Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Pleasure [and Displeasure] of the Text

The Pleasure of the Text
By Roland Barthes; Trans. by Richard Miller
Hill and Wang, $12.00 paper
ISBN: 978-0-374-52160-8

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.


  1. This post seems a good occasion to remark that your blog is always a pleasure to read.

    Thanks a lot.


  2. I don't know about the rest of your readers, but in this wrestling match with Barthes and all his hammer holds, you win hands down!

  3. It may be that Barthes is never to your taste, but dismissing him outright and claiming we (who?) must save litcrit by disavowing him completely seems a bit hasty. Among the French critical theorists, Barthes has actually written some of the most accessible stuff, and his essays were published, to acclaim, in ordinary newspapers -- it's worth starting with something like Mythologies rather than Pleasure, perhaps, or the essays in The Rustle of Language. His quasi-memoir Barthes by Barthes is fascinating and A Lover's Discourse is, I think, quite moving. S/Z is an astoundingly creative work of ultra-close reading, and almost unique (it would be unique if Samuel Delany hadn't taken inspiration from its structure for his book The American Shore.) For difficult stuff, secondary sources can be useful -- Jonathan Culler's Barthes: A Very Short Introduction is worthwhile, for instance.

    There's nothing wrong with finding Barthes's writings difficult, frustrating, obtuse, not to your liking. But to then go from a personal frustration to a larger statement about critical analysis seems to me shortsighted. I can sympathize with the desire -- I've been reading Barthes's Image/Music/Text recently and had many moments where my first inclination was to scream, "Roland! Stop it! Say what you mean!", but wrestling with the complexities has been stimulating and exciting -- the glory of the best complex, difficult, philosophical writing is the stimulation it can provide, the real engagement with extremes of language. (But I also like a lot of modern poetry that does the same thing, so I don't mind it in someone like Barthes.) It may be a different way of reading from what you prefer for yourself, but your statements suggest you think all of us who find Barthes's work insightful and compelling -- and such folks include many pretty impressive writers and thinkers, not just schlubs like me -- must be members of a mutual masturbation club, when really, perhaps, we simply enjoy different positions than you do.

  4. Morgenlander, thank you for reading and commenting. I will venture over to your site and check out your work as well.

    Vassilis, I deeply appreciate your positive adjudication of this wrestling match. Thank you for reading.

    Matthew, I would never dismiss Roland Barthes. But if he were here standing in front of me, I would have to ask: "Roland, to whom are you writing?"

    Although he may have published accessible essays in ordinary newspapers, I doubt he would be published today for one very significant reason: those ordinary newspapers have discontinued publishing literary criticism and book reviews. I fear that it is exactly the kind of writing exhibited by Barthes that turned readers away from criticism in those ordinary newspapers and led to the dropping of stand-alone book review sections. Even the New York Review of Books struggles to keep subscribers these days, and that is one journal where I could see Barthes publishing if he were alive today. He is just so obtuse in his language and reasoning. We, as writers of criticism, must do better.

    Writing, to me, is a form of teaching. A critic must take his readers where they are and bring them up to his level. Barthes does not do that. I found a huge disparity between reading this book and those of today's critics such as Sven Birkerts, David L. Ulin, Joan Didion, and the late Susan Sontag and Alfred Kazin. Their work, although sometimes difficult and requiring intense concentration, has a more accessible point and message to it for today's reader. I am not denigrating you or others who find insight and beauty in Barthes' work, and even a philistine like me will read him again. (In fact, I will take your suggestions and try some of his other work.) Nor would I ever suggest that you are engaging in anything lurid or perverse for enjoying parsing his language. I applaud you for it.

    Thank you for writing and adding to my criticism with an alternative view, and I promise to check out your blogs as well.

    Take care, all.

  5. I had no idea what I was reading here. This is my first college assignment and I just wanted to say this greatly helped me analyze and understand this text. Thank you, pleasure to read.


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