The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film

Mikhail Iampolski,
The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film. University of California Press. 1998
ISBN 0-520-08530-2
$22.50 US (pb)

Uploaded 1 July 1999 | 1709 words

Academic books from American university publishing houses are frequently characterised by two features: covers with the sensual appeal of perfume packaging to attract readers and lists of acknowledgements which situate the author, attempting to establish his/her authority by association with the names of eminent colleagues, teachers, friends, lovers, people who passed through the department and made a few critical comments etc. The acknowledgements page allows the author to settle debts and to cash in on the astuteness of his/her institutional positioning and influences. There seems to be a fear among publishers that books which do not resort to these techniques will frighten readers, used to the orthodoxies of these approaches as market guides (which may be why this book is already on sale at half price in intellectually style-conscious Gleebooks, within three months of its release in Australia). Appropriately in a book on sources and their repression, Iampolski does not name his in declaratory style, acknowledging only his translator and his editor and dedicating the book to Annette Michelson. We glean his influences from a more careful reading than the cursory glance of the bookshop browser and the effort is amply rewarded. This is a brilliant book from an original thinker whose work in visual theory is acquiring deserved prominence in English [1] .

The book’s epigram (‘Man … should concentrate mind and heart on the source of all sources’) is taken from the thirteenth century Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, or Book of splendour, concerned with the mystery of creation. Iampolski’s main theme in The memory of Tiresias is the revelation of the repressed sources of works by Griffiths, Cendrars, Bunuel, Tynianov and Eisenstein – or in other words he is concerned with the apparent mysteries of artistic creation. His analysis goes beyond a conventional romantic resort to the inexplicability of artistic creation and he performs deft detective work which reveals the key influences determining artistic choices. The anti-intellectual fear that deep analysis of this kind might spoil the pleasure of the text turns out to be unfounded and a greater pleasure in ‘the original’ is gained by the revelation of the intricate chains of connection and association which produce a work (though perhaps we might say that intellectuals have to work much harder to explain the kind of pleasure which popular audiences experience immediately without further need for explanation. And we need to defend this kind of effort before it is entirely replaced by the mindlessness of a purely economic explanation of popularity in film, an explanation which does not oblige us to understand anything at all.)

For the purposes of his argument, Iampolski suggests that Tiresias stands as a representative of modern culture’s mode of seeing; the memory of Tiresias – the blind sage, granted foresight (and hence connection with the sources of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the Muses) – is the ideal form of memory for a culture which requires spectators to assemble fragments and to make meaning from them. The memory of Tiresias represents the ability to link, combine and make sense of things, providing a ‘guiding thread’ which prevents us from being lost ‘in the chaos of texts and the chaos of being'(4) – that state of blindness which involves seeing everything but understanding nothing: for Iampolski , a spectacle which is not immersed in memory remains a meaningless jumble of unconnected fragments [2] .

Sight, then, becomes less important than vision, a kind of inner seeing, so that blindness can be taken as a sign of superior vision, representing in some sense an ability to see both before and after the event. This ‘frame’ of vision and spectacle, invoked via mythological reference provides the context in which Iampolski deploys his basic concepts and in particular the concept of intertextuality in exploring the languages of cinema and in understanding how filmmakers work with their sources.

Iampolski draws upon the Kristevan notion of intertextuality but if Kristeva’s use of the term emerged at a moment of heightened emphasis on linguistics (the ‘linguistic turn’) in which the main focus was on the nature of the poetic signified as a point of intersection of several codes, surrounded by intertextual space, Iampolski’s notion is more corporeal. If the play of signifieds in this earlier notion occurred largely in the field of language, in Iampolski’s use of the notion, the ‘logic’ of substitution which is being described extends the intertextual space into culture more explicitly and in this sense can be seen as belonging more within a tradition of culturological thought which is decidedly Russian. Hence: ‘In organizing its own intertextual field, each work of art also creates its own history of culture. This involves a restructuring of the entire stock of older culture. For this reason, we can say that a theory of intertextuality is a means of renewing our understanding of history, a history that enters the structure of the text as a dynamic and constantly evolving factor.’ (246)

More importantly, Iampolski distinguishes his own approach from that of semiotics for example by arguing that the ideas of ‘structure’ or ‘meaning’ which semiotics reveals in its movement from the concrete to the abstract are not finally available to the reader as physically given, whereas the concept of the invisible text, which is at the heart of his own explanation exists above all in the memory of the viewer or reader and is, to this extent, deeply embodied: ‘Meaning is thus situated in this linguistic field between a heightened corporeality and a physically evacuated nonbeing.’ (250)
Intertextuality, then, serves as the general term to explain the process by which sources are used by filmmakers and the intricacies of the chains of associations which produce the energy and force of the most successful works. The argument extends the idea of an ‘authentic’ original, while holding on to the importance of the original or more to the point, the source, (which can be cultural as well as textual) in our attempts to understand texts. It understands the relation between the text and its precursor less in a hierarchical sense and more as an exchange, which adds to both text and source and so it breaks out of the logic of ‘original versus copy’, which has dominated much of the discussion of this problem in recent years.

