What is a detail? The associations this word sparks off are obvious and may be divided into two groups. Thus, either we are dealing with something significant, although at the same time almost imperceptible – something that is important but easy to overlook – like the devil who is in the details; or, on the contrary, we are dealing with something insignificant, trivial, accidental, and it is better not to pay too much attention to it, so as not to lose sight of what is important. At the same time, in the case of literature and literary studies, a nuance or a trifle often proves important. The detail adds flavor, modifies the meaning, and can bring unexpected enlightenment. For as long as I can remember, I have always been a detailed reader – I have always liked slow reading and looking at textual trifles. And when I analyze details, my thoughts move beyond, so to speak, the analysis proper.
One of the most important books for me was Daniel Arasse’s study devoted to painting, simply entitled Le Détail. Arasse would find in the pictures which he discussed, and at the same time interpreted in an interesting and original way, painterly details. Insects located on the periphery, almost hidden in the frame; inscriptions; the color and the number of buttons on an expensive dress; the placement of the hands; or a tiny dog in the corner of the house and the canvas. All this, critically discussed and analyzed, came out of the shadows, moved from the non-seen to the foreground of critical reflection and allowed us to see the artist’s work in a new and different way.
The poetics of the detail which thus emerges immediately comes face to face with its synonym, that is the poetics of the particular. I would like to emphasize that these are two separate entities, two different poetics. In Western languages, let us consider Italian or French for example, we have one word to describe both: the Italian il detaglio means both “detail” and “particular.” To explain the difference between these two concepts I shall turn to the crime novel. The crime novels works with particulars – the detective with his eagle eye notices particulars that are invisible to both his assistant (if there is one) and the reader. That is why neither the assistant nor the reader can solve the mystery; they do not see the particulars and confuse the clues. They mislead themselves. Thus, on the one hand, a particular turns out to be, seemingly, something small and irrelevant in the world represented in the novel; on the other hand, it is fundamental in the process of meaning-making. Without noticing it, critical reasoning will fail, the meaning of the work will be elusive, and the logic of understanding will break down. Details are different. Details are, as if, accidental textual elements – they can be omitted, overlooked, or ignored in the process of reading. Only when noticed do they generate a parallel reading; they even pose a threat to the reading proper, insofar as they make the reader move beyond it. The reader moves in a completely different direction, and the text is transformed into an independent counter-story. When we read the sentence “the invisible structure of the heat has turned steamy,” we are reminded of a hot day we have experienced in our lives, consider whether the word steamy has anything to do with steam, or think about the fact that that although the structure of the heat is invisible, the author saw it and described it; we get so lost in our thoughts that we forget what we are actually reading, we abandon it and follow the details. Let us add that although there are writers of the particular and there are writers of the detail, we find both details and particulars in any text and we decide which will define our reading. If we want to read Georges Perec with pleasure, we have to be sensitive to particulars, and if we want to read Marcel Proust, who famously examined a “little patch of yellow wall,” with pleasure, we have to be sensitive to details. Looking at the paintings of the last supper, of which there are many in Italy, we can compare the different versions, noticing the details. We can see that Saint John, in general, is always asleep as if the young disciple has been drunk by the elders, who can only now discuss their plans. The examination of this detail may inspire us to reflect on the relationship between responsibility and age. Discussing the text of Luigi Pareyson, convinced that all parts of the work of art form an inseparable unity and one must not lose sight of any, Umberto Eco suggests that reading that is focused on the particulars is perfect, perhaps even too perfect; paying attention to details allows us to introduce ourselves into the text!
The present issue of Forum of Poetics devoted to the detail shows multifaceted approaches to the question at hand. In “Karenin’s ears, Grinevitch’s fingernails,” Ewa Kraskowska analyzes the detail per se. This essay is full of surprises. We learn, for example, that Tolstoy’s Karenin not only had ears, but also that in Anna’s eyes they were disgusting. Interpretation in the spirit of the analytical method created by Vladimir Nabokov captures the characters’ gait, appearance, features, and nervous tics. In Kraskowska’s interpretation, all these details become of primary importance, although they are found in the descriptive background, the seemingly insignificant underpinning of the plot. And I was reminded that I once wrote about ears in my essay Powieść w świetle widzialnego [Novel in the light of the seen], where I quoted from Arasse’s Le Détail: “Regardez donc l’oreille. L’oreille est impayable.” Krzysztof Skibski, quoting the words “grey on grey” as his motto, reflects the nature of the detail that is easy to overlook; in his text, he reflects on the moments of condensation, a specific thickening of meanings. At the same time, emphasizing the non-linear and discontinuous nature of reading, he notices potential meanings implied in the reading process. And grammar plays a significant role in the entire process, he adds. Lucyna Marzec analyzes Jolanta Brach-Czaina’s micrology, pointing out that the detail is meant to “make a difference,” make the past feel present, authenticate fantasies, challenge coherence, break up the reading process and, in philosophical terms, suspend the problems of mimetics and fictionality, as it essentially refers to ontology. Such theoretical diagnoses are inspired by the reading of Brach-Czaina’s text, who is a “lover of details” herself. Agnieszka Kwiatkowska discusses war details seen through the eyes of a child. This is yet another critical perspective. Kwiatkowska explains how reflection on the world is determined by the perspective of the