Notes from Tina’s Journal

Jan. 29, l999

Roland Barthes on Proust

From The Pleasure of the Text


Yet the most classical narrative ( a novel by Zola or Balzac or Dickens or Tolstoy) bears within it a sort of diluted tmesis: we do not read everything with the same intensity of reading: a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text: our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages (anticipated as "boring") in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote (which are always its articulations: whatever furthers the solution of the riddle, the revelation of fate): we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual (like a priest gulping down his Mass).

Tmesis, source or figure of pleasure, here confronts two prosaic edges with one another; it sets what is useful to a knowledge of the secret against what is useless to such knowledge; tmesis is a seam or flaw resulting from a simple principle of functionality; it does not occur at the level of the structure of languages but only at the moment of their consumption; the author cannot predict tmesis: he cannot choose to write what will not be read. And yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages).

 31 The pleasure of the text does not prefer one ideology to another. However: this impertinence does not proceed from liberalism but from perversion: the text, its reading, are split. What is overcome, split, is the moral unity that society demands of every human product. We read a text of pleasure the way a fly buzzes around a room: with sudden, deceptively decisive turns, fervent and futile: ideology passes over the text and its reading like the blush over a face (in love, some take erotic pleasure in this coloring); every writer of pleasure has these idiotic blushes (Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Proust: only Mallarme, perhaps, is master of his skin): in the text of pleasure, the opposing forces are no longer repressed but in a state of becoming: nothing is really antagonistic, everything is plural.


Reading a text cited by Stendhal (but not written by him) I find Proust in one minute detail. The Bishop of Lescares refers to the niece of his vicar-general in a series of affected apostrophes (My little niece, my little friend, my lovely brunette, ah, delicious little morsel!) which remind me of the way the two post girls at the Grand Hotel at Balbec, Marie Geneste and Celeste Albaret, address the narrator (Oh, the little black-haired devil, oh, tricky little devil! Ah, youth! Ah, lovely skin!). Elsewhere, but in the same way, in Flaubert, it is the blossoming apple trees of Normandy which I read according to Proust. I savor the sway of formulas, the reversal of origins, the ease which brings the anterior text out of the subsequent one. I recognize that Proust’s work, for myself at least, is the reference work, the general mathesis, the mandala of the entire literary cosmogony-—as Mme de Sevigne’s letters were for the narrator’s grandmother, tales of chivalry for Don Quixote, etc.: this does not mean that I am in any way a Proust "specialist": Proust is what comes to me, not what I summon up: not an "authority," simply a circular memory. Which is what the inter-text is: the impossibility of living outside the infinite text—whether this text be Proust or the daily newspaper or the television screen: the book creates the meaning, the meaning creates life.

See "The Idea of Research" and "Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure" by Roland Barthes in The Rustle of Language

Tina’s Journal entry:

Proust—and the impressions of memory

In thinking about the double time of memory as it gets engaged in Proust, one returns to the idea of the photographic impression as it emerges in his first passage about his grandmother. Note how he attempts to show how the photographic impression is one taken in an instant, one that can be likened to the wax impression that Socrates talks about in his discussion. This attempt to show the relationship between perception and understanding, the temporal delay necessary for the idea of understanding to occur, is what strikes me as so very important to what we are describing.

(In thinking about this I wonder if Plato is really as bad on time as he is often said to be. Is Plato really all thumbs when he talks about possession and having? There is this implied temporality, this underdeveloped idea of it working there. Perhaps what is missing is the idea of embodiment, for the body is that which introduces time. The body is the chronological register in its most literal form; the senses depend upon a play of time. So possession for Plato is currency, that which one might purchase, take into one’s property, place in one’s cave. There seems to be little room for the idea of possession as having, as being had. Because possession plays such an important part in discourse of sentiment, since it is the precursor to transference, since it is the field upon which the past returns, since the body is the site of that return, since emotion may depend upon the body, since emotion is that which may drive this other type of possession, since Plato’s drive to possess may be read in those terms, we want to think about another type of possession. Interest plays a key role here. What words take possession of us? The involuntary memories of writing, like the associations of a patient on the couch. And the involuntary interest of the reader/listener?)

