English, which makes it easier, symmetrically, to feminise Leander.

9A few lines down, when Leander is introduced by the poet as a very feminine figure, for reasons that go beyond Marlowe’s bad life8, he is the one sung by “divine” Musaeus, whom 16th century literati believed to be Homer’s contemporary and equal, if not Homer himself, an identification probably facilitated by the name of Musaeus (a male Muse of sorts, both model and inspirer). Rewriting, in this case, as usual in the classical tradition but also, as we shall see, in other historical contexts, is not only imitation and echoing but self-aggrandisement by the mirror of time, a mirror that fixes, congeals time in its still waters; hence the pun by synonymy: “Dwelt [abode] at Abidus”, which makes Leander’s whereabouts poetically necessary and Marlowe another embodiment of the legendary swimmer, always already sung by the Greek poet, always swimming against the icy current of time to meet his Muse. The legend of Hero and Leander, in the classical period, also came to be known as “tragedy” (for example in Stapylton’s version). In tragedy, the action of the tragic actors cannot be and is not to be imitated as such; the reclassification of the tale acknowledges the events in the presented world of the narrative are not or no longer the correct object of mimesis, but the emotions they elicit through art and, hence, the text wrought by the artists of the past.

  • 9  See Philippe Brunet, La Naissance de la littérature dans la Grèce ancienne, Paris: Le Livre de Poc (...)

10Rewriting is, at least in the West and in South Asia, indeed as old as the literary system itself, with the institution of Homer as the forefather of all writing to come9 and the many versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both in popular and erudite culture, and is in fact constitutive of what has come to be known as “literature” in the mid-18th century. Insofar as rewriting is essential to the construction of a creative tradition (as mimesis of great artistic actions) and a shared critical epistemology, it may seem paradoxical that “literature” emerges precisely when a Romantic aesthetics of originality purports to replace the Classical aesthetics of imitation, a paradox that should be explored in terms of the social status of literary discourse and an increasing division of labour in the production of knowledge and discursive value.

  • 10  Simon Dentith, Parody, The New Critical Idiom, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, 55.
  • 11 Ibidem, 54.

11It is clear that 1) from the 17th century onwards, the meaning and practice of parody shift from a sort of simple ornatus, a light touch by imitation of a past writer’s style, through burlesque and travesty, to full-fledged political satire, a critique of the customs of the country and the vices of the time, 2) parodying displaces, one by one, all the other genres, noble or popular (epic or heroic poem, allegory and fable, romance and fairy tale, tragedy and comedy, even treatise and discourse) to establish the domination of the novel as sole (and dissident) heir to the literary patrimony. In the section of his book on parody titled “A one-sided history of the novel,” Simon Dentith writes: “In such a critical history, the novel establishes itself and its credentials for serious consideration by the deployment of parody, which it uses to devalue alternative genres and their ways of depicting the world”10. Although I am somewhat prone myself to personifying literary genres, I trust that it is no whim of “the novel” to sweep “alternative genres” to the sides of the literary scene and I am wondering what the interests and values are behind this will-to-power and the chosen strategy of one-upgenreship. The novel, being, contrary to romance, “a more fully secular genre, inhabiting the world as it is and not as it might be”11, is it just seduced by the reality principle, or does bourgeois secularism need a middle-class, tiers-état genre that can integrate largely untapped discursive material (colloquial representations) together with most of the traditional materials of the Belles Lettres, and give the resulting hotchpotch the glorifying status of the work of art, thanks to the value-adding labour of composition, re-arranging, rewriting, morphing and updating? The novel, as universal rewriting, shows a chameleon ability to appropriate stylistically and thematically the personality of other fictional and non-fictional, aesthetic and non-aesthetic, discursive modes; its original touch, it has often been noted, consists precisely in this versatility, conferred to it by the tool of prose. At the same time as they become the pillars of the new work of art in the linguistic medium, prose and the novel best manifest the all-embracing, encyclopaedic, inventory-like, cognitive, didactic and legal aspirations of the scientific, technological, manufacturing and merchant bourgeois class. Before the French Revolution, the bourgeois writer and the adventurer-writer would usually rewrite their names adding the particle of nobility; during the French Revolution, the former nobleman or ci-devant also rewrites his name, substituting the word “citoyen” for the particle. “Poetry” rewrites itself as “literature”, totalising in its scope all forms of the written word. But, by the way, literature loses the main specific characters that attached poetry to tradition: the ritualistic, conservative rules of the fixed forms; the rhythmic, physical quality of orality in composition, recitation and aural reception, together with communicational proximity, the materiality of emotional presence; and finally, the uninterrupted chain of active memory, as opposed to passive recording. Verse poetry, in the late 18th century, attempts to cover all topics, all things human and non-human, Nature and speculative thought, and the planetarity of now finite geographical space, but, from Thomson’s soon obsolete Seasons, to Cowper’s Task, Roucher’s Les Mois, Delille’s L’Imagination and Chénier’s vast thwarted projects, programmed personal failure—“reduced circumstances,” melancholy, despondency, madness, exile or political beheading—mirrors a failure to dare at one and the same time the pamphletary radical rewriting of the mock-epic and the faithful rewriting of Western foundational texts that could still make the enduring visibility of Alexander Pope.

