The Medieval Review 10.03.30

Bolens, Guillemette. Le style des gestes: corporéité et kinésie dans le récit littéraire. Lausanne: Les Éditions BHMS, 2008. Pp. xiv, 156. . $40 ISBN 978-2-9700536-7-5.

Reviewed by:

William Sayers
Cornell University

This is a book about body language, although the reader would be hard pressed to find so blunt a formulation. Guillemette Bolens, author of the provocative and well received La Logique du corps articulaire, draws extensively on the most recent research in cognitive science (social cognition, motor cognition, proprioception), kinesics and non-verbal communication, conceptual systems, affect and empathy, the links between action and language, in order to elaborate a heuristic rhetoric of gesture by which to analyze excerpts from a number of literary works, classical, medieval, and modern. Corporeality and kinesics are key concepts here; the latter is defined as dealing with the expression, perception, and comprehension of human body movements (17). In this, the "body social" takes on new meaning.

The "Introduction" sets the theoretical framework and seeks to bridge real human action and experience, and the fictional creations of literary art, where characters are constrained by the range of thought, feeling, expression, movement, etc. that their creators grant them. Books don't lie well on Dr. Freud's couch. A central concern here is kinesic intelligence, what the body can know of another body and how our reading bodies understand, react, and respond to corporeal movement that is expressed and perceived only through the author's choice, for example, of verbs related to gaitwalk, jog, limp, strut, shuffle (26). Can we, on the basis of our understanding of corporeal schematics (le schéma corporel), also establish a corporeal narratology, a stylistics of gesture in literature that incorporates the relationships between the mental and the corporeal, the literal and the symbolic? The welcoming smile, anticipated then realized, of the servant Françoise in Proust's À la recherché du temps perdu is the exemplary topic of these first pages, leading to an analysis of the "chance" encounter of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, with its revealing and "unmannerly" blushes and starts. The content of their spoken exchange is banal, mere phatics; the uncensored body says it all.

In Section 1, "The Body in Literature." the focus similarly narrows to the complex interplay, lexical and symbiotic-symbolic, among the handshake (with scarred hands) between Stephen and Bloom in Ulysses, the sound of the retreating steps of the caries-ridden Stephen, and that of the jew's-harp with its plangent Judeo-Hibernian mouth music. This authorizes Bolens to write of Joyce as a ground-breaking exponent of kinesic style. Medieval literature, the author's early academic specialization, informs Section 2, "Kinesic Tropes and Verbs of Action." Key verbs of action--raise (a soul), flow and strike (of blood), and immerse (a body)--are the nuclei from which revealing analyses of Bede, la Queste del saint Graal, and the Middle English Patience are constructed. As concerns the last-named, Jonas's prior and willed concealment in the bilges of the ship might have been reviewed for points of correspondence with his unwilled confinement in the stomach of the whale. The discussion of Layamon's arresting and gender-bending image of King Arthur suckling poets at his breasts (emphatically plural) concludes the chapter.

Section 3 follows the concepts of shame (the author's vergogne) and social injury in the rape of Lucretia from Titus Livy and Ovid, through Augustine, Gower, and Chaucer, to Shakespeare. Varying authorial projections of what Lucretia felt or might have felt during her violation and consequent suicide lead the author to "explorer la complexité de l'événement intersubjectif qui ancre l'expression kinésique dans un processus de sémantisation fluctuant, généré par la personne sociale dans son rapport au groupe" (32), a statement of purpose that illustrates demands placed on the reader throughout the book, demands that might well occasionally induce a kinetic outburst.

Section 4, centered on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is about face, saved and lost, the ambiguity of the deed, and the tension between intent and outcome, ethics and manners. We are always all face (Levinas), often unable to control its expressions, always unable to control its interpretation. The careful matching of the scenes of bosky butchery and bedroom banter, the lord's hunt and his lady's hints, lead to the revelation of far-reaching correspondences in the anatomy of the text and in the anatomies of its hunted game and of the principal players in the other game. Gawain's flinch before the axe recalls Mr. Darcy's start and is the antithesis of Lucretia's ready recourse to the knife. In the book's coupling of shame and (in)action, the author might well have adduced the kinesics of Lancelot's moment of reluctance--the fatal hesitation--before mounting the cart of infamy in Le Chevalier de la charrette.

The "Conclusion" returns readers to more modern art forms, Jacques Tati's series of films with Monsieur Hulot, in lieu of a more conventional summary of findings and arguments. Some absences that this reviewer noted in the book are a discussion of the validity of a distinction between universal and culturally determined kinesic "utterances" and, given the book's very title, any concern for sign language. But since few, if any, works of literature pause long enough to break a sign in French or American Sign Language down into hand shape, orientation, movement, location, and complementary non-manual expressions of the face or body, the author may be forgiven for not entering this field of study or venturing onto the still ill-charted ground of the origins of language, in gesture or vocalization. Given our still imperfect understanding of the vocabularies of medieval Europe, it will continue to be debatable just how much interpretive weight a single word in a specific text should bear. For the attentive and committed reader, this is a rewarding study, although it must be acknowledged that relatively few writers seek to deploy a kinesic style (like Joyce's), so that newly informed readings will not be everywhere available. On the old question of literary reception and the degree to which readers may identify with a protagonist, now we learn from cognitive science that we are being forced, by our very understanding of verbs describing gait, to walk in the steps of the characters.