On Philosophy in fiction. Roland Barthes puts it this way (as only he could have):

There are those who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the “dominant ideology”; but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text (see the myth of the Woman without a Shadow). The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro. [Emphasis original]

The Pleasure of the Text, page 32.


On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.

Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.

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On Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting. Susan Sontag: “. . .Barthes invariably performs in a affable register. There are no rude or prophetic claims, no pleadings with the reader, and no efforts not to be understood. This is seduction as play, never violation. All of Barthes’s work is an exploration of the histrionic or ludic; in many ingenious modes, a plea for savor, for a festive (rather than dogmatic or credulous) relation to ideas.”

Barthes’s strategy of linked aphorisms is part of his “exploration of the histrionic or ludic.”

Barthes’s world feels like a circus, under the big top and at sunrise, too, when the trapeze artist, assigned a month into the season to pick up the park because the clown during a card game told the men that he had seen her lying on the grass and listening to the dawn chorus, pokes the cups with her stick. Barthes’s circus is the poet Robert Lax‘s circus, a world of vocation and honest living.

Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting

At lunch Sunday in the shade and breeze of a large oak beside the cow-punctuated hills that keep the summer air in Bluemont so dry, I gave a friend a copy of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. Rocket Scientist Friend (hereinafter “RSF”), who was eating with us, took the book, turned at random to the article “Steak and Chips,” and read the first paragraph out loud.

“Pure unsubstantiated bullshit,” he reflected.

“Yes,” I said, “Barthes backs up nothing. His observations alone are sufficient.”

“Not for me.”


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Hope & the photograph

John Berger considers Franz Hals “the only painter whose work was profoundly prophetic of the photograph.”  Hals’s paintings bear little resemblances to photographs, but what Berger means is that they think like cameras.  Like his contemporary Rembrandt, Hals paints his nude as she really looked, Berger says; neither painter painted a Platonic ideal of his subjects.  But Berger believes that Rembrandt achieved realism though his view of redemption, while Hals achieved his through a kind of desperation that Berger admires.  I’m not sure if Berger associates that desperation in any way with photography.

Berger’s view of Rembrandt mirrors mine of Dostoevsky, whom I consider a realist.  Rembrandt applies “a realist practice more radically than any other Dutch painter to the subject of individual experience.  It is not his choice of biblical subjects which matters here, but the fact that his religious view offered him the principle of redemption, and this enabled him to look unflinchingly at the ravages of experience with a minimal, tenuous hope.”

Dostoevsky’s characters are the most realistic I’ve ever encountered if, like Berger, one refers to the realism of “individual experience.”  I feel drawn to Dostoevsky’s Christianity because, unlike a lot of Christianity I’ve experienced in the West, it offers insight into the horrors of experience.  It is precisely Dostoevsky’s “minimal, tenuous hope” that permits him to sketch Dmitri and Ivan Karamazov.  Christians with little experience of redemption flinch, like Job’s friends, in the face of tragedy, unable to accept it in terms other than divine retribution.

Berger’s view of Hals as the only painter-prophet of the photograph stems from his observation that Hals was driven, unlike his predecessors, to paint a world with contingency and without conclusions.  This almost existentialist viewpoint Berger finds in Hals accounts for what Berger perceives as Hals’s desperation and impatience.  Hals’s naked woman on the bed  “does not, like [Rembrandt’s] Bathsheba, glow from the light of her being.  It is simply her flushed, perspiring skin that glows.  Hals did not believe in the principle of redemption.  There was nothing to counteract the realist practice, there was only his rashness and courage in pursuing it.”

But how closely does a photograph render experience as opposed to only appearance?  Because Berger goes on to say that Hals doesn’t get across merely his model’s glowing skin.  Hals’s practice “was not to reduce a bouquet of flowers to their appearance . . . it was to reduce closely observed experience to appearance.”  Most photography gets across only a subject’s appearance and not her experience, I think.  Translating experience to appearance seems like a worthy goal for photography, though Berger doesn’t say as much.

