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Noli me tangere: Bonnefoy, Nancy, Derrida.

St. John's Gospel is the only gospel to describe Mary Magdalene's encounter with the resurrected Christ and Christ's warning to her not to touch him, saying: "Noli me tangere". This episode has inspired a long tradition of iconographic paintings, from late antiquity to the present day. Some of the most famous paintings are by Rembrandt, Durer, Correggio, and Titian. This episode and the paintings of it have come to be referred to as the scene of Noll me tangere. They all center around what Jean-Luc Nancy describes as "un jeu de mains remarquable". (1) One hand reaches out in desire or humility: the other hand is raised in warning or withdrawal. There is often a near or slight touching at the moment of the refusal of contact.

This article explores the motif of touch and resistance to touch in Yves Bonnefoy's Debut et fin de Ia neige, published in 1991. (2) It begins by examining a poem that bears the title "Noli me tangere" and then it explores how Bonnefoy configures and reconfigures this biblical scene in a series of poems about touching or failing to touch snow. The refusal or resistance encountered by the hand that seeks to touch is suggestive of the obstacles inherent in the poetic process: the disjuncture between language and the physical world, the impossibility of attaining presence in language, and the dispersal or dissemination of meaning. Yet the partial touchings and the failed touchings that are portrayed in Debut et fin de la neige suggest how the potential aporias or impossibilities of the poetic text can become enabling devices. This article begins by examining two instances of a failed touch: the dissipation of a presence that the hand would preserve and the vain desire for a metaphysical absolute. It ends by analysing a very different conception of touch: a touch that does not resist or seek to overcome disjuncture but which explores and engages with the very movements of separation.

There are powerful similarities between Bonnefoy's exploration of touch in Debut et fin de la neige and the thinking of touch that occurs in Nancy's philosophical writings. It is worth noting that Bonnefoy published Debut et fin de la neige in 1991 and that Nancy published Corpus, a deconstructive meditation on the body and, in particular, on touch, in 1992. (3) In 2003, in a book entitled Noll me tangere: Essai sur la levee du corps, Nancy conducted a close reading of the biblical scene and the paintings of it and elaborated his conception of a touch in separation, of an interrupted contact between sense and matter. It is important to note that Nancy's Noli me tangere: Essai sur la levee du corps is a response to Jacques Derrida's book Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy, published in 2000, which examines the figure of touch as it recurs in Nancy's philosophy and in western philosophy. Derrida argues that while Nancy's thinking of touch breaks radically with traditional conceptions of the body, the figure of touch remains, to some extent, implicated within a "haptocentric" metaphysical tradition, a metaphysical tradition centered on touch. (4) In response to Derrida's commentary, Nancy's reading of the biblical scene of Noli me tangere very deliberately foregrounds "a touch which never occurs as touch but only ever as a touch in the refusal of touch", to use the words of Ian James. (5) The conception of a suspended or interrupted touch, Nancy would argue, has always been present in his writings on the body. (6)

In Noli me tangere: Essai sur la levee du corps, Nancy makes a list of artistic works--novels, plays, pieces of installation art--that are inspired by the biblical scene. This list does not mention Bonnefoy's poem "Noli me tangere" nor any of the poems of Debut et fin de la neige and this is not entirely surprising. Since the early 1950s, Bonnefoy has presented himself as the poet of la presence, a designation that inevitably distanced his work from the deconstructive philosophy that emerged in the 1960s. (7) However, the motif of a failed or a near contact allows us to perceive the extent to which Bonnefoy's presence is a presence that absents itself, that withdraws. It allows us to perceive a rapprochement between Bonnefoy's poetry and Nancy's philosophy, a form of engagement that is itself a near or missed contact, a contact in separation.

The opening section of Bonnefoy's Debut et fin de la neige presents nineteen short and delicately sketched poems about snow. One of these poems bears the title "Noli me tangere". It depicts the last snowflake of the season as it falls hesitantly across a blue sky. The ephemeral presence of a mere snowflake is compared to the resurrected Christ as he refuses the touch of Mary Magdalene:
    Noli me tangere
    Hesite le flacon dans le ciel bleu
    A nouveau, le dernier llocon de la grande neige.

