Madness & Jouissance: Friedrich Hölderlin, Walter Benjamin & Gerard Manley Hopkins – Josh Mcloughlin


Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor at Sonder.

In this essay, I examine some critical and theoretical notions of the relationship between formal integrity and interruption, before moving onto the discuss the nature of madness, jouissance (bliss) and the connection between the two.

A common way of thinking about the relationship between interruption and form is the idea that interruption is in some way enacted upon form – that form comes before interruption.  To put it another way, conventional thinking situates continuity as anterior to, or as a prerequisite of interruption, and interruption as concomitant to a breakdown of form, of continuity. The OED has the following entry:

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 halt or stop, ‘to cease’ something, and again, as before, the thinking is that interruption is primarily destructive, obstructive or divisive. Notice the language: ‘breach’, ‘hindrance’ – the rhetoric here asserts interruption as being somehow against form, detrimental to it, subversive of it. The conclusion is that interruption cannot manifest without there first being some aspect of continuity 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 continuity,  ‘the expectations […] generate[d]’,  which are subsequently interrupted, resulting in a ‘fail[ure]’ of form. We will see that this way of thinking about form cannot be sustained when interruption inheres within a poetic form famed for its apparent rigidity– the sonnet. This is a difficulty which cannot be resolved by the OED or Belsey and it is a difficulty to which will return.

There is however, another way of thinking about interruption and its relationship to form. Walter Benjamin, in his What is Epic Theatre? has argued, ‘interruption is one of the fundamental methods of all form-giving’.[3] I will pursue Benjamin further and, by analysing some other critical and theoretical conceptions of interruption, I will attempt to pin down interruption as critical concept for the analysis of form. Benjamin states elsewhere that ‘[Epic theatre’s] basic form is that of the forceful impact on one another of separate, sharply distinct situations’.[4] If Epic theatre is given form through interruption – indeed if interruption gives form to more or less everything, as Benjamin suggests – then one of the characteristics of interruptive ‘form-giving’ is the collision of ‘distinct’ elements, utterances or ‘situations’. In contradistinction to the idea of interruption as the division of elements resulting in a breakdown of form, interruption for Benjamin involves the bringing together of utterances. In this way, interruption becomes fundamentally constitutive and productive of form because, in a sense, form is always-already a process of interruption – ‘one of the fundamental aspects of all form-giving’.[5] But it is more than this: not only the bringing together of elements, 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 – if it can usefully be thought of as a relation at all, and not an identity – 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 the break which it enacts is not to be thought of as the arresting of continuity, of form, but as that which structures form and, as Hölderlin says ‘representation itself.’ If Benjamin asserts the importance of interruption to form, Hölderlin, with his sense of the caesura, situates interruption for us as a literary device which can be closely scrutinised. The sonnets I will discuss, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘No Worst’ and ‘The Windhover’ are exemplary of the ‘counter-rhythmic rupture’ which Hölderlin says makes representation and form possible. Caesura can be thought of as structuring a relation between that which comes before and after it, 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 ‘bliss 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 structuring the relation of, utterances – giving form to them. 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 my chosen sonnets make extensive use of interruption through caesura as way of structuring, and producing form. We will 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] I will analyse the use of interruption within the sonnet, given that it is a poetic form which apparently relies upon continuity – ‘predictab[ility]’ – to constitute its form.  Firstly, I will give short, demonstrative readings of ‘No Worst’ and ‘The Windhover’ in order to outline the kind criticism which would situate interruption in an antagonistic, destructive relation to form. I will then offer some brief challenges to this method – which I will call the ‘Disruptive (or Deformative) Fallacy’ – before moving on to discuss the ways in which interruption is actually constitutive of form.

If we return to Catherine Belsey, who argues that the ‘disruptive text [is] ordered in such a way that the discursive sequence fails to fulfil the expectations it generates’, the implication is that interruption subverts or resists a continuity of representation suggested or implied by ‘the expectations [the text] generates’. [10] In this way, form is seen to be at the mercy an interruptive force which threatens to ‘disrupt’ – to deform. To view ‘No Worst’ (hereafter: NW) and ‘The Windhover’ (hereafter: WH) in this way would be to identify elements which appear to disrupt the continuity of some anterior form. For example, the first lines of NW:

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

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

employs 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). If we also look at the first lines of WH:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king

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

the Belsyan critic would see the same thing happening in each sonnet, but in different ways. In NW, 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 – right from the start. In the first line of WH, 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, and so the second line might be said to constitute an interruption or breakdown of the conventional sonnet form which is invoked by the opening line which conforms. Both openings, the Belseyan might say, constitute interruptions which are antagonistic to (the sonnet) form. Caesura in these sonnets would be seen by Belsey as ‘disruptive’ of the ‘discursive sequence’ of the sonnet form. This is because, if interruption is seen as destructive of form, then then caesura inhibits the form of the poem, resisting iambic diction by halting rhythm in order to upset the pattern of unstressed-stressed. For example ‘Comforter, where, where is your comforting?’ (NW,3) and ‘In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,’(WH,5) both use caesura to pause in order to arrest rhythm, forcing the syllable after the caesura to become stressed, which allows no room for a smooth unstressed-stressed iambic rhythm.

