Barthes: Ideas Circulate

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“There’s never really any originality. We live in a sort of large-scale exchange, a sort of grand intertext. Ideas circulate and languages too. In the end, the only thing we can do—and claim it as our own—is to combine them. That’s more or less how I see things. But you don’t create an idea—it’s there, it’s like a sort of major transaction in a large-scale economy. Ideas circulate and, at a certain point, you stop them, arrange them and edit them, a little bit the way they do in films, and that produces a work.”

Roland Barthes, ‘Simply a Particular Contemporary’, (trans. Chris Turner)

Barthes: Quite a Poor Reader

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Chancel: We may wonder what sort of reader you are? Do you read a lot?

Barthes: No, I don’t read a lot. It’s rather paradoxical. I could say, superficially, that it’s because I don’t have the time, as everyone says.

Being precise, I shall say—still speaking from this level of sensitivity and pleasure—that I don’t read much, either because the book bores me and at that point I put it down, or because it excites me, pleases me, at at that point I’m constantly wanting to lift my eyes from the page to carry on thinking and reflecting for myself. All those things make me quite a poor reader in quantitative terms.”

Roland Barthes, ‘Simply a Particular Contemporary’, (trans. Chris Turner)

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

The Passion for Solitude: Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London

“The answer is contained in the one feature unifying the four passions [walking, swimming, writing and reading] to which I’ve just dedicated, respectively the last four ‘paragraphs’: namely, a fifth passion, situated as it were behind the four others, like the sign or figure of their kinship: the passion for solitude.”

If writing is cathartic, it is as much about the sharing of pain with others, and a necessity to publicly acknowledge loss, rather than deal with uncomfortable silences, that compel the therapeutic need to express grief in concrete form. Writing provides a way to transcend the ordinary dialogue of mourning with its codes and conventions. In his The Great Fire of London, the death of Jacques Roubaud’s wife and the inevitable ending of his parents’ lives are meditated through his memories of them and their shared and past existence. The book is a prolonged beginning (Roubaud uses the term branch) of a much more extensive project, controlled through an elaborate set of textual devices informed in part by his love of mathematics.

Reading Roubaud’s novel is a vertiginous experience, occasionally feeling that one is making no less an effort than the writer during its creation. Through an unusual deployment of interpolations and bifurcations, Roubaud sits between two mirrors that face each other to explore the nature of memory and writing. As the one who is simultaneously the narrated, the narrator and writer, Roubaud explores similar terrain to Coetzee, who described a similar intention, “finding one’s way into the voice that speaks from the page, the voice of the Other, and inhabiting that voice, so that you speak to yourself . . . from outside yourself.” Roubaud carefully layers his elliptical portrait, but like many who are solitary by instinct, reticence is part of his style.

There is mourning and regret in The Great Fire of London, but this is not a melancholic or elegiac book. The short, numbered fragments that make up each of the six chapters can be read in linear fashion, or by drifting back and forth between each relevant interpolation and bifurcation. These elements don’t feel like capricious interruptions, but serve to explore aspects of perception and contemplation. The recondite and difficult fifth chapter begins with the suggestion that it “can be omitted during a first reading”, which, with hindsight, is advice that should be taken if a reader is to arrive at the final chapter with sufficient energy.

I had no intention to write about The Great Fire of London. If any book deserves a second reading, it is this solemnly beautiful book, but, after a haunted night filled with the imagery and atmosphere of this novel, it dawned on me that I am compelled to write about it in order to unburden my first reading experience.

Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London sits on the shelf next to its two sequels. There are six branches to the now completed Project, the last of which in the edition above, branch five of the Project, entitled La Bibliothèque de Warburg, is unlikely to be translated into English anytime soon, so my creaking French must suffice to allow me to explore that remarkable library that I find so fascinating. I will also reread Alix Cleo Roubaud’s Journal, last read seven years ago.

Sometimes it seems daunting just how many books there are yet to read—possible treasures that we may never make time for— one discovers a book like The Great Fire of London, which serves as a reminder of the scarcity of books that can open us up to an edenic and intense quietness, an experience that disrupts our quotidian view of the world. The treasure-trove of such books is small, and the gap between their uncovering seems to widen in proportion to age, which at least makes a reading life less overwhelming.

