The Making of Meursault

This appeared in Literary Review November 2016: 30-31.

The Making of Meursault

In July 1944 Albert Camus produced a counterfeit manuscript of his debut novel, The Outsider, published two years earlier. Josette Clotis, André Malraux’s partner, read the text aloud while Camus took it down in longhand, introducing the odd crossed-out variant to lend it the air of an early draft. In Looking for ‘The Outsider’, Alice Kaplan outlines this ingenious scam, born of wartime austerity, but does not say whether it proved successful or not. All the same, it speaks volumes about the book it sought to cash in on. The Outsider had already outgrown its title, acquiring the aura of a canonical work. Camus was now in a position to turn Bouvard and Pécuchet’s lowly profession — that of the copy clerk — into gold. All he had to do was replicate his near-indecipherable microscript, originally developed in response to an acute paper shortage.

Looking for ‘The Outsider’ is the biography of a book rather than of its author. Kaplan chronicles the story of The Outsider from the germ of an idea in Camus’s notebooks to the novel’s re-evaluation in the light of gender and postcolonial studies, taking in, chemin faisant, its wider impact on popular culture. She even identifies the individual who inspired the anonymous Arab. Her research really comes into its own when she pieces together the strange circumstances in which the novel saw the light of day. Retracing the various manuscripts’ convoluted journey between Algiers and occupied Paris — charted on four different maps — is likened to ‘chasing several Minotaurs in a maze’. Even Raymond Queneau, at publishers Gallimard, was baffled, ending up with two different versions before going to press.

In 1937, with two collections of essays under his belt, Camus set about writing fiction. The provisional title of his work-in-progress, ‘A Happy Death’, clearly anticipated The Outsider (published as The Stranger in the United States), as did the protagonist’s name, Patrice Mersault. However, if Kaplan’s precis of this first attempt — ‘the story of a tubercular young man who commits murder for freedom’ — is anything to go by, it sounds more like an autobiographical take on André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures than a new departure. When he peered into his manuscript, Camus increasingly caught glimpses of a ‘completely different book’ within it. By the autumn of the following year, a ‘second novel’, which he went on to describe as ‘already completely traced within me’, stared back at him. Kaplan explains that the ‘ambitious writer who wanted to control every aspect of his craft found himself confronted with the unexpected’. Just as Meursault would realise, in extremis, that he had been ‘a stranger to his life’, Camus had to draw the conclusion that he was a stranger to his work. Having abandoned ‘A Happy Death’, he was ready to yield to something he did not fully comprehend: ‘Sometimes I need to write things that escape me in part, but which are proof of precisely what within me is stronger than I am.’

Eschewing belletristic ‘chit-chat’, he developed his trademark laconic style that gestures discreetly towards that which eludes language. ‘To write,’ he realised, ‘one must fall slightly short of the expression’, for the ‘true work of art … is the one that says the least’. Sartre greatly admired the way Camus deployed words ‘almost miraculously to produce a sensation of silence’, unaware that he had been brought up by a deaf mother and uncle. Estrangement was not only rooted in experience, however; it was also a literary device. Under the influence of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (translated into French in 1936), Camus switched his narrative from the third to the first person, a style that, as Kaplan remarks, ‘usually lets the reader inside the narrator’s head — but he did it so that there was no getting inside, no way to feel close to Meursault’. The novelist described this technical breakthrough, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as a mere ‘trick’: ‘once I discovered the trick, all I had to do was write.’

If Camus discovered The Outsider ‘within himself’, he breathed life into the novel as a genre. His protagonist’s ‘lack of connection to people’, writes Kaplan, is offset by his ‘sensual connection to the world’. ‘He exists,’ Camus declared, ‘like a stone or the wind or the sea, under the sun.’ So far, so nouveau roman. Yet when Kaplan quotes the climactic passage in which Meursault opens himself to the ‘gentle indifference of the world’, finding it ‘so much like myself — so like a brother’, she fails to point out how much the world is anthropomorphised and recast in his image, and how even its indifference becomes benevolent. Is this really what Camus meant by living ‘without appeal’; cut adrift from religion or ideology? And, while we are on the subject, is a godless universe ipso facto absurd? As Alain Robbe-Grillet objected, the world is neither meaningful nor meaningless: ‘It is, that’s all’. A major flaw throughout this study is Kaplan’s promptness to take Camus’s ideas as read although, in all fairness, analysis does not fall within her remit.

Meursault fails to feel the gravitational pull of Paris, which, as Kaplan shrewdly observes, is a measure of his strangeness in a highly centralised country like France. Camus, however, had far more in common with Rastignac, Balzac’s arch-arriviste, than with Meursault. Despite going on to become the editor of an underground newspaper during the war, he ‘never questioned the idea of publishing his novel in occupied Paris’ and had no qualms about excising an essay on Kafka from The Myth of Sisyphus lest it attract the attention of the Germans. Within months of the appearance of The Outsider in bookshops, he was already ‘at the heart of things’, dining out with Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Café de Flore, an outsider no more.

At the outset, Alice Kaplan describes reading The Outsider as a ‘rite of passage’ that people throughout the world connect to ‘their coming of age’. Perhaps it is in the nature of such works to be outgrown, as The Outsider was, almost immediately, by Camus himself. Contrarily, our compulsion to reinterpret the book — in the light of the French Resistance, Algerian independence, the banlieues or the Arab Spring — may testify to its irreducible otherness and our inability to simply let it be, like a stone or the wind or the sea.

Signs and Mythologies

I was asked to write and read an essay on Roland Barthes as part of a series entitled ‘Signs and Mythologies – The Significance of Roland Barthes’ for BBC Radio 3‘s The Essay programme. It first aired on 26 November 2015 at 10:45 pm and was repeated on 11 May 2017 at 10:45 pm. The other essays were written by Andrew Hussey, Nick James, Penny Sparke, and Michael Wood.