12From the early modern period to the Enlightenment, vernacular prose as well as verse build up a capital of appropriated, recovered or adapted, evolutionary thematic materials, structures and techniques. Marlowe, Shakespeare and Milton, Jodelle, Corneille, Racine and Voltaire take quite a long time to forget gothic barbary (in the role of invading difference, bastardisation) and digest the Bible, Homer, Sophocles, Plutarch, Horace and Virgil, in the role of pure noble lineage, maintaining the prestige of remoteness, antiquity, mystery and myth, while bringing them ever closer to current market demands. But this assimilation of sources also ends up banalising them and their imitations, wearing down the value of the label of origin. With Rousseau, the Jena Romantics, the “Lakist” poets, Espronceda, both strengthened and exhausted by an accumulation of captured capital and dead labour on confiscated property, the origin must also be transferred to the here and now of text production. Promethean spoliation of the gods will be dissimulated and transmuted into the invention of fire by each demiurgic individual: here begins the epidemics of originality. But originality spreads by imitation, borrowing, copying, rewriting.

13We could then consider the long Romantic period (including the avant-gardes of the early 20th century) as that of the denial of rewriting, sometimes blind, sometimes in ill faith, rather than a time when rewriting was not common practice. The battle of Hernani and the fevers of Missolonghi are similar obscure incestuous, oedipal encounters with a bequeathed text that must be wrenched from tradition in order to acquire revolutionary legitimacy. Victor Hugo disturbs all chronologies, rewrites Corneille into the time of Emperor Charles the Fifth and Shakespeare into that of Cromwell, invents an in-between language that has never been spoken in actual historical time. The key symbol of this mode of rewriting, reading the new into the old and in terms of the old, the construction of ruins in a gentleman’s park, had become fashionable a long time before the antiquated spellings of the “rhyme of the ancient marinere” and “Childe Harold”. Romantic ruins will somehow differ though from neo-classical mock archaeology, because they will tend to be Christian and medieval instead of Roman or Hellenic, until European classicism and the 18th century themselves catch up with the need for “new” items in the commonly accepted grammar of ornament and repository of nostalgic analoga. We were thus inaugurating the revivalist era of neo-anything, the era of the automatic return of révolu, revolute, “curled backwards,” which begins as a cyclic system of fashion and ends up with the simultaneity of all models and imitations, rewriting of the contemporary, killing the new so that it can be treated as dead and instantly resuscitated. But let us not anticipate too much: it is important, I believe, before we have a look at this edge of a dubious future where we stand, in the living dead of the night of literature, to pay attention to the rather strange modes of rewriting that take place between “neo-” and “post-”.

