We’re here, are we? Whoever knows? This hinge of/to (prepositions are always mutable in application) reality, unreality, irreality should be oiled and embraced. In his hypnotic brief novel Adventures in Immediate Irreality, Max Blecher dwelled there, and, reading, I was in concordance. Michel Leiris pursued writing as a transport in order “to extract from the real, the imaginary in which I can feel I am living another life, fuller than the real ordinarily is; to infuse the imaginary with enough reality for it to carry at least as much weight as, for many of us, dream carries.” To utter “Roland Barthes is” is some kind of madness; there is no summation, but to speak about him at all is to start somewhere. Roland Barthes is abuzz, he is a shimmer, he vacillates, that is, his being is in motion, is in love and out, enraptured or indifferent, and on. But in declaring a status, as for Leiris or Blecher, Barthes’s plain of habitation is reality, unreality, disreality and the easy slip from one to the other.
Winded by a perceived amorous disappointment in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (Hill and Wang, New York, 2010), Barthes responds, “To escape disreality—to postpone its advent—I try to link myself to the world by bad temper.”
He will hold to the real, stay with this tactic, which, he says, “keeps me lively, linked to the world” for the moment, the state he prefers. Still, outside the setting where he is located he feels the isolation as a sting, and retaliates, “What I am excluded from is not desirable to me.” He consoles himself with this assessment, shaping the self-telling as “a last thread of language, (that of a fine Sentence),” which, he says, holds him to reality—a satisfaction of a mixed sort.
And further, he tells us, “The unreal is uttered abundantly (a thousand novels, a thousand poems). But the disreal cannot be uttered; for if I utter it, … I emerge from it.”
He overhears a conversation at the next table in the buffet of a train station. It must have been the banality, the sheer ordinariness of the comments that pushed Barthes to the edge and over where he is once again, but not for all time, in the miasma of disreality. Rescued by reason in the form of his own recognition, uttered as a full sentence—a demotic sentence fragment would have been insufficient—and he says, simply, “I tell myself,” and this recognition allows him to reassemble.
To write, I know, is always to be two selves. Think here of Michel Leiris, who wrote that death was “the great leap that tears him from himself.” I count two, here. “I tell myself,” Barthes wrote, and, “Instead of this hole, a vivid reality had just appeared: the reality of the Sentence (a madman who writes is never entirely mad).”
Susan Sontag edited and wrote the introduction to A Barthes Reader (Hill and Wang, New York, 1982). Her lengthy introduction to this substantial book is a passionate and reasoned love letter to a writer whose work she knew so well and understood and admired so very much. She begins with what she describes as the logical development of Barthes’s work, opening and closing on what she names “that exemplary instrument in the corner of consciousness, the writer’s journal.” His first published essay had been on his own discovery of the place of the journal for André Gide, and the last, shortly before his death, thoughts on his own similar practices. Sontag wrote, “The symmetry, however adventitious, is an utterly appropriate one, for Barthes’s writing, with its prodigious variety of subjects, has finally one great subject: writing itself.” And further, “For all his contributions to the would-be science of signs and structures, Barthes’s endeavour was the quintessentially literary one: the writer organizing under a series of doctrinal auspices, the theory of his own mind.”
Agony, anxiety, jealousy, anticipation, ravishment, fulfillment, languor, regret but above all—foremost, and the condition with which Wayne Koestenbaum opens his rhapsodic foreword to A Lover’s Discourse— is laceration. He writes, “A key to the mind and body of the great Roland Barthes—whose books, though they come in pieces, can’t be skimmed or summarized—is the word ‘laceration.’” Barthes is the lover and the discourse absorbs and is fuelled by all the conditions, and others, just listed. They are the experiences of a lover, a loved; an other must be present in some form or state. In his conclusion to the section “Inexpressible Love,” subtitled “écrire to write,” Barthes states, with a liberating economy, that love, longing and passion (desire is elsewhere) are outside of writing. “To know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing,” he says, “that it is precisely there where you are not—this is the beginning of writing.”
