The Writer Postponed

August 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

This appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books on 23 August 2015:

The Writer Postponed: Barthes at the BnF


The BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France) exhibition is one of numerous events commemorating the centenary of the birth of the author of “The Death of the Author” (1967). The exhibition is a rather modest affair compared with the grand 2002–03 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou — one that is far more in keeping with its subject’s endearing reticence. Curated by Éric Marty (who edited the complete works) Les écritures de Roland Barthes, Panorama is divided into two distinct parts. The first one consists of a series of white canvas wall panels, like the Chinese posters called dazibao, teeming with quotations, reproduced manuscript pages, and outsize photographs — including an inevitable Paris Match cover shot of the iconic Citroën DS, which the author of Mythologies famously likened to a Gothic cathedral. These dazibao conjure up Barthes’s 1974 trip to China (Carnets du voyage en Chine, 2009), his Zen inclinations, and his fondness for a partly fantasized Japan — a country he visited three times and wrote about, most famously, in Empire of Signs (1970). The use of fabric in lieu of paper could be construed as a nod to The Fashion System (1967) and, beyond that, to the semiologist’s dapper drapery metaphors. Stage curtains also spring to mind, of course. Barthes was deeply influenced by Bertolt Brecht in the 1950s, a period when his criticism revolved around drama: mostly avant-garde plays at first (until alternative theater was co-opted by Malraux and the Gaullist regime), but soon extending to canonical works. On Racine (1963) even became a cause célèbre, pitting the youngish bucks of la nouvelle critique against the academic establishment. Barthes would later reflect that theater — the personae of “life writing” and the performance of performativity — stood at the crossroads of his entire work. As a student, he dabbled in amateur dramatics, and he was always mesmerized by the manner in which the tragedian’s voice seceded into autonomous acting. Those who visited Barthes frequently fell under the spell of his voice. Chantal Thomas recalls that his speech rendered the silence it sprang from audible (Pour Roland Barthes, 2015). Philippe Roger mentions a sentence that still rings so distinctly in his ears that he could turn it into sheet music — despite having no recollection of what was actually said (Roland Barthes, roman, 1986). Barthes, who cherished “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) — “the body in the voice as it sings” — would no doubt have approved of his words time-lapsing into pure sound.

I walked the length of these gauzy panels, repeatedly, to ensure I had not missed the entrance to some occult gallery room. En route, I spotted several other mildly bemused visitors doing likewise, l’air de rien. Just as the art of striptease conceals nudity (Mythologies, 1957), everything here is hidden in plain sight. The author is ubiquitous, but atomized; splintered into myriad shards of text. In her monumental new biography, Tiphaine Samoyault demonstrates how his fragmentary, aphoristic, and self-referential style resists analysis, often leaving commentators no other option but to paraphrase or quote. This, she says, is how he inhabits his texts. Barthes himself goes back to the etymology of the word “text,” which, in Latin, refers — precisely — to tissue. This tissue, he avers, has traditionally been regarded as a “ready-made veil” concealing meaning (which can only be unveiled through interpretation). Instead of prêt-à-porter, he suggests we consider text as a piece of material that is constantly in the process of being woven — he compares Proust’s work to that of a seamstress. In this “making” of the text, “the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973). However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, albeit in disseminated form, “like the ashes we strew into the wind after death” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola, 1971).

Roland Barthes was not averse to biography per se. In fact, he even toyed with the idea of writing one himself (on his beloved Schumann). Besides, the intersection between life and literature was arguably his central concern throughout his career. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to his sanatorium days, the diseased body being his first object of investigation. She goes on to claim that his main achievement was to take reading out of the book and into the world: to decipher, as it is now, post-Barthes, common to say, the world like a text. For Barthes, however, reading literature was a highly personal pursuit: it meant “rewriting the text of the work within the text of our lives” (Le Nouvel Observateur, 1979). Textual pleasure reaches its climax when a book “transmigrates into our life, whenever another writing (the Other’s writing) succeeds in writing fragments of our daily lives” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola). As Susan Sontag shrewdly observed, Barthes started off discussing Gide’s journal (which, in his view, turned the life and work into “a creative whole”) and ended up reflecting upon his own. During one of his last lectures, he even confessed (citing Kafka’s Diaries and Tolstoy’s Notebooks) that he had “sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works” — an admission that would have been anathema in the days of high post-structuralism. Indeed, diaries are repositories of what he had previously described as the “fantasy” of the writer figure, that is to say “the writer minus his work”. Readers often suspect novels of being thinly disguised biographies; Barthes believed, contrarily, that biographies were novels that dare not speak their name. Put bluntly, a writer cannot dissociate him or herself from the act of writing, just as it is impossible to discuss language in nonlinguistic terms. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975) is thus prefaced with the following caveat, which, significantly, appears in the author’s own elegant script: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”. The fragmentary memoir that ensues is narrated in the first and third (he, R.B.) persons singular: Barthes, in effect, becomes a character — several characters — in what he describes as “almost a novel: a novel without proper names”. The subject (himself, his life) is real, but the narrative voice belongs (of necessity) to the realm of fiction. A clear line is drawn between the “unproductive” time of childhood — depicted in the first pages through a series of captioned snapshots — and the “productive” time of writing that endures in textual form, rather than as memory. Since the text dispossesses the writer of his “narrative continuity” — “it takes my body elsewhere” — only the “unproductive life” can be presented in chronological (albeit pictorial) fashion. Much of the author’s work, from Empire of Signs onward, can be read as a quest for a biography of the productive life.

Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. After all, the past never stands still: memories are always being reimagined and reshuffled; identity is open to constant recomposition. If someone were to write his life, Barthes remarked, anticipating his own memoir, he hoped it would be limited to a few “biographemes” — “a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections” — which, “like Epicurean atoms,” would perhaps touch “some future body, destined to the same dispersion” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola). As Paul Valéry put it, in a letter he quotes, “It is strange how the passage of time turns every work — and so every man — into fragments. Nothing whole survives — just as a recollection is never anything more than debris, and only becomes sharper through false memories”. In his lectures on The Preparation of the Novel (1978–1980; published in 2003), Barthes establishes a distinction between two literary Platonic ideals: the Book and the Album. The former is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk — an instantiation of the Absolute in codex form. The latter (aphorisms, pensées, fragments, collages, journals, scrapbooks) stands at the other, resolutely immanent end of the spectrum. Given that nothing whole ever survives, Barthes draws the conclusion that “the future of the Book is the Album, just as the ruin is the future of the monument”: “What lives in us of the Book” — a quotation, for instance — “is the Album”. (Éric Marty recently edited a collection of the author’s miscellanea under that very title.) Similarly, what lives in us of the biography is the biographeme, that textual snapshot: “Photography has the same relation to History that the biographeme has to biography” (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1980). Barthes’s oeuvre is dotted — punctuated — with prefigurations or echoes of the biographeme, which attests to the centrality of this concept. There is the gaping garment, for instance, pinpointed in The Pleasure of the Text as the scintillating locus of eroticism. There is “the Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku” — presented as near synonyms — which Mao’s China famously failed to deliver (Travels in China). And then there is the punctum: the accidental detail in a photograph (as opposed to the studium, its ostensible subject), which moves the observer to the poignant point where his or her involvement becomes intensely personal. One thinks of that passage in Empire of Signs where the author recalls that he never took any pictures of Japan. Quite the contrary, he explains: it is Japan that constellated him with flashes, as though from a camera not loaded with film. In her biography, Samoyault insists that, even at its most theoretical, Barthes’s criticism is never solely (soullessly) analytical. We always perceive the flash of the author’s desiring gaze.

The first part of the BnF exhibition illustrates Barthes’s definition of the “Album”. As its title indicates, it provides us with a panoramic view of the polymath’s multifaceted career. This dizzying, kaleidoscopic portrait of Roland Barthes — dissolved in the constructive secretions of his web — highlights his engagement with the world. The second part, tucked away in a room at the far end of the busy wall panels, is far more intimate. The dimmed lights instantly instill a quasi-religious ambience. The only audible sound comes, muffled, from headphones resting on black seats at the back. Enshrined in glass display cases, the manuscript of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977) and related relics (letters, index cards, artworks) take center stage. “So it is a lover who speaks and says:” — the magic Open Sesame formula — is inscribed on a blue wall, reminiscent of an Yves Klein monochrome or a manuscript illumination by the Limbourg brothers. Everything here represents the autobiographical, and indeed literary, turn in Barthes’s career: “It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science” (“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure …,” 1978).

One of the major lessons of Mythologies is that the world is always already written. Language — as Barthes put it, somewhat provocatively, during his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977 — is “fascist”. It speaks us, compels us to think and talk along certain lines. The task of literature is thus “to unexpress the expressible,” to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion by relinquishing meaning altogether: “For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible” (Critical Essays, 1964). In his memoir, Barthes writes that “he dreams of a world which would be exempt from meaning“. On several occasions, he praises the haiku for managing to “achieve exemption from meaning” whilst remaining perfectly intelligible. The arch-interpreter dreamt, paradoxically, of signifiers without signifieds. What attracted him to Japanese calligraphy was the interface between writing and painting. He was fascinated by the artistic tradition of “illegible writing” (linked to Chinese characters in the case of André Masson’s semiograms) that he studied in essays devoted to the likes of Bernard Réquichot or Cy Twombly. He even produced some elegant doodles of his own: an instance of what we would now call asemic writing is reproduced on one of the wall panels. The BnF exhibition also showcases several artworks (although that is perhaps too grand a word). The most interesting are multicolored squiggles that resemble a preliterate child’s impression of writing: writing as ludic abstraction.

Barthes never considered himself as a visual artist, and rightly so, but he derived a great deal of pleasure — “a kind of innocence” — from the sheer physicality of drawing or painting. The care with which he fashioned the file boxes for his famous index cards indicates that he also considered writing as a handicraft, as do the corrected proofs of A Lover’s Discourse, with their neatly redacted lines in blue felt-tip that look like erasure poetry. The author’s beautiful handwriting is as distinctive as the grain of the voice, where sound and meaning merge. Barthes, it is often said, wrote from the body. He sought to inscribe “the hand as it writes” — his very desire for writing, rather than his psychological subjectivity — into the body of his texts, thus substituting an erotics for hermeneutics. There is indeed a “return of the author” in Barthes’s work, but the author who returns is not the “Author-God” of realist fiction: “The author who leaves his text and comes into our life has no unity […] he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body”. It is through the body that the intimate makes its cry heard on the page.