Here is the presentation from the BBC Radio 3 website:

An encounter as a teenager with Roland Barthes and an orange moped inspired the magazine editor Andrew Gallix, who now teaches at the Sorbonne, with a fascination for the ideas of the great French theorist. In this week of essays celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, Andrew reflects on what Barthes meant by ‘The Death of the Author’.

Across the week five authors write about Barthes’ significance to them and discuss the influence the maverick cultural philosopher has had upon their own work. Over the week they create a picture of a literary figure whose writing was fun, accessible and is still deeply influential on the way we look at the world. Barthes’s literary output was not only prolific, but also eclectic. During the course of his life his thinking influenced the development of theories of structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design, anthropology and post structuralism. A powerful blast of fresh air in post war cultural thought, his carefully argued, accessible and sometimes mischievous examinations of philosophical, cultural and social ideas continue to influence contemporary writers and thinkers.

An eclectic group of essayists celebrate the range of influence his writing has had. Andrew Hussey examines Barthes’ impact in Europe in the 1960s. Other essayists over the week include design historian Penny Sparke, film journalist Nick James, the editor of 3 A.M. Magazine and teacher at the Sorbonne in Paris, Andrew Gallix, and cultural historian Michael Wood.


Here is the text. The passages that were cut are in square brackets:

I never met Roland Barthes, but I did spot him once, walking down the street[, at what I recall to be a brisk pace]. It was in the Latin Quarter, where he lived most of his life and seldom strayed from. I must have been fourteen at the time, fifteen at a push. The day before this sighting, I had chanced upon a Barthes profile in a weekly news magazine. Despite skimming it in a most cursory fashion, I gathered that he was a prominent intellectual. It was the accompanying picture — in colour, if memory serves — that allowed me to recognise him. The thing that struck me — and almost struck him — was that orange moped he narrowly avoided when crossing the road. In hindsight, it is difficult not to view this near escape as a dress rehearsal for his iconic (but also ironic, in light of his deconstruction of detergent commercials) encounter with a laundry van — an accident that would eventually lead to his demise in 1980. The feeling that I had conjured him up simply by reading about him was nonsense, of course, but also quite fitting given that Barthes — unbeknown to me — had extolled the creative powers of the reader, whose symbolic birth was the flip side of the death of the author.

‘The Death of the Author’ is not only Barthes’ most famous essay (at least in the Anglophone world) but also the most misunderstood. As though enacting one of its central themes — literature as palimpsest and collage — it first appeared in an American journal: the 1967 original was thus, in effect, already a copy; an English translation of a French text that would remain unpublished until the following year. As it was only anthologised a decade later, the essay was photocopied and distributed samizdat-fashion on campuses the world over, which no doubt enhanced its subversive appeal. For many, on either side of the barricades, it symbolised the emergence of what came to be known as Theory. Malcolm Bradbury’s satire of post-structuralism, Mensonge, is an extended joke on the death-of-the-author trope. The eponymous character — whose name means ‘lie’ in French — is a shadowy intellectual, a former student and collaborator of Barthes, who takes elusiveness to the point of illusiveness, so that the reader, and indeed the narrator, are never even quite sure whether he is meant to exist or not. Much comic capital is derived from the misconception — deliberate, I presume — that Barthes believed books wrote themselves, or that he was denying the very existence of writers, when in fact what he was challenging was the notion of authorship. Take a love letter someone sent you years ago, when people still sent letters and loved you. [An epistle you had mislaid perhaps.] You read it again. The content remains the same, although the person who penned it now hates you with a passion or, worse still, has forgotten about your very existence. The author is dead — detached from his or her work, which endures independently. Let me reassure you: Barthes’ essay, however brief, is far more subtle and interesting than that.

Barthes’ premiss is a sentence lifted from a novella by Balzac[, which cannot be attributed to anyone with any degree of certainty]. He argues that as soon as writing becomes ‘intransitive’ — as soon as language is no longer an instrument, but the very texture of a text — ‘the voice loses its origin’. [In literature, as Mallarmé, Heidegger, and Blanchot had already claimed, it is essentially language that speaks.] The ‘scriptor’ — whose existence coincides with the composition of a text — replaces the ‘Author-God,’ whose absence implies that a work can no longer be assigned a single, ultimate[, ‘theological’] meaning. Barthes also undermines the authority of the critic, whose traditional remit was precisely to decipher the Author-God’s message; to explain a work of fiction through the life (frequently the private life) of its progenitor. Every text, he concludes, is always ‘written here and now’ — by the reader.

Roland Barthes took reading out of the library and into the world, which, he believed, was structured like discourse. In Mythologies, his 1957 bestseller, he exposed the ideological underpinning of what usually goes without saying in everyday life, from the world of wrestling to the art of striptease [through steak and chips], thus demonstrating that the world is always already written. Language — as he 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. In one of his numerous television appearances, he ventures that death is the only true event — in that it escapes language — while all the rest is words, words, words.

If reading was a means of engaging with the world, it could also be a personal, even intimate, activity. For Barthes [reading literature involves ‘rewriting the text of the work within the text of our lives’.] Textual pleasure climaxes when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our daily lives’ — when it reads us. Life and text even become synonymous in what he called ‘life writing’: writing as a way of life, whereby life becomes the text of the work [— a text to be produced, not deciphered]. Barthes, who, for better or worse, popularised the use of the word ‘text’ instead of essay, novel or book, went back to the etymology of the word, which, in Latin, refers to a textile. [This fabric, he argued, is traditionally regarded as a ‘ready-made veil’ concealing meaning (which can only be unveiled through interpretation).] He suggests we consider text as a piece of material that is constantly in the process of being woven, prompting him to compare Proust’s work to that of a seamstress. As early as ‘The Death of the Author,’ he had pinpointed the ‘radical reversal’ operated by Proust. Barthes said of 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’. In his last series of lectures, entitled The Preparation of the Novel, he reaffirmed his assessment of Proust: ‘the positioning of the life as work,’ he declared, ‘is now slowly emerging as a veritable shift in values’. In Search of Lost Time, he went on, is ‘entirely woven out of him, out of his places, his friends, his family; that’s literally all there is in his novel’ — and yet it is not an autobiography.