Recognizing the interiority of writing, its isolated singularity, turns the writer to their split or dual, maybe multiple, self, exercising in order to sustain the unstable hover, ready for apprehension. And what will snag the eye and lead to language? “Anything is likely to ravish me which can reach me through a ring, a rip, a rent,” Barthes writes and interrogates his own engagement: “Is the scene always visual? It can be aural, the frame can be linguistic: I can fall in love with a sentence spoken to me: and not only because it says something which manages to touch my desire, but because of its syntactical turn, (framing), which will inhabit me like a memory.”
Nothing is more enriching, nourishing and fecund than memory, lodged in its interior space, available for selection, revision, enhancement—a cache of the mind furnished for the writer, where the writer, finally, lives alone.
Barthes tells us he wrote A Lover’s Discourse because as a language it was overlooked, “of an extreme solitude.” By its very subject it finds itself isolated, its existence, that is, its reality, in question, “exiled from all gregarity,” and now there is no choice but to assert, confirm, secure its place as a site of affirmation, which, he tells us, is the subject of the book.
I don’t think there is a form more impenetrable than the circle—no apparent entry or exit, a tautology. Barthes gives a simple example: “I love you because I love you,” and with it he tells us that he has closed off the lover’s language. He finds himself intoxicated with its affirmation and likens his foolish bliss to “the explosion of the Nietzschean yes.” I think, too, of the almost delirious, rhapsodic Joycean yes, perhaps an affirmation without irony.
Where to place the assertion that it is impossible to write love, his saying, “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language,” where it fails in being both too much and too little, and then his recognition that you can’t, don’t write for the other, “that it is precisely there where you are not” that writing begins.
I enjoy the questionable notion that you absent yourself, in that you are not writing as an advocate with a purpose or a cause, and here artist Mel Bochner comes to mind with his impossible, elusive, absolutely correct reiteration—in painting on canvas and on walls, on paper in ink, over and over and over, obliterating its own statement, “Language is not transparent.” That conundrum of meaning and presentation and the sly knowing joy he derived from the insoluble riddle he’d set. So, you may not be an avid advocate pursuing a topic, but can’t persuasion, seduction, maybe even gentle coercion stand with the subject? And I read further Sontag’s pointing out Barthes’s pursuit of freedom. Here he draws a distinction between “writers who write something and the real writers, who do not write something but, rather write.” His chase is language that by its nature excludes itself from any appeal to power. This assertion of seeking individual freedom, however, is also political. Nothing is more captivating than someone who won’t be caught and pinned—moving on, always moving on. A horse, a rider, some dust, a flat vista and a beckoning sunset.
Sontag notes pleasure in Barthes’s act of writing where she says it was his insistence that the writing was the product of his appetite—desire and reading, desire and writing, nothing more, as if a writer could want more—except for the solipsistic nature of the self-pleasuring. But that’s not all of it. In his foreword Wayne Koestenbaum quotes Barthes: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other,” and then, following this feline image, writing that like any writer, what Barthes wants is contact.
Susan Sontag notes the elusive quality manifest in Barthes: “The writer is the deputy of his own ego—of that self in perpetual flight before what is fixed in writing, as the mind is in perpetual flight from doctrine.” She describes the ecstatic state that shimmers in his language and introduces the metaphor of empty and full, “the zero state and the state of maximal plenitude.” What he seeks in writing is everything at once: language rich in meaning and also both elegant and reticent, creating meaning through the intellectual equivalent, as Sontag points out, of negative space. And Mel Bochner’s “Language is not transparent” applies.
My lover’s discourse would not be the same discourse in which Barthes is engaged, but I can write a parallel text when that is the topic addressed. Sontag wrote, “Barthes called the life of the mind desire.” For me desire is not the sole subject and winding language differently but with ecstasy in varying degrees, I can say a life of the mind is my desire and we would concur when she writes about him that “meaning is never monogamous.” Maybe less intensely I might apply writing degree zero to the transparency I seek in mine. Being elusive is an inevitable but desirable state in my measure, and I understand waver and oscillation as attributes of this condition.
“Who speaks is not who writes, and who writes is not who is.” Should you think to look him up to pay a visit, it would first be necessary to identify which of the trinity you’re calling on before you ring. ❚