[Essay] Madness and Jouissance: Hölderlin, Benjamin and Hopkins — Josh Mcloughlin

The intuitive way of thinking about the relationship between interruption and form is that interruption is in some way enacted upon form, that form comes before interruption. To put it another way, conventionally we think of formal continuity as anterior to, or as a prerequisite of interruption, and interruption as a breakdown of form.  The OED has the following entry for ‘interruption’:

1.    a.   A breaking in upon some action, process, or condition (esp. speech or discourse), so as to cause it (usually temporarily) to cease; hindrance of the course or continuance of something; a breach of continuity in time; a stoppage

b.    A breach of continuity in space or serial order; a break; the formation or existence of a gap or void interval.[1]

These definitions suggest the capacity for interruption to obstruct, arrest, or ‘cease’ ‘speech or discourse’. The thinking is that interruption is primarily destructive of or a ‘hindrance’ to formal  ‘continuance’. Here, interruption ‘breach[es]’ and the rhetoric asserts interruption as being somehow against form, detrimental to it, subversive of it. The implied conclusion is that interruption cannot manifest without there first being some aspect of ‘continuance’ established or in order that discontinuity may be enacted. Catherine Belsey has argued that the ‘disruptive text [is] ordered in such a way that the discursive sequence fails to fulfil the expectations it generates’.[2] Here, where ‘discursive sequence’ seems to be another way of saying ‘form’, there is a degree of actual or implied ‘continuance’,  ‘the expectations […] generate[d]’,  which are subsequently interrupted, resulting in a ‘fail[ure]’ of form.

There is, however, another way of thinking about interruption and form. In ‘What is Epic Theatre?’, an essay on Brechtian dramaturgy, Walter Benjamin said that ‘interruption is one of the fundamental methods of all form-giving’.[3] Later, he says that epic theatre’s ‘basic form is that of the forceful impact on one another of separate, sharply distinct situations’.[4] Benjamin does not elaborate much further on this curious definition of interruption, but he does open up the possibility repurposing interruption as critical concept for the analysis of form. If Epic theatre is given form through interruption—indeed if interruption gives form to more or less everything, as Benjamin suggests—one of the characteristics of interruptive ‘form-giving’ is the collision of ‘distinct’ elements, utterances or ‘situations’. Far from seeing interruption as the division of elements resulting in a breakdown of form, Benjamin views interruption as bringing the different utterances in ‘speech or discourse’ together . In this way, interruption becomes fundamentally constitutive and productive of form because, in a sense, form is always-already a process of interruption: it is ‘one of the fundamental aspects of all form-giving’.[5]

But interruption is more than this. Not only does it bring elements together, interruption has a structuring function which allows for the relation between elements, between utterances in a text, to take the form of representation, that is, to be given form and to be represented. For Friedrich Hölderlin, the crucial concept immanent in the text which concerns this relation between form and interruption—indeed, ‘relation’ now seems less accurate than ‘identity’ to describe interruption apropos of form—is the caesura. Hölderlin says:

In the rhythmic sequence of the representations wherein transport presents itself, there becomes necessary what in poetic meter is called cesura, the pure word, the counter-rhythmic rupture; namely, in order to meet the onrushing change of representations at its highest point in such a manner that very soon there does not appear the change of representation but the representation itself.[6]

The caesura is an interruptive device but, for Hölderlin, does not arrest ‘continuance’. On the contrary, caesura structures form and even ‘representation itself.’ If Benjamin asserts the general importance of interruption to form, Hölderlin’s concept of the caesura helps us identify a particular form of interruption that we can examine closely. As we will see later, two of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnets, ‘No Worst’ and ‘The Windhover’, are exemplary of the ‘counter-rhythmic rupture’ Hölderlin says makes representation and form possible. Following Hölderlin, we can see that the punctuating caesura structures the relation between the before and the after, the ‘change of representation’. But I also want to use Roland Barthes’s idea of jouissance or bliss when thinking about interruption. Barthes says ‘shock, disturbance, even loss [are] proper to ecstasy, to bliss’.[7] Barthes also quotes Jacques Lacan, who says that bliss exists ‘between the lines’; it is ‘is unspeakable, inter-dicted’.[8] Jouissance, then, is also a kind of caesura: like Hölderlin’s ‘pure word’, it is the ‘unspeakable’, interruptive element situated in the space between, and therefore structuring and giving form to distinct utterances.

I argue that interruption cannot be thought of as destructive of form, but rather as ordering form itself, structuring it, facilitating representation, making form possible. Jouissance, caesura, epic theatre and, as we shall see later, madness all exist as gaps and breaks in speech and writing – ‘interdict[ions]’ – which give form to utterance by ordering and structuring it as representation, figuring the relation between the before and after the point of interruption. Form cannot do without interruption, and it makes little sense to think of interruption as the breakdown of form. Using Hölderlin’s understanding of the caesura, and returning also to Barthes and Benjamin, I will show how Hopkins’s sonnets make extensive use of caesural interruption as way of structuring and producing form. We will also consider the relation of form and language –and the relation of madness to jouissance.