Writing as pure gesture was, of course, only a fantasy. On this side of “the Utopia of language,” Barthes came to identify what he called “life writing” as a viable way of voicing the intimate. Simply put, life writing is writing as a way of life, whereby life becomes the text of the work — a text to be produced, not deciphered. In “The Death of the Author,” of all places, Barthes had already highlighted the “radical reversal” operated by Proust: “instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model”. Despite disavowing that polemical essay in The Preparation of the Novel — as though he could hear time’s winged laundry van hurrying near — he reprised his assessment of Proust, going as far as to claim that: “the positioning of the life as work is now slowly emerging as a veritable historical shift in values”. In Search of Lost Time is “entirely woven out of him [Proust], out of his places, his friends, his family; that’s literally all there is in his novel” — and yet it is not an autobiography.

Whether Barthes would have written a novel — had he not been knocked over by that van in 1980, dying a month later at the age of 64 — remains a moot point. In an interview, given in 1977, he announced his intention to write a “real novel”. However, he then went on to explain that he was looking for a form that would enable him to detach the “novelistic” (le romanesque) from the novel — which no longer really sounds like a “real novel”. The following year, in his conference on Proust, he mentioned his “fantasized and probably impossible” book. The lectures on The Preparation of the Novel did nothing to clear up the ambiguity; au contraire: “Will I really write a Novel? I’ll answer this and only this. I’ll proceed as if I were going to write one”. Samoyault argues, in her biography, that he probably would have done so. Although he only left an eight-page outline for his projected “Vita Nova,” she believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously (Incidents, Mourning Diary, et cetera) along with vast swaths of the unpublished archives, would eventually have been integrated into some grand magnum opus.

There are numerous counterarguments. Even though he had his ear to the ground and finger on the pulse — championing some of the most cutting-edge artists of his day — Barthes considered himself as a man of the 19th century: the rearguard of the avant-garde, as he once put it. Samoyault highlights the fact that he felt far more at home with Schumann or Chateaubriand than Messiaen or Robbe-Grillet, hence his deep-rooted fear of being an impostor. Proust — whose innovative work also retained a strong traditional Human Comedy dimension — probably represented his beau idéal of literary modernity. For Barthes, however, being modern also meant knowing “what cannot be started over again,” and that kind of monumental novel belonged to the past. At the beginning of The Preparation of the Novel, he suggests that “The Impossible Novel” could have been a good alternative title for these lectures, echoing one of the central themes of Writing Degree Zero: “Modernism begins with the search for a Literature which is no longer possible”. This general cultural crisis was echoed by his own abandonment of novel-writing as a teenager. In a letter to a friend, explaining why he had given up his bildungsroman — a satire of social conventions in provincial France — he described the novel as an “anti-artistic genre” in which aesthetics is stifled by psychology, and form a mere accessory. He then spoke of his conception of an “artistic form of literature,” which he would go on to seek out through his criticism in later years. When he died, he was preparing a conference on Stendhal’s switch from diary to fiction, which had finally allowed him to express his love of Italy. Evidently, Barthes was hoping that “Vita Nova” would likewise enable him to express his love of his mother, with whom he had lived almost all his life, and whose death in 1977 had left him devastated. The title — a quote — was “One Always Fails to Speak of What One Loves”. He may have sensed that his novel would never get as close to the “impossible science of the unique being” as he wished.

In fact, Barthes had already written a fitting, at times heart-rending, tribute to his late mother in the shape of the second part of Camera Lucida. He was too modest and racked by doubts — “I am not fully a writer” — to gauge the importance of his own work. As Philippe Sollers noted, his reading of Balzac’s “Sarrasine” in S/Z (1970) had rewritten a competent story into a veritable masterpiece. Michel Foucault pointed out that his criticism had a prophetic quality: it actually shaped the course of contemporary literature, rather than merely reflecting it. Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom Barthes had championed in his early days, claimed that A Lover’s Discourse may come to be regarded as the nouveau nouveau roman. He believed that the future of the novel lay in the hands of someone, like Barthes, who was not a professional novelist. A Lover’s Discourse was published in 1977, the year Serge Doubrovsky coined the term “autofiction”: it is now obvious that Barthes was one of the originators of this genre. It is equally obvious that most of his books, starting with Empire of Signs (when he began speaking in his own name), could now be labeled novels. Unknowingly, he had redefined what fiction could be.

In his Critical Essays, Barthes describes the critic as a writer, “but a writer postponed,” whose goal — to write a novel — remains tantalizingly on the horizon, like abstract squiggles: “the critic is the man who is going to write and who, like the Proustian narrator, satisfies this expectation with a supplementary work, who creates himself by seeking himself and whose function is to accomplish his project of writing even while eluding it”. While dreaming of the Book, Barthes produced the Album.

