Showing posts with label anaïs nin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label anaïs nin. Show all posts

2 Aug 2016

Postmodern Approaches to Literature 3: The Pleasure of the Text (Part II)

 ... and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me 
so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart 
was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

I suppose that one of the more attractive things about approaching literature according to a principle of pleasure is that it means we can have done with judgement in the traditional terms of good and bad. This in itself is surely a relief of some kind and a significant break with the moral history of the West. For as Deleuze rightly points out: "From Greek tragedy to modern philosophy, an entire doctrine of judgement has been elaborated and developed".

Kant notoriously gave us a false critique of judgement. It was Spinoza and his heirs, such as Nietzsche, who really carried this out and Barthes follows in their footsteps, refusing either to accuse or justify, defend or condemn. Indeed, Barthes quotes Nietzsche in the very first fragment of The Pleasure of the Text: 'I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation.' All that matters is whether his body finds something pleasurable or not. It's a Nietzschean - not a subjective - game of love and hate.

Of course, what Barthes's body loves and what Barthes's body hates, will not be the same as what the body of another reader might love and hate. In Roland Barthes he makes a list of things he likes and a list of things he doesn’t like; two lists which are apparently of no great significance. But, of course, they do in fact mean something vital; namely, that no two bodies are the same: "Hence, in this anarchic foam of tastes and distastes ... gradually appears the figure of a bodily enigma ..." [1995]

Because all bodies are different, a Society of the Friends of the Text would be a social grouping in which members had nothing in common: "for there is no necessary agreement on the texts of pleasure" [1990]. This calls for a certain liberalism, therefore, each person consenting to "remain silent and polite when confronted by pleasures or rejections which they do not share", or run the risk of homicidal irritation. “I am liberal in order not to be a killer” [1995], as Barthes confesses.

The key thing is that within the above sodality, difference and contradiction is accepted. There is no judgement and no demand for conformity with a categorical imperative governing universal good taste. Barthes is very clear about who would comprise enemies of such a society:

"fools of all kinds, who decree foreclosure of the text and of its pleasure, either by cultural conformism or by intransigent rationalism (suspecting a 'mystique' of literature) or by political moralism or by criticism of the signifier or by stupid pragmatism or by ... loss of verbal desire." [1990]

Picking up on this idea of the body that Barthes introduces, we may say the following: for Barthes, the text itself can be thought of as a "body of bliss consisting solely of erotic relations" [1990] and utterly distinct from the body known by anatomists and discussed within scientific discourse. This is not to reduce the pleasure of the text to some kind of physiological process or need, but it is to affirm that the pleasure of the text "is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas" [1990] and fully comes into its own as a site of what Nietzsche calls the greater intelligence.

This sounds at first precisely like the kind of mysticism which his critics accuse him of and which Barthes is eager to deny. Later in The Pleasure of the Text he will insist that his major aim is to materialize the text and its pleasure; making it into an object of pleasure like any other and thereby abolishing the "false opposition of practical life and contemplative life" [1990].

Jonathan Culler's commentary on this aspect of Barthes’s work is particularly insightful and thus worth quoting at length:

"Reference to the body is part of Barthes’s general attempt to produce a materialist account of reading and writing, but it has four specific functions. First, the introduction of this unexpected term produces a salutary estrangement, especially in the French tradition, where the self has long been identified with consciousness, as in the Cartesian cogito ...
      Second, structuralism has devoted much energy to demonstrating that the conscious subject should not be taken as a given and treated as the source of meaning but should rather be seen as the product of cultural forces and social codes that operate through it. ...
      Third, given structuralism's treatment of the subject ... Barthes could not talk about the subject’s pleasure without begging numerous questions ... Yet he needs a way of speaking that takes account of the empirical fact that an individual can read and enjoy a text ... the notion of the body permits Barthes to avoid the problem of the subject ...
      Fourth, replacement of 'mind' by 'body' accords with Barthes’s emphasis on the materiality of the signifier as a source of pleasure."

Of course, problems remain with this invoking of (and appeal to) the body. For even if one strives to avoid falling into mysticism or some form of biological essentialism, we’re still left with a word that seems to have a greater degree of authority and authenticity than other words; "a word whose ardent, complex, ineffable, and somehow sacred signification gives the illusion that this word holds an answer to everything" [1995] - i.e. what Barthes calls a mana-word.

Although aware that the word 'body' was functioning as such in his later writings, I’m not sure Barthes ever fully addresses this issue. He seems happy to use it, if only as deliberate provocation to the new intellectual orthodoxy - which, ironically, he had helped to create.