    Et c'est comme entrerait au jardin celle qui
    Avait bien du rever ce qui pourrait etre,
    Ce regard, cc dieu simple, sans souvenir
    Du tombeau, sans pensee que le bonheur,
    Sans avenir
    Que sa dissipation dans le bleu du monde.

    "Non, ne me touche pas", lui dirait-il,
    Mais meme dire non serait de lumiere. (DF, 26)

The very last snowflake of the big snow hesitates to fall across the sky, as if it were too insubstantial. It is about to melt and to dissolve back into the atmosphere. It trembles on the brink of expiry. Watching the hesitating snowflake, the poet is reminded of the Noli me ran gere scene: Mary's expectations upon entering the garden and the simplicity and intangibility of the figure that she encounters there. Mary Magdalene is "celle qui /Avait bien del rever ce qui pourrait etre". She dreams of that which could be--contact, presence, possession, love--and she reaches out to touch. Christ is evoked as a mere gaze, "[c]e regard, ce dieu simple". in contrast to Mary Magdalene, the one who dreams, he looks upon the world with a passive gaze, without remembering, without thinking, and without desiring, "sans souvenir/Du tombeau, sans pens& que le bonheur, /Sans avenir/Que sa dissipation dans le bleu du monde". He exists only in the present, a present that is itself always slipping away, bringing him closer to his "dissipation dans le bleu du monde". He says "Non, ne me touche pas" but even these words melt away, becoming only light: "Mais meme dire non serait de lumiere". The words themselves become incandescent. They slip away, refusing to be touched.

A solitary snowflake enacts the drama of Noli me tangere. It hesitates on the point of departure. It is here but it is going. Its material substance is withdrawing, even as it presents itself. In his reading of the scene of Noli me tangere, Nancy writes,
  Ce n'est pas que Jesus se refuse a Marie-
  Madeleine: c'est que le vrai mouvement de se
  donner n'est pas de livrer une chose a
  empoigner, mais de permettre le toucher d'une
  presence, et par consequent l'eclipse,
  l'absence et le depart selon lesquels,
  toujours, une presence doit se donner pour
  se presenter. (8)

Bonnefoy's snowflake evaporates, disappearing into the light, saying "Non, ne me touche pas". Nancy suggests that presence withdraws, refusing to be touched, even as it presents itself. Both the poet and the thinker are interested in how presence touches us with its very refusal, with the movement by which it absents itself.

In many of the snow poems, however, Bonnefoy is interested in an illusion that inhabits the act of touching: a desire to possess a presence absolutely or to preserve it eternally. In "Le peu d'eau", the poet holds a snowflake for a moment and wishes that he might assure it an eternal life: "A ce flocon/Qui sur ma main se pose, j'ai desir/D'assurer l'eternel" (DF, 16). The snowflake melts upon contact: "Mais deja ii n'est plus/Qu'un peu d'eau, qui se perd/Dans la brume des corps qui vont dans la neige" (DF, 16). The desire for eternity is met with evaporation and dispersal. The next poem in the series explores the figure of touch in similar terms:
    Fugace sur l'echarpe, sur le gant
    Comme cette illusion, le coquelicot,
    Dans la main qui reva, l'dte passe
    Sur le chemin parmi les pierces seches,
    Que l'absolu est a portee du monde.

    Pourtant, quelle promesse
    Dans cette eau, de contact leger, puisqu'elle fut,
    Un instant, la lumiere! Le ciel d'ete
    N'a guere de nuees pour entrouvrir
    Plus clair chemin sous des voutes plus sombres.

