Translated by Lisa Robertson and Avra Spector


In 2009 we came across Émile Benveniste’s “Manuscrits inédits” —five pages of his reading notes on Charles Baudelaire—in the volume Émile Benveiste: Pour vivre langage, a collection of essays edited by Serge Martin for the series Résonance Général: Essais pour la poétique.



Translated by Lisa Robertson and Avra Spector





In 2009 we came across Émile Benveniste’s “Manuscrits inédits” —five pages of his reading notes on Charles Baudelaire—in the volume Émile Benveiste: Pour vivre langage, a collection of essays edited by Serge Martin for the series Résonance Général: Essais pour la poétique. This spring Lambert-Lucas, in Limoges, published the complete 767 facing page volume of the facsimile notes and their transcriptions. The notes were transcribed and introduced by Chloé Laplantine, who describes their provenance in the Benveniste archive: 


In a list of promised articles undoubtedly dating from 1967, Benveniste writes “Languages/ (The Language of Baudelaire)”. This article would never be published, but we find in Benveniste’s archive a file titled “Baudelaire”, which contains 370 small sheets of paper. With the exception of a few sheets in the Archives of the College de France, the entire file has been accessible since 2004 at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.*


These reading notes were assembled by Beveniste in view of the promised essay, which Roland Barthes had requested for an issue of the journal Langages called “Linguistiques et literatures.” Our translations were made from the Laplantine’s earlier journal publication, which differs from the typographically standardized Lambert-Lucas volume in its retention and reproduction of the graphic features of the original notes.


Born in Aleppo, Syria in 1902, Émile Benveniste was educated from the age of 11 at the École Rabbinique de France in Paris. There his teachers recognized his linguistic gift, and prepared him for studies at the Sorbonne, where he was to work closely with the great comparative linguist Antoine Meillet, who had himself been a student of Saussure’s during the Swiss linguist’s early years in Paris. After completing his Diplomes d’études supérieures, Benveniste spent 18 months teaching in Puna, India, where he also studied Zorastrian religion. Following his time in India he completed his military service in Morocco, then in 1927 he was named Director of Studies in Comparative Grammar and Iranian at l’École Practique des Hautes Études, the same school where Saussure had come to teach in 1891 at the age of 21. In 1936, having completed his doctoral thesis (Origines de la formation des noms en indo-européen), Benveniste joined the Collège de France, where he remained until his 1969 stroke ended his career. He signed up for military service in 1940, and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. He escaped in 1941, made his way to Lyons, then a year later again fled, to Switzerland. After a period in an internment camp, he found refuge in Fribourg where he worked at the university library, and met, among others, Jean Starobinski at a discussion group he frequented. After the Liberation he returned to his Paris teaching post. His apartment had been occupied and pillaged. His colleagues had been able to save most of his library, but all documents and manuscripts had disappeared. He found new lodgings at the Porte d’Orleans, where he lived until his final illness. As well as his distinguished teaching career at the College de France, his lifework included several trips for linguistic fieldwork, notably to Afghanistan and to the Haida Gwaii region of British Columbia and to Alaska. His books include Les infinitifs avestiques (1935), Origines de la formation des noms en indo-européen (1935), Hittite et indo-européen: études comparatives (1962); and in English translation, Problems in General Linguistics (1973; French ed. 1966, 1974) and Indo European language and Society (1973, French ed. 1969). He died in 1976 in Versailles after a seven year period of semi-paralysis and aphasia caused by the stroke. Among a small group of loyal visitors were Julia Kristeva, and the linguist Henri Meschonnic.