Barthes had little time for the sanctity of books. What interested him was the interaction between life and writing. He claimed, for instance, that he derived more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ that his distracted reading imposed upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself: ‘I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again’. He established a famous distinction between the Book (capital B) and the Album (capital A). The former is a total artwork[: the Absolute in codex form]. The latter — aphorisms, scrapbooks, journals, collages, and so on — remains resolutely fragmentary in nature. According to Barthes, ‘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’. Similarly, what lives in us of the biography is, what he called, the biographeme, akin to a textual snapshot: ‘Photography,’ he writes in Camera Lucida, ‘has the same relation to History that the biographeme has to biography’. If someone were to write his life, he once 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’]. Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone since the past never stands still and identity is open to constant recomposition. His oeuvre is punctuated with [prefigurations or] echoes of the biographeme, which, I think, attests to the centrality of this concept. One finds ‘the Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku’ — presented as near synonyms — or the punctum, the accidental detail in a photograph (as opposed to its ostensible subject), which moves the observer to the extent that his or her involvement becomes deeply personal.

Surprising though it may seem, Roland Barthes had nothing against biography per se, and even toyed with the idea of composing one himself. Susan Sontag observed that he started his career by writing about André Gide’s journal and ended up reflecting upon his own. Barthes was always fascinated by the moment when authors like Stendhal or Proust switched from diary to novel, and seemed to be about to follow suit. His work took a decidedly autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. This was followed by a memoir in fragments (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes) and what he described as an ‘almost novel,’ a novel ‘without proper names’ (A Lover’s Discourse). The subject (himself, his life) is real, but the narrative voice belongs[, of necessity,] to the realm of fiction. This is why it is 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’. Readers often suspect novels of being thinly disguised biographies; Barthes sensed, contrarily, that biographies were novels that dare not speak their name. The appeal of authors’ diaries is that they are repositories of what he described as the ‘fantasy’ of the writer figure, that is to say ‘the writer minus his work’. In truth, though, a writer cannot dissociate him or herself from the act of writing, just as it is impossible to discuss language in nonlinguistic terms. Barthes, I suspect, felt that he somehow produced himself through his work.

In the wake of the death of his mother, with whom he lived most of his life, the French theorist famously declared: ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science’. During a lecture delivered a mere two months before his death, he even disavowed ‘The Death of the Author,’ dismissing it as modish structuralist excess. He goes on to confess that he has ‘sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works’. Barthes had seemingly forgotten to reread his own essay, just like his numerous detractors who never bothered to read it in the first place. Let it be said once and for all, then: the death of the author is that of the ‘Author-God’. Barthes never denies the very existence of the writer, which would be patently absurd. [When he states that, from a linguistic standpoint, ‘the author is never more than a man who writes,’ he recognises that he or she is never anything less either.] When he speaks of literature being an experience of identity loss ‘beginning with the very identity of the body that writes,’ he acknowledges that a body is doing the writing. [It is the presence of this body that he would increasingly seek out in his work.] The author [‘who leaves his [or her] text and comes into our life,’ as Barthes put it,] is primarily a physical presence devoid of psychological [or chronological] unity (a body, not a person). The text dispossesses the writer of his or her ‘narrative continuity’: ‘it takes my body elsewhere,’ he says. [The subject unmakes him or herself in the making of the text, ‘like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web’. However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, in disseminated form, ‘like the ashes we strew into the wind after death’. These ashes are ‘biographemes’].

Roland Barthes never considered himself as a visual artist, but he derived a great deal of pleasure — ‘a kind of innocence,’ he said — from the sheer physicality of drawing or painting. His most interesting artworks are multicoloured squiggles that resemble a preliterate child’s impression of writing[: writing as ludic abstraction]. What he found most attractive about Japanese calligraphy was that it allowed writing to take flight into painting. Barthes devoted several essays to the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists like Cy Twombly. He even produced some elegant doodles of his own, which we would now describe as asemic writing — a purely gestural form of writing with no semantic content whatsoever. 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 his manuscripts, with their lovingly redacted lines in blue felt-tip that look like erasure poetry. His beautiful handwriting is as distinctive as the legendary grain of his voice. 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. Given the fascist nature of language, the utopian mission of literature is ‘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’. Roland Barthes, the arch-interpreter dreamed, paradoxically, of a world ‘exempt from meaning’ — an unwritten world, that simply is.

The Writer Postponed

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.

Of Literary Bondage

This appeared in the August 2013 issue of Numéro Cinq, with a wonderful introduction by Douglas Glover:

Of Literary Bondage


How is the marchioness? Still playing Alice in Rubberland?
– Adam and the Ants, “Rubber People”

Surprising as it may seem, “The marquise went out at five” ranks among the most famous quotes in modern French literature. It could have been tossed off by some Gallic Bulwer-Lytton type, and in a manner it was, albeit a fictitious one. These hapless words were first recorded in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, midway through a rant against what Barthes would dub the “reality effect“. André Breton recalls the time when Paul Valéry assured him he would never write a novel, adducing his aversion to opening sentences à la “marquise”. Referenced by numerous authors, from André Gide to Nathalie Sarraute through Francis Ponge, the marchioness and her teatime peregrinations, came to embody everything that was wrong with a certain brand of conventional fiction.

It was not just the insipid incipits of well-made novels that Valéry objected to. He believed that writing always betrayed the complexity of human thought. “The more one writes,” he wrote, “the less one thinks.” Valéry’s Monsieur Teste — a close cousin of Melville’s Bartleby and Musil’s Ulrich — is particularly scornful of novels and plays, in which “being is simplified even to stupidity”. Like his character, the reluctant author felt that prose was essentially prosaic — a communication tool as pedestrian as a peripatetic marquise in a potboiler. Poetry, on the other hand, was conversant with the ineffable, and could therefore be regarded as a true art form. The fact that some of the greatest novels of the last century merged prose with poetry, and that some of the greatest poets of our time (Gary Lutz) are fiction writers, seems to invalidate this dubious theory. Nonetheless, Valéry’s quip tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment with the novel, which, despite some very notable exceptions, already seemed to have ossified in its Victorian incarnation. Compared with the avant-garde movements’ attempts to bridge the gap between art and life — chief among them, Breton’s Surrealism — the novel’s “puny exploits” (Beckett) seemed risible.

