Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).


Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.


12 responses to “Salt of Words

  1. I am interested in that line between the crudity of science and the subtlety of life….and then to see the footnote about macaroons following the “god that’s lovely” is the most wonderful example of some sort of literary welding of crudity and subtlety.

  2. That last paragraph (thought) is lovely.

  3. Literature: “understand speech outside the bounds of power.” Broaden that to art in general if I may. Power is nothing but to influence; push one way or another (flavor?): art for any other than art’s sake, be that wealth, knowledge, (Never come across “mathesis” before, thanks for that) or just therapy given or gotten. I don’t want art to lack all power, just the bad kind, art as a financial instrument or propaganda are my candidates there.
    The world is out there and in here. Art is in neither place; it’s a map of two geographies superimposed, making it less useful but more interesting. Kafka ironic: “The inner world can only be lived, not described.” The outer world described: mimesis, half the story.
    Semiosis, another map? No, just directions. a different way to get there, or not … Lost we remain but now we enjoy the sights.
    Did Ro forget teaching what we can’t know? I’ll put him on my ever growing BBQ and maybe find out.

    • I’m deep into his book— Lover’s Discourse…talk about the world out there and in here…
      “less useful but more interesting” is a fascinating perspective by which to view (understand? experience?) art. It is true in a way, and yet there, in human history, is the relentless production of art…it seems strange that we would invest so much time and energy into a “useless” thing…unless the word “useless” is used only because there is a paucity of language to describe this other non-power hungry thing…where does this urge to describe come from? Perhaps it is merely our lostness in which we retain the ability to enjoy the sights.

  4. Love is just a word, a useless—but interesting—one. It’s like art that way. But what good is a word if no one can agree on what it means? This is the paucity of language. Are both concepts really real if they are not describable?
    Art hasn’t always been useless but interesting. It was at one time used as a means to contact the gods. And as that futile practice went into decline, art came to be used as propaganda for assorted power hungry institutions and individuals. It still is.
    Describing the indescribable is another of art’s work these days. We do this because we think our [vaguely unpleasant feeling of] not knowing our way is due to bad maps or poor directions that we artists can redraw or rewrite. Silly us.
    The fact that we know we are lost is new. It’s only been a part of the plan for a couple of centuries. And who know, maybe a century from now we will have forget—become the spectacle/simulacrum, not be aware we are lost in it (perhaps even enjoying the sights)—and we’ll all go back to making futile icons and serving power hungry ideologues.

    • “To what shall the character of utility be ascribed, if not to that which is a source of pleasure?” —Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward.
      No, I won’t agree with you that Love is merely a word and a useless one at that. Nor art. I am not arguing with any of your laments, I simple offer that it is too vague to say art is useless but interesting. You would have to define “useless” and support that definition, make me understand the parameters in which you deem it “useless.” Unless you are speaking of love and art as being useless only insofar as a capitalistic society “values” things, I think you’d be hard pressed to do so satisfactorily.

  5. Let me try…
    Love and art are words, but not merely so. It was my mistake to say they are “just” words. They are sets of actions, too. We often foolishly assume if the word is the same that actions must be so, too. The problem is that they are usually not. That makes us sad and angry. And neither of those emotions are “a source of pleasure,” therefore they lack Mr. Panopticon’s definition of utility.
    But both love and art are useful to our capitalistic society. Not in the same way they are to individuals, tho’. In the case of love, capitalists–from Hollywood to big pharma–profit from the abovementioned individual discomfort that comes with the disconnect between signifier (the word) and signified (the actions.)
    Art is a bit different; there the capitalists profit not from our discomfort–they make nothing when I get angry about jeff koons–but our disinterest. We seem OK with them turning art away from whatever we think it is into what’s pleasurable for them i.e. investment or celebrity. But would it change if we weren’t? I doubt it.

  6. Your argument for the useless but interesting quality of art still seems to fall under the domain of this capitalist society’s warping, and I’ve already said I don’t disagree with that narrow view, but I do think there is another. Art has always transported the human spirit, and it always will—no amount of prostitution can really touch that—it hurts it, it makes for a mountain of shit to wade through, but everytime my heart soars at viewing or hearing a work of art, that is my personal “fuck you” to the moneyed pimps and prostitutes that sully the whole world.
    As for love—no—sad and angry is not a widely accepted notion of pleasure! haha. But come now, why go straight to sad and angry? Don’t skip steps, there is joy, caring, and sensual pleasures first, after all. As Diderot wrote in his essay on Epicureanism: “embrace even the pain which promises a great pleasure.” We risk our hearts and there are real and extremely painful consequences of that particular risk…but it is not all bad. I would rather let myself feel alive, good or bad (and believe me, so far the scale is tipped on the sad side of things), but for me at least, what’s worse is to feel nothing. To risk nothing. I have children, the risk of my complete destruction was born the same day each one of them came to be…but, should I not risk loving them? Should I not give them my whole heart just in case some wretched day something might happen to one of them? I think that would simply be stingy. I want to love them, I want to feel that. And so, in the case of romantic love, I’ll take the pain (maybe not with any semblance of grace on some days), at least then I know that I am capable too of feeling that much pleasure some fine day.

    • When making art, writing about art, or even observing others’ art l lose myself, which is the opposite of what I think I want from it, which is to find my Self. Art moves this human spirit. But, where? For better or worse?
      Art is the one activity that has never—OK, rarely—failed me, except when I mixed it with work or love, i.e. when I tried to “use” it to get something else. I did this most often in my middle years—from ages 4 to 64.
      Samuel Beckett said “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” art’s my best bet for failing better, so no more trying to mix art with the rest, not that I have opportunities for such any more. Not that I’d try them if I did. I might, I fear.

  7. Don’t apologize for theorizing. It’s what makes us human, along with empathizing, both for better or worse.

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