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.]

Death & the photograph

Camera Lucida by Roland BarthesBethany needed a camera for the digital film class she’s taking this fall, so of course I worried the Internet to death finding her just the right one.  I liked her camera so much that I just sold my year-old DSLR on eBay and bought one for myself, too.  I’ve discovered that I hate menus on a camera, and this new one has lots of dials and levers like my old film cameras, so it feels like a camera to me. It takes no better images than the one I sold, overall, but because it feels right, I find I’m taking pictures with it all the time.

We took our new cameras to a garden in Leesburg Saturday to try them out.  After shooting a bunch of veggies and flowers, Bethany started taking pictures of me.  I must have been posing, or at least appeared self-conscious, because Bethany told me what I petulantly say to my subjects: “Please just act like I’m not taking pictures.”

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, being Barthes, relates this self-consciousness before a lens to death, and because I make it a point of finding Barthes plausible, I’m with him.  It works like this (well, with Barthes, it works lots of ways, but I’ll pick the explanation I find most convincing):

From an anthropological standpoint, photography started in the nineteenth century at the same time that death lost its rites.  Coincidence?  Barthes doesn’t do coincidences.

For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps it this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.  Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, 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. (92 – 93)

The photograph is a kind of immortality, a kind of death-in-waiting, a monument-to-be.  Unlike a monument, however, the photograph lasts only as long as the paper it’s printed on (or, today, the drive and cloud it’s stored on) (93). So:

In front of a lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.  In others words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares).  In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter. (13 – 14)

Barthes loves paradox, and becoming four things at once (five if you count dead) makes his compulsive posing of the greatest interest to him.  Portrait photography itself (the entire subject of Barthes’s book) is always a paradox.  He looks at a very old picture of two young girls and has the vertiginous realization that “They have their whole lives before them; but also they are dead (today), they are then already dead (yesterday).”  Therefore, “each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death.”

Barthes uses this idea of specter and death to explain another reaction he has to photography: he doesn’t care for color.  He says nothing about essence or contrast or shape or composition – things that most black-and-white photography lovers speak of when they explain their preference.  Instead (I love this):

I always feel (unimportant what actually occurs) that in the same way, color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph.  For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses). (81)

Though I suspect Barthes is doing here what he occasionally admits to doing throughout this brilliant and sentimental self-examination: he’s using theory to support (or at least to explain) what his heart has already decided.  He likes black-and-white photography for the same reason I like dials and levers.  It’s the way photography should be.

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