Walter Benjamin talked about the earlier days of the photographic image, and he reminds us that it did not happen in an instant in its inaugural form. Rather, an image took time, could only be said to make an impression over time, and with that drawing in of time the photograph took on another form, as an image falling into art.

But one wants to think still more about that movement into time, the rhythm of the impression. Here the idea of the stereotype (the printer’s form) must come in, for the literal stereotype of printing is what appears to form our understanding of the perceptual apparatus. And one wants to read Barthes on the stereotype once more, for it is engaging to see how he turns our attention to the politics of stereotype, and the way in which political action depends upon the stereotype, the freezing into value what perhaps cannot. Freud complicates the stereotype, since he allows for the idea of the wax page which can be lifted to erase the preconscious or conscious appearance of the impression. In Derrida’s reading of this apparatus, the writing pad begins to move away from the idea of writing as memory’s technology into something altogether different. That which is "written," in Derrida’s account, is that which pulls into play another understanding of the relationship of impression, perception, archive, and it does so through the double time of meaning—or perhaps even the triple time, one which would displace the double time.

In the involuntary memory of his grandmother’s love, Proust almost gets to the REAL of his grandmother’s existence. But it is still an approach that only edges up to her reality. Still encased in his sense of desire as the formative , his account remains what Laplanche would call ipsocentric even as it reveals the reason for the intrusive nature of this memory itself. Not a traumatic flashback of the order of the overwhelming event of an accident or war, this flashback is on the order of the childhood trauma that Laplanche would call the enigmatic signifier. Encounters with the grandmother allowed the narrator to experience the communication situation out of which our subjectivity is born. His childish ability to receive her love (his certainty that her love knew no bounds—that his simplest defect would outweigh all genius) is the residue of his own act of translation.

But it is a childish and somewhat delusional translation, one that, upon returning now, should encourage him to incorporate as understanding the duration of his relationship to her, notably the sluggishness with which he (never) grew into the responsibility of taking care of her, even if only in fleeting moments of tenderness. With the involuntary memory the narrator goes on to consider the wound of his own communication to her, the wound of his own unconscious cruelty toward her without finding a way to articulate its value beyond his own sense of loss and the masochistic pleasure of the cutting edge of his own words. That is, his cruelty could also allow him to see that he harbored an unknown fury toward her, perhaps even the fury of her unconscious passion toward him, perhaps the isolation of her life, the way she had been left with her daughter’s child, perhaps her hailing into the role of caretaker itself.

Thus her death is finally only his loss; yet it is more than a loss, for it could be a lesson in reading, a lesson in interpretation. It could be a lesson in his own inability to push beyond that foolish feeling of entitlement to a realization that he was indeed haunted by the unknown in this woman’s life. And yet…. he approaches the possibility of such an interpretation at the level of the text, as Barthes reminds us, when he shows us, only belatedly, what it was that his grandmother may have been reading. We are never sure, of course, and it is the gift of Barthes to make us think that the mother’s constant reading of Mme de Sevigne is her inheritance from the mother, and therefore what the grandmother was perhaps reading when he came in upon her in that early section of the text. That we don’t know, that he will not tell us then, is perhaps a skillful ploy on Proust’s part, another type of enigmatic signifier for the attentive reader "upon whom nothing is lost" for the act of reading itself is hardly a passive sign in this text.

Here a whole canon of feminist criticism enters, a site of powerful writing, and the possibility of his mother’s still more powerful unconscious legacy is upon us. We see, then, the way in which the mother is much more crushed by grandmother’s loss, smothered into a complete identification with her, given over to a botched mourning. In that sense, Proust captures another fragment of the family story, the way in which parents might be said to consume their children, the way in which grandchildren might be said to escape the darkest arrows of that consumption, and the powerful source of insight buried in the early childish encounter with unknown yet overwhelming events. One would want to see still more fully how he deals with his mother, for it is in this nexus that so much appears to resonate. This gift of textuality, the frustration of expression, the source in feminine love, the isolation of nurturance, the embodiment of memory’s unsought return, the recollection imposing itself upon us through the senses, the "rustle" of language that Barthes found so important to the creation of the "third" form, beyond novel and essay, beyond research and our usual sense of knowing.