The Pleasure of the Text
By Roland Barthes; Trans. by Richard Miller
Hill and Wang, $12.00 paper
In this slim volume, the late Roland Barthes discusses the pleasure of reading. He is one of the foremost literary critics of the twentieth century, a writer mentioned alongside other noted intellectuals like Jacques Derrida, Philippe Sollars, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and in America, Susan Sontag. No problem there, but difficulties do arise when we discuss his language.
Bathes writes in French, delineating the kinds of pleasure inspired by reading. Mainly, he categorizes reading that gives pleasure and reading that creates bliss. The reader demands pleasure from the reading, but these demands rooted in popular culture are limiting. “We cannot get beyond an abridged, two-tense dialectics,” he writes, “the tense of doxa, opinion, and the tense of paradoxa, dispute.” To move beyond these two tenses is nearly impossible. Texts of pleasure never quite come to fruition; and bliss, Barthes equates to orgasm. Inherent in this is the language difficulty because there is an incongruity of terms in translation from French to English. A literal translation of terms would make for some embarrassing reading. Our only hope to move beyond the limits of culture is to include what he calls, “writing aloud,” a significance “carried not by dramatic inflections, subtle stresses, sympathetic accents, but by the grain of the voice, which is an erotic mixture of timbre and language, and can therefore also be, along with diction, the substance of an art.” Are you with me so far?
To be fair, Barthes takes a number of paragraphs to make his distinctions clear. Good books inspire pleasure in their reading. In truly divine literature, the reader finds a sensual experience, a communion between writer and reader, a bridging between two minds outside of space and time that knows no barriers. I can read a novel by Tolstoy written one hundred years ago and set in a land I’ve never seen, and I feel it, smell it, taste it as if I am there in Russia, transported, mind, body and soul. When this happens, this confluence of writer and reader, the two entities become one, much like the joining of two bodies in the act of intercourse, and the conjoined create the experience of the novel together.
Barthes is careful to define his orgasmic reading from the merely titillating. He writes, “So-called ‘erotic’ books…represent not so much the erotic scene as the expectation of it, the preparation for it, its ascent…naturally there is disappointment, deflation. In other words, these are books of Desire, not of Pleasure.”
Even taking into account the vagaries of language and Barthes’ status as a philosopher-critic, I still cannot buy this pleasure-bliss distinction. Yes, reading can incite pleasure in the reader. Good writing can elicit an emotional response with sensory imagery. I am often blissful when reading, lost to all other conversations and responsibilities. But orgasmic? I think not.
I also struggle with Barthes’ thicket of vocabulary and syntax. For example, he writes, “To identify accurately language’s image-reservoirs, to wit: the word as singular unit, magic monad; speech as instrument or expression of thought; writing as transliteration of speech; the sentence as a logical, closed measure; the very deficiency or denial of language as a primary, spontaneous, pragmatic force.”
Or, “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).”
Sure. Let me parse the verbiage, Mr. Barthes. I will need some strong verbicide and a machete. The man does love colons while carrying on a pretty torrid affair with semi-colons as well.
As I wrote in my post, “The Critical I,” if we expect literary criticism to be pulled at the last moment from the dust bin of history, the writing of such criticism must be lucid and accessible to all readers. This does not mean lowering standards to a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” critical analysis, but we cannot indulge obtusical writers (it’s my word, I own it!) like Barthes anymore. This essay is in the best tradition of “mental masturbation,” as Woody Allen phrased it in one of his films, twisting this way and that and then doubling back on itself in a flagrant display of synaptic gymnastics. But who am I to argue with one of the great literary critics of history. For him, this kind of mental pleasuring of oneself might just get him to the blissful moment of a reading climax he most intensely desires. The rest of us will have to do it the old-fashioned way.