The book’s three main sections deal with narrative, focussing on Griffith, avant-garde cinema, focussing on Cendrars, Leger, Bunuel and Dali and finally on theorists who practiced: Tynianov and Eisenstein. In the Griffith section, Iampolski elaborately reads a group of Biograph films – Pippapasses (1908); The unchanging sea (1910) Enoch Arden (1911); The sands of Dee (1912) and Home sweet home, ostensibly a free adaptation of a biography of John Howard Payne, which Griffith made in 1914 for the Reliance Majestic and Mutual companies. Adapting an analysis of the creative act borrowed from Harold Bloom who uses it to consider Anglo-American poetry, Iampolski follows Bloom’s theory, choosing to regard it as a specific reading strategy rather than a genuine theory of artistic creation. Bloom argues that true poets conceal from themselves and their audiences the precursor texts which influence them in order to create the illusion of a direct relation to reality – or unmediated access to the Muse. Iampolski agrees with Laurent Jenny’s assessment that Bloom’s concept represents ‘an Oedipal complex of the creator’ in which the precursor text plays the role of the father. (Why not the mother, I ask – but that is the ultimate repression of this book too)

Iampolski traces out the mechanism of repression of literary sources in Griffith’s films, explaining the importance of literary sources in early cinema, when numerous adaptations of the theatrical versions of classical epic poems and novels were used: ‘cinema needs to refer to the Book as its source in order to legitimate its own textual status. A text requires social authority only if it is produced by an author who enjoys a specific social and cultural credibility’ (80) What is at stake in this emphasis on originary sources is the search for the metalanguage of nature, which the romantics thought was to be found in music and this in turn informs the utopian desire for a universal language, which Griffith hoped that cinema could realise.

The second of the chapters in this section, ‘Intertextuality and the evolution of cinematic language: Griffith and the poetic tradition’, presents an ingenious account of the genesis of cinematic language via romantic poetry, esoteric thought, Swedenborgian philosophy, Emerson, Vachel Lindsay and the richness of this account is the book’s tour de force. Less successful in this edition is the section, ‘Beyond narrative: avant-garde cinema’ because its exegesis of the links between Cendrars and Leger and its unravelling of the chains of absurd metamorphoses characteristic of surrealism seem at times over-elaborated. The judicious use of images of paintings by Delauney, Leger, Dali and the use of film stills would have provided a shortcut in clarifying the argument here – and it is surprising that all the images have been removed from this edition by a well-established US academic publisher, while in the original Russian edition by a much more precariously placed publisher, adequate black and white reproductions are included throughout [3] .

In the chapter on Eisenstein, ‘Invisible text as universal equivalent’, a kind of analytic vivisection is attempted in Iampolski’s physiognomic reading of the principles of the director’s work, the ‘skeleton’ which lies hidden beneath the surface. In reading the chapter on Tynianov (‘The hero as intertextual body’) there is a retrospective sense that the purpose in setting up the relation between Cendrars and Gance in an earlier chapter is to pave the way for establishing the relation between Tynianov and Faintsimmer – and this chapter’s reference points in Russian literature will be less familiar to most readers in English.

At times it seems possible to say of this book what Eikhenbaum had to say of Tynianov’s speculations on Pushkin’s secret love for Karamzina: that it represents a “fruitful application of ‘artistic method’ to scholarship” (221). Coming from a formalist critic, such an assessment is to damn with faint praise. But my purpose is rather to celebrate the translation of a highly original and deeply unorthodox text which offers a remarkably fresh approach to the question of cinematic language’s origins.

Helen Grace

Selected Bibliography:

[1] A few essays in English: ‘Reality at second hand’ in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 11, No 2, 1991); ‘Kuleshov’s experiments and the new anthropology of the actor’ in Taylor, Richard and Christie, Ian:Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema (Routledge, 1991); ‘Transparency painting: from myth to theatre’ in Efimova Alla and Manovich Lev: Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture (University of chicago Press, 1993); ‘Mask face and machine face’ (The Drama Review, Vol 38, No 3, Fall 1994 pp 60 – 74); ‘Death in Cinema’ in Verry Ellen E.and Miller-Pogacar Anesa (eds) Reentering the Sign: Articulating New Russian Culture (Michigan University Press, 1995); ‘In the shadow of monuments: notes on iconoclasm and time’ in Condee Nancy (ed) Soviet Heiroglyphics: Visual Culture in Late Twentieth Century Russia (Indiana University Press/BFI publishing 1995); ‘Censorship as the triumph of life’ in Lahusen, Thomas and Dobrenko, Evgeny (eds) Socialist Realism without Shores (Duke University Press, 1997). In most of these instances, Iampolski’s name appears as ‘Yampolsky’, because of a difference in transliteration. The initial letter of his name – which is the last letter of the Russian alphabet and also in Russian, first person pronoun – appears as a reversed ‘R’ and is frequently used in English as a symbol of Russianness, particularly in the post-Soviet period, functioning, in spite of this ungrammatical and indeed nonsensical deployment, as a hieroglyph – and illustrating the sense in which Iampolski uses this concept here.
[2] The question of memory is of continued concern to Iampolski in a more recent book, Bespamiatstvo kak Istok (The lack of memory as source) (Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, Moscow, 1998)
[3] Iampol’skii M. Pamiat’Tiresiia: Intertekstualnost’ I Kinematograf (Ad Marginem, RIK Moscow 1993)

About the Author

Helen Grace

About the Author

Helen Grace

Helen Grace is Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney. She has edited Aesthesia & the Economy of the Senses (UWS,Nepean, 1996), and is co-author of Home/world: Space, Community & Marginality in Sydney's West (Pluto Press, 1997) and co-editor of Planet Diana: Cultural Studies & Global Mourning (Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, UWS, Nepean 1997).View all posts by Helen Grace →