The sonnet, Stephen Burt and David Mikics have noted, is ‘predictable […] in its application of rules’ – overwhelmingly 14 lines of iambic pentameter verse, usually with an epigrammatic conclusion, and usually in one of two structural forms, the Petrarchan or Shakespearean.[9] To someone like Belsey, who argues that the ‘disruptive text [is] ordered in such a way that the discursive sequence fails to fulfil the expectations it generates’, Hopkins’s ‘No Worst’  and ‘The Windhover’ disrupt the continuity of the sonnet form by deforming its rules.[10] For example, the first lines of ‘No Worst’:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring[11]

employ the plosive alliteration of the ‘p’ sound and affricative alliteration of ‘ch’. This creates a high stress count (six in each line – indicated in bold). Likewise, the first lines of ‘The Windhover’:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king

Dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawndrawn Falcon, in his riding[12]

Conventional thinking about form and interruption would see the same thing happening in each sonnet, but in different ways. In ‘No Worst’, the high stress count and excessive alliteration of both plosive and affricative sounds resists the building of iambic pentameter, the conventional metre and rhythm of the sonnet in English. In the first line of ‘The Windhover’, the speaker conforms mathematically to both the syllabic and rhythmic stress counts of iambic pentameter. However, in the second line, I count sixteen syllables and 8 stresses, an apparent interruption of the conventional sonnet form invoked by the opening line. Both openings, if we think intuitively,  constitute interruptions which are antagonistic to the sonnet form. If we think more critically, however, a different picture emerges.

The example reading sketched out here misunderstands the fundamental relationship between interruption—here, caesura—and form. Reading the opening of ‘The Windhover’ as a failure to carry through the typical formal rhythm of the sonnet invoked in line 1, and therefore as a breakdown of form is to posit form and interruption as antagonistic. The example is schematic, but it begs the question: why is form seen as something to be destroyed by interruption, and not produced by it? It is is because this type of criticism concentrates solely on a presupposed relationship of ‘contiuance’ between spoken utterances and not on that which structures that relation. The structuring element is presumably either self-present and unacknowledged or denied, but is in any case ignored as a ‘fundamental [method] of […] form-giving’.[13]

In this way, the presence of caesura is seen only as disruptive or deforming of the relation between utterances—between words and rhythm and metre—which precedes interruption. This ignores what the caesura calls attention to, that is, the ways in which utterances are figured together and the productive effect that the caesura has on our understanding of what comes before and after the it. The caesura cannot be ignored and the relationship between utterances, which is both marked and made possible by caesura, cannot be thought of as being in any other sort of relation than that of interruption: interruption is relation, interruption is form. Benjamin says that epic theatre’s ‘basic form is that of the forceful impact on one another of separate, sharply distinct situations’. To ignore this is to ignore how caesura both divides and collides speech.[14] We will see, however, that interruption plays a much more fundamental role than the disruption of utterance and  will allow us to talk not only about the relationship of the speaker’s utterance to form but, more interestingly, the relationship between madness and jouissance.

In resisting iambic pentameter, Hopkins is actually making new the sonnet form, creating what Yvor Winter’s calls his ‘violent rhythms’, or Hölderlin calls ‘ruptures’ which structure the syntactical units of utterance so that the speaker’s racked urgency—which is both sonic and semantic—can be
represented.[15] In both sonnets, interruption produces the formal metrical and rhythmic patterns which inhere in the poem. In ‘No Worst’, ‘sing – / then lull, then leave off’ (6-7) brings form and language together through utterance. Here, the caesura is crucial because it formally structures the relation between ‘then lull’ and ‘then leave off’. The caesura halts the speaker, forcing a ‘lull’ at the beginning of the line, which collects the energy of the utterance but crucially does not dissolve it. The formal pause between the phrases is crucial for the semantic sense to be communicated. If it were ‘then lull then leave off’, the iambic rhythm would be formally at odds with speaker’s language.  Hölderlin says the caesura:

meet[s] the onrushing change of representations at its highest point in such a manner that very soon there does not appear the change of representation but the representation itself.[16]

