Muray’s Poetic Imagination

French poet, writer and philosopher Philippe Muray was one of those brilliant artists who waited to be dead to become famous. In 2010, four years after Muray’s demise, the adulated French actor Fabrice Luchini would read some of his poems as a part of his acclaimed theatrical performances. The French media rediscovered a writer who could marry a thorough critical disapproval of the turpitudes of our times with a lyrical language, and the utmost modern and tragic issues with an exhilarating humour. In the present essay, I shall attempt to discuss Muray’s imagination, as a poet, in a piece entitled “Tomb for an innocent tourist.” Since his œuvre is – unfortunately – still not translated into English, the passages that follow are from my own translation of the work. Moreover, since the original piece is 10 pages-long, I have only selected here important and representative segments. Regular rules of “correct” English have at times been suspended to be more faithful to the original text, for instance with certain rhymes.

Rien n’est jamais plus beau
qu’une touriste blonde

Nothing is ever more beautiful
than a blond tourist

Qu’interviouwent les télés nippones
ou bavaroises

Interviewed by Nippon or Bavarian TVs

Juste avant que sa tête
dans la jungle ne tombe

Right before her head in the jungle falls

Sous la hache d’un pirate
aux façons très courtoises

Under the axe of a pirate
with very courteous manners

Elle était bête et triste
et crédule et confiante

She was silly and sad
and credulous and confident

Elle n’avait du monde
qu’une vision rassurante

She had of the world
only a reassuring view

Elle se figurait que
dans toutes les régions

She imagined that in all regions

Règne le sacro-saint
principe de précaution

Reigns the sacrosanct
principle of precaution

Elle avait découvert
le marketing éthique

She had discovered
the marketing ethical

La joie de proposer
des cadeaux atypiques

The joy of offering gifts atypical

Fabriqués dans les règles
de l’art humanitaire

Fabricated in the rules
of the art humanitarian

Et selon les valeurs
les plus égalitaires

And according to the values
the most equalitarian

Café labellisé bio-humanisé

Coffee certified bio-humanized

Petits poulets de grain
ayant accès au pré

Little grain-fed chickens
allowed access to the meadow

Robes du Bangladesh
jus d’orange allégé

Dresses from Bangladesh
low-fat orange juice

Connotation manouche
complètement décalée

Gipsy connotation completely offbeat

Elle avait parcouru l’Inde
le Japon la Chine

She had gone all over India Japan China

La Grèce l’Argentine
et puis la Palestine

Greece Argentina and Palestine

Mais elle refusait de se rendre en Iran

But she refused to enter Iran

Du moins tant que les femmes
y seraient mises au ban

Leastwise as long as women
would remain outlawed

Elle est morte un matin
sur l’île de Tralâlâ

She died one morning
on the Tralala island

Des mains d’un islamiste
anciennement fransiscain

Off the hands of an Islamist
formerly Franciscan

Prétendu insurgé et supposé mutin

Wannabe insurgent and supposed mutineer

Qui la viola deux fois puis la décapita

Who raped her twice
and then beheaded her

C’était une touriste
qui se voulait rebelle

This was a tourist
who purported to be rebel

Lui était terroriste et se rêvait touriste

Him, a terrorist and dreamed to be tourist

Et tous les deux étaient
des altermondialistes

And both were alter-globalists

Leurs différences mêmes
n’étaient que virtuelles

Their very differences were only virtual

 

What kind of imagination is present in this piece? How did Muray “arrange” his imaginative power to convey the particular meaning he intended? And what kind of imagination is this piece inviting the reader to rely upon? Indeed, the intentional imagined world of the poet can be distinct from the effect he provokes in his readers. We shall first try to see how certain theories of imagination can help to understand this piece of poetry. Second, with a particular attention to the vocabulary, we will explore how Muray sets a unique sense of imagination in this text.

The Imagery Debate

At first, we will look at how Muray’s piece adapts to the imagery debate, which was foundational in the building of imagination as a philosophical question (see Kind 2005). 1 On one side, the pictorialists argue that the mental images are of the same nature as visual images. On the other side, the descriptionalists, by contrast, argue that we form mental images through the medium of language: our mental images follow mostly “descriptions,” that is, linguistic “reformulations” of how the object was perceived. In the context of our poem, what kind of medium is used? Are we drawing the imagination of that poem on language or on a format that remains like that of a picture? At first, it seems undeniable that, poetry being a genre relying on language, the poet builds meaning essentially through a play on language and language-based sounds, for instance, with the rhymes in –arian and –ical of the third verse. These suffixes, both repeated twice, show how today, any cultural or even commercial event can be portrayed as a grand, almost philosophical-like concept: marketing becomes ethical, a gift, atypical, art, humanitarian and all these within values that are equalitarian. The image of the poem seems to be expressed through language, that is, closer to the descriptionalist view.