The Loner Universe


Perceiving isn’t divisible by a sum of organs. The image that Benveniste finds in Baudelaire is a “muscular, tactile, olfactory” renewal which is a transformational event: a volatile subjectivity that’s relational and multi-valent. The Baudelairean image is not primarily retinal; the image is elemental and corporeal, and acts with and upon its receiver. It’s not a sign, nor is it the production of signs. The Baudelairean image is a semantic circulation. The fixed and closed mode of signification denoted by the sign within semiotic tradition is not adequate to indicate the relation of poem to world. And since this world is not an object, not a thing, not a fixity, but a movement of relationships enunciated or animated in collaboration with the body of the poet, the poem is that type of “possession,” which is an experiential possession. There emerges an agile, vibrant condition, a doubling or correspondence put into play by the poet whose sensing, called-up, is language’s bodied engagement with the world. Yet at the same time, this experiential possession is an ownerless having which opens within its receiver. Both writer and reader are suspended in this unowned, buoyant field of relationship.


A setting-free as much as a capturing, the “pawing” at the world that Beneveniste sees in Baudelaire excavates, uncovers, and exposes an elemental immobility. Earth, fire, water, air: Immobility is the present, which is outside of duration. Fixed and infinitely recombinant, the cosmic present doesn’t become something other than itself, although its elemental relationships and correspondences shift, as atoms do in the atomist material description. That is to say, the elements themselves don’t have duration. Beauty as element is restored to the present. The apprehension of this immobility is the poem’s task.


“The specificity of this form of language,” in Beneveniste’s words—the present of language—offers a new departure into a study of linguistics. This study, unachieved but intimated in these notes, and also in his 1969 essay “The Semiology of Language,” continues to move the discourse of linguistics away from the science of semiotics, and towards the field of poetics. Mallarmé and Artaud, Benveniste stated, are the two greatest French linguists.*** What poetics brings into the linguistic description of language is a semantics of discourse where discourse is the desiring enunciative movement beyond the domain of a structural identification: 


Whether or not it is a question of two distinct ideas and of two conceptual universes, we can still demonstrate this distinction through the difference in criteria of validity required by each. Semiotics (the sign) must be recognized; semantics (the discourse) must be understood. The difference between recognition and comprehension refers to two distinct faculties of the mind: that of discerning the identity between the previous and the present and that of discerning, on the other hand, the meaning of a new enunciation.****


This addition of discourse to semiology is crucial; discursive meaning locates itself in a relational dynamics among signs, comprised of not only representational equivalencies but figural modes, polyvocal enunciations, and reflexive or second-order languages. In activating discourse as a domain, Benveniste is not refuting Saussurian semiology, but introducing a critical dialectic that structurally broadens the methodological scope. Poetics, rather than being a subset of language, needs to be recognized as fundamental to an understanding of the dynamics of meaning in language. 


These notes, intended as a sketch or a study, show Benveniste’s thinking in all its tentativeness, elegance, and precision. The new field he wished to create is here in its essentials. Our pleasure in thinking alongside these notes is immense. We think that Benveniste’s return of a corporeal present to language opens poetics as a lived, 

collaborative inquiry into the social element.


—Lisa Robertson and Avra Spector, August 2012


* Chloé Laplantine. “La poétique d’Émile Benveniste,” 2009. Ed. Serge Martin. Basse Normandie: Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, p. 20 (our translation).

**Biography adapted from Georges Redard’s account “Émile Benveniste (1902-1976),” in Émile Benveniste: Deniéres Leçons Collège de France 1968 et 1969 (Seuil, 2012).

***“This austere scholar, who used to read to me from the Rigveda directly from Sanskrit into French and whose name appears below a Surrealist Manifesto, borrowed the “Rodez Letters” from me so he could read them during the constitutional congress of the International Semiology Association held in Warsaw in 1968. He secretly confided to me his belief that there were only two great French linguists: Mallarmé and Artaud. I can see him, some time later at the Hospital in Saint-Cloud, then later in Creteil stricken with aphasia but surprisingly warm toward me, tracing with a trembling hand on a sheet of paper the enigmatic letters T-H-E-O.” From Julia Kristeva “My Memory’s Hyperbole,” The Portable Kristeva, 1997, ed. Kelly Oliver (New York: Columbia University Press), 10.

