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1710 __ « Frozen Words »
Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
Comment : Fixity and Flux : The Frozen Words Trope.In a postmodern climate, one of the most tabooed concepts would seem to be stasis, in conjunction with notions of containment. As such it is not difficult to see why postmodern writers have a curious love/hate relationships with the image : insofar as the image is regarded as an example of fixity and arrested time, it becomes the mode of representation most to be avoided; yet insofar as the notion of containment pertains to disciplinary boundaries, then enlisting the image in mixed-media composition would seem to be the best way of blurring or otherwise resisting such constraints. Of course, what also comes into play here is the status of the written word itself : does it belong on the side of the visual mode of representation, or on the side of the oral and the unfixed or fluid ? Significantly, in articulating this dilemna, postmodern critics, authors, and artists have not only inadvertently pointed to what may constitute a way out of this bind, but in the process have also resurrected an old trope fro describing it. Thus in describing the double bind that affects much recent postmodern literary expression, Steve McCaffrey observes : " Classical discourse is our inheritance; lodged within the bastions of grammar, it represses all manifestations of libido within rigid vessels of content, 'freezing energy into representation'. The trope, in short, is that of the "frozen words", a graphic metaphor of fixity and flux that dates back to Plutarch and has long informed vernacular, visual, and more recently, literary notions of language's inability to freeze permanently our lived experience. Plutarch first introduced the notion of frozen words in his discussion of "hearing", where he describes a city so cold that "words were congealed as soon as spoken"; after some time, when the weather changed, the words "thawed and became audible" (Bartlett, 137). The trope marks one of the first recorded examples of 'graphic materiality' (McCaffery, 99), of language's potential material presence; later it became a stable European conceit, quoted by Joseph Addison, where he attributed it to "Madeville's Travels", and echoing variously throughout the written texts of Castiglione , Rabelais, Baron Munchausen, Samuel Butler, John Donne, and collections of coffee-house jokes, such as Captain William Hicks's "Coffee-House Jests". More commonly, though, the trope is associated with a vernacular tradition of oral tales and jokes told in and about the extremes of northern weather (see Thompson; Baughman; Fowke & Carpenter). What differentiates the frozen words trope from such high art notions as G.E. Lessing's "pregnant moment" in sculpture or Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" in photography or Diderot's "perfect instant" in painting (qtd. in Burgin 19), is the emphasis on orality and flow : unlike the arrested moment's focus on visual stasis, the frozen word 'embodies' the visual, the literate, and the oral in a form where meaning is located not in the moment but in the moment's release. If words can freeze like water, then, under the right conditions, they can also flow like water; and, not surprisingly, the resulting rhetoric of water, word, image, and oral flow suggests a potent postmodern formula for dislocating the written word from the page and reconceptualizing the perceived stasis of the image. (William Francis Garrett-Petts & Donald Lawrence)
Original excerpt : « There are no books which I more delight in than in travels, especially those that describe remote countries, and give the writer an opportunity of showing his parts without incurring any danger of being examined or contradicted. Among all the authors of this kind, our renowned countryman, Sir John Mandeville, has distinguished himself by the copiousness of his invention and the greatness of his genius. The second to Sir John I take to have been Ferdinand Mendez Pinto, a person of infinite adventure and unbounded imagination. One reads the voyages of these two great wits with as much astonishment as the travels of Ulysses in Homer, or of the Red-Cross Knight in Spenser. All is enchanted ground, and fairy-land. [...] The present paper I intend to fill with an extract from Sir John's Journal, in which that learned and worthy knight gives an account of the freezing and thawing of several short speeches, which he made in the territories of Nova Zembla. I need to inform my reader, that the author of "Hudibras" alludes to this strange quality in that cold climate, when, speaking of abstracted notions clothed in a visible shape, he adds that apt simile."Like words congeal'd in northern air". »
Source : Addison, Joseph (1710), "Frozen Words", In “The Heath Readers : Sixth Reader", Boston: D.C. Heath and Company (1903), pp. 116-120. (Originally published in “Essays From Addison”, edited by J H Fowler, Spectator No. 254, November 23, 1710).
Source : Garrett-Petts, William Francis & Lawrence, Donald (2000), "Photographic encounters: the edges and edginess of reading prose pictures and visual fictions", University of Alberta, Chap.7, Thawing the Frozen Image/Word : Vernacular Postmodern Aesthetics, p. 217-218.
Urls : http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/fowlerjh/chap5.htm (last visited )

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