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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.



Before you, this rose.
Blush and bemused sweet.
Between fingers stained,
Better unrestrained with
Berries and their red refrain
Bartered for my heart.

Fallen Scout

Why would one make a Girl Scout Samoa?
A group I was thrown out of, maybe I told ya?
Reprobate at heart
They were clued-in from the start
By my resistance to green polyester
And a preference to shy self-sequester.

Badge one for the cookie was easily had,
Badge two melting caramel wasn’t so bad,
Toast your coconut nicely for badge number three
Burn your fingers on chocolate if you do it like me.
Put it all together for badge number four,
Then share them with friends who wish you’d made more.

Why would one make a Girl Scout Samoa?
The leader of my troop could not have been colder.
So the badges I have were hand-made on my own,
Needle and thread to my heart they were sown.
But now that I am decidedly older,
I thank you sashed lady green soldiers:
Abandonment, it would seem, makes self-sufficiency bolder.

JA/2013 Photos of cookies taken by Donna Golden, cookies made by us both. With love.

Prolixity, Thy Name is S.A.T.

Evanesce the pain,
of sitting at the skimpy school desk
gently holding my brain.
Trying to repair the wreck
I wrought; maybe staking a claim.

All the hard looks that say-
you don’t belong here,
are nothing new today.
Never mind the end’s not near,
over the Rubicon I’ll stay.

Another hurdle’s shown,
despite all of my loves,
(someday I’ll have it honed)
it’s the same as it ever was-
I just go it alone.


*Post-SAT fare. Kids, my fellow test takers – don’t try this at home: Spanish Cava and Punitions (a French butter cookie).

A hunger, Az éhség

Elza’s Hungarian Linzar Cookies with Apricot Jam

The second installment of The Paprika Trilogy written by Marc Fitten takes time to get through- what with having to take frequent breaks to curb the cravings for all of the wonderful food that the story dances around. The recipe for the linzar cookies above came from the author and they are lovely. But what I really want is some chicken paprika: succulent, savory, satiating…if it weren’t 1000 degrees outside I would call forth my inner Hungarian peasant (from thin air) and just wing it. Maybe in a few months…

At any rate, Elza’s Kitchen is a tale of a woman who is running aground on the fumes of her life. She is a restauranteur, a capitalist “success,” in a small Hungarian town nearly recovered from the trauma of communism where ambitions for a “success”  seem to matter a lot. And yet, and yet…the plat du jour can not hold. Living is easy in the capitalist dream world, life – not so much. It’s a lonely chase.

“He had never been her confidant. She hadn’t even tried to fake intimacy.”

Naturally, once things start spinning out of control, the shear messy swirl of it is impressive. Why do things half way? The restaurant business is particularly attuned to spinning messy swirls…don’t even get me started.

But in the end, Elza, doesn’t need to change her mise en place so much as her own expectations, her own ambition. She thought the missing ingredient in her life was glory, but authenticity is the only true path to self-fulfillment. The rest is bullshit.

If she sticks to what makes her satisfied, then a sort of contentment is possible. That’s the theory, at least. But I say, if that fails,  a linzar cookie is a little sweet to take away a little of the bitterness.

The first in this series was Valeria’s Last Stand. Each of Fitten’s tales are a rowdy… recipe, told with humor and spice, of all our keenest hungers: love, self-worth, and…well, the next book will tell –  the pièce de résistance!

Jó étvágyat! (Bon appétit!)

Existential Baking

I found a recipe for biscuits on wordpress over at sexycuisine. It was the sort of recipe that makes you say, “That doesn’t sound at all like it would work.” Naturally I had to try them. They are Palet Breton biscuits that call for yeast. Yeast-ed biscuits sounded like an oxymoron to me, even if by biscuit what is meant is cookie, (you have to be careful on the international waters of the internet).  But sexycuisine was insistent when I inquired. When faced with someone else’s ineluctable certainty, I always yield. I’ve never really related to utter certainty and am always impressed by other people’s declarations of surety. Admittedly, this has not always yielded good results.

I mixed all the ingredients and with the resulting crumbly “dough” I was suppose to shape a log and refrigerate for 2 hours. I double checked the recipe because what I had was a barely congealed mass that would fall to crumbs without the aid of the cling wrap. “That’s not right,” I said to myself. “You know that won’t hold.” But, I reasoned, “It has yeast in it, I’m not a chemist, how should I know what effect the yeast will have. Who am I to argue? Who am I? What is the meaning of baking? If I am merely following a blueprint, what is my role here? Why do I bother?” It was all getting a bit overwhelming so I went for a walk.