Further, if via his use of the term body Barthes allows a form of faceless subjectivity back into the Text, so too is he prepared to welcome back the author as a kind of spectral guest:

"If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters ... no longer privileged, paternal ... He becomes, as it were, a paper-author: his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work ..." [1977]

In The Pleasure of the Text, he expands on this theme: 

"As an institution, the Author is dead: his civil status, his biographical person have disappeared ... they no longer exercise over his work the formidable paternity whose account literary history, teaching, and public opinion had the responsibility of establishing and renewing; but in the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure (which is neither his representation nor his projection), as he needs mine ..." [1990]

The reason for this necrophilia is easy to appreciate. Barthes desires the return of the author for the same reason that the text needs its shadow - "a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject" [1990] - and a painting its chiaroscuro: in order for it to become fertile. Those who would argue that we abandon all caution and strip a work of everything that we previously valued within it take us towards sterility and suicide.

As Deleuze and Guattari note, caution is the immanent rule of experimentation, whether one is producing an avant-garde artwork or building a body without organs: "if you blow apart the strata without taking precautions, then instead of drawing down the plane [of consistency] you will be ... plunged into a black hole, or ... dragged towards catastrophe".

Barthes attempts to shatter the dead-grip of traditional criticism upon classical literature - not to destroy the latter. In his ‘Inaugural Lecture’ to the Collège de France, he declares:

"The old values are no longer transmitted, no longer circulate, no longer impress; literature is desacralized, institutions are impotent to defend and impose it as the implicit model of the human. It is not, if you like, that literature is destroyed; rather it is no longer protected, so that this is the moment to deal with it. ... Our gaze can fall, not without perversity, upon certain old and lovely things, whose signified is abstract, out of date. It is a moment at once decadent and prophetic, a moment of gentle apocalypse, a historical moment of the greatest possible pleasure." [1989]

Of course, whilst Barthes may retain a nostalgic fondness for these old and lovely things (works by Zola, Balzac, Proust et al) - and whilst they may still give him a great deal of plaisir - they cannot induce jouissance. For bliss comes only with the absolutely new; "for only the new disturbs (weakens) consciousness" [1990]. This is a rare occurrence and does not come easily. Often, what we take to be the new is merely "the stereotype of novelty" [1990].

The New, as Barthes conceives it, is then not simply the latest thing - it's a value. And it opposes all the old forms of encratic language (i.e. the language of power), which are founded upon repetition and stereotype; "all official institutions of language are repeating machines: school reports, advertising, popular songs, news, all continually repeat the same structure, the same meaning, often the same words: the stereotype is a political fact, the major figure of ideology" [1990]. Barthes continues:

"The stereotype is the word repeated without any magic, any enthusiasm, as thought it were natural ... Nietzsche has observed that 'truth' is only the solidification of old metaphors. So in this regard the stereotype is the present path of 'truth'..." [1990]

Opposing the rule of the stereotype is the New and the exceptional pleasure of the New (which is bliss). But finding new ways to write and to speak is not easy and would seem to involve more than merely coining endless new terms or indulging in a kind of linguistic Saturnalia. Indeed, Nietzsche warns us against those innovators in language who constantly seek to supplement language, rather than bring greater style or discipline to it.

Heidegger also argues that whilst it’s right to identify the metaphysics of language, there is no need to abandon all grammatical convention. For a revitalizing of language does not result "from the fabrication of neologisms and novel phrases" [1994], but from a change in our relation to (and usage of) language. Even old words, worn out by convention and repetition, can be recontextualized, reinterpreted, and revalued.

Often, it’s case of transforming the Word back into the Flesh; that is to say, of giving back to language what Anaïs Nin described as the “bulginess of sculpture, the feeling of heavy material fullness” and perhaps our poets are best placed to lead the way here. But it’s philosophy, says Heidegger, which is ultimately responsible for preserving “the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself” [1998] and to protect language from being degraded by a common intelligibility into doxa, cliché, or sheer nonsense.

To allow language, in other words, the right to live and, equally important, the right to die. For what is the stereotype at last but the "nauseating impossibility of dying" [1990] - the rule of a world in which words become reified, fixed, undead.

The pleasure of the text, we might conclude, lies in its mortality ...


Roland Barthes, 'From Work to Text', essay in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath, (Fontana Press, 1977). 
Roland Barthes, 'Inaugural Lecture', trans. Richard Howard, in Barthes: Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, (Fontana Press, 1989).
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, (Blackwell, 1990).
Roland Barthes, ‘Twenty Key Words for Roland Barthes’, interview in The Grain of the Voice, trans. Linda Coverdale, (University of California Press, 1991), pp. 205-06.
Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Miller, (Papermac, 1995).
Jonathan Culler, Barthes, (Fontana Press, 1990).
Gilles Deleuze, ‘To Have Done With Judgement’, in Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, (Verso, 1998)
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (The Athlone Press,
Heidegger, ‘The Way to Language’, essay in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, (Routledge, 1994).
Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (Blackwell, 1998).
Anaïs Nin, D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study, (Blackspring Press, 1985).
Mireille Ribière, Barthes: A Beginners Guide, (Hodder and Stoughton, 2002).