    Sous sa pergola d'ombres, l'illuminee,
    N'eut pas de fruits plus rouges. (DF, 17)

The snow lingers fleetingly upon the poet's scarf and glove. This fleeting presence is compared to last summer's poppy, "cette illusion, le coquelicot". Holding this most fragile of flowers, the hand dreamed that "l'absolu est a portee du monde". Now the snowflake, illuminated for an instant as it melts, seems to offer the promise of a faint contact with the absolute: "quelle promesse/Dans cette eau, de contact leger". Using these images of holding, reaching, and making contact, Bonnefoy suggests that the sense of touch is intimately connected to a desire for the metaphysical. A certain corporeal relation to the world--a desire for appropriation, for example--gives rise to a certain philosophical apprehension of the world. (9)

It is the ephemerality of the snowflake that leads to a desire for an absolute. Bonnefoy writes: "Le ciel d'ete / N'a guere de nuees pour entrouvrir/Plus clair chemin sous des vanes plus sombres". As a dark sky throws one clear beam of light into relief, so the fleetingness of material existence quickens a desire for the eternal. And yet, as the final stanza of the poem warns, "Circe / Sous sa pergola d'ombres, l'illuminee, /N'eut pas de fruits plus rouges". In Homer's Odyssey, Circe laces food and wine with a magical potion and enchants Odysseus's crew. (10) Bonnefoy insists that the desire to preserve the ephemeral for eternity is a lure. The reddest and most ephemeral of summer fruits--like "cette illusion, le coquelicot"--lead us to betray the very ephemerality that they embody.

The hand that seeks to appropriate in the act of touching seeks more than the transience of this world. Bonnefoy feels the allure of the eternal and the absolute, even if he knows them to be lures. This is an interesting point of "contact in separation" between Bonnefoy, on the one hand, and Nancy and Derrida, on the other. Bonnefoy explores the allure of the metaphysical in a way that seems to distance the poet from both these thinkers. Yet, by probing the connection between touch and the metaphysical, and by exposing these illusions as illusions, Bonnefoy comes close to an exposition of what Derrida calls a "haptocentric" metaphysics, a metaphysics that centers on touch. (11)

By exploring a resistance to touch, Bonnefoy explores the problems inherent in the poetic process. Presence retreats from him. Metaphysical absolutes betray the transience of existence. The poet is poised between loss, on the one hand, and vain illusion, on the other. Across the poems of Debut et fin de la neige, however, the failure to touch--a disjuncture that might seem to impede the poetic project--becomes an enabling device. Bonnefoy elaborates a conception of touch that does not lament that which evades it, but which celebrates an effleurement of near or missed contact.

In the poem "L'Ete encore", the appropriative gesture of the human gaze is rebuffed by the material world. This very refusal, however, triggers an intense sensation of presence. An experience of refusal or withdrawal allows the poet to experience the irreducibility of the snow's "ombres claires".
    J'avance dans la neige, j'ai ferme
    Les yeux, mais la lumiere sait franchir
    Les paupieres poreuses, et je pelvis
    Que dans mes mots c'est encore la neige
    Qui tourbillonne, se resserre, se dechire.

    Lettre que l'on retrouve et que l'on deplie.
    Et l'encre en a blanchi et dans les signes
    La gaucherie de l'esprit est visible
    Qui ne sail qu'en enchevetrer les ombres claires.

    Et on essaye de lire, on ne comprend pas
    Qui s'interesse A nous dans la memoire,
    Sinon que c'est l'ete encore; et que l'on volt
    Sous les flocons les feuilles, et la chaleur
    Monter du sol absent comme une brume. (DF, 21)

As the poet advances through the snow, he closes his eyes. The light, however, permeates his closed eyelids and, in the half light, against the translucent veils of his closed lids, the poet sees the snow once again: "je percois/Que dans mes mots c'est encore la neige/Qui tourbillonne, se resserre, se dechire". The poet's words swirl chaotically in his mind and he sees snow, endlessly pulling together and pulling apart.

In the second stanza, Bonnefoy evokes the snow and, using an elaborate metaphor, a conceit almost, he compares it to a "Lettre que l'on retrouve et que on deplie, /Et l'encre en a blanchi". Snow is a letter that one rediscovers and unfolds, and the script has faded to whiteness. An internal rhyme on "deplie" and "blanchi" hints at the interdependence of these two verbs; we reach out eagerly, covetously even, only to find that what we are seeking has retreated beyond our grasp. All that is exposed is the clumsiness of the human intellect, "[I]a gaucherie de l'esprit [...]/Qui ne sait qu'en enchevetrer les ombres claires". These "ombres claires" are as clear as they are obscure, as obscure as they are clear. They emerge in the light, only to retreat into darkness. The intellect that would illuminate them--would grasp or decipher them--knows only how to tangle or complicate them.