Above all, Valéry objected to the arbitrary nature of such perfunctory preambles, anticipating Knausgaard‘s recent crisis of faith: “Just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”. Here, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is tested to breaking point by the nagging feeling that the marchioness could just as well have been a duchess on a different timetable, or an alien on another planet. What is lacking, to quote Dylan Nice, is the sense of “a text beyond the writer to which the writer submits”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of the novel. Gabriel Josipovici analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. It is this crisis of authorial authority that Valéry’s marquise throws into relief.

In Reading Writing, Julien Gracq took Valéry to task over the alleged randomness of his imaginary opening sentence. “Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem,” he argues; it just takes longer for patterns to emerge. Quite. Even at a micro-level, any minor amendment can trigger a butterfly effect. Should the marchioness morph into a princess, for instance, we might suddenly find ourselves slap bang in fairy-tale territory. Should she pop out, say, instead of simply going out, the register, and perhaps even the meaning, would be altered, and so forth. The point, however, is not whether everything counts in a novel, but whether a novel of this kind counts at all.

“The marquise went out at five” parodies all those narratives that aim for verisimilitude whilst inadvertently advertising their fictive status. In so doing, the sentence conjures up a quantum multiverse of alternatives. It haunts itself, begging to be rewritten over and over again, until all possibilities have been exhausted, and it can finally be laid to rest. The most recent example of this repetition compulsion is Jean Charlent’s Variations Valéry (2011) — a series of pastiches of 75 different authors, riffing off the famous phrase (which Claude Mauriac had cheekily used as the title of an early novel). Significantly, the marchioness made an appearance in One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Raymond Queneau‘s famous collection of ten sonnets (1961). Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it comes in the singular — but fittingly ludic — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding line in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Queneau thus succeeded in producing a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — which Queneau launched with François Le Lionnais, in 1960.

Queneau parted company with the Surrealists over aesthetic, as well as political, differences. He increasingly objected to their experiments in automatic writing, premised on the idea that freedom was “the absence of all control exercised by reason” (Breton). “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” countered Queneau, “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. It is, paradoxically, through the observance of rules that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

Historically, the importance of the Oulipo is to have provided an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) through the reintroduction of external constraints.

La influencia de la ansiedad

This article, translated by Iris Bernal, appeared in Función Lenguaje 2 (summer 2012)

La influencia de la ansiedad

“Llegamos demasiado tarde para decir algo que no se haya dicho ya” se lamentaba La Bruyère a finales del siglo XVII. El hecho de que el propio La Bruyère
llegara tarde al afirmar esto (el Eclesiasta y Terencio ya se habían adelantado a él en los siglos III y II AC) venía a demostrar su aserto. Según la precuela de Macedonio Fernández, anterior al Génesis, siempre hemos llegado demasiado tarde. Este autor imagina lo que bien podría haber sucedido cuando Dios estaba a punto de crear el universo. De pronto, una voz clama en el desierto, interrumpiendo el eterno silencio del espacio infinito, la misma que aterra a Pascal: “Todo ha sido escrito, todo ha sido dicho, todo ha sido hecho”, se lamenta. El Todopoderoso, que ya ha escuchado esto con anterioridad, sigue adelante sin darle importancia, dando sentido a la famosa ocurrencia de André Gide: “Todo está ya dicho, pero como nadie escucha, hay que volverlo a decir” (Le Traité du Narcisse, 1891). En el principio fue el verbo, y el verbo es anterior al principio mismo.

En su obra más influyente, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argumentaba que los grandes poetas románticos malinterpretaron a sus ilustres predecesores “con el fin de liberar un espacio imaginativo para sí mismos”. La figura del padre literario se asesinaba, metafóricamente hablando, a través de un proceso de “transgresión poética”. T.S. Eliot ya había expresado una idea similar a propósito de la de Philip Massinger: “Los poetas inmaduros imitan; los poetas maduros roban; los malos poetas desfiguran lo que toman, y los buenos poetas lo convierten en algo mejor, o al menos en algo diferente” (1920). Borges, discípulo de Macedonio, al cual Bloom hace referencia, compartía la misma longitud de onda (aunque en el extremo opuesto del dial) cuando exclamaba que “cada escritor crea sus propios precursores” (1951).

