Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Cory Stockwell reviews Poetics of Breathing

Stefanie Heine. Poetics of Breathing: Modern Literature’s Syncope. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2021. 418 pp.

Reviewed by Cory Stockwell

22 February 2023

This excellent book begins with the observation that breath has traditionally been overlooked by both literature and literary study, in part due to the sheer difficulty of capturing it in writing: the latter, Heine notes, tends to semanticize breath, thereby failing “to reproduce the sound or visual appearance of breath accurately” (p. 1). How, given this difficulty, can writing hope to express breath? Heine responds to this question by developing a concept that she calls “syncopnea,” which, she argues, “does performatively what it says semantically, connecting and cutting short breath (pnoé) and the Greek word syncope, a word conjoining two contradictory elements: coptein, to cut off, beat, or scratch, and syn-, a preposition designating unity” (pp. 3–4). It is through the prism of this concept that Heine undertakes her examination of the place of breath in the work of several important twentieth-century writers. Indeed, each of the literary chapters that make up the bulk of the book (they are bracketed by a theoretical first chapter and a final chapter dealing with breath and gender) is organized around a pair of writers: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, Robert Musil and Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Sylvia Plath, and Paul Celan and Herta Müller. The pairings, Heine notes, should be read as “conversations à travers” that “operate in a syncopal manner, parsing intertextual connections and tensions, moments when poetics of breathing coincide and others when they diverge” (p. 45).

Given the importance of the theme of the syncope, and of breath more generally, in the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, it will come as no surprise that he is one of the main theoretical touchstones of the book. Rather than simply applying his work, however, Heine engages in a sustained critical dialogue with him. One example comes in her chapter on Celan and Müller, where she shows that Celan’s understanding of Sinn (sense) is comparable to, and yet exists in tension with, that of Nancy, in that the latter’s linking of sense and singularity is not quite capable of capturing the way that sense, in Celan, serves to “put singularity at risk” (p. 278). Heine’s critical approach to Nancy might be conceived of from the standpoint of Celan’s famous term auseinandergeschrieben (written-apart), commented upon by Nancy in The Sense of the World (1993): so closely does Heine engage with Nancy’s work that her own writing eventually splits from it, not by betraying it, but by putting it into a crisis of sorts—and thereby creating something new. A greater testament to Nancy, and to the writers Heine reads throughout this book, would be difficult to imagine.