"L'Ete encore" evokes a presence that refuses to yield to the human intellect, a presence that retreats even as it presents itself. We try to read and we cannot comprehend that which is calling out to us from the past, from memory. Etymologically, "comprendre" means to "sai-sir ensemble, embrasser quelque chose, entourer quelque chose". (12) Once again, we fail to grasp or to encompass the snow and all that it seems to suggest. The snow says "Non, ne me touche pas". And yet, as the poet fails to comprehend, he is overtaken by a very different kind of intuition. Suddenly, it is summer again; it is summer still, "c'est Pete encore". The poet sees, "Sous les flocons les feuilles, et la chaleur/Monter du sol absent comme une brume". The solid ground has given way to nothingness. Summer--which has been on the wane, lying dormant--is now rising up, Failing to comprehend the snow and accepting this failure to comprehend, the poet is suddenly touched by its presence. He is touched by a force that trembles between presence and absence, between light and shadow, summer and winter.

In "L'Ete encore", the poet embraces the sensation of failing to comprehend, of failing to seize or grasp this material presence, and this failure comes with its own richness. As Nancy writes of Mary Magdalene's failure to touch Jesus, "[c]'est le point de l'abandon: elle s'abandonne a une presence qui West qu'une partance, a une gloire qui n'est que tenebre, a une senteur qui n'est que froideur. Son abandon procede aussi bien de l' amour que de l'accablement [...] (13) In "L'Ete encore", Bonnefoy recognizes the need to give oneself over to an irreducible and paradoxical presence. He allows himself to be touched by something that cannot be grasped.

In the two poems that succeed "L'Ete encore", "On dirait beau-coup d'e muets dans une phrase" and "Flocons", Bonnefoy continues to renounce the desire for comprehension. He draws further comparisons between snow and language. Snow--which was compared to the words in the poet's mind and to a blank letter in "L'Ete encore"--is now compared to clusters of phonemes and to slips of the tongue. Repeatedly evoking the material substance of language, Bonnefoy hopes to curb the signifying function of language and to cast off the desire for comprehension. He envisages a contact with the physical world that is non-appropriative and a use of language that is non-teleological:
    On dirait beaucoup d'e muets dans une phrase.
    On sent qu'on ne leur dolt
    Que des ombres de metaphores.

    On dirait,
    Des qu'il neige plus dru,
    De ces mains qui repoussent d'autres mains

    Mais jouent avec les doigts qu'elles refusent. (DF, 22)

When it snows lightly, Bonnefoy compares these snowflakes to language: "On dirait beaucoup d'e muets dans une phrase". Snowflakes are compared to mute e's. They are compared to a silent vowel, a highly unstable and uncertain phoneme. Comparing the snow to this unsounded or partially sounded vowel, Bonnefoy suggests that the snow is a presence that never quite presents itself. The poet continues: "On sent qu'on ne leur doit/Que des ombres de metaphores". We owe the snow only shadows of metaphors. What is a shadow of a metaphor, or what might it be? This first stanza contains three possible examples. First, rather than simply comparing one thing to another, Bonnefoy uses the formulation "On dirait". This idiomatic way of forging a comparison draws our attention to the speculative nature of all comparison. It reminds us that any metaphor is an approximation, a shadow of a metaphor. Second, the comparison between snowflakes and mute e's is so subtle that the very indistinctness of the metaphor suggests something of the insubstantiality of snow. Finally, this very line is a veiled metaphor: "On sent qu'on ne leur doit/Que des ombres de metaphores". The shadows of metaphors are a metaphor for the half-realised, shadowy, and fugitive snowflakes. Bonnefoy does, as he suggests, muffle or veil his metaphors and that tentativeness, subtlety, and indirection become a metaphor for snow. The snow deserves a poetry of indeterminate forms, of hints and traces. And so the poetry, like the snow, retreats even as it presents itself.