Interruption, then, allows the relation between stopping and going, arresting and flowing, ‘lull[ing]’ and ‘leav[ing] off’ to take form, to be represented. Without the caesura, there can be no before and after; nothing which stops and therefore nothing which starts again. Benjamin also says that ‘epic theatre proceeds by fits and starts’.[17] The sonnet opens with ‘No worst, there is none’, but this is soon reversed when we are told that, actually, ‘more pangs will, schooled and forepangs, wilder wring’ (2). Again, the speaker combines the formal interruption of the caesura with poetic language to generate a tortured and racked urgency. As the speaker vacillates between staying and going, ‘worst’ (1) and ‘wilder’ (2), the sonnet begins to border on madness. The idea that the caesura has something to do with madness has been touched on by Jeremy Tambling, who says:

The caesura may be traumatic, a radical undoing of subjectivity, perhaps even the condition of modern madness. But since the shock and caesural and traumatic may not be the same, the caesural may lead into the other scene, the power of the other, what constitutes the text, the Gedichtete. It turns back to ask what language it is which is at the origin.[18]

Tambling echoes Barthes, who says ‘shock, disturbance, even loss [are] proper to ecstasy, to bliss’.[19] Jouissance, as we have already discussed, is also like a caesura and, although they are not exactly the same, the association between shock, bliss and caesura is firmly suggested. Because of this affinity it seems that madness, ‘a radical undoing of subjectivity’, and bliss are also linked by caesura. If ‘No Worst’ structures madness as vacillation, indecision, coming and going, the repetition of before and after, we find a remarkably similar use of caesura in ‘The Windhover’, only this this time the speaker is in bliss:

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing. (4-5)

Jouissance or ‘ecstasy’, is immediately followed, but crucially given form by a caesura which marks a blissful exclamation. Enjambment, alliteration and a consistent ‘ing’ refrain resounds in lines 1-5, create a flowing, rhythmic build up. Yet, this climactic surge of rhetorical energy, which peaks at ‘ecstasy!’, is representable as such only because of the caesura which structures the climax, the jouissance of a syntactical and rhetorical build up. As Tambling says ‘[the caesura] turns back to ask what language it is which is at the origin’. In this case, the caesura of the exclamation both marks out and produces jouissance in a single gesture of looking backwards. It does this by structuring the relation before and after the utterance as that of a build-up, then the fleeting ‘ecstasy!’ of jouissance which is soon ‘off’ afterwards. Without the caesura which transforms build-up into climax and ‘ecstasy!’, there can be no build up, no jouissance. Just as the vacillating madness of the speaker in ‘No Worst’ is given form by a caesura which marks the space between utterances and structures madness through interruption, ‘The Windhover’ also shows us how jouissance is a product of the caesura, which once again structures the relation of utterances and makes ‘representation itself’ possible.[20] Without interruption, without caesura, we would just have an undifferentiated stream of speech and writing without form.

What, then, can we say is the relationship between madness and jouissance; between the speaker’s vacillating anguish in ‘No Worst’ and the speaker’s climactic ‘ecstasy!’ in ‘The Windhover’? Both are constituted by breaks in speech. We can call these breaks by different names—Lacan’s ‘inter-dict[ions]’, Benjamin’s ‘fits and starts’, Tambling’s ‘trauma[s]’—but they are all, at bottom, interruptions. The caesura structures the relationship between utterances by allowing us to think about the before and after. It gives form to poetic diction (Gedichtete), and also reveals the intimate link between madness and jouissance, which both inhabit the spaces, the gaps, the breaks, in speech and writing.

All this shows that thinking about the relationship between form and interruption is quite impossible, since what we have is closer to an identity. Instead of seeing interruption as deforming we need to take what we can from Benjamin, Hölderlin, Hopkins, Barthes, and Lacan to further explore how form is always-already interruption.


Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor of New Critique.


[1] OED, ‘Interruption’.

[2] Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Meuthen, 1986), 32.

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘What is Epic Theatre?’ in Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998), 19.

[4] Benjamin, 21.

[5] Benjamin, 19.

[6] Friedrich Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’ in Essays and Letters on Theory, ed. and trans. Thomas Pfau (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 101–102.

[7] Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (London: Hill & Wang, 1975), 19.

[8] Jacques Lacan, quoted in Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 21.

[9] Stephen Burt and David Mikics, The Art of the Sonnet (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2011), 2.

[10] Belsey, 32.

[11] Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘No Worst’, in Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Oxford Authors, ed. Catherine Phillips (OUP: Oxford, 1986), 100.

[12] Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’, in Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Oxford Authors, ed. Catherine Phillips (OUP: Oxford, 1986), 130.

[13] Benjamin, 19.

[14] Benjamin, 21.

[15] Yvor Winters, ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins’, in Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman (London: Prentice, 1966), 40–48, 45.

[16] Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, 102.

[17] Benjamin, 21.

[18] Jeremy Tambling, Hölderlin and the Poetry of Tragedy (Sussex: Sussex Academic Press, 2014), 240.

[19] Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 19.

[20] Hölderlin, 101.

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