This essay by Robert Boucheron is also featured in Issue Two of Porridge, available for purchase here.
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He has
worked as an architect in New York City and since 1987 in Charlottesville,
Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction
International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Saturday Evening
Post, and other magazines.
The Chore of the Text
Roland Barthes, the French philosopher, literary theorist, and semiotician, published The Pleasure of the Text in 1973. His parody of an autobiography titled Roland Barthes followed in 1975. The books share a format of short passages, one or a few paragraphs headed by a phrase, with the phrases in alphabetical order. The books are indistinguishable in content. Let us lump them together.
Barthes was born in 1915 into a solid, middle-class family. As he neared age sixty, he may have felt a twinge of regret. In his university teaching career and writing for publication, the game of language he played for over thirty years may have begun to pall. Why read? In place of Nietzsche’s “will to power,” he substitutes “pleasure” as the fundamental motive. The Pleasure of the Text follows this idea through topics as they occur to him: borders, dream, exactitude, ideology, and old favourites like the body and value. Not a sustained argument, it is a meditation and a tease. The section titled “Pleasure” distils the technique, which is conversational in tone, elliptical down to single words, and self-contradictory. Of the types of pleasure, “bliss” is the only one that matters, yet “bliss does not constrain to pleasure; it can even apparently inflict boredom.”
Roland Barthes in the section titled “Accommodation” has a similar reversal: “When I read, I accommodate . . . like an eye in order to grasp in the mass of the text that certain intelligibility it needs in order to know, to take pleasure, etc. In this, reading is a kind of work, a labour. . .”
The quirk of style which Barthes enshrines as “the fragment” may have grown out of his habit of writing on index cards and stray sheets of paper, as illustrated in Roland Barthes. In that book under “The circle of fragments” he claims he began to write in this manner in 1942 “because incoherence is preferable to a distorting order,” and “he has never stopped writing in brief bursts.”
Like Julius Caesar, Barthes refers to himself in the third person. He cites André Gide, and he writes elsewhere that when he was young, Gide was his hero. Gide’s novels take a conventional form, so perhaps Barthes is thinking of The Journals, published as extracts in a series of books. He also mentions Baudelaire’s The Spleen of Paris, fifty short “prose poems” published in newspapers and then as a book in 1863. Today we might call these pieces “flash fiction”. Friedrich Nietzsche, frequently invoked by Barthes, may have been a model, with his aphorisms and numbered paragraphs.
Literary precedent is not required and may be irrelevant. Barthes’ late books are scrapbooks, assemblages of fragments. Evidently, he baulked at organizing his thoughts. Yet he is at pains to tell us what pains he has taken. The discussion of fragments goes on for pages, with several explanations, theories, and metaphors. He prefers to write beginnings, not endings, he says. He reserves the right to wiggle, to charm his way through.
Despite Barthes’ claim, his Mythologies of 1957 is a book of essays, some of which appeared in magazines. Some are short, three pages. Most dissect popular culture, French and American – movies, movie stars, photographs of food, a boat cruise, and a flood in Paris. They skewer the populist politician Pierre Poujade and the child poet Minou Drouet. The 1950s trivia can be obscure. Advertising is a theme, and the vocabulary used to sell soaps and detergents gets in-depth treatment. The long first essay “exposes” professional wrestling as a theatrical spectacle, with storylines, costumes, and over-the-top villains. The fifty-page essay at the end makes the case for “myth” as a tool of bourgeois cultural domination. Today no one would argue with the premise that politics, photography, print media, and radio and TV news reports deploy myths. Debunking them is easy enough.
The most entertaining writer among the Parisian intellectuals who gave us “deconstruction”, Barthes was never the most original thinker, as he confessed. Self-deprecation is one of his themes. He is obsessive the way Woody Allen is neurotic. All his life, Barthes has suffered from boredom in company, so he asks: “Might boredom be my form of hysteria?” A survivor of tuberculosis, he has part of a rib removed in lung surgery, a bone he saves in a drawer for years, then throws out the window into the street, “as if I were romantically scattering my own ashes.” Fatherless, plump, left-handed, class-conscious, homosexual, a provincial in Paris, a Protestant in a Catholic country – tags that can stand for each other – he writes: “Surrounded by political upheaval, he plays the piano, paints watercolours: all the false occupations of a middle-class maiden in the nineteenth century.”
Self-contradiction is another theme. Any passage you care to cite has a passage somewhere else that refutes it. Sometimes the contradiction immediately follows the statement, as in the passage just quoted: “The middle-class maiden produced uselessly, stupidly, for herself, but she produced: it was her own form of expenditure.”
Keywords and images recur: the Argo, the body, boredom, dogma, France, ideology, mother, Oedipus, petit-bourgeois, the sentence, value, and voice. Word pairs such as neuf/nouveau fascinate him when they express a “cleavage” or opposition, and he takes sides: “he is for one, against the other.” He rejects “the critique of neither-nor” as a bourgeois myth, a pretense of neutrality. Yet he succumbs to nostalgia. When he recalls reading Proust, presumably Swann’s Way, he merges with the young Marcel reading novels in summer in the garden of the house in Combray. Roland Barthes has a photo of him as a boy in summer in the garden in Bayonne, where his grandparents lived.