14What had happened to verse in the late 18th century and would become its durable damnation till now despite its relatively ephemeral romantic surge of popular success due to easy pathos and grandiloquence, was going to befall the newly unified field of literature sooner or later. Its generalist character, the distinctive lack of thematic determinacy (contrary to “poetry” and “belles-lettres”) which made it possible for it to preside over bourgeois takeover in the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods, came under increasing pressure on the part of the new political power to yield prompt return in terms of mastery of the means of production of knowledge, economic development and control of subaltern metropolitan and colonised populations. The encyclopaedic scope of “literature” relied on the recycling (rewriting) of past texts and outdated information (such as Newton’s science in the late 18th century, Linnaeus’ classification of species in the mid-19th century or mesmerism in the late 19th century) and a floating, intuitive or impressionistic epistemology borrowed from all periods of the history of ideas and rearranged according to subjective needs or those of small coteries and marginal social groups. The rewriting of everything was still based on suasive techniques that came from Greece, Rome and Medieval scholastics rather than on formal logic or the requirements of fast new modes of communication. Efficient administration of production tools and human resources required an ever increasing specialisation of knowledge and discourses, but the same specialisation of discursive labour was also instrumental to divide potential political and intellectual opposition, while a minimum level of aestheticisation was enough to maintain and administer the symbolic capital of shared representations and polish its legitimacy, once national cohesion was as firmly established by the lay clerics of democratic officialdom as it once had been by the Church. If anything, the proved ability of literature to rewrite all sorts of texts and turn them upside down through irony and parody (as it had so successfully done in the American war of Independence and French Revolution), including the discourses of practical morals and social submission, made it appear dangerous for the authority of the ruling class. The (no longer metaphorical) desublimation of romantic love, its realistic sexualised rewriting from Flaubert and Baudelaire to Zola, made desire rise up against Nature redefined by the official culture of profit, and literature appears as a disturbingly primitive force, regressive rather than progressive. Eventually literature would either confine itself to dogged proclamations of resistance to “the times”, isolating itself from the average, ordinary readership, or it would turn inwards and do only what it had always been trained to do for other purposes: rewrite itself.

15Rewriting has always at once combined the imitation of art and the rejection of nature with the opposite stance: correcting art in order to provide a better account of nature. But at the same time, if art, although it does its best to let nature in, persists to be seen in despair at a Platonic third remove from the truth, all further rewriting will be at a fourth remove from it at least. This is where Ausdrück (expression) comes in. Let us quote Stephen Halliwell:

  • 12  Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, Princeton and Oxf (...)

The rallying cry of the so-called imitation of nature [...] was then decisively repudiated by romanticism; and in the past two hundred years it has become progressively alien to modern—not to say modernist and postmodernist—accounts of art. As regards both the practice and theory of art (a concept whose own validity has come under ever more wary scrutiny in recent times), we live, it is sometimes alleged, in a “postmimetic” era. But such a perspective, however wide its contemporary appeal, is only patchily reliable.
[...] a canon of “emulating” nature might, after all (and as the romantics were to realise) be fulfilled creatively by doing something other than recording natural appearances faithfully12.

16“Expression” may seem antithetic of the imitation of nature, nevertheless it would turn its back to it only if nature were exclusively outside man, not also inside and constitutive of man, above all creative man, homo faber, the craftsman. The romantic 18th century, replacing God with man or rather replacing god within man, invented the natural artist, the one who does not have to imitate nature because he is part of it. Logically, this displacement/invention should have broken up once and for all the continuum of the aesthetics of imitation (of art) and uninterrupted rewriting, if all we have to do in order to be truest to natural truth is to be true to ourselves without learning and trying to improve narratives, argumentative structures and techniques taught by the works of past writers. Such is the most apparent tenet of “expressionism” in its brute form. But the raw opposition of expressionism to realism, impressionism and naturalism (in that the latter three aim to be externally naturalistic, want to declare the reality of the world through its sensorial and physical manifestations for us) is as superficial as the opposition of realism to romanticism, or naturalism to impressionism. Actually all post-Enlightenment artistic theories share a belief in the human internality of art and nature. Which makes it possible for the self-referentiality of art (and aestheticised discourse, the “poetic function”) to tell the world by expressing oneself.

