Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Roland Barthes, "The Pleasure of the Text"


Translated by Richard Miller – Hill and Wang, New York
Read from May 23rd to 29th 2013



When Sigmund Reads…

I definitely have to re-read this essay in French – besides wondering all along how some sentence had been formulated originally I had the strange feeling that some point was missed in translation (and not at all because it is a bad translation, far from it, but because the study juggles with many a French language subtlety).

That being said, I would like to emphasize that The Pleasure of the Text is exactly about what the title announces: pleasure, literally speaking, that is, a clever parallelism between the sexual pleasure and the reading, with its climax , translated as bliss.


The references to Freud are always explicit in Barthes's essay: the relationship between the text and the reader is initiated (although never controlled) by the writer, called the Father of the text (whose death would symbolize the death of storytelling, which could be identified with the loss of one’s origins):

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).

Thus, the text is perceived as a body, in its scientific aspect (the pheno-text of the grammarians, critics, commentators, philologists) but also in its sexual connotations (body of bliss, of erotic relations):

The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas – for my body does not have the same ideas I do.

Furthermore, there is an Oedipal relationship between the reader and the text, issued from some perversion of reading: like the child who simultaneously does and doesn’t believe that his mother has a penis, the reader does and doesn’t believe that the text is only words, and this phenomenon is obvious when reading tragedy: I know the end but I act as though I don’t.

Another perversion (I liked this!) is reading criticism – the voyeuristic observation of the pleasure of others.

A very interesting observation concerns the difference between classic and modern writing as resulting from the speed of reading:

Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure...

The book is organized around some dichotomies of the text:

  • pleasure/ bliss: pleasure can be expressed in words, bliss cannot – criticism deals only with texts of pleasure;
  • canonical language/ death of language: fiction is supported by a social jargon (sociolect), that fights for hegemony. “Paradox: the writer suppresses this gratuitousness of writing (which approaches, by bliss, the gratuitousness of death). “
  • Novelty (a condition for orgasm – Freud again!)/ repetition (an eccentricity of the modernism): both are opposed to stereotype, an attribute of the mass culture;
  • figuration/ representation: figuration is the way in which the erotic body appears. There is a figure of the text necessary for the bliss of reading. Representation is “… embarrassed figuration, encumbered with other meanings than that of desire: a space of alibis (reality, morality, likelihood, readability, truth, etc.).”


Therefore, a Freud-style approach (interestingly mixed with some Nietzsche) of an “amor intellectualis” viewed as an eroticism of reading, whenever the reader connects intimately with a text capable of giving him pleasure and/ or bliss.

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