A Lesser Form of Literature
Like many literary theorists, Frenchman Roland Barthes believes anything driven by narrative is a lesser form of literature.
But the way he expresses his disdain is very … u-ummm … well he’s French.
The Texte de Desir
In The Pleasure of the Text (1975), Barthes talks about narrative suspense as a kind of striptease.
For him a narrative-driven text relies on the pleasure of a “gradual unveiling”.
On page 10 Barthes discusses the way we sometimes rush through a text in the hope of knowing the end of the story, but what he says is
“the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing the sexual organ.”
Yes, he really wrote that.
An Erotics of Reading
Barthes’s thesis is that the pleasures of reading are largely erotic.
His writing is convoluted and (maybe deliberately) obscure. It’s also metaphorical, sometimes startlingly so. He talks about “prattling” texts and “frigid” texts.
Plaisir and Jouissance
For Barthes there are two main categories of book.
The texte de plaisir, is of a form and style that is more or less familiar to the reader. It provides the pleasures of language in a comfortable way.
The texte de jouissance, disturbs and unsettles us. It “wounds” and “seduces”, but this provides bliss.
And by bliss he means erotic ecstasy. Rapture, provided by language.
“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas” (p17)
“The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra.” (p6)
“The text is a fetish object, and this fetish desires me. The text chooses me, by a whole disposition of invisible screens, selective baffles.” (p27)
But where does that leave crime fiction?
When we read a plot-driven novel, Barthes claims we are motivated simply to have things revealed to us. We read in excitement and haste, skipping bits that bore us “to get to the warmer parts of the anecdote” (p11) and ignoring the greater bliss, the erotic pleasure of the play of language.
In the same way, he says, a spectator at a nightclub might ruin the pleasure by leaping to the stage to tear off a stripper’s clothing.
We “devour” we “gobble” (p13), skipping bits that bore us and ignoring the greater bliss, the erotic pleasure of the play of language
“A rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text.” (p10-1)
Reading for the Plot
There are plenty of other serious literary people who agree with Barthes – that in some way, plot is the least worthy element of a novel, that reading a book to enjoy the plot is somehow a less literary pursuit than reading for other reasons.
There’ll be more about this.
What do you think?
Barthes, Roland (1975), The Pleasure of the Text, translated 1976 by Richard Miller, London, Cape.