  • 13  Pascale Casanova, La République mondiale des Lettres, Paris: Seuil, 1999, 15.

17By the same token, we can learn about the world, and how to tell it, by expressing ourselves like all the artists of the past, not only as they have always done. On the one hand, we shall find in their texts a wealth of expressive resources that we can all share and reuse; on the other hand, all artistic texts of the past exist as such because they are distinct, special, even unique manifestations of this supposedly natural commonwealth (the “universal Republic of Letters,” the world literary space “embodied in the writers themselves, who are and make literary history” according to Pascale Casanova13). Let us remark these typical, deceptively rhetorical confusions between “being” and “making” history, and between “making the news” and discursively shaping them, writing them up: they collapse the individual with the collective, the inscription of oneself in history with the construction of oneself by history, writing and being (re)written. Hence finally, from Modernism onwards, the prevalence of the metaliterary re-presentation of texts in lieu of the mimesis of human action rather than in the critical role of showing self-consciousness about the mimesis of nature. In the process, for the avant-gardes of all kinds, Surrealism included, as for formalist, structuralist and deconstructive criticism, the main criterion of literariness has become self-reference through visible rewriting (there exists a universal macrotext fragmentarily manifested in each individual literary work of art), whether such rewriting is carried out by (the producer of) the text or made compulsory for the reader by the lacunae, ambiguities and contradictions of the text’s matter and structure (under the Barthesian writerly regime).

  • 14  Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes : la littérature au second degré, Paris: Seuil, 1982, 410-411.
  • 15 Ibidem, 411.

18In Palimpsestes, Gérard Genette—who understandably does not see or want to see all the historical implications of the proliferation and exacerbation of rewriting in the modern and contemporary grimoire, since he is part of the picture and assigns almost inadvertently the same status to his academic analysis of hypertextuality as to creative rewriting itself— makes nevertheless some interesting remarks on Aragon’s Aventures de Télémaque. Aragon, he says, seems to be contradictory about his intention to correct Fénelon, but his first note on the subject, in 1922, is a mere denial gesturing toward the stance taken in his second note, in 1969, namely that he “had undertaken to rewrite Fénelon or, more precisely, correct him”14. Unfortunately Genette quotes the 1969 note without further comments. When Aragon says that the writing of his Télémaque resulted from a “return to his beginnings” and the dominant influence of Lautréamont on him at that time, he mentions his then recent discovery that the Poésies were “a correction of several authors, particularly that Vauvenargues for whom I had a kind of passion”15. Vauvenargues is an 18th century moralist, corrected (re-dressed) by Isidore Ducasse who subtracted his negations. It is now quite clear, I hope, that, by “correcting” Fénelon and cross-dressing Telemachus, Aragon was at the same time imitating Lautréamont in revolt and sarcasm and copying his own childish selective reading of Fénelon. To these three modes of rewriting, we could probably add a fourth one designated by the denial of correction in 1922: variation on a text as a tombeau, an encomiastic genre; Aragon was undoubtedly aware of Ramsay’s Cyropédie and thus not only duplicating that other hypertextual homage to Fénelon, but also correcting it as well, since he restored the name of Telemachus, returned to the Greeks what had never belonged to the Persians even in a remote battle.

19The year 1922, beside Aragon’s modest novel, is also the publication date of Ulysses:

  • 16  James Joyce, Ulysses [1922], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975, 403.

Amid the general vacant hilarity of the assembly a bell rang and while all were conjecturing what might be the cause Miss Callan entered and, having spoken a few words in a low tone to young Mr Dixon, retired with a profound bow to the company. The presence even for a moment among a party of debauchees of a woman endued with every quality of modesty and not less severe than beautiful refrained the humorous sallies even of the most licentious but her departure was the signal for an outbreak of ribaldry16.