I would argue, however, that such criticism misunderstands the fundamental relationship between interruption – here, caesura – and form. Reading the opening of WH as a failure to carry through the typical formal rhythm of the sonnet invoked in line 1, and therefore as a breakdown of form – a destructive, rather than productive, division or collision of elements – is to posit form and interruption as antagonistic. The example above is schematic, but it begs the question: why is form seen as something to be destroyed by interruption, and not produced by it? The reason is because this type of criticism concentrates solely on a presupposed relationship of continuity between spoken utterances and not on that which structures that relation. We can call this the Disruptive Fallacy. The structuring element – interruption, caesura – is presumably either self-present and unacknowledged or denied, but is in any case ignored as a ‘fundamental [method] of […] form-giving’.[13] The presence of caesura is seen only as disruptive, or deforming of a relation between utterances– between words and between rhythm and metre – which precedes interruption. This ignores what the caesura calls attention to – 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 interruptive device. 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, is form, and not the breakdown of these elements. Walter Benjamin writes that ‘[Epic theatre’s] basic form is that of the forceful impact on one another of separate, sharply distinct situations’, yet Belsey ignores the fact that caesura both divides and collides speech.[14] We will see, however, that interruption plays a much more fundamental role than the disruption of utterance. The caesura will allow us to talk about the relationship of the speaker’s utterance to form – but more interestingly, it will reveal the relationship between madness and jouissance.

In resisting iambic pentameter, Hopkins is actually making new the sonnet form, creating what Yvor Winter’s calls Hopkins’s ‘violent rhythms’, which structure the syntactical units of utterance in a way which gives them an immediate, urgent form through which 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 NW (lines 6-7), ‘sing – / then lull, then leave off’, the speaker brings form and language together through utterance – and the caesura is crucial because it formally structures the relation between ‘then lull, [and] then leave off’. The caesura becomes performative – it halts the speaker, forcing a ‘lull,’ at the beginning of the line, which arrests 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 modified to, ‘then lull then leave off’, the iambic rhythm is formally at odds with speaker’s language. The caesura, as Hölderlin says:

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. This is because without the caesura, there can be no before and after, nothing which stops, nothing which starts again. Benjamin also says that ‘epic theatre proceeds by fits and starts’.[17] Indeed 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). In both examples the speaker combines the interruption of the caesura –  form – with language, to create a powerful conceit of a tortured, racked urgency which, as the speaker vacillates between staying and going, ‘worst’ (1) and ‘wilder’ (2), begins to border on madness.  It is this relation between madness and caesura which I now want to focus on.

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 closeness it seems that madness (‘a radical undoing of subjectivity’) and bliss are also connected – linked by caesura. In fact, if caesura in NW is used to structure madness as vacillation, indecision, coming and going, then we find a remarkably similar use of caesura in WH, but 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, ‘ecstasy’, is immediately followed, but crucially given form by a caesura which marks a blissful exclamation. But how? Beginning in line 1, enjambment, alliteration and a consistent ‘ing’ sound occur in lines 1-5. The sonic similarity of ‘rung’, ‘rein’, wimpling’, and ‘wing’ (4) make use of rounded initial letters to create a flowing, rhythmic build up – but this climactic surge of rhetorical energy which peaks at ‘ecstasy!’ is representable only because of the caesura which structures it as 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’, and 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, after, is soon ‘off’. Without the caesura which transforms build-up into to climax and ‘ecstasy!’, there can be no build up, no jouissance. Just as the vacillating madness of the speaker in NW is given form by a caesura which marks the space between utterance,  and structures madness through interruption, WH also shows us how jouissance is only ever a product of the caesura, which again is shown to structure the relation of utterances and make ‘representation itself’ possible.[20] Without interruption, without caesura, we would just have a stream of consciousness, 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 NW and the speaker’s climactic ‘ecstasy!’ in WH? It is that both are constituted by breaks in speech – we can name them Lacan’s ‘inter-dict[ions]’, Benjamin’s ‘fits and starts’, Tambling’s ‘trauma[s]’ – but, in short, they are 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 of madness and jouissance, which both inhabit the same space in between speech and writing, between utterances.

I hope to have shown that thinking about the relationship between form and interruption is quite impossible. Instead, we need to think about the ways in which form is always-already interruption. I have borrowed from Friedrich Hölderlin to show how the caesura makes representation and form possible by structuring the relationship between the before and after. The example of the marrying of form and language in NW shows how the speaker’s madness is made possible, given form and represented, only through caesura which is able to structure those utterances in a vacillating relation. The example of WH shows how caesura also structures and gives form to both build-up and jouissance because, without it, there can be no build-up and no ‘ecstasy!’ or climax to end that build-up. In comparing the two, and borrowing from Jeremy Tambling and Roland Barthes, I have called attention to the proximity of madness to bliss by showing that they are constituted by and as (always-already are) interruption: located in the gaps and breaks in speech in writing, given Gedichtete by what Hölderlin proclaims as the ultimate device of interruption, the caesura.


[1] OED online, ‘Interruption’.

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

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

[4] Benjamin, p.21.

[5] Benjamin, p.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), p.101-102.

[7]Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, (London: Hill & Wang, 1975 [1973]) p.19.

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

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

[10] Belsey, p.32.

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

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

[13] Benjamin, p.19.

[14] Benjamin, p.21.

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

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

[17] Benjamin, p.21.

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

[19]Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, (London: Hill & Wang, 1975 [1973]) p.19.

[20] Hölderlin, p.101.


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