Illicit Frequencies, or All Literature is Pirated

February 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here is my interview with Tom McCarthy that appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 13 July 2006.

3:AM: It’s very rare, these days, to see a work of literary criticism being given such prominence. Do you agree that this is probably largely due to the fact that the main subject is not Balzac or Baudelaire — two key references here — but a comic-strip hero?

TMcC: First of all, I’m not sure I’d describe Tintin and the Secret of Literature as ‘criticism’. More as an essay. I like the idea of the essay as a primary literary form. You can trace it from David Foster Wallace through Blanchot all the way back to people like Hazlitt. But yes, the fact that it revolves around Tintin and not just Balzac and Baudelaire has certainly helped it get attention — although it wasn’t strategic to do this. I genuinely rate Hergé’s work, and wanted to read it alongside Balzac, Baudelaire, Bergson, Bachelard and all the rest, hopping from one to the other in a set of playful, serendipitous detours — which is exactly what the essay format allows.

3:AM: Your book is very much in the tradition of Barthes‘s Mythologies (an anthology which you fail to mention). I can’t remember if Barthes actually mentions Tintin anywhere, but he certainly could have done. In a way, the two figures go curiously well together: Tintin’s heyday corresponds roughly to that of Barthes and both, today, appear a little quaint. Was it Barthes who inspired this book? After all, your Tintin is primarily a semiologist who “can navigate [a key word in the McCarthy canon] the world of signs” (Tintin and the Secret of Literature p. 22), a deciphering cipher who embodies (along with Snowy?) the presence of absence — the Melvillian “whiteness of the whale” (p. 161) — but also, of course, Barthes’s “écriture blanche”.

TMcC: I do kind of mention Mythologies when I refer to wrestling and tomato tins early on in the book. I love Barthes: he’s a beautiful, generous writer. He never mentions Tintin directly as far as I know, although Derrida, another big presence (or present absence or whatever) in my book, does, glancingly, in The Post Card. Hergé read Barthes; you can see his influence very directly in the final book, Tintin and Alph-Art, in which language becomes a set of physical signs, giant letters which are held up and scrutinised by his characters.


3:AM: Are you the first to draw a parallel between Sarrasine and the Tintin corpus? I haven’t read Balzac’s novel, but, from what you write, La Zambinella seems to bear a resemblance to Proust’s Odette de Crécy. Am I mistaken?

TMcC: As far as I know I am the first to draw a parallel between Tintin and Sarrasine. I re-read Barthes’s S/Z, which turns around that particular novella, initially because I wanted to write about Hergé’s total mastery of plot: the way he misdirects, doubles, occludes, jams and so on, all these devices Barthes describes so well in his take on Balzac. But as I did I realised that there were loads of points of correspondence between Sarrasine and the Tintin books. Balzac’s eponymous artist becomes obsessed by the opera singer la Zambinella, like Captain Haddock does with Bianca Castafiore; he copies her, like the sculptor Balthazar does the fetish in The Broken Ear; he’s murdered, as is Balthazar; the copy is copied and these copies are themselves copied, in both. Fundamentally, it’s about entering the realm of denatured simulation that is art. La Zambinella’s voice draws Sarrasine backstage, into a world of artifice, just as la Castafiore’s voice draws Haddock backstage and on into a world of inauthenticity. And these worlds prove fatal: the castrato la Zambinella effectively kills Sarrasine, and ultimately the not-really-pubescent Tintin effectively kills Hergé.

With Proust, I’ve got to admit I’ve never got as far as the Odette bits in the Remembrance. There are passages I find completely compelling, like the bit about how you can construct a composite memory of a house from various other houses you’ve known or read about or seen in pictures (which is more or less what my hero does in Remainder, but other bits lose me, and I put it down again for two years, then re-read as far as the house bit, then same again: a kind of incomplete repetition loop. Perhaps that’s what Old Marcel would have wanted.


3:AM: Given that the literary status of the Tintin books is uncertain/debatable, isn’t it a little perverse to analyse them in order to uncover the “secret of literature”?

TMcC: Yes — and that’s why I wanted to do it. It would be easy to identify literary motifs in Faulkner or Dickens or someone. But what does it tell us when a corpus that makes no claims to being ‘literature’ displays a symbolic register as developed as Faulkner’s and characters as deep and rich as Dickens’s, not to mention themes and plots more or less identical to Sophocles’s and Shakespeare’s: the fall of the noble house, family secrets coming out into the open, the relation between host and guest gone disastrously wrong and so on? So much of the very best literature opens up illicit frequencies so that meaning can travel along channels other than the obvious or rational. The Tintin books are full of these frequencies, these channels; they even dramatise their setting up, hunting down, rumbling and relocating. And then it struck me that literature as a whole might hide its most intimate secrets in the most illicit of all zones, one tucked away ‘off-stage’, ‘aside’, below the radar of literature proper, which is of course the kind of zone that cartoons lurk in.

3:AM: Could you tell us about the cover of the book and Tintin’s absence from the illustrations inside?

