Under cover of method

Beth at Cassandra Pages recently posted some of George Steiner’s handsome, personal prose – the kind of prose I didn’t know he had in him, though I’ve read a lot of his literary criticism.  I knew he had written one or two novels, but before reading Beth’s prose I couldn’t have guessed that his descriptive writing would have been much count. I guess I’ve been influenced too much by Steiner’s own distinction between creative writers and “secondary” writers, such as critics — a distinction he makes central in his book Real Presences.  Creative writers write fine criticism, but how can a critic be expected to create?

I read a similar, personal piece in Camera Lucida by literary critic Roland Barthes.  Check out the subservient relationship of theory to his personal aims of grieving his mother’s death and celebrating her life, and the beautiful prose that results (translated by Richard Howard):

At the end of her life, shortly before the moment when I looked through her pictures and discovered the Winter Garden Photograph, my mother was weak, very weak. I lived in her weakness (it was impossible for me to participate in a world of strength, to go out in the evenings; all social life appalled me).  During her illness, I nursed her, held the bowl of tea she liked because it was easier to drink from than from a cup; she had become my little girl, uniting for me with that essential child she was in her first photograph.  In Brecht, by a reversal I used to admire a good deal, it is the son who (politically) educates the mother; yet I never educated my mother, never converted her to anything at all; in a sense I never “spoke” to her, never “discoursed” in her presence, for her; we supposed, without saying anything of the kind to each other, that the frivolous insignificance of language, the suspension of images must be the very space of love, its music.  Ultimately I experienced her, strong as she had been, my inner law, as my feminine child.  Which was my way of resolving Death.  I, as so many philosophers have said, Death is the harsh victory of the race if the particular dies for the satisfaction of the universal, if after having been reproduced as other than himself, the individual dies, having thereby denied and transcended himself, I who had not procreated, I had, in her very illness, engineered my mother.  Once she was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the superior Life Force (the race, the species).  My particularity could never again universalize itself (unless, utopically, by writing, whose project henceforth would become the unique goal of my life).  From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death.

Geoff Dyer points out in the books’ introduction that many academics don’t care for Barthes’s later work, including Camera Lucida, finding it “symptomatic of a diminution of the rigor that had marked his first incarnation as systematizer and semiologist.”

Barthes doesn’t care. He loves having the objective theory serve the subjective end of celebrating his mother’s life.  And now that he has given birth (as he puts it) to his mother, the “project” of writing would be the “unique goal of my life,” the one last attempt at universalizing his particularity.  Therefore, writing’s stylistic demands take precedence over all that playful theory in Camera Lucida.

There are other hints that Barthes intends to put writing ahead of theory in Camera Lucida.  When he earlier published two celebrated essays on photography, he says, he felt “torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical; and at the heart of this critical language, between several discourses, those of sociology, of semiology, and of psychoanalysis – but that, by ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naïve it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system.”

Nevertheless, most of Camera Lucida’s first half is theory; his mother and the Winter Garden Photograph aren’t fully discussed until the second half.  Early in the second half, though, he confesses that the “free and easy manner” and “banality” with which he discussed theory mask the strong feeling he now reveals:

What I had noted at the beginning, in a free and easy manner, under cover of method, i.e., that every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent, I was rediscovering, overwhelmed by the truth of the image.  Henceforth I would have to consent to combine two voices: the voice of banality (to say what everyone sees and knows) and the voice of singularity (to replenish such banality with all the élan of an emotion which belonged only to myself). (76)

And the older theorist would serve the younger father:

As Spectator I was interested in Photography only for “sentimental” reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, I think. (21)

The Winter Garden Photograph wounds him (I see, I feel).  Only because of what he sees and feels does he then notice, observe, and think.  The theorist makes theory the servant of and vehicle for his feelings.

The result is the language of theory shot through with personality and wonder.  And some pretty great prose, ably translated (Dyer tells me) by Richard Howard.  I see how a theorist can write.

[This is the second of three posts on Camera Lucida.  The first is here.]

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