On my walk I imagined God as The Baker.
God makes man: “Oh my God (wait – I am God) Oh my Me! That doesn’t look right at all. What shall I do? I’ve already added the yeast-spark of life, it’s too late. I can’t add to him now, what if I accidentally retard his development? I should just try it again.”
God makes woman: “Oh no, that’s not much better. So similar, but so different, they may not mix at all. Don’t be so negative, maybe they’re perfect for each other, fulfilling all the flaws…Oh Me! I just don’t know. I give up. They’ll have to figure it out on their own, I’ll just put them in the oven and hope for the best.”

God’s abandonment has really got me down. I understand, one doesn’t want to make matters worse, but really, if you are the creator- do something!

I add a dash or two of cream so that I can go ahead and cut the dough into 12 disks. I may have ruined it. I told sexycuisine I would give full credit for a failure, but I can not. The failure will have to be mine. I am the creator after all. If belatedly adding cream produces a tile of a biscuit, the fault is mine alone.

My version is the ugly step-child of sexycuisine’s, but by placing a distracting dollop of strawberry preserves I hope to disguise this truth.  I can’t say that I understand the function of the yeast in the recipe, but of course, I’m sure I did something wrong. Certainty after all! Well, they are tasty.

“Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature. Never try to correct them. On the contrary: rationalize them, understand them thoroughly. After that, it will be possible for you to sublimate them.” Salvador Dali

Re-reading Life

My Literature teacher mentioned that she had a passion for macaroons. We are reading Ibsen’s A Doll House in class and of course Nora has a forbidden passion for them as well.

Unfortunately I have read both the plays in this section of the class many times (A Doll House and Raisin in the Sun). But actually, I don’t mind too much. I wish I had time to re-read more. It’s just there are so many books to read…will I ever get to re-read Middlemarch? I think I’ll have to read Anna Karenina again because, even though I’ve already read it more than once, I love it.

I wonder how prevalent re-reading is? In my book group we’ve read a few of the books twice (Heart of Darkness because it’s obtuse,  Crime and Punishment because we wanted to see how different translations affected the read- I loved it both times, but the second Norton press translation was superior, maybe that was all: I can’t quite recall). But normally I don’t read a book and then immediately re-read it again (maybe just sections or paragraphs that moved me strongly). There are some I read every few years (Jane Eyre, one of the first books I fell in love with), and of course I love to strum through others periodically, but as I have all but stopped buying books I do this less often. Some books I have that are essays like Meditations or epistolary like Rilke and Andreas Salomé: A Love Story in Letters, or  the wild Gertrude Stein my Step father gave me for Christmas are good to keep on the night stand when you just want a little taste. I like to illuminate all of life’s important questions in the spirit of a character in Wilkie Collin’s Moonstone: whenever he had a question of import he would randomly open and point to a section of Robinson Crusoe to guide him…I’ve always loved that detail, I mean, why not?

I  saw The Doll House performed many years ago, I don’t remember loving it, I think the lead actress was whiney and it bothered me, but of course  my perspective is different now. The nuance and depth of disharmony in Nora and Torvald’s marriage is, read at my age (with my experience) seen in a totally different light. Life is complicated. The layers reveal themselves with age whether you want them to or not. I wish I had understood Ibsen better when I was 16, I really do.

My professor wrote a recommendation for me (as well as my math professor) that contributed to me being awarded a nice little scholarship for next year, so I wanted to make them both cookies. I guess that’s pretty lame on my part. Coincidentally, (or maybe not: maybe I could actually name the cookie of choice of all my female acquaintances, it seems a popular subject) they have both mentioned their favorite cookies (my Stats professor loves chocolate chip- I can do that).  But if I can satiate a jones for macaroons or chocolate chip I will. The questions is, what did she mean by macaroon? Nora must have meant almond, but what if my professor meant coconut? What to do? I’m, again, with Nora here: I love almond macaroons, but I just have this feeling that when most Americans say macaroon they mean coconut. Anyway I found an interesting recipe (involving pineapple) that I will test on my children, if they pass the test (and if you knew my children you would respect the formidable challenge therein) that is what she will get.