Note: this and the two related posts have been assembled from extensive notes made for a course entitled Postmodern Approaches to Literature, that I taught at Morley College, London, in the Spring of 2010. To read PAL 1 click here. To read PAL 2 click here. To read the first part of this post click here

This post is dedicated to Gail who asked 'Why read Barthes?'

24 May 2015

Lovely Lesbians

 Photo of June Miller by Brassaï (c. 1933)

Henry Miller's posthumously published novel Crazy Cock, was originally entitled Lovely Lesbians - this with reference to his beautiful second wife, June, and her lover, the somewhat mysterious figure of Jean Kronski, fictionally portrayed by Miller in the above work as the arts-loving and rather dapper dyke, Vanya.

Miller met June in 1923, when she was still only 21 and working as a dancer in New York. He immediately fell in love and abandoned his first wife and child in order to be with her. They married in the summer of the following year and their relationship is central to much of his work, including the two Tropic books and his semi-autobiographical trilogy, The Rosy Crucifixion.     

In October 1926, at June's insistence, Jean moved in with them. This allowed her to cultivate an intensely close relationship with the latter and she seemed to enjoy Jean's affections more than her husband's, much to Miller's chagrin. Not surprisingly, things soon came to a head and in April 1927 June and Jean left for Paris together.

Unfortunately, things didn't work out very well for the lovely lesbians and June returned to her old life with Miller in New York just three months later. As for Jean Kronski - if that was in fact her name - she is thought to have committed suicide in an insane asylum c.1930.

Now, I'm no expert on Miller, so I don't really know what he meant by the phrase lovely lesbians - one suspects he was using it in a sardonic manner, as I can't imagine he was entirely happy about the affair between his wife and Miss Kronski (though, that said, he didn't seem to mind later sharing June with Anaïs Nin, who was as sexually and creatively obsessed with her as Miller himself) - but it appeals very much because, for me, there is always something lovely about lesbians, wherever they are on the Sapphic spectrum; from the most feminine of lipstick lesbians, to the most butch or bullish of dykes.      
Does saying this make me a malesbian perchance? Not really. For this is a problematic term, for several reasons. Let's just say it demonstrates that I'm very much oriented towards women, feel happier in their company than in the company of men, and that Torpedo the Ark is an openly feminist blog which shares the view subscribed to by American poet and activist Audre Lorde that feminism fundamentally emerges out of a lesbian consciousness, whether or not one actually sleeps with women.

16 Apr 2013

Fragments of Remembrance

Gathered here are six little fragments of text written in remembrance of authors who have, at one time or another, meant something special to me. Arguably, they might be read as an attempt to bear witness to the uniqueness of the relationship that one has with the writers and the books that one loves. And, indeed, with the dead.

Not that these somewhat incomplete and unfinished verses constitute anything so grand as a poetry or a politics of mourning. In writing them, I think I simply (and at the risk of banality) wanted to record an affection, rather than produce art or pass judgement.

In Memory of Anaïs Nin 

Many types of flow - of madness and literature, desire and disintegration - 
traversed the queer forest of her body in which gay little birds twittered 
obscenely and dark poppies blossomed.

In Memory of Henry Miller

A boy from Brooklyn: a pornographer: a mystic.

A son-of-a-bitch quoting Nietzsche in an East Coast accent,
whilst parading round Paris with a personal hard-on like the
happiest man alive.

In Memory of Friedrich Nietzsche

Bones, a few biographical details, the odd photograph,
and a small number of books: the remains of a dead

And yet he is more alive now, in death,
than he was in life, having become that
posthumous individual he said he would.

And this childless man is today father to us all.

In Memory of Sylvia Plath

I do not like the English summer, unfolded
into green completion and the smugness of
strawberries and cream.

Intolerable the seasonal stupidity of the natives;
one yearns for the first breath of autumn and
the fresh reassurance of rain.

Even, like a spinster, I long for winter,
so scrupulously austere.

In Memory of Marinetti

When I think of Marinetti
hurling defiance at the stars
beneath a violent electric moon,

I think of a bald-headed little man
in a bow-tie masturbating whilst
erect on the summit of the world.

Instinctively, one can't help but smile
at how quickly this ludicrous lover
of the machine and the manifesto
became passé.

In Memory of the Marquis de Sade

A monster, say his jailers.

But, if so, then a monster of generosity
and good will, in whose name sex and
death entwine to produce a singular
form of love.