Ponge: Taking the Side of Things
The French writer Francis Ponge takes the side of things. Having felt he
couldn't grasp absolute truths in ideas he opted for objects. The physical forms
of materials that we relate to each day could be trusted whereas those truths in
ideas can be invalidated by contradictory ideas since there is no acquired
capital, no solid ground to step on or over, ideas remain in a state of flux like the
sea, and provoke in him a feeling of nausea. "However, ideas, opinions, strike
me as determined in each of us by something quite different from free will or
judgment. I don'tknowanything more subjective. I really don't understand how
one can be proud of them, and what I find intolerable is that one tries to impose
them on others." 1
From explaining his mistrust of ideas, Ponge, in his essay "My Creative Method,"
goes on to explain why he has devoted himself to cataloguing and defining objects
in the external world. He then asks himself "How is it then that there is more than one dictionary in the
same language during the same period, and yet their definitions of the same objects are not identical?
How is it that what one finds there seems to be more a definition of words than of things? Why is there
this difference between the definition of a word and the description of the thing designated by the word?
Why is it that dictionary definitions seem to be so lacking in concreteness and descriptions so
incomplete, so arbitrary, so capricious? Couldn't one imagine some kind of writing which, placing itself
more or less between the two (definition and description), would borrow from the former its infallibility;
and from the latter its respect for the sensory aspect of things?" 2
That is what his book "Taking the Side of Things" is about. Taking objects and
writing about them, he has been able to let his writing fall between definition and
description. There is a delight in his writings - a certain joy discovered in living
and working in this physical world of wonderful objects. These objects exist in
themselves and therefore not asking for human approval for their existence.
What Ponge is trying to define is important because he is defining one of the
many crises facing our civilization- he points out how we relate to our material
world. We have lost touch with objects. Our product-oriented society has
become only interested in the ends to be gained from products. We exploit the
raw materials given to us from the earth and we don't know where to dump the
trash we leave behind. Ponge is saying that all you have to do is look at how we define objects in any
dictionary to see that the ideas about the objects have become more important than actually describing
the object; the abstraction is the important thing, and this has gotten us to the point where we feel we
are drowning in our own creations. It is all contained in William Carlos Williams' poem
"Spring and All"
"The pure products of America go crazy -
As if the earth under our feet were an
excrement from the sky" 3
How can we change this direction? Only by somehow developing a love for this place called earth - a
change from the religious views by seeing heavens as this world, this earth, not out of this world. Not a
strengthening or weakening of ego, but one of co-existence.
"What is completely spontaneous in man as he touches the earth is an immediate feeling of familiarity,
sympathy, or even veneration of matter: is anything more fitting for the spirit?
Whereas spirit venerating spirit...can you see that? - One sees only too much of
A long section in "Taking the Side of Things" is devoted to the pebble. He begins
by describing the pebble as a form or state of stone somewhere between rock
Having stated rock, he goes back to the beginning, sees stone as the earth, and
through wearing away of the earth by natural elements, stone is reduced to
rock, pebble, gravel, and finally to sand. The history of the earth seen as
The larger fragments, slabs of stone, make the global skeleton, and on them nature germinates,
invading and fracturing stone. This is all done through a state of living and dying. Plants linger, fade and die away, and through seeds left by dying
plants, plant life increases its attack on stone. Here, Ponge finds a paradox: life pretends to envy the indestructibility of its setting, but contributes
to the continued disintegration of that setting. Through this unity of action " it mistakenly believes its foundation may one day fail it, while believing
itself to be eternally renewable." 5
"To die and live again, plants, animals, gases, and liquids move, more or less rapidly. The great wheel of stone seems to us practically, and even
theoretically immobile; we can only imagine a portion of its slowly disintegrating phase. So that contrary to popular opinion which makes stone in
Man's eyes a symbol of durability and impassiveness, one might say that stone, which does not regenerate, is in fact the only thing in nature that
constantly dies." 6
From this point, Ponge makes an important discovery - that all forms of stone, in any stage of its development, exists simultaneously in the world.
No generations, no past, any man can touch the full potentials of the world as stone. In that world, there are no conceptions; everything exists.
Ponge ends by describing the effects water has upon stone. Water is the element having the strongest effect upon stone, and they are opposites.
Water, as liquid, can't contain its own form but is a slave to gravity, and as a slave one can do anything to it, even lead water through pipes.
It is water thought that shapes the pebble, but try as it might to penetrate it can only wear it away. The pebble, through this contact, may come out
smaller, but it will be intact and the pebble, with no effort, does away with water, since the pebble once removed from the water dried immediately.
"So that when vanquished, it finally becomes sand, water can still not penetrate it as it penetrates dust.
Keeping all traces except those of liquid, which limits itself to trying to erase all other traces, it lets the whole sea filter through, which disappears
into its depth without in any way being able to make mud of it." 7
All of this goes on without man having anything to do about it. But we try to enter, or rather to bring this all into our realm of being. We force stones,
plants, and animals into our conceptual chaos in order to satisfy our pleasures.
What would be the civilization of the stone? At least there are a few of us, like Ponge, who are able to enter into it through our sensibilities. "Such is
the globe's appearances today. The severed cadaver of the being that was once the world's grandeur now serves merely as a background for the
life of millions of beings infinitely smaller and more ephemeral. In places, their crowing is so dense it completely hides the sacred skeleton that was
once their sole support." 8
1, Ponge, Francis. THE VOICE OF THINGS. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972 p. 81
3. Williams, William Carlos. Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1949. p.36
7. Ibid, p. 76 - 8. Ibid, p. 70