20Are we reading an incidental rewriting of Pamela (e.g. “I had vowed honour and love to your unworthiness, believing you a mirror of bashful modesty and unspotted innocence; and that no perfidious designs lurked in so fair a bosom...”) or of Shamela? By that time, corrective rewriting, ironical or subversive imitation, has so long been the weapon to fire at classical aesthetics and moral self-righteousness with its own ammunition that the firmly established tradition of the new has finally barricaded literature within self-reference, that is, if transcultural rewriting and correlative hybridation do not do anything more than reflecting the modernist/postmodern phenomenon in the re-colonised mirror of globalised third worlds. As Ross Chambers puts it:

  • 17  Ross Chambers, Loiterature, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, 159.

to speak, even if one is a talking dog, is inevitably to be ventriloquised by the language one speaks and the culture that mediates all discourse, including discourse critical of the culture. [...] Even as they enunciate doggish home truths from which humans can learn, talking dogs are uncomfortably aware of a human voice that is speaking through them17.

21Is then latter day rewriting an involuntary return of the master’s voice, a half-conscious irruption of the pre-written? This is the last question we shall (briefly) broach in this paper.

22Along with modernist overwriting and postmodern interscribbling (from Joyce and Pound to Nabokov, Perec and Calvino), the postcolonial context in which we are supposed to operate has certainly drawn our attention to the omnipresence of the phenomenon of rewriting and the relevance of the notion; in the last thirty or forty years, in the former colonies of the Hispanic world and, much more, in those of the British Empire, deliberate rewriting has become a multifunctional tool, and a double-edged axe that both manifests and protests globalisation: as it bundles irony with lineage acquisition, it reveals the “bastard” nature of literature and its idealised “family romance”.

23Among so many examples that I would be delighted to study and compare, I’ll limit myself to three, one from the Caribbean and two taken from the so-called Commonwealth literature.

1969 – Rewriting as self-fulfilling prophecy

24The French translation of El mundo halucinante by Reinaldo Arenas is published before the Spanish text, censored in Cuba; the first Spanish edition is printed in Mexico the same year. The foreword, in the form of a letter addressed to the protagonist, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, an 18th century Mexican monk and revolutionary, proclaims one single revelation, the outcome of long sterile research in “hellish” libraries: “I am you!”. The author’s second novel, Hallucinations, as it is known in English, is a “magic realist” rewriting—an extreme poetic hyperbolisation of incidents and attitudes—of Mier’s life as told mainly by himself in volumes variously titled Memorias or Apología. When he was writing that work, Arenas still presented himself as a supporter of the Castrist revolution; his persecution by the regime actually began after the depiction of Mier’s life in Mexican, Cuban and Spanish prisons as if it had been the young Cuban’s own life. Although Arenas could eventually flee Cuba from Mariel in 1980 and was courted and amply used by the contra, he did not end his brief life in the Presidential apartments of a liberated country as Mier ended his longer life, criticised by many but still politically influential and above all a national symbol, venerated for his lifelong fight for independence and good governance. Mier had been accused, sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment, ill-treated and jailed many years because of his 1794 sermon on the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Protector of Mexico who, according to him, had been known by the Indians (who identified her with their Plumed Serpent god) from the early years of Christianity, when Saint James, he assured his public, had visited the country, many centuries before the “discovery” and subsequent conquest by the Spaniards. This is why Mexico (pronounced Meshico in Nahuatl) must be called Mexico, not Méjico: it means land of the Messiah. In the revolutionary context of the Enlightenment, Mier’s Life is the legend of a saint and martyr because he rewrote another legend, changing all the actors and translating it back into the parallel Amerindian world; but Arenas rewrites it forward against a false, inverted revolution. Inasmuch as Mier’s Life is his own future life, literature writes it off. The Life of Arenas will have to be written in a non-literary or rather anti-literary fashion, it is Antes que anochezca, an unwriting, unedifying story of losses and endings, not to be imitated.