TMcC: The cover is by Jochen Gerner, a French artist. I saw a book he’d done called TNT en Amérique, in which he buried the whole of Tintin in America under black ink but left a few symbols, mainly of money, divinity and violence (i.e. dollar signs, crosses and guns, all done in cartoony style) as markers for what he’d erased — all on the correct pages, corresponding to frames in the original book. So I contacted him and asked him to do the cover, and he was really into it. We looked at the main motifs in The Castafiore Emerald — the window, the piano, the cameras and spotlights that, ultimately, occlude more than they reveal — and he applied his technique (which, after Bataille, he calls ‘déformation’) to these. And in the foreground, as on Hergé’s, the tufted figure with his finger to his lips, saying ‘Shhhh!’ — what in the book I call “the condition of the secret become visible”.

To answer the second part of your question: I didn’t want images directly from the Tintin books inside my book. I was more interested in showing how these images (which I’m assuming most people who read my book will be at least slightly familiar with) mutate into and out of other ones: eighteenth-century portraits of castrato singers, stills from Buster Keaton films and, not least, ‘detourned’ versions of the Tintin books themselves. These last images break down into political activist ones, pornographic ones and ‘art’ ones: an interesting triangle.


3:AM: Given your chapter devoted to “Castafiore’s Clit” (if you ever form a band, promise me that you’ll use that name) and your comments about Tintin’s androgyny, I was surprised you didn’t devote at least a few lines to the once-ubiquitous gay Tintin haircut…

TMcC: A band called Castafiore’s Clit is a great idea. Kind of Jane’s Addiction meets The Thompson Twins. Yes, it’s funny that Tintin has lent his haircut to gay culture. I found out recently that the Rocker quiff of the Fifties was taken directly from Jean Marais’s haircut in Cocteau’s Orphée, another big presence in my book.


3:AM: During the Second World War, Hergé had no qualms about publishing his comic strips in Le Soir, a newspaper that was under Nazi control and had clear Nazi sympathies. Interestingly enough, as you point out, Paul de Man also wrote for Le Soir. However, I was surprised that you did not make more of this coincidence. Paul de Man’s undermining of meaning and values having been reinterpreted (and partly discredited) in the light of the posthumous discovery of his youthful far-right views, should not we also be somewhat wary of Hergé’s “retroactive wiping-out of history” (p. 41), the erosion of Rastapopoulos’s “Semitic status” (pp. 44-45) or his reinvention as a “liberal leftist” (p. 46)? After all, anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism which, in your view, testify to the author’s “right-to-left trajectory” (p. 47) are common tenets on the far right as well as the far left…

TMcC: I never went with the argument that Paul de Man’s shameful youthful secret undermines all of deconstruction (is Derrida, a Jew, a secret anti-Semite too?), not least because when I was at university one of this argument’s main advocates serially harassed his female students while simultaneously espousing feminism, which for me kind of discredited anything he had to say. Yes, the anti-consumerist thing can serve a right-wing position as much as a left-wing one, and I point out in the book that Hergé kept the same villains in place throughout his career (secret cabals, men in hoods). But I think his right-to-left trajectory was a genuine one, as was Paul de Man’s. Things are connected. Fascism is a moment that the twentieth century goes through, in the arts as much as anywhere else. Think of Yeats, Spengler, Hamsun, Pound, Céline — brilliant and hugely influential writers who were fascists. Do we discount anything that’s come after them? Of course not: you trace the fallout of the disaster, how it mutates and develops. Think of Heidegger, a one-time Nazi out of whose thought the incredibly compelling ethical vision of Levinas (another Jew) has emerged. Anyway, it would be naive and liberal to want all our artists to be nice Guardian readers. Some people are arseholes. And another thing: Paul de Man doesn’t undermine meaning and value — just certain tired and reactionary notions of both.

[Just for the record: I didn’t mean to imply that Hergé’s, Céline’s or Yeats’s works should be rejected because of their political views, although I clearly gave that impression. Like Tom, I subscribe to a resolutely politically-incorrect conception of literature. My point simply concerned anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism (which the far left certainly has no monopoly over) along with the fact that certain thinkers’ seemingly-rational ideas are so obviously linked to individual history (Maurras’s deafness or Foucault’s masochism, for instance) that one should sometimes approach them with a little caution. Another issue we could have raised here is the Arendt-Heidegger relationship, but that would probably have been one serendipitous detour — to quote McCarthy — too many!]


3:AM: Remainder — the best novel of 2005 which, due to its republication by Alma Books, looks set to be the novel of 2006 (ironically enough, given the theme of the book) — could be described as the best French novel ever written in English by an Englishman. With Tintin and the Secret of Literature, your approach is once again resolutely French. Almost all of your major references are French (Balzac, Baudelaire, Barthes, Derrida…), and even the vocabulary you use is Gallicized (“fictive,” for instance, which is far closer to the French “fictif” than “fictional”). Where does your familiarity with French culture and the French language come from? Was it deliberate on your part to largely avoid references to British or American literature? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to give a more English perspective on Tintin since Tintinologists have a habit of being Belgian or French?