narrator, the one who looks at the world from inside their hiding place, from inside their trauma. While the narrator may try to conceal greater and more fundamental questions behind details, it does not always work – it does not always help them survive. Paradoxically, it is the details that make this larger whole possible, allowing one to enjoy life and ask about its meaning. Finally, as post-memory, details become a task for the reader. The difference between the one who notices details as a character in the text, as the sensitive poet or the sensitive narrator, and the one who reconstructs someone’s situation through details as the reader is inscribed in the root of the word dettaglio – the word taglio, a cut, marks a border between the world during and after the war, between them and us. Also of great interest is Tomasz Mizerkiewicz’s interview with Christopher Merrill, an American poet, essayist, journalist and translator, which focuses on the media image of the details of war. Chiara Taraborrelli discusses Luca Alvino’s book Il dettaglio e l’infinito. Roth, Yehoshua e Salter [Detail and Infinity. Roth, Yehoshua and Salter] – it is an existential project in which horizontal life is juxtaposed with vertical life. The latter involves order, conventions, and rules. Certain and unquestionable truths, validated by the power of transcendence. Such a life, however, does not allow us to gain insight into the essence of our imperfect existence. Horizontal life involves savoring details, seemingly insignificant self-reflection, enjoying everyday life, and examining the little things – all that fills our life with humanity, tenderness towards what is small, petty, trivial, and in fact constitutive. This concept, opening oneself up to details, for Alvino involves introducing chaos into our lives. Sławomir Buryła reviews Marek Zaleski’s book Intensywność i rzeczy pokrewne [Intensity and other related matters], drawing attention to affects. And we can reflect on how affective the detail is, what feelings it evokes in the contemplative reader, and whether it evokes only positive feelings or, on the contrary, whether it brings “aggressive details” to the fore? Małgorzata Nowak discusses Andrzej Tretiak as a critic of translation, reviewing his translation skills and translation theory in detail. Zofia Paetz in her analysis of Andrzej Stasiuk’s prose writes about non-linear transtemporal details and considers them as a way towards presence. Dawid Borucki writes about “Earth’s Powder in the Basilica of the Cosmos,” that is the environmental apocalypse of/on the Earth, which is actually only a detail, both significant and insignificant, in the Universe – a blue dot surrounded by emptiness. Elżbieta Dutka and Paweł Graf design a theory of the poetics of the detail. Dutka combines the detail with micropoetics, drawing attention to the existence of detail(ed) problems in the study of, in this case, space. This allows her to perceive the cultural archive as a site which functions in the field of geopoetics. Graf discusses the sensitivity to detail experienced by some readers and formulates the concept of counter-reading, which is overwritten over the con-text and combines the sensual with the physical, allowing us to experience pleasure, which unexpectedly “allows us to later repent – repent interpretation, reading or understanding.” The whole is complemented and enriched by the translations of texts written by critics who have not been present on the Polish scene. Domenico Talia discusses the profusion of detail in literature, those micro-inclusions that, as he writes, “distract the reader and show him trifles, nuances, details. The reader is forced to divert his attention from the plot and shift his gaze to ‘almost nothing,’ illuminated by an event that is so small, indecisive, perhaps useless, but delightful in its insignificance.” Lorenzo Montemagno Ciseri writes about Dante’s Divine Comedy. Alas, not in an obvious way. He discusses a method of a detailed reading of Dante’s poem through teratological analysis. The reflection on the monstrosities and monsters described in the work of the brilliant Italian poet helps the contemporary reader engage with The Divine Comedy. The reader learns to appreciate details in the process of understanding the text, which propaedeutically constitutes an excellent introduction to the poem. The reader is also taught to read in a different way – to notice and analyze literary imponderabilia. The essays of the Italian scholars praise a form of reading in which we pay attention to the small elements of the text, the nuances of the represented world. They contrast the reader who is only focused on the plot, and therefore immersed in action, with the reader who stops to look at the details hidden in the folds of the text, because such details generate literary meanings – meanings which correspond to our human life and sensibility. An analogon of life. A soliloquy, a monologue addressed to oneself, and thus a text which combines in itself the theory of the detail, the practice of the detail, a review, an interview, or rather an auto-interview – Marek Hendrykowski’s essay on the poetics of “chochlik” (a demon of misprints and slips of the tongue) is all that and more. This humorous and insightful article should be read at the end – because this academic text is simply well written and very entertaining!
And indeed, in the final words of this introduction, I invite everyone to read this issue of Forum of Poetics in detail!
Table of Contents:
Elżbieta Dutka, The geopoetical detail? The cultural archive as part of a place’s texture
Paweł Graf, Detail and reading
Lucyna Marzec, Jolanta Brach-Czaina’s micrology
Domenico Talia, (Ir)relevant details in a story
Lorenzo Montemagno Ciseri, Cerberus and the others. Monsters from the Divine Comedy
Dawid Borucki, “Earth’s Powder/ in the Basilica of the Cosmos:” Ecocatastrophe and its scale in Marcin Ostrychacz’s Cielenie lodowca [Iceberg calving]
Ewa Kraskowska, Karenin’s ears, Grinevitch’s fingernails
Agnieszka Kwiatkowska, Details of the Shoah. The Holocaust in Polish children’s literature
Zofia Paetz, “Like a tender needle through the heart” – distribution and function of detail in Andrzej Stasiuk’s descriptive strategies
Małgorzata Nowak, Andrzej Tretiak as a translation critic
Krzysztof Skibski, Literature’s grammatical dynamic – a research perspective
Christopher Merrill, Details and War Writing. An Interview with Christopher Merrill
Marek Hendrykowski, The poetics of “chochlik”
Chiara Taraborrelli, Implementing chaos. Some notes on Il dettaglio e l’infinito. Roth, Yehoshua and Salter (“Detail and infinity. Roth, Yehoshua and Salter”) by Luca Alvino