1974 – Schmendrick18 strikes again

  • 18 The Jewish name “Schmen” is supposed to create a very aggressive and independent nature but, ironic (...)
  • 19  Peter Carey, The Fat Man in History, London : Faber, 1990, 166.
  • 20 Ibidem, 170.

25In “Conversations with unicorns”, one of his early short stories published in his first collection, The Fat Man in History, Peter Carey makes us listen to the narrative, told by the human protagonist, of a man who wanted to save the unicorns from being slain by hunters who shot them for the high market value of their stuffed horned heads. But “the unicorns do not understand”19, they believe that death is god-given and hunters simply remove their bodies as it was designed by God. Eventually the ecologist is forced to shoot their chief to make his point: the unicorns will move to another part of their territory where they will be safe, immortal—and bored—again, although they seem to be “unaware that they will live for ever”20.

  • 21  Hassall, 22.
  • 22 See Didier Coste, “Peter Carey’s ‘Conversations with Unicorns’: Allegory, Metafiction and Parable,” (...)

26The story is generally read as a “fable”21 without taking into account that it conveys no definite moral teaching, that unicorns are not beasts, that the tale is told in various narrative tenses by an unreliable narrator and finally that, rather than being removed from “realism,” it introduces precise realist information which produces generic doubt and confusion similar to that of fantasy or an oniric mode of imaging22. In spite of Carey’s many other rewritings (of Philip K. Dick, Swift, Sterne and Dickens, for example), it has escaped the critics’ attention that “Conversations” has a very obvious hypotext, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, probably because that extremely popular piece of fantasy was published in 1968, only a few years before Carey’s “Conversations.” Postcolonial fictions are wrongly supposed to rewrite mainly the metropolitan text in order to amend it, correct it and subvert it ironically. In fact, the current practice of rewriting, in the periphery or “Southern Hemisphere” as well as in the former or traditional “centre,” is not immune to the acceleration or rather flattening out of history, the simultaneity effect that substitutes the high performance of communication technology for age-old verbal magic. Schmendrick, Beagle’s inept magician tries in vain an array of spells to free his friend, the lonely unicorn:

  • 23  Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn [1968], New York: Roc, 1991, 33.

Now he sang something cold and low, and the strange trees blew away like dandelion down. “This is a surer spell,” he said. “The bars are now as brittle as old cheese, which I crumble and scatter, so.” Then he gasped and snatched his hands away. Each long finger was dripping blood.
“I must have gotten the accent wrong,” he said hoarsely. He hid his hands in his cloak and tried to make his voice light. “It comes and goes”23.

27The only way of freeing the unicorn from her cage at the Carnival is to use a plain old key and open the lock. The question remains: is postcolonial rewriting a clumsy, inefficient recitation, or is it a key, and then, what forces does it release? The beauty of the unicorn or the malevolent, deadly look of the harpy, also caged in the literary canon?

2001 – A dollmaker’s self-refutation

  • 24  Joel Kuortti, “Allegories of Fiction: Grimus and Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” in Rajeshwar Mitt (...)

28June, not yet September: Knopf releases Salman Rushdie’s Fury, unleashes it against New York’s skyline. Its hero, Malik Solanka, father of Asmaan, like Rashid, Haroun’s father in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, is primarily a story-teller, a “Shah of Blah.” Like his earlier counterpart, he has temporarily lost his telling abilities in conjunction with conjugal estrangement. Now Haroun, with all its complexities, is a quite optimistic fairy tale and allegory of fiction: “One could cut the story short by commenting that in the end the city turns happy when it remembers its name [Kahani, which means ‘story’]”24. Haroun, taking literally a coach driver’s figure of speech, “I am at your service,” makes him speed up so much that, instead of just passing through the Tunnel before sunset, father and son will eventually land on Kahani, the Moon of Stories, and repel the dark forces of censorship, restoring the real world to its former splendour. But, in Fury, eleven years later, everything goes wrong; Solanka’s characters are materialised in the form of dolls seen on TV shows and then embodied by real life people, until the all-too-real population of Lilliput-Blefuscu (the Fiji islands) is involved in a war-game, acting out Solanka’s stories. Solanka’s new companion loses her life there to save him. He flies back to London and is last seen by Asmaan (Heaven)—and us readers—desperately bouncing ever higher... on the bouncy ledge of a blue inflatable bouncy castle for kids.