Según Bloom, este sentimiento de inferioridad es, más que un fenómeno característico del Renacimiento, el motor principal de la historia de la literatura: “Llegar tarde no me parece en absoluto una condición histórica, sino una situación que pertenece al hecho literario como tal”. A lo largo de los siglos, la creación literaria ha sido siempre un diálogo de dos direcciones entre el pasado y el presente (el primero subsiste en el segundo; el segundo arroja luz sobre el primero). En sus Essais (1580), Montaigne ya se quejaba de la multiplicación de exégesis parasitarias: “Es más laborioso interpretar las interpretaciones que interpretar las cosas, y hay más libros sobre libros que sobre cualquier otro tema: no hacemos más que parafrasearnos unos a otros”. George Steiner, otro crítico sincero de “el Leviatán de papel del discurso secundario”, sostiene que la forma más elevada de paráfrasis se halla en la propia literatura: “Cuando el poeta critica al poeta desde el interior del poema, la hermenéutica lee el texto viviente que Hermes, el mensajero, ha traído del reino de los muertos inmortales” (Real Presences, 1989). Esto implica que la creación literaria no trata sobre la expresión del yo, sino sobre la recepción y la transmisión. “El verdadero poeta es hablado por el lenguaje, el poeta es el médium elegido, por decirlo así, en virtud de su naturaleza osmótica, permeable, gracias a lo que Keats denomina su ‘capacidad negativa’. Antes de ser nuestro, el acto de recepción es el del artista-creador” (Grammars of Creation, 2001). Lo que llama la atención es que Steiner, cuya concepción de la literatura deriva de sus creencias religiosas, debería estar totalmente de acuerdo, en este punto, con Tom McCarthy, que viene, por decirlo de alguna manera, del otro lado de las barricadas. Para el autor de C (2010) -una novela que versa sobre la ficción como recepción y transmisión-, “el escritor es un receptor y el contenido ya está ahí. La tarea del escritor es filtrarlo, ejemplificarlo y remezclarlo; no de forma aleatoria sino de forma consciente y atenta”. Dándole la vuelta a la cronología, él considera Finnegans Wake como el código fuente de la ficción anglófona: un nuevo comienzo, más que un hiato o un punto y aparte. Por supuesto, McCarthy es un gran admirador de Maurice Blanchot, quien afirma en La Part du Feu que “la literatura, al igual que el discurso cotidiano, comienza con el final”; con lo que quiere decir la muerte (como posibilidad o imposibilidad). Si la literatura comienza con el final, concluye con el principio ya que la creación literaria, bajo su punto de vista, es una búsqueda maldita de su fuente de inspiración. Así como Orfeo no puede evitar mirar atrás para ver a Eurídice en la oscuridad del Hades (y de esta forma perderla para siempre) el escritor sacrifica su obra para permanecer fiel a su origen dionisíaco y oscuro. A la pregunta “¿dónde va la literatura?”, Blanchot nos da la siguiente respuesta: “La literatura va hacia ella misma, hacia su esencia, la cual es su desaparición” (Le Livre à Venir, 1959). El “contenido” está “ahí fuera” -siempre ahí- toda la literatura es “paráfrasis”: “¿Quién estaría interesado en un discurso nuevo y no transmitido? Lo importante no es contar, sino volverlo a contar, y en esta repetición, contarlo de nuevo como si fuera la primera vez” (L’Entretien Infini, 1969). Los escritores modernos deben “comenzar de cero en cada ocasión” mientras que sus ancestros simplemente tenían que “rellenar una forma dada” (Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?). La imposibilidad de empezar de cero (la ausencia de una “primera vez” definitiva) significa que la literatura fracasa al comenzar una y otra vez, como si se tratara de una compulsiva repetición inducida de forma traumática. En otras palabras, no cesa de acabar. La novela, dice Tom McCarthy, ha estado “viviendo su propia muerte” desde Don Quijote; la “experiencia del fracaso” es parte integral de su ADN. Si no estuviera muriendo, no estaría viva.

Escribiendo para el New York Review of Books en 1965, Frank Kermode afirmó que “el destino específico de la novela, considerada como un género, es el de estar siempre muriendo”. Y proseguía afirmando que la muerte de la novela era “el material sin el que la literatura moderna es inimaginable”. Esta cuestión de la muerte de la literatura es de hecho tan antigua como la propia literatura. Se puede rastrear hasta Juvenal y Tácito, pasando por David Shields, Samuel Richardson, y llegando a los escribas del fin-de-siècle. Para Richard B. Schwartz, el asunto empezó a torcerse en el Renacimiento tardío: “la Literatura en mayúsculas realmente murió con la aristocracia que la consumía” (After the Death of Literature, 1997). Según Steiner, el declive comenzó con la crisis lingüística que acompañó al auge de la novela. Después del siglo XVII (después de Milton), “la esfera del lenguaje” dejó de abarcar la mayor parte de la “experiencia y la realidad” (“The Retreat from the Word”, 1961). Las matemáticas se volvieron cada vez más difíciles de traducir al lenguaje; la pintura post-impresionista escapaba de toda verbalización; la lingüística y la filosofía destacaban el hecho de que las palabras se refieren a otras palabras… La proposición final del Tractatus (1921) de Wittgenstein atestigua esta intrusión de lo innombrable: “De lo que no se puede hablar, hay que callar”. Tan solo cuatro años antes, Kafka había conjeturado que quizá hubiera sido plausible escapar al canto de las Sirenas, pero no a su silencio.

Harold Bloom tiene razón: llegar tarde no es simplemente una “condición histórica”. Después de todo, ya era uno de los temas principales del Quijote. Así como señala Gabriel Josipovici, “este sentimiento de haber llegado, de algún modo, demasiado tarde, de haber perdido para siempre algo que alguna vez fue una posesión común, es una preocupación clave, la preocupación fundamental del Romanticismo” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). En contra del ambiente de deterioro de la confianza en los poderes del lenguaje -igual que el “desencanto del mundo” de Schiller se estaba volviendo más aparente, y la legitimidad del escritor, en un “tiempo destituido” (Hölderlin) de Dioses ausentes y Sirenas mudas, parecía cada vez más arbitraria- la literatura llegó a ser considerada como un “absoluto” (Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe y Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Absolu Littéraire : Théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand, 1968). Walter Benjamin describió de forma célebre el “lugar de nacimiento de la novela” como “el individuo en soledad”, un individuo aislado de la tradición que no puede reclamar ser el portavoz de la religión o la sociedad. Tan pronto como este “individuo en soledad” se elevaba al estatus de un alter deus, la tardanza esencial a toda la creatividad humana resultaba obvia. “Ninguna forma artística”, dice Steiner en Grammars of Creation (2001), “nace de la nada. Siempre viene después” y el “creador humano se enfurece ante [este] venir después, al ser, para siempre, segundo con respecto al misterio original y originador de la formación de la forma” (Real Presences, 1990). William Marx ha analizado con gran maestría cómo en Francia las desmedidas reivindicaciones para la literatura condujeron a esta decadencia prolongada. Esta evolución, de lo sublime a lo ridículo, tuvo lugar en tres etapas. A finales del siglo XVIII, la literatura se transformó en un sucedáneo de la religión. En una segunda etapa, marcada por la arrogancia, los escritores intentaron aislarse del resto de la sociedad (el arte por el arte) desencadenando de este modo un proceso de marginalización. En una última fase, la devaluación de la literatura (a los ojos del público en general) fue interiorizada por los propios escritores e incorporada a sus obras (L’Adieu à la Littérature. Histoire d’une dévalorisation XVIIIe-XXe siècles, 2005).