Inversely, it could also be argued that the linkage of meaning, in this poem, is built on something sensuous. Indeed, it is not the arbitrary connection of objects with specific word-sounds – language as such – that creates meaning here, but the repetition of certain sounds. I would suggest that the pictorialist stance should not only be limited to an analogy of the mental image with visual images, but could extent to also include the other senses as well. 2 Within this larger definition of pictorialism, we can argue that our piece 3 builds a sense of imagination, the imagination intended by the author, through a play with our senses. 4 The intellectualization or transformation of the sound into a particular meaningful sense happens, but only after the sensuous link is made: it is only after the reader reads or hears the two repetitions of –arian and –ical that he can analyze it into the more conceptual understanding mentioned above. In the same way, the line “petits poulets de grain” (“little grain fed chickens”) contains an alliteration of consonantal sounds, offering a rhythm evocative of the neck movement of a chicken. The beauty of poetry is precisely that it allows us to “see” the image intended by the author before our mind can put words on it.

The Space of Imagination

Philosophy and literary criticism have developed other theories of imagination, some of which are more precise than what the imagery debate leaves us with. One of them is the existential imagination of Sartre (see Kearney, 1991). For Sartre, imagination has a ‘positional’ power, that is, a capacity to ‘posit’ its object in a particular space. This goes against the view that what we imagine is simply aspatial, out of space. This ‘positioning’ or ‘positionality’ can happen in four main ways: positing the imagined object “(1) as non-existing, (2) as existing but elsewhere, (3) as existing but absent, (4) as neither existing nor non-existing” (Kearney 1991, 50). In other words, imagination fundamentally works within space and undoubtedly sets a space where the imagined scene occurs. What is the trajectory of Muray’s poem within Sartre’s framework? Nothing in his story is completely impossible (like a man with the body of the centaur – Kearney’s example for the first mode of Sartre’s imagination), yet the story is not just a journalistic-like description of a scene that occurred in the past. This is why imagination is fundamentally dealing with the unreal, as also pointed out, in opposition with perception, by a major influence of Sartre: Husserl (ibid., 17). We may find in this poem an example of the second category of Sartre’s analysis: we can assume that the encounter scene (between the woman and the terrorist) would be broadly realistic, plausible, possible, but its location is simply not within the space of the reader, it exists but elsewhere. But Muray does not only rely on the imagination of one space, the exotic island, but also on the image of this surprising encounter, this meeting of spaces. The encounter, as such, is a product of imagination.

line 1

In “Tomb for an innocent tourist,” Muray maintains a tension of spaces, the familiar and the exotic, the everyday and the fantasized, the more common and the more imagined. Muray shows, in one and the same piece, how a poet can play with the reader’s imagination both within the space of the known and that of the unknown.

line 2

Sartre’s remarks seem to extend, within the case of Muray’s piece, to the question of the author’s relation to space. “Tomb for an innocent tourist” is a piece that draws on spaces – the spatial tension that globalization revolves around – and on the tragic encounters of those spaces. For the reader, the space discussed in most of the verses is a familiar one, the space of western societies, where such alter-globalists as that tourist, with those typical beliefs and lifestyles, are relatively common. This space is brutally contrasted with another one, that of the terrorist in the remote Tralala island. The two spaces highlight a wide distantiation, and the asymmetrical last word of one over the other. Indeed, it is in the island that the final sentence occurs, and where the truth of our civilized and so-called ethically aware society is more explicitly than ever said: the innocent idealist is beheaded. 5 In “Tomb for an innocent tourist,” Muray maintains a tension of spaces, the familiar and the exotic, the everyday and the fantasized, the more common and the more imagined. Muray shows, in one and the same piece, how a poet can play with the reader’s imagination both within the space of the known and that of the unknown.

Imagination in Muray’s vocabulary

guill top right

The blond woman is not anymore the single ridicule character of our society, since we all care about “ethical” products and low-fat food. Similarly, the terrorist is not anymore the archaic fundamentalist at the antipodes of western culture, since he came from it as well, he has remained a courteous man, and he simply falls prey to the pressures of globalization, as we all do. The poem does not talk about a blond tourist and a terrorist: it talks about us.