  • 25 Rushdie’s “affiliation with Dickens” has been studied by Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochère in h (...)

29Rushdie’s hypotext in Haroun includes both Oriental material (the Katha-saritsagara of Somadeva, the Arabian Nights, Indian epics and Persian poets) and Western sources; for example, the anonymous town in Alifbay country at the beginning of the book, standing for Mumbai, is described in terms obviously indebted to Dickens’s Hard Times25, and American comics and Rushdie’s own previous works are hardly perceptible in the background. On the contrary, The Satanic Verses that do not share many intertextual references with Fury, constitute a very present substratum for this novel of globalisation. If our stories are eventually all the same in a world from where there is no escape under American hegemony, rewriting no longer works as a mise en abyme of the act of representation; self-rewriting, the most extreme and unhappy form of self-reference is perhaps, in an ultimate paradox, the only way of saying the world-out-there, the same in all of us.

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Works cited

ANON., “A Modern-Day ‘Hero and Leander’ on Paws,”, Volume I – Issue 4 – April 2001. April 9, 2001,


BEAGLE Peter S, The Last Unicorn [1968], New York: Roc, 1991.

BRUNET Philippe, La Naissance de la littérature dans la Grèce ancienne, Paris: Le Livre de Poche L.G.F., série “Références”, 1997.

CAREY Peter, The Fat Man in History, London: Faber, 1990.

CASANOVA Pascale, La République mondiale des Lettres, Paris: Seuil, 1999.

CHAMBERS Ross, Loiterature, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

DENTITH Simon, Parody, The New Critical Idiom. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

GENETTE Gérard, Palimpsestes : la littérature au second degré, Paris: Seuil, 1982.

GRASSIN Jean-Marie (ed.), Dictionnaire International des Termes Littéraires, <>.

HALLIWELL Stephen, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.

HUTCHEON Linda, A Theory of Parody, [1985] University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2000.

JOLLES André, Les Formes simples [Einfache Formen, 1930], Trans. A.-M. Buguet. Paris: Seuil, 1972.

JOYCE James, Ulysses [1922], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

MARLOWE et CHAPMAN, Héro et Léandre, Ed. Joseph Barthélémy-Fort, Collection bilingue des classiques étrangers, Paris: Aubier, 1950.

MITTAPALI Rajeshwar and KUORTTI Joel (ed.), Salman Rushdie: New Critical Insights, New Delhi: Atlantic, 2003.

RUSHDIE Salman, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

WAUGH Patricia, Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. Methuen, “New Accents”, London and New York, 1984.

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1 “As a form of language, this ‘Life’ must show a development that mirrors in every respect the story of a real existence, that existence must be effectuated once more in that Life. [...] That Life—as any legend—cuts up ‘historical reality’ into elements that it then invests in the process with a new value—that of a model—before reorganising them according to an order conditioned by this new feature” (André Jolles, Les Formes simples [Einfache Formen, 1930], Paris: Seuil, 1972, 38).

2 See, for example, Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody, [1985] University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2000, and Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction, Methuen, London and New York, 1984.