En sus Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik (compiladas en 1835), Hegel declaró, de manera brillante, que el arte se había transformado en “algo del pasado”. No quería decir con esto, como a menudo se ha creído, que el arte y la literatura estuviesen muertos, o incluso en decadencia, sino que no podían seguir transmitiendo de forma adecuada las más elevadas aspiraciones espirituales de la humanidad. En otras palabras, no podían seguir siendo el instrumento para expresar lo Absoluto. Influido por Hegel, Blanchot se pregunta: “¿Está el arte alcanzando su final? ¿Está pereciendo la poesía por haberse visto reflejada en sí misma, igual que aquel que muere después de contemplar a Dios?” (Le Livre à Venir). Si, como él propone en otro sitio, “la literatura surge en el momento en el que la literatura se convierte en una pregunta”, entonces la respuesta es no (La Part du Feu, 1949). Sin embargo, al transformarse en una pregunta, la literatura se transforma a su vez en su propia respuesta, por lo que ya no es capaz de sincronizarse consigo misma. Uno podría alegar que la literatura es entonces la distancia que la separa de sí misma. “Aquellos viejos tiempos”, anteriores al Génesis según Witold Gombrowicz, “cuando Rabelais escribía cómo un niño hacía pis contra el tronco de un árbol” habían acabado. “Retroceder al universo de los géneros literarios no es una opción”, ratifica Gabriel Josipovici, “como tampoco lo es un retorno al mundo del ancien régime” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?). Esta crisis de identidad se agravaba por una conciencia cada vez mayor de las limitaciones de la creación literaria. La literatura ya no sabía exactamente lo que era, pero sí sabía lo que no era, lo que ya no era capaz de hacer. “Ser moderno”, como declaró Roland Barthes, “es conocer lo que ya no es posible”. Es también anhelar esa imposibilidad, en la forma en la que Borges lo hacía en “el otro tigre, el que no está en el verso”. Tom McCarthy afirma que una novela es “algo que contiene su propia negación”, que clama contra sus propias limitaciones. Según este autor, la literatura es “un medio que sólo marcha cuando no funciona”: es “un fallo en el sistema, igual que un fallo en el ordenador”. “Fracasa otra vez. Fracasa mejor”, como decía Beckett en Worstward Ho (1983). Para Blanchot, es precisamente esta imposibilidad esencial de la literatura (su incapacidad para convertirse en una instancia del Absoluto hegeliano) lo que la preserva como posibilidad. La obra está siempre por venir.

La potencialidad, el angustioso vértigo de la libertad, es fundamental para la modernidad literaria. Pierre Menard responde a la arbitrariedad de la ficción (puesta de relieve por la libertad creativa) reescribiendo palabra por palabra Don Quijote y, de este modo, convierte la contingencia en necesidad (“Pierre Menard, autor de El Quijote”, 1939). Otra respuesta a esta cuestión es la de Henry James, que permite al lector sentir “la narración como podría haber sido” tras “la obra construida y limitada a la que él da vida” (Le Livre à Venir). Una creciente reticencia a dar vida a cualquier obra, por muy limitada que sea, se hizo sentir desde el siglo XVIII en adelante. En Sygdommen til Døden (1849), Kierkegaard observó cómo “se hace cada vez más plausible porque nada se vuelve real”. Llevando esta lógica hasta el extremo, Rousseau afirma que “No hay nada más bello que lo que no existe”, mientras que Keats resaltaba la belleza innombrable de las melodías “no escuchadas” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”, 1819). Una figura emblemática, como señala Dominique Rabaté (Vers une Littérature de l’épuisement, 1991) es el “demonio de la posibilidad” lui-même: Monsieur Teste de Valéry, que se niega a reducir el campo de posibilidades convirtiendo cualquiera de ellas en realidad. Es un claro precursor del Ulrich de Musil -el epónimo Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930-42)- al cual Blanchot describe como alguien que “no dice que no a la vida sino que aún no, quien finalmente actúa como si el mundo no pudiera nunca empezar excepto al día siguiente”. Otra figura representativa es Lord Chandos, de Hofmannstahl, el cual, habiendo renunciado a la literatura porque el lenguaje no puede “penetrar en el núcleo más íntimo de las cosas”, llegó a personificar un motín mudo instigado (en la vida real) por Rimbaud (Ein Brief “Lord Chandos”, 1902). Estos escritores cada vez más reticentes, los cuales, como el Bartleby de Melville, “preferirían no hacerlo” (“Bartleby, the Scrivener”, 1853), son los que Jean-Yves Jouannais denominó “artistas sin obra” (Artistes sans oeuvres, 1997); los partidarios de lo que Enrique Vila-Matas denomina la “literatura del no” (Bartleby y compañia, 2000).

