Thursday, December 6, 2007

le plaisir du texte

As a sort of antidote to Lukács, I plucked Le plaisir du texte off my shelf and read some choice selections. It’s quite a wonderful little book. Possibly I wanted to go back to Barthes because of an essay I read yesterday or the day before about Barthes and Richard Rorty, which I found myself disagreeing with at nearly every turn. It’s from a very recent issue of New Literary History—and it seems to me to miss several things. The argument seems to be that at the very end of his life, Barthes gave up the playful self-fashioning he’d been engaged in, and turned to a traditional account of literature and écriture as speaking to deep and enduring human questions. This means that he isn’t at all the icon of ironist self-fashioning he apparently was always thought to be, or at least that he rejected the constant play of language in the late 1970s, just before he died.

Now, there’s a reason Compagnon calls Barthes an antimoderne. We should not take his postwar Marxism as a profession of faith (or, if we do, we shouldn’t let it get to us). We should remember that the Mythologies were newspaper columns. They were fun—still are. He isn’t in any sense, I think it’s safe to say, committed to any particular politics. He is, in a certain sense, elitist. There’s plenty to say about that. I won’t go on about it all. Barthes is near to my heart, but I’d like to stay lucid about his successes and his failures.

Le plaisir du texte is from 1973—translated very quickly, in 1975. Wolfgang Iser’s The Act of Reading was translated into English in 1978. Not so long ago I read a piece, also in New Literary History, by Brook Thomas about Iser’s reception in the US, and why it hadn’t gone so well. I’ve read some of Thomas’s other stuff, and been quite impressed. I liked this article as well, but now that I think on it, I don’t remember him mentioning Barthes at all. And if I can imagine myself back in 1980, trying to find a theorist who would help me talk about the reader and the text and their relation...well, there’s no context. Barthes is much sexier. Also shorter. It seems to me that this is the sort of thing intellectual history should be able to take into account when they ask ‘why not?’ questions (which, anyway, are always dangerous to ask).

As a side note, continuing to post ideas had-too-late about the Rancière paper: Barthes loves the idea of inattentive reading, of skipping around. His model of textuality and readerly action is about as far as you can get from Jacotot. Could they talk to each other at all? Lastly, having nothing to do with Barthes: the Jacototian idea that everything is in everything, that any act of language contains all language---this is the totalizing impulse that Rancière otherwise more or less stays away from, or might be. Again, bears some more thinking.

No comments: