On Water: A Proposition


Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Neptune and Triton (detail of Neptune), c. 1622–1623. Marble, 182 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Dying in a room in Rome as he listened to Bernini’s boat-shaped Barcaccia Fountain just outside his window, the poet John Keats composed his own epitaph: “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.”

Baudelaire, who in Paris Spleen described his wish to bite into Jeanne Duval’s black, elastic, scented hair, could pronounce only one phrase in the final months of aphasic paralysis leading to his death—“sacré nom.”

The poet had suffered a stroke whilst admiring the finely and subtly carved confessional screens in the Baroque church of Saint Loup in Namur, Belgium, a church he had previously described as both “sinister and gallant,” the interior of a “terrible and delicious catafalque” “embroidered in black, rose and silver.” (Recall that the catafalque is the decorated funerary furnishing that supports the casket.)

If in the poem “A Hemisphere in Her Hair” Baudelaire compares Jeanne Duval’s black hair to water, it is because her hair is an irreducible cosmic principle. “Let me . . . dip my whole face into it, as a parched man dips his into the waters of a spring.”

Within this hair, containing sailcloth and rigging, he sets out on a voyage. Jeanne Duval’s hair is both spring and sea, source and distance. These are the two dispensations of water.

In archaic Roman religion, the sea-god Neptune had first been a god of springs and rivers, said Georges Dumézil. One of the god’s festivals, Lucaria, was observed annually on July 21 to lessen conditions of drought in the forests.

In 1826, James Millingen wrote in Ancient Unedited Monuments II: “Before embarking on a distant navigation or during a storm and other dangers of the sea, it was customary for mariners and other persons to promise sacrifices and offerings to Neptune, Glaucus, and the various divinities of the ocean, in case of safe arrival at their destination. Among other vows was sometimes the cutting off of the hair.”

The sea-god Neptune was conventionally represented with long, wavy hair and beard. When sailors survived shipwreck they would shear off their hair and leave it as a ritual offering at his altar. Or they would drape on the altar whatever fragments of garments which had not been torn from their backs by the engulfing waves.

In the Baudelairean cosmos, hair is elemental. Its movement, depth, texture, and scent invite excursions into memory and sensation. Within it, Baudelaire is rocked as if by the gentle swells of a port. And he would shake Jeanne Duval’s hair “like a scented handkerchief,” to release his memories into air, as the sea also releases its ancient scent.

Biting hair, writing in water, naming god, shaking cloth—the gesture is erased at the instant of its inscription, erased by the livid autonomy of its elemental support.

The name, the water, hair, scent, refuse possession. Their autonomy invites a dark immersion.

The Aleppo-born linguist Émile Benveniste changed his given name from Ezra to Émile in 1924, when he was naturalized as a French citizen. In 1913 he had travelled from Syria to Paris alone, as a child, to commence his education in rabbinical school. Later he became the student of the comparative linguist Antoine Meillet, learning and developing his mentor’s analytic methods.

In his 1951 essay “The Notion of ‘Rhythm’ in its Linguistic Expression,” Benveniste analyzed an historical shift in the meaning of the ancient Greek word ruthmos, beginning his essay by critiquing the conventional aquatic etymology, which linked the concept of rhythm to “the regular movement of the waves of the sea.”

Yet rein, the root of the word ruthmos, said Benveniste, referred to rivers, not the sea. Soft water and seawater are not equivalent. Nor is the movement of rivers and the sea. Flowing and the lapping of waves are different figures of the movement of time. Saltwater is sterile. “The sea does not flow,” he wrote.

For Baudelaire, Jeanne Duval’s hair contained both temporalities, as well as being simultaneously feminine and masculine, la mer, l’océan.

Benveniste said that in pre-Platonic philosophical and dramatic texts the word ruthmos referred to the irregularly changing spatial element of human cultural expression, in a garment for example, or across the face, or in the fluid configurations of alphabetic letters in a written hand.

Hair is similarly expressive.

Ruthmos “designates the form in the instant that it is assumed by what is moving, mobile, and fluid, the form of that which does not have organic consistency.”

The linguist proposed that the Platonic projection upon nature of a metrical regulation was an historical gesture that shifted and limited the meanings of the word ruthmos, permitting in its turn a figural naturalization of temporal regularity in human events and affairs. The institution follows the linguistic concept.

“This vast unification of man and nature under time,” Benveniste said, “with its intervals and repetitions, has had as its condition the use of the word itself, the generalization, in the vocabulary of modern Western thought, of the term rhythm.”

In his final working years Benveniste made an extensive series of notes towards a study of Baudelaire’s language. Begun as a sketch for a commissioned essay, the project transformed to plans and drafts towards a future book. This work was halted when he suffered a stroke in 1969, entering a seven-year confinement. The years of paralysis and aphasia ended with his death.

One page of the notes is a list of Baudelaire’s verbs under the title “metaphors of water.

—to swim
—to plunge
—to drown
—to slide
—to float

Freedom, infinitude, and death are kinds of movement outside time.

And yet Baudelaire’s imagery, Benveniste writes in another of his notes:

so frequently returning to the sea/ (to sail, to drift <to plunge> to swim, etc.) and/ which on the other hand, calls up, so often annihilation, death/ or sleep, <and so often evokes depth, to plunge> has no example of: shipwreck, to pour, to be swallowed up/ disaster.

to drown is only metaphorical in B.

. . .

B. does not envision death within/ water, submersion or the body disappeared/ <Never would “the drowned descend to sleep unwillingly” (Rimbaud) be possible in Baudelaire>

Benveniste’s last written word was witnessed by the young student Julia Kristeva, whom he had summoned to his room in the clinic in Créteil. She said the partly paralyzed scholar laboriously traced on paper the majuscule letters T-H-E-O in shaky Bic pen as she stood by his bed.

But before taking the pen, he had first attempted to invisibly trace with his finger the shapes of the letters on the front of the blouse worn by the embarrassed young woman.

“My soul sets out on a long voyage,” said Baudelaire.

“We embody it always as a god, immemorial, elusive, and solitary,” said Benveniste of the sea.

Most of the five thousand people drowned in the Mediterranean in 2016 are nameless.

We should fill the sea with our shorn hair.


Baudelaire, Charles. Oeuvres posthumes. Paris: Mercure de France, 1908. (Cited translation my own.)

Baudelaire, Charles. The Poems in Prose. Translated by Francis Scarfe. London: Anvil Press, 1989.

Benveniste, Émile. Baudelaire. Présentation et transcription de Chloé Laplantine. Limoges: Lambert-Lucas, 2011. (Cited translations my own.)

Benveniste, Émile, Dernières leçons. Preface by Julia Kristeva, Paris: EHESS/ Gallimard/Seuil, 2012.

Benveniste, Émile. Langues, cultures, religions. Choix d’articles réunis par Chloé Laplantine et Georges-Jean Pinault. Limoges: Lambert-Lucas, 2015.

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Florida: University of Miami Press, 1971.

Bonnefoy, Yves. Roman and European Mythologies. Translated under the direction of Wendy Doninger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Millingen, James. Ancient Unedited Monuments II. London: Rodwell, 1826.

Canadian poet Lisa Robertson has published many books, most recently 3 Summers from Coach House, and the essay collection Nilling, from BookThug (both Toronto). Recent texts written for artists have been included in the catalogues The Blue One Comes in Black (Liz Magor; Triangle France and Mousse Publishing) and Strange (Karl Larsson; Mousse Publishing).