On The Pleasure of the Text, an “erotics of reading” by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Miller

Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.

Now the subject who keeps the two texts in his field and in his hands the reins of pleasure and bliss is an anachronic subject, for he simultaneously and contradictorily participates in the profound hedonism of all culture (which permeates him quietly under cover of an art de vivre shared by the old books) and in the destruction of that culture: he enjoys the consistency of his selfhood (that is his pleasure) and seeks its loss (that is his bliss). He is a subject split twice over, doubly perverse.

[Which is basically Barthes-Speak for “There are awesome books that reaffirm your faith in humanity and its ability to create art, and then there are books that turn you inside out and make you weep and squeal and rejoice and despair. If you can leap from one kind to another, you are Grand Poobah.” At least that’s how I got it.]

I read Roland BarthesThe Pleasure of the Text [translated by Richard Miller] near the start of this month. If you’ve found yourself scratching your head when you read me quoting something about “diluted tmesis” in an attempt to dignify the listless reading of a certain book, Barthes—one of my favorite [dead] people—is to blame.

This book clocks in at 67 pages, and yet I cannot even begin talking about it. Mostly because I basically want to quote the entire thing. Mostly because why should I even talk about it, when a nod and the little hearts on the margins would suffice?

Man, am I whiny, haha. Anyway. Although most of the book has been highlighted and marginalia-ed to death, I shall suffer to control myself and share only the snippetiest of snippets. As follows:

* * *

Richard Howard [who translated the delicious perpetual current-read of mine, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments]: Like filings which gather to form a figure in a magnetic field, the parts and pieces her do come together, determined to affirm the pleasure we must take in our reading as against the indifference of (mere) knowledge, determined to instance our ecstasy, our bliss in the text against the prudery of ideological analysis, so that perhaps for the first time in the history of criticism we have not only a poetics of reading . . . but a much more difficult (supposedly inexpressible, apparently ineffable) achievement, an erotics of reading.

→ The difference between this and other books about books [there needs to be a word for these, to appease my bibliophilic squealery] — Anne Fadiman is witty and clever and funny, an also deeply personal; add quirky and charmingly off-kilter to that, and we have Nick Hornby. Nicholas A. Basbanes has a quiet dignity, much like a retired professor, spending most of his days in an expansive yet still cozy library. Charles Baxter is the hip tenured dude, passionate and geeky, and likes to focus more on the creation of literature given what awesome literature there is available. And Roland Barthes? Well. Barthes is the critic hanging out at a dim bar, a scarf still thrown around his neck, vino and Gauloises all-around. Basically, Barthes makes your brain hurt even as he seduces you.

* * *

If I agree to judge a text according to pleasure, I cannot go on to say: this one is good, that bad. No awards, no “critique,” for this always implies a tactical aim, a social usage, and frequently an extenuating image-reservoir. I cannot apportion, imagine that the text is perfectible, ready to enter into a play of normative predicates: it is too much this, not enough that; the text (the same is true of the singing voice) can wring from me only this judgment, in no way adjectival: that’s it! And further still: that’s it for me!

→ I’ve been fortunate enough to often feel frustration over my inability to talk about those world-upending books. And when I do talk about them, I tend to focus — dissect — my reaction: That’s it for me! Which, of course, brings a particular kind of conflict: the very existence of this blog necessitates a certain degree of eloquence. But I can be stubborn, and so settle for mere squealing.

Whenever I attempt to “analyze” a text which has given me pleasure, it is not my “subjectivity” I encounter but my “individuality,” the given which makes my body separate from other bodies and appropriates its suffering or its pleasure: it is my body of bliss I encounter.

→ One of the reasons why I have always been adamant — even at the risk of being accused of focusing too much on semantics — to call this blog “a reading journal” [after all, the origins and driving force of this blog is largely selfish: these are primarily for me, my experience, my thoughts on books. All very particular. So no one can blame me when they end up hating a book I loved to the high heavens, harhar.

* * *

How can we take pleasure in a reported pleasure (boredom of all narratives of dreams, of parties)? How can we read criticism? Only one way: since I am here a second-degree reader, I must shift my position: instead of agreeing to be the confidant of this critical pleasure—a sure way to miss it—I can make myself its voyeur: I observe clandestinely the pleasure of others, I enter perversion; the commentary then becomes in my eyes a text, a fiction, a fissured envelope. The writer’s perversity (his pleasure in writing is without function), the doubled, the trebled, the infinite perversity of the critic and of his reader.

→ Pertinent, relevant, given that I blog. And read other people’s thoughts on books [they love], and it is like playing voyeur to someone’s pleasure. [Goodness, with Barthes, if it’s not sexy, it’s just this side of perverse, haha.] This blog is largely consisted of reported pleasures. So, its very existence, the fact that it’s given to the public — I am inviting you to be voyeurs?

→ Books about books: voyeurism, shared pleasure. I call it either bibliophilic stalking or plain ol’ self-indulgent dorkiness.

→ Writing or creating a report on pleasure, I [or you, or whoever] attempts to make sense of his pleasure and his bliss. And, and, and I do not know where I am going with this.

* * *

We can imagine a typology of pleasure of reading—or of the readers of pleasure; it would not be sociological, for pleasure is not an attribute of either product or production; it could only be psychoanalytic, linking the reading neurosis to the hallucinated form of the text. The fetishist would be matched with the divided-up text, the singling out of quotations, formulae, turns of phrase, with the pleasure of the word. The obsessive would experience the voluptuous release of the letter, of secondary, disconnected languages, of metalanguages (this class would include all logophiles, linguists, semioticians, philologists: all of those for whom language returns). A paranoiac would consume or produce complicated texts, stories developed like arguments, constructions posited like games, like secret constraints. As for the hysteric (so contrary to the obsessive), he would be the one who takes the text for ready money, who joins in the bottomless, truthless comedy of language, who is no longer the subject of any critical scrutiny and throws himself across the text (which is quite different from projecting himself into it).

→ Although I am usually satisfied with the brevity of Barthes’ “items” — because they are so rich and intense, like intravenous espresso — the paragraph above is one of the few that I wish he had further elaborated. No doubt this is because I like labels, especially if it is to define me, haha.

→ I am obviously a fetishist. And I think if I fully understand what he was saying [so, a little help here?], I might be an hysteric as well. Hee.

* * *

To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas, how I best invent what is necessary to my work. Likewise for the text: it produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else. I am not necessarily captivated by the text of pleasure; it can be an act that is slight, complex, tenuous, almost scatterbrained: a sudden movement of the head like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand.

Yes, I agree. That’s all this blabbering has been about: Yes, I agree!

7 thoughts on “On The Pleasure of the Text, an “erotics of reading” by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Miller

  1. @ Kevin and @ Dorothy W. — Thank you! It’s always a joy to read Barthes — and, Dorothy, I do hope you try some of his work soon, and that you find something awesome in his pages. :’)


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