****Emile Benveniste, “The Semiology of Language,” translated by Genette Ashby and Adelaide Russo, in Polyphonic Linguistics: The Many voices of Emile Benevisite, 1981, ed. Sylvère Lotringer and Thomas Gora (The Hague: Mouton Publishers), 20




White sheet, 21x27, blue ballpoint pen.



  Baudelaire does not want to see the world ; he wants to paw it,

he wants to possess it. His primordial movements are those

 of pawing, those of the swimmer who slides through

 the deep water, those of the bird or of the swimmer

   inverted who slides through the breeze. He wants the vigorous

                         the graceful power

limbsandthefreeway of those who master

    the elements , the ships that glide , the birds

     that soar.

           He wants to paw to possess, it’s the gesture of loners.

and to take the other, who’s always shrinking away.

                                    from the mute and grandiose universe
        Baudelaire addresses himself to the elements. He wins over these

    beings made of elements, he can’t praise them, laud them,

    describe them by comparing them with grand
           palpitations                                   the sky
           cosmic givens ,  the starry night  , the nocturnal vault

 the brilliance diurnal or nocturnal  .  The sun   beaming on

              the sea. Beauty has become element,


              Another universe, entirely opposed is the city. It’s a          

      transpositionoftheloneruniverse (I (showthecorrespondences)






Verso of letterhead paper of the Linguistics Society of Paris,

21x27, blue-black fountain pen, other blue-black ink (reworked writing?) beginning from “of

the emotion”).




            All lyric poetry proceeds from the body of the poet.

It’s his sensations   muscular, tactile, olfactory

that constitute the kernel and the center, of the kernel

  quick, of his poetry. Everything spreads over the world,

  animates it, shines on it, coming from the creature of the poet.

  Only he opposes himself to the world, only he melts into it.

             There are then, in the world of the lyric poet,

very few ‘things’ and these things are not taken up

and handled as themselves, they are ejecta

of emotion.

This emotion is born of an experience, serious, unique,

of the world. The poet can’t rid himself of his experience—

obsession, which each event in his life renews, except by

voicing it by means of images. His language must

               the lived

re-present, re-produce emotion : the image is the necessary intermediary

of emotion, and in so far as it is sonorous,

 language must again find the sounds which call it up. The

 language of the poet must be then, from all points of view, an

  iconic language.





BAUDELAIRE, 8, f°13 f°23 White sheet, l=19,9, h=27, blue ballpoint pen.




  Affective memory, which brings to life again   sudden, provokedby an

  echo ,an odor, any snatch of our existence.

  All of Baudelaire’s art, the entire meaning of his effort, is

to “call up the tiny happinessess,” to render them present, “in the

present the past restored.”






BAUDELAIRE, 9, f°1 f°24 Little sheet from notepad, l=11,5, h=16,2, black ballpoint pen.





Absent Words


       Baudelaire doesn’t know

duration ; the word and the verb are

absent from his poems. He knows

nothing but eternity, immo-

bility outside of time, condition

of Beauty, of statues, of








BAUDELAIRE, 14, f°1                                                                f°80

Verso of tête-bêche letterhead paper of the Linguistics Society of Paris, 21x27, black ballpoint pen.



The principle difficulty—a very big difficulty—


of the study of poetic language is that we’ve barely

become aware of the specificity of this form

 of language.
Some progress has been made on the path of this exploration.

In particular R. Jakobson (here specifically)
               It is necessary to see the functional outlines proper

to the analysis
1 language in general and which were made for what has been

called “prose,” don’t work in the analysis of


We attempt this   change   of point of view  andthis

exploration in my endeavor to   creation of a new

sketch,   convinced at once of its necessity   and of its


present insufficiency : our endeavor will seem radical. We


sure that one day it will be reproached for not having been enough. 

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