TMcC: First of all, thanks for your kind words about Remainder, and I’ll try to persuade my French publisher, Hachette Littératures, to use your “best French novel in English” line as a blurb for their edition that’s coming out next September — I couldn’t think of better praise! Yes, most of the points of reference in Tintin and the Secret of Literature are French, although Defoe, Bunyan, Behn and other Anglo early novelists get a look in — plus there’s a big digression through Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I guess I just really like French literature. The English were going really well from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, producing poets like Donne and Marvell and novels like Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, but it all went horribly wrong somewhere in the late nineteenth/early twentieth and, while the French (and Americans) embarked on the wildest adventures with thought and form — Mallarmé, Breton, Cendrars, Faulkner etc etc — we got Thomas fucking Hardy and DH fucking Lawrence. The only top-class twentieth century English writers are the ones we claim spuriously: Americans like Eliot and James, Poles like Conrad, Irishmen like Joyce and Beckett…

3:AM: At the same time, there is a sense of humour and earthiness which are very un-French, as it were. After the publication of a strange review in The Economist which presented your book as a send-up of French theory, you spoke to me of the astounding “idiocy of English empirical culture”: do you think Tintin and the Secret of Literature is going to reignite the critical Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes of the 80s and 90s?

TMcC: I think to ignite any thought at The Economist you’d need to stick a ton of semtex up their arses. That review was quite funny, though: it perfectly captured the red-faced, vein-popping fury of Little England once the values on which it bases its entire identity are ever-so-slightly “solicited”, as Derrida would say. English takes on Tintin always present Hergé as a ’satirist’ and only that: a self-sufficient, rational subject who uses words and images as tools to tell us something he knows because he’s worked it out, rationally, you see. That’s the empirical line on literature tout court: the rational expression of a self-sufficient subject — as though we weren’t constantly made and unmade within language, desire, history, symbolic networks and so on. It’s as moronic as crediting a surfer with creating the wave which carries him and allows him to ply his craft — and back into which he’s eventually going to sink.


3:AM: You say that you were introduced to Tintin by your mother at the age of seven. That, in itself, probably says a lot about your social background — that and your early encounter with Hugo Williams (mentioned by the poet in an article he wrote in the TLS about your International Necronautical Society). In France, in the 70s, Le Journal de Tintin tended to be read in Catholic and conservative circles whereas kids from Communist families usually read a comic called Pif. What sort of social and cultural milieu were you raised in, Tom?

TMcC: I come from a liberal arts-steeped middle-class family. My mum would tell us the stories of The Odyssey and The Merchant of Venice on car journeys. My parents were left-ish but not radical. They voted Labour but I went to a private day-school from the age of twelve.

3:AM: You write that “Everybody wants to be Tintin,” but I get the feeling that that everybody applies, first and foremost, to you. You even bear a slight physical resemblance to Hergé’s hero…

TMcC: I went to a fancy dress party dressed as Tintin once…

3:AM: Susan Tomaselli rounds off her review with the claim that Tintin and the Secret of Literature made her feel like re-reading Remainder (your debut novel) rather than the Tintin books themselves. Do you see this as a success or a failure?

TMcC: Success — although she should read the Tintin books too. In a way, I used Tintin and the Secret of Literature to work through some of the themes in Remainder in a more conscious way: the relationship between trauma and repetition, for example, or the idea of inauthenticity which emerged from the de Man essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality”, which I hadn’t read when I wrote Remainder even though it could almost be describing that book. It’s great to be able to switch modes, and come at the same territory from a different angle.


3:AM: Your whole oeuvre seems to be contained within this critical essay: Tintin and the Secret of Literature could thus be read as a work of internal intertextuality. First of all, there’s the importance of meridians which points to Greenwich Degree Zero, your recent artistic collaboration with Rod Dickinson…

TMcC: …when we blew up the Greenwich Observatory, or at least produced the documentation of having blown up the Observatory, completing the task of Martial Bourdin, model for Conrad’s Stevie in The Secret Agent. We wanted to blow up time itself. Funnily enough, there’s a scene in The Broken Ear where a secret agent like Stevie carries a time-bomb around and gets blown up by it because he doesn’t realise the town clocks have broken. I love the sequence in The Sound and the Fury where Quentin carries a broken clock around and rides trams in different directions in a sub-Einsteinian attempt to escape time — then dies…


3:AM: Then you’ve got the references to Cocteau’s Orphée and, more generally, your fascination with the “transmission-reception figure” (as you put it elsewhere): “[Tintin] will also be aware, as a radio operator, that the waves which carry his transmissions will travel outwards endlessly through space. Who knows where the signals will end up, or what they will end up meaning?” (p. 91).

TMcC: If I had to select five things to put in a space capsule to show aliens what we were capable of, Orphée would be one of them. It’s the most perfect piece of art, which lays out our existence as being in relation to death, technology, transmission-reception and desire — not to mention repetition. Death, a beautiful princess (and arts patron) falls in love with Orphée so she has another poet snatched to the underworld so he can send illicit, looping radio messages to Orphée which draw him towards her, through a mirror. Cocteau based his radio messages on the ones sent to occupied France during World War Two: these short lines of poetry. Most of them meant nothing, but one in every two hundred meant — only to those who knew — ‘blow up the bridge’. A man or woman in London reads a line of poetry into a microphone and in France a bridge blows up — or not. Poetry — real poetry — should harbour that potentiality somehow.