guill bottom left
Lastly, we may see in Muray’s choice of certain words, and certain associations through rhymes, another aspect of his imagination. The first line sets the scene: the tourist is blond. Blond women are often the objects of jokes relying on the conventional myth of the blond women as stupid. Here, “blonde” rhymes perfectly with “tombe” (“falls”): the naivety of the woman is confirmed; she has gone as far as risking her life. Here, Muray seems to set the character of a fictional woman in accordance with larger and common views of our society. The type of reference diverges in another line. We learn that this pirate has courteous manners. This is a fundamentally new idea. It is not rare to hear from today’s journalists and political analysts that many terrorists come from within western societies, but perhaps no one before Muray had given to such individuals a character almost glamorous, exactly similar to the portrayal of a gentleman in a romance novel of Victorian England. Here, Muray pushes the critical view on today’s society deeper: the terrorists are not ideologically deviant people within our culture; they are individuals who share even our most intimate values. This idea is again found in the penultimate verse: the Islamist was formerly a Franciscan brother, perhaps the most harmless figure in western society. Muray offers to see an image, to set the imagination of a world where even these barriers are broken. Unlike the perhaps unreal character of the encounter, as we commented above, this imagination of a world where extremes meet seems actually closer to reality: through the unreal, Muray discusses of the (very) real. Following the theory of defamiliarization through poetry of Viktor Shkovsky or the deconstructive method of Jacques Derrida, we could also argue that Muray starts with characters and values common to all in the popular culture, in order to ultimately twist them diametrically. The blond woman is not anymore the single ridicule character of our society, since we all care about “ethical” products and low-fat food. Similarly, the terrorist is not anymore the archaic fundamentalist at the antipodes of western culture, since he came from it as well, he has remained a courteous man, and he simply falls prey to the pressures of globalization, as we all do. The poem does not talk about a blond tourist and a terrorist: it talks about us.

The third and fourth verses offer a very rich play on ideas. “Ethical,” “atypical,” “humanitarian,” and “equalitarian” are words that rely on a certain imagination, that of a sort of “ethical capitalism,” which western societies have known for the last fifteen or twenty years. Muray emphasizes on the words, and on their suffix, to highlight this real machine to create (supposedly) ethical products and consumers. The repetition gives a sense of absurdity, of artificiality: the critique is very visible. The fourth verse is the setting for a mix of very basic commodities with idealized humanist approaches. “Alter-globalist,” which we find in a later verse, is now rather common in French as an alternative to the ancient label of “anti-globalist.” Therefore, Muray is perhaps not creating a properly new image by using this word, but he plays with a certain stereotype: those who used to be “anti” have given up on that hope and now look only for a better globalism, an “alternative” globalism. They are not genuinely resisting globalization. However, “bio-humanized” is a proper neologism. “Bio” products are common today, and commonly criticized as not being always more “biological” (that is, less “chemical”) than other products. But “humanized” is not usually found in French. Here, Muray offers through this neologism an idea, an image, an imagination of a market, and its consumer, so desperate to look ethically aware, that absolutely banal concepts (“human”) are turned into philosophical labels. Muray further criticizes this situation, mixing at the same level the blond woman’s concern for bio coffee, chickens, and dresses. In this potpourri is also found the low-fat orange juice: the blond woman is so confused in the new “aware market” that she also includes in her new “ethical” lifestyle some products exclusively meant and sold for weight loss. The woman wants a flat belly and children of the world to be well fed. The woman is imagined, but the critique is real. Muray finds a way to directly denounce the modern situation, but in a very effective and not rebarbative manner: satire.

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References

Image courtesy: ScoopWhoop

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Footnotes

  1. This debate consists in the opposition of two schools: pictorialism and descriptionalism. Both sides agree that our imagination is broadly constituted of ‘mental images,’ that is, images in our mind, which more or less look the way a visual object would be perceived by each of us. But the two traditions diverge with regard to what, as such, allows for the construction of such mental images: images analogous to visual ones, or information mediated by language.
  2. In the imagery debate, the discussion is limited, for the pictorialists, to an imagination defined only as relying on the visual sense. This may be reductive, as imagination is not only visual: it can also concern the other senses, such as with the gustative imagination or the auditory imagination. In these cases, the pictorialist view could perhaps be extended and would then have as an object of contention, against the descriptionalists, the opposition between arbitrary, concept- and language-based descriptions on the one hand, and sensuous medium (visual being only one of them) on the other.
  3. This would also apply to any other piece relying on musical resonance like rhyme, etc., that is, to the whole of poetry.
  4. The 20th century movement of poetry known as “Imagism” aimed at provoking a sensuous feeling in the reader through language as such, that is, even without relying on the more musical aspects of words in poetry. We consider here that these more sensuous aspects of language as sound do offer a more direct contact with our senses.
  5. In general, is there such thing as an “innocent tourist”? The title of Muray’s poem may also be understood as that of the ultimate argumentation against this naïve idea. Poetry relying heavily on sounds, if this title is recited rather than read, the listener cannot differentiate between “Tomb for an innocent tourist” and “Tomb for “an innocent tourist”.” With this piece, Muray does not only recount the inhumation of that particular tourist, but calls for the rejection of the very idea of the self-proclaimed “innocent tourist.”