3  Anon., “A Modern-Day ‘Hero and Leander’ on Paws” in, Volume I - Issue 4 - April 2001. April 9, 2001,<>.

4 See < %20> and an excerpt from a diver’s diary on <>:“On a side note on Zamami and Aka Islands there’s a monument to two dogs named Shiro and Marilyn.  The two dogs are famous for their love story.  The story goes that Shiro, who lived on Aka Island, would swim 3.6 kilometres across the ocean everyday to see his girlfriend Marilyn, who lived on Zamami Island. A swimming white dog was often seen by passengers on ferries between the islands. Their story spread around Okinawa and eventually reached mainland Japan. The movie ‘Marilyn ni Aitai (I want to see Marilyn)’ was based on their story in 1986.  The monument to Shiro was built a year after he passed away on the seashore with a view to Zamami Island. Mr. Hideyuki Miyahira, who was Marilyn's owner, said, ‘Shiro came here soaked everyday, even on rainy and windy days. I was so surprised and deeply moved by their pure, true love.’  I’d like to see the movie while I’m in Okinawa, hopefully I can find it in a rental shop.”

5 See the article “anachronisme” in the Dictionnaire International des Termes Littéraires edited by Jean-Marie Grassin, <>.

6  Marlowe and Chapman, Héro et Léandre. Ed. Joseph Barthélémy Fort. Collection bilingue des classiques étrangers. Paris : Aubier, 1950, 60-62.

7 Ibidem, 62.

8 Hero’s name is virile in English, which makes it easier, symmetrically, to feminise Leander.

9  See Philippe Brunet, La Naissance de la littérature dans la Grèce ancienne, Paris: Le Livre de Poche L.G.F., 1997.

10  Simon Dentith, Parody, The New Critical Idiom, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, 55.

11 Ibidem, 54.

12  Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, 344 and 353.

13  Pascale Casanova, La République mondiale des Lettres, Paris: Seuil, 1999, 15.

14  Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes : la littérature au second degré, Paris: Seuil, 1982, 410-411.

15 Ibidem, 411.

16  James Joyce, Ulysses [1922], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975, 403.

17  Ross Chambers, Loiterature, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, 159.

18 The Jewish name “Schmen” is supposed to create a very aggressive and independent nature but, ironically, the closest word of kin in German is “Schmerz”.

19  Peter Carey, The Fat Man in History, London : Faber, 1990, 166.

20 Ibidem, 170.

21  Hassall, 22.

22 See Didier Coste, “Peter Carey’s ‘Conversations with Unicorns’: Allegory, Metafiction and Parable,” submitted to ALS, forthcoming.

23  Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn [1968], New York: Roc, 1991, 33.

24  Joel Kuortti, “Allegories of Fiction: Grimus and Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” in Rajeshwar Mittapali and Joel Kuortti (ed.), Salman Rushdie: New Critical Insights, New Delhi: Atlantic, 2003, 32.

25 Rushdie’s “affiliation with Dickens” has been studied by Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochère in her article “Rushdie’s Affiliation with Dickens” (in Rajeshwar Mittapali and Joel Kuortti, Salman Rushdie: New Critical Insights, op. cit.,142-163). Compare “In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories [...]. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news” (Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990, 15) and “It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled” (Hard Times, Chapter V).

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Didier Coste, « Rewriting, Literariness, Literary History », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°5 | 2004, 8-25.

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Didier Coste, « Rewriting, Literariness, Literary History », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°5 | 2004, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2009, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.2893

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Didier Coste

Prof. (Bordeaux, France)
Didier Coste is a Professor of Comparative Literature at the Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3, France. He began his academic career in Belgium and Australia and was a Visiting Professor in several North American Universities, as well as in Spain, South Africa, Argentina and India. Author of Narrative as Communication (Minnesota U.P., 1989), his main research interests are in the fields of interarts studies, narrative theory, the poetics of poetry, translation studies, literary historiography and cultural theory. He is currently editing a volume on emergent narrative (1859-1939), completing a book on literary representation and universes of reference, and working on a book length study of 20th c. realist fiction. He is also a novelist and poet, published by Minuit, Seuil, Flammarion, La Différence, etc. He has translated some thirty books from Spanish, English and Catalan into French.

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