3:AM: You talk about Alph-Art, the eponymous avant-garde movement of Hergé’s posthumous book, which is “a cover for a giant forgery operation” (p. 158). Couldn’t this also be a fitting definition of your own “semi-fictitious” avant-garde movement, the International Necronautical Society?

TMcC: The INS had its own radio transmission network, operating out of the ICA two years ago, generating messages like Cocteau’s and actually transmitting them over the radio London-wide (and, via collaborating radio stations, world-wide). It looked like a giant factory floor, with workers running everywhere carrying lines of text — lines which, having been plucked from other media sources, were kind of second-hand if not fake. The INS is itself semi-fake, as you point out. Although the fake can hide the real.


3:AM: On page 84, you explain that, according to Freud, trauma produces “a desire for repetition mixed with a need to disguise the scene being repeated”. Could you comment on this sentence with reference to your novel Remainder?

TMcC: It’s not just Freud who says this: even his most positivist counterparts concur. Under ultra-extreme stress, the part of the mind that processes raw data into the narrative thread we call ‘memory’ simply goes on strike and refuses to process. It’s called ‘dissociation’. So the data’s present, but not dealt with, and therefore keeps bobbing up and demanding to be incorporated somehow. As it can’t form part of normal memory, it plays itself out in weird ways — ones that contain elements of the original event but are also scrambled, disguised. And it will keep repeating, albeit in modulated form, until it is accommodated properly. Well, in Remainder the hero has undergone a traumatic event which he hasn’t retained as straight memory but rather as fragments of data: the sense of being about to be hit, blue lights, railings, being held above a tray or bed and so on. These induce a propensity to repeat stuff in him. Another interesting thing about post-trauma is that (to return to a motif we touched on a moment ago) it makes people feel inauthentic, fake, because everything is of a lesser magnitude of experience than the trauma-moment itself, the only ‘real’ thing. And then the subject back-projects for himself a time when he wasn’t fake, and longs for that time. That’s what my guy is doing with his re-enactments: repeating backwards to an imagined era of authenticity — but repeating, more accurately, towards the trauma-moment itself, the true, unnameable moment, the moment of truth and unnameability itself.


3:AM: The re-enactments in Remainder or in your artistic work: mimesis or simulacrum?

TMcC: Aha: very good question, bang on the money. In Remainder, he wants the authentic, so he sets up a zone of mimesis, paying architects and designers to recreate his ‘remembered’ building and re-enactors to ‘be’ the lady he remembers frying liver on the floor below him, the pianist he remembers practising Rachmaninoff and so on. He wants to accede through these re-enactments to a mode of authenticity, of simply ‘being’ rather than simulating. But of course it doesn’t work: the re-enactments tend more towards the status of simulacra, what Plato defines as ‘a copy without an original’. But then, paradoxically, the most jarring and obviously inconsistent things, the ‘extra’ bits, the ones with no originals of any type at all, are what catapult him into ultra-authenticity — which, not coincidentally, is also pure violence. It’s the little chink on the carpet of his re-enacted bank heist that flips the whole re-enactment over into all-too-real-ness, when the re-enactor trips on it, or rather on its absence, and his gun goes off…

[Stewart Home and Tom McCarthy at 3:AM Magazine‘s Xmas Bash, London 2005]


3:AM: Barthes writes that “…the ‘realistic’ artist never places reality at the origin of his discourse, but only and always, as far back as can be traced, an already written real, a prospective code, along which we discern, as far as the eye can see, only a succession of copies” (quoted on p. 55): this is also, unwittingly, what the protagonist of Remainder does, right?

TMcC: Remainder has been read by some critics as an allegory of realism and of the realist mode of art, and this isn’t an entirely wrong reading — although if the hero had actually been an artist rather than an Everyman, some bloke, it would have been an entirely different, and inferior, book. But yes, it definitely turns around his copying, and even (as he sets about getting his re-enactors to re-enact the moments when they prepared for the previous re-enactment) his copying his moments of copying, endlessly regressive. We can try to work it out together, but ultimately I can’t give the definitive schematic meta-reading of the book any more than you — perhaps less. It was intuitive: I was looking at a crack in a wall and had a moment of dejà-vu and wished I had loads of money to re-enact this moment and there was the novel.


3:AM: When discussing tobacco throughout the Tintin books, you explain (following Derrida) that it “goes up in smoke” but “also leaves remains, ashes, which maintain symbolic links to memory, death and inheritance. Baudelaire’s story takes off from the change left over from the two friends’ luxury expenditure: like the coin itself, it proceeds from the remainder” (p. 135). Why are remnants so important in your work?

TMcC: It’s what’s left. After the disaster, after thought, interpretation, writing itself. It’s like when Wallace Stevens says “The plum survives its poems”. Writing has to deal with this remainder, and good writing has to deal with the fact that it can never fully deal with it. Francis Ponge knows this. He writes brilliant prose poems about, for example, oranges: the texture of their cells, the way they leave goop on your hands so that even when you’ve ‘expressed’ them there’s a residue that’s not contained. If Susan Tomaselli or anyone else really want to do themselves a favour, they should re-read neither Remainder nor the Tintin books but rather Ponge’s Le Parti pris des choses (you can get it in dual text). It’s everything writing should be.