Barthes died in 1980 after being struck by a laundry van in the street in Paris. His sudden death called forth tributes, including “Remembering Barthes” by Susan Sontag, who met him more than once in New York and elsewhere. The essay is in her 1981 collection Under the Sign of Saturn.
Oppressively serious in her own work, Sontag appreciates Barthes’ sense of humour. In eight pages, she sums up literary influences such as Jean-Paul Sartre, considerable achievements, personal foibles, and endearing courtesies. She wrings pathos from a time near the end: “Vague torments, a feeling of insecurity, were acknowledged—with the consoling implication that he was on the verge of a great adventure. . . . he avowed in public, with almost tremulous bravery, his intention to write a novel.”
Would the novel be like those by his subjects: Robbe-Grillet, Flaubert, Proust, and Zola Shrewdly, Sontag notes “something reminiscent of Henry James about his temperament and the indefatigable subtlety of his mind. The dramaturgy of ideas yielded to the dramaturgy of feeling. . . . If he could have written a great novel, one imagines it more like late James than like Proust.” And the lessons learned about “myth” did not go to waste. His “most wonderful books—Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse—are themselves triumphs of modernist fiction . . . which crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography.”
Drawing on memories of what Barthes told her instead of his published books, Sontag omits Baudelaire and Nietzsche. She mentions Goethe, a late interest with no effect on his work. About the nature of “pleasure” she does not inquire, though she writes: “He affirmed something childlike in his insistence, which he shared with Borges, that reading is a form of happiness, a form of joy. There was something less than innocent about the claim, the hard edge of adult sexual clamorousness.” In French, the word jouissance can mean both joy and sexual orgasm, a pun that Barthes was happy to exploit.
Obeying the adage to speak only good of the dead, Sontag will not allow Barthes to have an underside. “He had little feeling for the tragic.” Was she aware of the dark roots of comedy? And yet: “There was something sad in all this talk about pleasure.”
Barthes refers to “the text” in an ambiguous way. Sometimes he means a published work of importance by a well-known author. At other times any written matter can be the subject of analysis. With Jacques Derrida and the deconstruction crew, he attacks the “privileged text” drawing on de Saussure’s use of “privilege” in the field of linguistics. In the heated climate of the 1970s, usage shifted to a political metaphor, an attitude of radical democracy. If all people are equal, then everything they write deserves to be read and commented on. Today, the self-publication of books, the proliferation of online publishing, and the world of social media, with its “texts” unfiltered by editors and fact checkers, have made a reality of what Barthes and his generation would have considered a utopian ideal.
What about literary quality, the relative merit of texts, and the search for truth? The free marketplace of ideas argues that an unlimited number of writers and readers will winnow the worst and favour the best. If we have learned anything about life online, however, we know that the free marketplace does not exist. Instead, we have covert advertising, planted stories, product promotions, fake news, preferential data flow, and manipulated search engine results – the sordid commercial reality of the internet.
The individual cannot always choose what to read. We read directives, technical manuals, confusing guidelines, the minutes of meetings we skipped, the agenda for the meeting we are stuck in, a multi-page contract to purchase a gadget, the fine print on a document we signed and completely forgot about, garbled instructions for home assembly, hysterical warnings posted in public, signs in Spanish, news reports from reliable journals that check their sources, news reports that are propaganda, opinions that masquerade as facts, humour that mines assumptions we do not share, and always and everywhere adverts.
We tolerate advertising, tune it out, critique it as an art form, and succumb to it, though we claim to be immune. We read adverts while riding rapid transit, while waiting for service at a coffee shop, because there is nothing else at hand, and staring at other people is rude. We wallow in the overdone prose of adverts, their adjectives and superlatives. We savour their weird syntax, artificial dialect, and manipulative gambits.
Texts that promise to be light reading—novels, short stories, poems, and sketches—are often written in the language of adverts. We read them out of a sense of duty, from morbid curiosity, because a friend wrote them, and despite a review that praised them. We read in the hope of finding a voice that speaks to us. We remember with nostalgia the way we read as children, the naive devotion we had to the text, like the fun of swimming underwater, holding our breath as we turned the page, and surfacing as though from a trip to another world. As adults we long to recapture that depth and revisit that world.
A few of us read literary magazines, avant-garde journals, and newly published books by unknown authors. We read manuscripts as volunteers for those same publications. Why go to the trouble? The review for the website must be written, and the years of academic rigor we endured, not to mention the humiliation, must show some result. We justify our elite status and advance our own career.
In the case of Barthes, how do we weigh his achievements? His academic teaching, critical essays, and books like S/Z and Writing Degree Zero had a profound effect on literary analysis in Britain and America, as books by Jonathan Culler and Christopher Norris testify. But the playful forays into semi-fiction can be tiresome, and the mannered prose, swollen with parentheses and overstatement, is dated. We strain out the mischief in order to savour the broth. We face the chore of the text and get on it.