Barthes: Quite a Poor Reader

Quote

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)

The Hard Desire to Endure

Should not all who attempt to write in some form about literature, whether we grace our writing with the term criticism have these first two sentences pinned above our desks?

“When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoevsky if he could weld an inch of the Karamazov, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow? All great writings springs from le dur désir de durer, the harsh contrivance of spirit against death, the hope to overreach time by force of creation. ‘Brightness falls from the air’; five words and a trick of darkening sound. But they have outworn three centuries. Who would choose to be a literary critic if he could set verse to sing, or compose, out of his own mortal being, a vital fiction, a character that will endure.”

Characteristic Activity of the Mind of God (Elizabeth Sewell)

It is promising that the first of Studies in Modern Literature and Thought that I started is Elizabeth Sewell’s Paul Valery. In a letter, Wallace Stevens thought it truly wonderful and recommended accompanying it with a Rhine wine or Moselle.

After a single chapter, I want to track down all Sewell wrote, in love with both her elegant prose and her brilliant mind.

“It is a curious and interesting fact that mirrors become increasingly frequent in literature toward the end of the nineteenth century.”

“Then there is Mallarmé himself, sitting, as he admitted in a letter to a close friend, in front of a mirror as he wrote, to make sure that he would not disappear into that nothingness which during the writing of Hérodiade his soul had seen and shuddered at.”

“It is as if, during the second half of the nineteenth century, literature were turning itself into a Galerie des Glaces—the French word being so much more expressive than the English one, conveying as it does the suggestion of ice as well as glass, the ‘froid féroce’ which Valery’s Faust discovers at the highest point of abstract thought in the mind, ‘essential solitude, the extreme of the rarefaction of Being’.

“It is useless to try to interpret any poet’s work, by symbols or any other literary technique; all we can do is to attempt to build something and hope that in doing so we may a little conform our minds to he shape of his.”

“He was a poet and a precise and rigorous thinker, but at the same time he was always watching himself making poetry, watching his mind thinking and making a form and structure out of its thoughts. Valery’s mind watches itself in the mirror.”

“It is like Mallarmé, whose poetry is so pure that it is about poetry and nothing else at all, a form commenting on a form, the content irrelevant.”

“The Schoolmen of the Middle Ages knew about it, but we lost it with the Renaissance and the Reformation, and by 1850 nobody was being taught to play the game of thought, any more than they are nowadays, and poets and thinkers were taking themselves seriously and separately.”

“Although logic and mathematics and chess flourish, poetry and hard thinking are in danger of becoming separated again. Mallarmé and Valery are dead, with no visible heirs; in England the only one who took this tradition over from Carroll was G. K. Chesterton, but he lacked the intellectual discipline to carry it through to perfection, either in thought or poetry, and since then the game has lapsed. But it is essential that it be revived, for poetry and thought will sicken if they cannot go on playing with one another. We no longer, alas, study the Scholastics, and so have forgotten how to think, forgotten that science and art belong together, that art is an intellectual virtue and that wisdom and games are to be pursued for their own sake. With heads untrained and idle we are too solemn to appreciate transcendental games such as Mallarmé plays, or too lazy to join in. We think comfortably that hard thought i.e. beyond our powers, and forget that mathematics and logic produced the Alices, to confound us.”

“If Valery was thinking about thinking, that is what we are going to have to do. It is perhaps worth noticing at this stage that Aristotle says in his Metaphysics that thinking about thinking must be the characteristic activity of the mind of God.”

have walnuts in their pockets

A footnote, perhaps the best part of a book that, at least on first reading, like the walnut, yielded little for great effort. This footnote is so beautiful that I may stipulate that I am to be buried with a walnut in the pocket of my favourite Italian cotton trousers.

One day, during the war, I was asked to find an empty strip of land on the plateau de Valensole where Allied planes in difficulty could land. I find a large field that fits the bill but there’s a magnificent three-hundred-year-old walnut tree in the middle of it. The owner of the field was willing to rent it to me, but stubbornly refused to cut down the beautiful tree. I eventually told him why we needed the land, whereupon he agreed. We start clearing the soil around the base of the tree; we follow the taproot . . . . At the end of the root, we find the bones of a knight buried in his armour. The man must have been a medieval knight . . . and he had a walnut in his pocket when he was killed, for the base of the taproot was exactly level with his thigh-bone. The walnut three had sprouted in the grave.

Quoted in Paul Veyne, René Char en see poèmes. Footnote from René Char, Hypnos (Seagull Books, 2014)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!