It begins to snow heavily and snow is no longer compared to language but to human hands: "On dirait, /Des qu'il neige plus dru, /De ces mains qui repoussent d'autres mains/Mais jouent avec les doigts qu'elles refusent". The squalls of snow are envisioned as hands that push one other away and yet play with the fingers that they refuse. The abrupt rebuffing of one hand by another is contrasted with the more delicate interaction of the fingers. They play with one another at the very moment of the refusal of contact. This is another reconfiguration of the biblical scene of Noli me tangere. Like Nancy, Bonnefoy sees Noli me tangere as a model for a different kind of contact with the physical world. This is a contact that accepts distance, separation, and movement. In the very moment or movement of separation, Bonnefoy perceives a certain play, fragility, and intimacy. He perceives what Nancy would describe not quite as a touch but as a "caresse". Nancy writes: " 'Ne me retiens pas' revient aussi a dire: 'Touche-moi d'une touche vraie, retiree, non appropriante, et non identifiante.' Caresse-moi, ne me touche pas". (14) Derrida describes this thinking of a touch in separation succinctly as: "Toujours la loi du partage au cceur du toucher [...] partage comme participation et comme partition". (15)

The first stanza of this poem evokes the snow in terms of language. The second stanza depicts the snow as human hands. This final image of hands pushing away hands but playing with the fingers that they refuse might tell us something about the relationship between snow, language, and the human hand, something about the relationship between materiality, significance, and sense. Bonnefoy suggests, like Nancy, that there is always a distancing and a disjuncture between one and the other. Yet, like Nancy, he suggests that there is a playful interaction across a divide, a fluttering or flirtation of fingers even at the moment of the refusal of contact.

In the final poem examined in this article, Bonnefoy further explores this contact in separation between language, sense, and materiality. The focus is once again upon snow and language:
    Bevues sans consequences de la lumiere.
    L'une suit l'autre et d'autres encore. comme Si
    Comprendre ne comptait plus, rire davantage.

    Et Aristote le disait bien.
    Quelque part dans sa Poetique Liu on lit si mat.
    C'est la transparence qui vaut,
    Dans des phrases qui soient comme une rumeur d'abeilles,
    comme une eau claire. (DF. 23)

A bevue is an error in a text or speech. It breaks the continuous and transparent flow of meaning and makes evident the substance of language. The opaque snowflakes against the seamless transparency of the light thus resemble these errors. These snowflakes fall thick and fast "comme si / Comprendre ne comptait plus, rire davantage". One error follows another so rapidly that all comprehension is lost. Bonnefoy suggests that the influx of snow cannot be comprehended; it cannot be grasped or encompassed; it cannot be reduced to any idea, abstraction, or essence. It must simply be experienced, like laughter, like an outburst of joy or pleasure.

In the second stanza of this poem, Bonnefoy suggests that we read Aristotle's Poetics badly. We do so because we interpret transparency as a semantic property of language: a transparent language is a clear window onto a meaning, onto the world. For Bonnefoy, however, transparency seems to be a sensible--rather than a semantic--property of language. The transparent phrase is "comme une rumeur d'abeilles". It sounds clearly. Its parts sound together in one continuous phrase and it is this sensory clarity that renders a phrase limpid, "comme une eau claire". Bonnefoy suggests that language is not a window onto anything else. It is a sensible phenomenon in its own right, like a swirl of snowflakes, a burst of laughter, or a swarm of bees.