Gérald de Nerval: Epitaph of my Mind

Wandering through the unique mixture that is Gérard de Nerval’s Selected Writings (Penguin Classics, 1999, translated by Richard Sieburth) is an experience of stumbling towards a howl. If you are fortunate you will know nothing of Nerval’s biography and be better placed to wallow in the aesthetic bliss that his prose delivers. If you are open to the illusion that Nerval conjures up in his writing, you will greatly appreciate his ability to open up a world that exceeds that outside of the book.

Such a reading was not available for me. Nerval’s novella Sylvie came to my awareness through discovering its influence on Proust, but the deeper furrows were left by Nerval’s enigmatic Les Chimères, opaque poems with an undertow of sorrow and nothingness. Sieburth provides a prose translation in this collection, but I prefer Will Stone’s version, published by Menard Press (1999). Those poems opened up my curiosity about Nerval and to understanding more about his use of writing as a way to turn into literature his experience of madness: “Someday I will write the story of this descent to the underworld, and you will see that it was not entirely deprived of reasoning even though it always lacked reason.”

Dante’s journey in his Commedia is not so very different than Nerval’s in Aurelia, but, as always, timing is everything. As Foucault wrote, “Madness begins where the relation of man to truth is disturbed and darkened.” Nineteenth century Paris, though no longer expecting the residents of its asylums to sleep on straw, was accustomed to confining those deemed to have lost their reason. At the peak of their usage, one in a hundred inhabitants of Paris found themselves confined in such asylums for several months. Nerval’s experience, though given treatment during his stay in various clinics, contrasts with that of Nietzsche and Hölderlin, his less impoverished contemporaries across the border in Germany.

This collection includes Sylvie, a partly autobiographical recreation of Nerval’s Valois roots, lyrical and philosophical, reminiscent in some ways of Gide. Although Nerval touches on his dream life, he gives them none of the sovereignty bestowed in later work, with primacy given to the simple memories of rural life and adolescent infatuation. There is an undertow here of more than Romantic allegory, but whether that complexity is available if a reader is not already exposed to Nerval’s biography is arguable. It is a beautifully subtle piece of writing in which the symbol is the language. Each reading will open up fresh reflective considerations, but as a simple tale of the loss of illusion it is first rate: “Illusions fall, like the husks of a fruit, one after another, and what is left is experience. It has a bitter taste, but there is something tonic in its sharpness.”

After Nerval’s second confinement his friend and sometime publisher Alexandre Dumas wrote:”[Nervals’] is a charming mind . . . in which, from time to time, a certain phenomenon occurs . . . imagination, that resident lunatic, momentarily evicts reason . . . and impels him toward impossible theories and unwritable books.” Nerval’s response: “Several days ago everyone thought I was mad, and you devoted some of your most charming lines to the epitaph of my mind . . . Now that I have recovered what is vulgarly called reason, let us reason together . . .”

Aurelia is that reasoning, Nerval’s disavowal, though not denial, of his madness, but an attempt to argue that his writing should not be annulled by his unreason. It is his uncanny ability to translate madness into language that survives and is utterly fascinating. It may be, as Dumas wrote, unwritable, but it is far from unreadable:

Dream is a second life. I have never been able to cross through those gates of ivory and horn which separate us from the invisible world without a sense of dread. The first few instants of sleep are the image of death; a drowsy numbness steals over our thoughts, and it becomes impossible to determine the precise moment at which the self, in some other form, continues to carry on the work of existence. Little by little, the dim cavern is suffused with light and, emerging from its shadowy depths, the pale figures who dwell in limbo come into view, solemn and still. Then the tableau takes on shape, a new clarity illuminates these bizarre apparitions and sets them in motion – the spirit world opens for us. 

It is, in Sieburth’s translation, quite beautiful and an encouragement to pay attention to our condition of human fallenness. Nerval translated Faust, and though it is tempting to see in Aurelia a Faustian succumbing to a series of psychotic episodes for the sake of great literature, that would be to ignore a desperate sadness that is all too evident. That it is a work of unreason, paradoxically, takes nothing away from the fact it is equally a joyous explosion of strange beauty, and rings with truth.