La literatura ha ido muriendo inexorablemente a lo largo del siglo XX. En 1925, José Ortega y Gasset escribió sobre el “declive” de la novela. En 1930, Walter Benjamin afirmaba que estaba en “crisis”. Theodor W. Adorno creía que no podía haber poesía después de Auschwitz. En 1959, Brion Gysin (el de los “cut-ups”) se quejaba de que la ficción llevaba un retraso de cincuenta años con respecto a la pintura. A principios de los ‘60, Alain Robbe-Grillet criticó la momificación de la novela en su encarnación del siglo XIX. En 1967, John Barth publicó “The Literature of Exhaustion”, texto en el que hablaba de “la extenuación de determinadas formas o el agotamiento de determinadas posibilidades”. Ese mismo año, Gore Vidal diagnosticó que la novela estaba exhalando su último aliento. “Debemos continuar durante mucho tiempo hablando de obras y escribiéndolas, haciendo como que no nos damos cuenta de que la iglesia está vacía y que los feligreses se han ido a otra parte, a ocuparse de otros dioses”. En 1969, Ronald Sukenick publicó una colección de relatos breves titulada The Death of the Novel. A comienzos de los ‘70, el Nuevo Periodismo de Tom Wolfe fue considerado por algunos como el futuro de la escritura creativa. La muerte de la literatura y el mundo tal y como lo conocemos hoy en día, se convirtió en un tema de actualidad entre los académicos estadounidenses a principios de los ‘90 (ver, por ejemplo, la obra de Alvin Kernan titulada con gran acierto The Death of Literature, 1992). Habitualmente, argumentaban que los Departamentos de Inglés habían sido secuestrados por los estudios culturales, la Filosofía Continental y la corrección política enloquecida (a la que Bloom ha denominado “Escuela del Resentimiento”).

Desde entonces, han ocurrido dos cosas. La novela -que fue creada con el propósito de fusionar la poesía y la filosofía (según los primeros Románticos alemanes), de contener los demás géneros e incluso, el universo entero (siguiendo la concepción de Mallarmé acerca de El Libro o el sueño de Borges de una “Biblioteca Total”)- ha sido relegada a la “ficción”, un género que aborda la creación literaria como si el siglo XX nunca hubiera existido. Al mismo tiempo, la era digital ha llevado el exceso de información (del cual ya se quejaba en su momento el Eclesiasta) a un nivel completamente nuevo. Como consecuencia de esto, David Shields cree que la novela ya no está capacitada para reflejar la compleja vitalidad de la vida moderna: él prescribe nuevas formas híbridas de escritura (Reality Hunger, 2010). El poeta estadounidense (y fundador de UbuWeb) Kenneth Goldsmith nos pide encarecidamente que dejemos de escribir del todo para centrarnos en recombinar los textos que hemos ido acumulando a lo largo de los siglos (Uncreative Writing, 2011). Trasladando el retrato que James Joyce hizo de sí mismo como “el hombre del corta y pega” a la era digital, Mark Amerika afirma que hoy en día todos somos “remezcladores”. Sin embargo, ¿qué ocurriría si, tal como se preguntaba Lewis Carroll, las combinaciones de palabras fueran limitadas y ya las hubiéramos utilizado todas?

Según Steiner, somos “agonistas”, “vamos rezagados”: “No tenemos más comienzos” (Grammars of Creation). Para nosotros, el lenguaje “está desgastado por el uso” y el “sentido de revelación, de profuso conocimiento” exhibido por los escritores del periodo Tudor, Isabelino y Jacobeo “nunca ha vuelto a ser plenamente recuperado”. En vísperas de los innombrables horrores de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, Adorno ya sentía que “los cadáveres de las palabras, palabras fantasmales” era todo lo que habíamos dejado. El lenguaje se había corrompido, irremediablemente arruinado por “el uso de la tribu” (Mallarmé). ¿Es que acaso ya no podemos seguir el mandato de Ezra Pound de “hacerlo nuevo”?

“Incluso la propia originalidad ya no es capaz de sorprendernos”, escribe Lars Iyer en un destacable ensayo publicado recientemente por The White Review. Según este novelista y catedrático de filosofía, vivimos en “una era de palabras sin precedente” pero en la cual los Novelistas Importantes han dado paso a “una legión de escribas”. La literatura tan sólo sobrevive como ficción literaria kitsch: una “parodia de estilos pasados”; “una pantomima de sí misma”. Este es un terreno que Andrew Marr ha revisitado a comienzos del siglo XXI. La novela, hoy en día, “no reivindica ampliar los límites del modo en que entendemos el mundo” y se encuentra anclada a finales del siglo XIX: “Los cientos de buenos artesanos de la novela, que aprendieron de forma laboriosa y detallada las lecciones acerca de la construcción de la trama y los personajes, dónde ser recargados y cuándo lacónicos, se han convertido en réplicas modernas de máquinas pensantes llevadas a su máximo nivel de desarrollo hace un siglo. Es como si el motor de combustión interna hubiera sido perfeccionado en 1870 y todos los coches de hoy en día fueran simples modelos victorianos con un estilo actualizado”. La conclusión a la que llegó Marr fue que la novela –tal como ocurrió anteriormente con “la sinfonía, el ballet, el arte figurativo o la cerámica esmaltada”– podría haber perdido ya su esplendor: “… las grandes obras, el tiempo de los descubrimientos, está muerto y no puede ser reabierto” (“Death of the Novel”, The Observer 27 de Mayo de 2001). En “The Literature of Exhaustion”, John Barth ya había pronosticado cómo “las ultimidades sentidas de nues- tro tiempo” (por ejemplo, el mismísimo final de la novela como “forma artística mayor”, tal como mencionaba Marr) podrían convertirse en alimento para obras futuras. En este sentido, Iyer da en el clavo. En su opinión, no estamos escribiendo las páginas finales de la literatura (su conclusión) sino más bien su “epílogo”: la nuestra es “una literatura después de la literatura”. Mientras que los poetas Románticos de Bloom se sentían “subsidiarios” frente a sus ilustres predecesores, Iyer cree que hemos llegado demasiado tarde, y punto. La literatura hoy en día ya no es “la Cuestión en sí misma, sino la Cuestión que se ha desvanecido”. La tarea del escritor es “conjurar al fantasma” de una tradición que se ha dado por vencida. De este modo, las novelas de Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke o el propio Iyer no son tanto la evidencia de un revival del nouveau roman, sino ejemplos de un nuevo tipo de ficción ontológica que explora las posibilidades perdidas del Modernismo.

Según Kathleen Fitzpatrick, la muerte de la novela ha sido utilizada por los novelistas como un ardid para garantizar su supervivencia (The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, 2006). Nos queda comprobar si, como afirma Iyer, nos hemos adentrado en una era post-literaria, o si por el contrario, la crónica acerca de la muerte de la literatura ha sido magnificada una vez más.