If it is not a window onto anything else, language does not give us anything else. Nothing is there to be touched except the sensible contingency of language. Nothing can be reduced, extracted, or possessed. The poem is only to be experienced--like snow, laughter, or bees--and we must accept that this experience will always, to some extent, flee us and get away from us. The poem, like the snow, says "noli me tangere". There is a striking similarity between the image of hands pushing away hands but playing with the fingers that they refuse and the image of not comprehending the snow but simply laughing. In both there is a renunciation of an ideal--touch or comprehension--and in both there is a joy in interaction, receptiveness, and play. In reference to the biblical scene of Noli me tangere, Nancy writes: "L'amour et la verite touchent en repoussant: ils font reculer celle ou celui qu'ils atteignent, car leur atteinte revele, dans la touche meme, qu'ils sont hors de portee". (16) Addressing his reader, he continues: "Tu ne tiens rien, tu ne peux rien tenir ni retenir, et voila ce qu'il te faut aimer et savoir. Voila ce qu'il en est d'un savoir d'amour. Aime ce qui t'echappe, aime celui qui s'en va. Aime qu'il s'en aille". (17) Nancy urges us to love that which goes. Bonnefoy urges us to play and to laugh as it goes. It seems that Bonnefoy and Nancy have similar conceptions of touch and similar conceptions of love and understanding.

For both Bonnefoy and Nancy, the oscillation that occurs between the two hands in the Noli me tangere scene permits an alternative understanding of disjuncture and provides a model for a contact in separation, an effleurement of near contact. It offers a means of thinking the relationship between significance, sense, and materiality. It is interesting to note that Derrida is ambivalent about a thinking of a touch in separation: it offers a means of thinking disjuncture and, yet, in the same motion, it perhaps permits some slight frolement with a metaphysics of presence. Derrida's ambivalence is perhaps not surprising. Bonnefoy and Nancy explore the movement of dissipation by which presence comes to us; they explore a kind of near contact in disjuncture. The scene of Noli me tangere is itself archetypally ambivalent. What is certain, however, is that it provides both Bonnefoy and Nancy with a means of thinking disjuncture that does not lament disjuncture, a means of celebrating the fact that presence goes.

Balliol College, University of Oxford (UK)


(1.) Jean-Luc Nancy, Noll me tangere: Essai sur la levee du corps (Paris: Bayard, 2003), 55-6.

(2.) Yves Bonnefoy, Debut et fin de la neige (Paris: Mercure de France, 1991). All subsequent references will be incorporated into the text using the abbreviation DF.

(3.) Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus (Paris: Metailie, 1992).

(4.) Jacques Derrida, Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy (Paris: Galilee, 2000), 179-80.

(5.) Ian James, The Fragmentary Demand, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 140.

(6.) Nancy suggests that Derrida's commentary is written "avec une distance sceptique ou rab-binique" (Nancy, Noli me tangere, 26). His meditation on touch in Noli me tangere: Essai sur la levee du corps refuses to be implicated in a haptocentric metaphysics. Nancy writes, "On n'aura pas touche au sens, voila la verite". Nancy, Noli me tangere, 76.

(7.) Bonnefoy's essay "L'Acte et le lieu de la poesie", published in 1959, concludes with the words: "la chance de la poesie a venir, en tant au moms que bonheur (et je puis bien, maintenant, consentir a ce bonheur), est qu'elle est au point de connaitre, dans son durable exil, ce que peut ouvrir la presence". Yves Bonnefoy, L'Improbable (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 133.

(8.) Nancy, Noli me tangere, 82.

(9.) Using these various images of the human hand, Bonnefoy suggests that philosophy is inextricable from the finite sense of the human body. Of Nancy's Noli me tangere, Ian James writes "however much thought abstracts, spiritualizes, or idealizes itself, it is always only ever possible, and indeed only ever is, as finite embodied sense". James, The Fragmentary Demand, 142.

(10.) Homer, The Odyssey, trans. by E.V. Rieu (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1945), 165.

(11.) Derrida, Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy, 179-80.

(12.) "comprendre", Le Tresor de la Langue Francaise informatise, web (consulted 22 March 2012).

(13.) Nancy, No me tangere, 72.

(14.) Nancy, Noli me tangere, 82.

(15.) Derrida, Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy, 225 (Derrida's emphasis).

(16.) Nancy, Noli me tangere, 60.

(17.) Nancy, Noli me tangere, 61.
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Author:McLaughlin, Emily
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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