And is photography art enough or broad enough to distinguish between a Hals photograph and a Rembrandt one, if you will, excluding digital postproduction work, which can make a photograph into anything?  From the standpoint of composition, lighting, and the knack for, and skill of, capturing photographic images, can one distinguish between a Rembrandt realism and a Hals one in photography?

Finally, what is Hals’s – really, Berger’s version of Hals’s – equivalent in literature? Friar Lawrence-like, “I do spy a kind of hope” in the most seemingly-hope-forsaken literature.  I don’t find Faulkner’s novels and his Nobel proclamation that “man will prevail” to be contradictory.  Berger’s own Lucie Cabrol is one of my favorite characters in literature, and her third life suggests a “tenuous” silver lining to her tragedy.  Can a novel be at once bereft of hope and yet great?  Maybe Jude the Obscure, though its hopeless feel may stem more from its lack of comic relief than anything else.

I find even philosophically hope-forsaken literature (Sartre’s No Exit, Kafka’s The Penal Colony) to be oddly hopeful – hopeful, perhaps, at a spiritual level.

Can the same thing be said for Hals’s work or for photography at its essence?  Does Berger agree with Roland Barthes that photography’s power comes from its lack of artifice:

It is the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself.  The noeme of language is perhaps this impotence, or, to put it positively: language is, by nature, fictional; the attempt to render language unfictional requires an enormous appraratus of measurements: we convoke logic, or, lacking that, sworn oath; but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself; the (rare) artifices it permits are not probative; they are, on the contrary, trick pictures . . . (Camera Lucida 85, 87)

Is language by nature hopeful, and is that hope bound up with its essentially fictional nature?  And, given that fiction is often more spiritually accurate than fact is, is that so bad?

And now that digital postproduction – Photoshop and the like – has made photography’s artifices less “rare,” would Barthes find today’s photography less (Barthes’s word) astonishing, less (Berger’s word) despairing, more linguistic, fictional, hopeful?

[All Berger quotations and paraphrases are from his 1979 essay “The Hals Mystery” from The Selected Essays of John Berger.   If I had read more of Berger’s essays on art than I have, I might know more about his views on photography.  But my point here isn’t to figure that out.  All emphasis original.]

Flat Death


With the Photograph, we enter into flat Death.  One day, leaving one of my classes, someone said to me with disdain: “You talk about Death very flatly.”  — As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude!

— Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida


Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino

One revelation from reading Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Barthes and Italo Calvino admired each other’s work.  Maybe they were friends, too.  I don’t know, but it would be fun if it were so: Barthes standing on the shore of nonfiction, shaking hands with Calvino, himself wading in the waters of fiction.

Barthes mentions Calvino in a positive manner at least three times in the book, and Geoff Dwer, in the books’ introduction, quotes a nice thing Calvino said about Barthes shortly after Barthes’s death.

I suppose this realization is ordinarily reserved for people more social than I am.  I’ll ask Victoria when she gets up.  Ever know two interesting people and later discover that they’re friends?  A lot comes over you all at once, thinking about what their friendship might say about each of them.

In retrospect, it seems natural that Barthes and Calvino would enjoy each other. Barthes often teeters but remains just this side of fiction, and in his novels Calvino sometimes comes close to nonfiction.  Together they might embody Borges or Sebald, who often seemed to mix fact (or at least nonfiction) and fiction.  All four were ideamen, writers for whom, as Dyer points out in another fine introduction (this one to John Berger: Selected Essays),  “ideas are the most distinctive and important feature of [their] output.”

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


On Death & the photograph.  This 81-year-old, Polaroid-carting, ‘walking, talking photo booth” — and the Next Door hostess — get Barthes.  From today’s Washington Post:

“The camera’s old as [bleep]; it looks like it’d steal your soul,” observes Allory Anderson, a hostess at Next Door, as Bob squeezes his way through the bar just after midnight. “But I’ve got two pictures of me on my fridge from him. I don’t have iPhone photos on my fridge.”

A physical photo, Bob says, is the presence of you in your absence. A photo is not for now or for Facebook. A photo is for later, when you’re gone. It is for finding in a shoe box.

Barthes would see this guy as the Grim Reaper, someone whose presence is explained by religion’s absence: “Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death.  Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose form the final print.”

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.]