Una versión reducida de este artículo fue publicada en el periódico británico The Guardian, el 10 de enero de 2012, con el título “In Theory: the Death of Literature”.

Larger versions of these scans are available here:
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Colossal Youth

This appeared in the autumn 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 70, pp. 54-57):

Colossal Youth

Arthur Cravan — artist, poet, boxer

You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. The world’s shortest-haired poet, as he often described himself, put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man. Next to him, the YBAs in their shark-pickling heyday were about as controversial as a mug of Horlicks. David Lalé put it in a nutshell: “His was a life dedicated to wanton destruction, to the extent that he elevated scandal and humiliation into an art form” (Last Stop Salina Cruz).

Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. His first brush with authority occurred early on when he was expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher. Having relocated to bohemian Paris — where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and Kees van Dongen — Cravan planned to fake his own death so that he could publish his first book “posthumously,” in a blaze of publicity. For some reason this stunt was shelved, but he pulled off the more remarkable feat of becoming France’s Heavyweight Champion in 1910 without throwing a single punch. One of his opponents got the jitters and called it quits before the match had even started. A couple of others were directed to the wrong venue thus failing to show up. The last one sprained his ankle as he jumped a trifle too eagerly into the ring.

A big bruiser of a man, Cravan certainly looked the part — Mina Loy, his future wife, would write a book about him entitled Colossus — but his boxing was on a par with his poetry: spirited, at best. Comically enough, he was caught up by his reputation in Barcelona where he was unable to wriggle out of a rumble with former World Champion Jack Jones, an episode which left him reeling, punch-drunk. The fact that he was drink-drunk to start with probably did not help.

None of this prevented Arthur Cravan from flogging his “poet and boxer” image for all it was worth. Although he was a fraud, he inspired a long line of literary pugilists, and even came to be seen by some as the ultimate adventurer-scribe: literature made flesh. Paradoxically, for one whose existence exerts such fascination, he was a self-publicist who had no self to publicise. “I am all things, all men and animals!” he wrote in one of his better-known poems (“Hie!”), before wondering if he would ever manage to “leave behind” his “fatal plurality”. Reflecting on his hyper-protean nature — his dizzying array of disguises, pseudonyms and personae — Mina Loy claimed that Cravan “worked to maintain his reality by presenting an unreality to the world — to occupy itself with — while he made his spiritual getaway”. His whole life, at least from the time he first set foot in Paris, was indeed one long, convoluted disappearing act.

Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. It was partly a vanity outlet for his poems and essays, but primarily a means of courting controversy. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. In the first issue, he ran a fake interview with Oscar Wilde — his late uncle — claiming that he was still alive. Cravan’s Bill Grundy moment occurred when he devoted an entire issue to gratuitous insults aimed at almost all the painters taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. He opined, for instance, that only a good seeing-to would enable Marie Laurencin to fully grasp the true meaning of Art. As a result, her lover — the poet Guillaume Apollinaire — challenged Cravan to a duel which he narrowly avoided by apologising half-heartedly. He was also taken to court and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters while selling copies of his journal from a wheelbarrow outside the exhibition room.

Maintenant proved that writing, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as did the infamous series of conferences he gave in Paris. During these happenings, he would take swigs from a bottle of absinthe (in lieu of the habitual bottle of water), shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. On one occasion, he wore nothing but a butcher’s apron and concluded proceedings by mooning the audience instead of bowing in the traditional fashion. On another, he sold rotten fruit and vegetables at the entrance so that people could pelt him during the performance should they feel so inclined (which they did). His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised — a riot that forestalled his drunken inauguration of the 1917 Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp (whose legendary urinal was part of the show) had plied him with gallons of booze beforehand in the hope that his antics would put Dada on the map in the United States. Cravan rose to the occasion: he stumbled on stage looking the worse for wear and started to strip — knocking over a painting in the process — only to be pounced upon and carted away by security. Job done.

Arthur Cravan took Romantic hysteria to its logical conclusion: he was by turns histrionic, attention-seeking, uncontrollable, excessive, hilarious and, most importantly, the author of himself (hustera is Greek for womb). He was also a con artist with a cause. “The world has always exploited the Artist,” he once declared, “it is time for the Artist to exploit the world!” It was his fake-painting trafficking, rather than the First World War, that initially forced him to go on the run. He roamed the Continent, using several fake IDs, looking for “that something the poet always seems to have mislaid,” as Mina Loy elegantly put it. In Barcelona he became something of a living legend among Dadaists. When the war seemed about to catch up with him again, he relocated to New York (travelling aboard the same ship as Trotsky) and fled once more as soon as the Americans entered the conflict. Cravan stole the passport of an artist friend (who had conveniently conked out following a night on the razz) before crossing the Mexican border dressed — paradoxically enough — as a soldier. He was last seen in 1918, sailing away on a drunken boat of his own making (probably bound for neutral Argentina), leaving behind his “fatal plurality” for ever. “Whatever is said and done or even thought,” he had declared, “we are prisoners of this senseless world”. Perhaps he was trying to prove himself wrong.

Cravan was always larger than life and, in many ways, he was just too bad to be true. He was a self-unmade man whose biggest conjuring trick was to spirit himself away by taking elusiveness to the point of illusiveness. “You must dream your life with great care,” wrote this outrageous six-footer who managed to cross frontiers as if he were the Invisible Man. In the years following his disappearance, he would be sighted all over the world in a variety of guises. Several people, for instance, were convinced that he was the shadowy Dorian Hope who passed himself off as André Gide’s personal secretary and sold forged Wilde manuscripts to English and Irish booksellers from his Paris base. There is even a theory according to which he was none other than B. Traven, the mysterious author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He inspired Gide’s Lafcadio, the infamous character who kills a man for no other reason but to exercise his free will, and became a symbol of ultimate transgression for the likes of Guy Debord. Dead or alive, Arthur Cravan is still at large.