[This interview was initially posted here.]

In Theory: The Death of the Author

January 14, 2010 Comments Off on In Theory: The Death of the Author

This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 13 January 2010:

In Theory: The Death of the Author

Kicking off a new occasional series about the most influential literary theory, Andrew Gallix revisits a classic essay by Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes in 1979. Photograph: Fabian Cevallos/Corbis

Ecclesiastes famously warns us that “Of making many books there is no end” — the same, of course, applies to book commentaries. George Steiner has long denounced the “mandarin madness of secondary discourse” which increasingly interposes itself between readers and works of fiction. For better or worse, the internet — with its myriad book sites — has taken this phenomenon to a whole new level. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, literature has always given rise to its exegesis, but now that no scrap of literary gossip goes untweeted, it may be time to reflect a little on the activity of literary criticism.

I have chosen to inaugurate this series with a few considerations on “The Death of the Author” because of its truly iconic nature: it symbolises the rise of what would come to be known as “theory“. Even if he never names them, Roland Barthes (like Proust before him) launches an attack on the traditional biography-based criticism à la Sainte-Beuve or Lanson which still dominated French academia in the sixties. The paradox, of course, is that this essay — with its symbolic slaying of the paternal “Author-God” — could lend itself to a textbook psychological reading given that Barthes lost his own father before his first birthday. The “Death of the Author” theme itself takes on added meaning, in hindsight, when you consider that Barthes’s critical career was, at least in part, a displacement activity to avoid writing the novel he dreamed of. Does any of this invalidate his theories? I’ll let you be the judge of that…

In 2002, the prestigious Pompidou Centre in Paris devoted a major exhibition, not to an artist, philosopher, scientist or novelist, but a literary critic: Roland Barthes. Now that the “theory wars” — which had once torn apart literature departments on both sides of the Atlantic — were largely over, it served as a reminder of a time when a posse of structuralists and post-structuralists superseded the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre as France’s premier intellectual icons. Many of them were primarily philosophers, anthropologists, historians, linguists or psychoanalysts — Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva et al. — but the locus of this intellectual revolution was undoubtedly literary criticism.

La nouvelle critique was flavour of the month, much like its culinary counterpart, nouvelle cuisine, albeit more of a mouthful. Critics-cum-thinkers such as Barthes himself — who was equally at home at the lofty Collège de France or down the trendy Le Palace nightclub — achieved bona fide celebrity status. Their works often became bestsellers in spite of their demanding and iconoclastic nature. Soon, NME journalists were peppering their articles with arcane references to Baudrillard while Scritti Politti dedicated a postmodern ditty to Jacques Derrida. The whole movement seemed as provocative, and indeed exciting, as Brigitte Bardot in her slinky, sex kitten heyday. Its defining moment was the publication of a racy little number called “The Death of the Author“.

As if mimicking one of its central themes, Roland Barthes’s article first featured in an American journal in 1967: the original (an English translation of a French text) was thus, in effect, already a copy. With a nice sense of historical timing, it appeared in the critic’s homeland in the quasi-insurrectionary context of the 1968 student protests. As it was only anthologised much later (first in Image-Music-Text in 1977 and then in The Rustle of Language in 1984), the essay was photocopied and distributed samizdat-fashion on campuses all over the world, which enhanced its subversive appeal.

Subversive, it certainly was. In France, perhaps more than anywhere else, the secularisation of society (compounded by the Republic’s struggle against the Roman Catholic Church) had led to the adoption of art and literature as substitute religions. Nietzsche had announced the death of God only to see Him replaced by the “Author-God”. Enter Roland Barthes.

His starting-point is a sentence lifted from Sarrasine (1830), a little-known Balzac novella about an artist who falls in love with a young castrato he believes to be a woman. Barthes (who was gay) was so taken with this gender-bending tale of mistaken identity that he would study it at length in S/Z (1970). Here, he draws a parallel between the ambiguity of Sarrasine’s feelings and the ambiguous identity of the speaker who, ironically, describes the castrato as the essence of womanhood. Is it the deluded, love-struck protagonist? The narrator? Balzac the writer? Balzac the man?… Having exhausted all possibilities, the critic draws the conclusion that it is impossible to say for sure who the sentence should be attributed to. He goes on to describe literature as a space “where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”. The death of the author marks the birth of literature, defined, precisely, as “the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin”.

Indeed, the “modern writer” — or “scriptor” as Barthes calls him — can only mimic “a gesture forever anterior, never original” by recombining what has already been written. Whereas the “Author-God” maintained with his work “the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child,” the scriptor “is born simultaneously with his text”: for him, “there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now”. As Barthes puts it, apropos of Mallarmé, “it is language which speaks, not the author” — or the scriptor for that matter. Works of fiction are palimpsests and as such are devoid of any “single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)”. The key to a text is not to be found in its “origin” but in its “destination”: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Next time, I’m planning to investigate the notion of mimetic desire — unless there’s anywhere else you’d rather visit first. Suggestions on future topics are most welcome…

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