Printer Friendly

Sontag's Barthes: a portrait of the aesthete.

Though it is clear that "aestheticism" and "dandyism" are not mutually interchangeable terms, most observers would agree that the two enjoy a harmonious convergence in the person of Oscar Wilde, as it has been constructed, not least by himself. Wilde the aesthetic dandy, the dandified aesthete, wearer of the violoncello coat and disciple of Pater, the playwright and the essayist, is an important figure for Susan Sontag. The "besotted aesthete," as she calls herself (Salmagundi Interview 331), (1) inscribes her work in a filiation consciously inflected by Wilde. The most obvious instance of this occurs, of course, in "Notes on 'Camp,'" fragments written between the lines of Wilde, several of whose aphorisms constitute the essay's intertitles. Sontag's celebrated essay on Roland Barthes, "Writing Itself"--one of the critical works of which she herself, it seems, was most proud (2)--is also in thrall to Wilde, who appears implicitly in its interstices, as well as being mentioned by name several times. Over the course of this essay, Sontag skilfully moulds Barthes into the exemplification of an explicitly Wildean trope: the critic as artist.

As a first effort to elaborate Sontag's characterisation of Barthes as aesthete, and its inextricability from her own critical procedure, it seems useful to look at the manner in which Sontag discusses how "the aesthete" ascribes praise. It seems to be Wilde who licences Sontag's oscillation between the terms "aesthete" and "dandy" at the point when she describes, in "Writing Itself," the manner in which aesthetes in general, and Barthes in particular, express praise for the objects most preferable to their tastes. Sontag gives here a brief typology of the two directions of "dandy taste" whereby "the aesthete" can be either "a willful exclusionist of taste," or an inclusivist, who would tend to express praise in a "whimsical aesthete polyphony" (xxvi). Sontag decides that Barthes is (aesthetically) more of an inclusivist than an exclusivist, distributing praise in a kind of "democratizing [...] aesthete leveling."

This small section on the stylistics of praise is an apt shorthand for the overall systematization of the essay. Sontag writes that "[w]hen taste distributes its plusses and minuses, it favors diminutive adjectives, such as--for praise--happy, amusing, charming, agreeable, suitable" (xxvi). The situation of this assertion within a piece of writing which has already heavily foregrounded the operation of taste cannot but encourage consideration of the adjectives which Sontag herself uses in this overtly laudatory work. "Diminutive" indeed, Sontag's adjectives "for praise" seem to correspond to her own characterisation of the adjectives used by the exclusivist aesthete: Sontag's Barthes is nothing if not happy and charming. Under the umbrella term of "good taste" (mentioned three times), a representative selection of her epithets includes the following: "affable, ludic, festive, playful, sensuous, friendly, happy, joyful, gay, gratified, decor[ous], elegant, ludic [again], playful [again], soft, relaxed, intimate, sweet, charm[ing]." In accordance with Sontag's own exposition, the adjectives of an exclusivist aesthete constitute a circuit of taste looping perpetually between Sontag and Barthes: the writing subject's elegant expression of taste results in the assertion of tasteful elegance in the subject under discussion.

Among commentators on Sontag, there exists a critical consensus that the essay on Barthes is at least partially a description of Sontag's own critical practices and indeed of the writer herself. Brigitte Peucker writes that Barthes is only the "ostensible" subject of this work, and comments that Sontag "mirror[s] her subject's method." We have here, she states, "a self-portrait of Sontag as formalist" (159). (3) Nancy Miller, in a recent appraisal of Sontag's career, takes this assessment further, stating that the Barthes essay is a record of all the Sontags--past, present and future: "In her reading of [Barthes's] reading, [...] Sontag both offers a portrait of herself as the writer she has been ('aphorist' and 'modernist') and strangely anticipates the changes that will arise twenty years later in her own writing. [...] Sontag finds in Barthes's late work a truth that will come to characterize her own" (831). (4) That Sontag's criticism of Barthes is revelatory of her own preferences is quite proper: Sontag, like Barthes, feels that it is necessary that the critic admit to the extent of her personal investment in the object of study. Yet in this essay she seems to go far beyond this critical frankness in her construction of a Barthes who radiates the qualities that she is already known highly to value. This is criticism in which we can see that the author recognizes herself; criticism, therefore, which, employing Wilde, is also written in the Wildean mode: Wilde states in "The Critic as Artist" that "It]hat is what the highest Criticism really is, the record of one's own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself." (5)

Lisa Levy astutely sums up this interweaving of author and subject--or, perhaps, this self-absorption--when she discusses Sontag's obituary of Barthes. Citing Sontag, who states therein that "All [Barthes's] work is an immensely complex enterprise of self-description," Levy adds, "And all her work is leading up to [her] point about Barthes, which is about their relationship: 'His interest in you tended to be your interest in him. ('Ah, Susan. Toujours fidele,' were the words with which he greeted me, affectionately, when we last saw each other. I was, I am.)' This is where she gets it, in the touches of intimacy--'I was, I am'--and the trenchant but toothless statement about his self-absorption (not unlike [critics'] observation[s] about her))." (6) Her interest in Barthes, in other words, is her interest in her own interests.

Sontag herself pointed out that her essays on other authors can legitimately be seen as "in some sense self-portraits." (7) The essay on Barthes seems such a one. Nancy Miller gives one further turn to this screw when she suggests that what Sontag writes about Barthes now be applied, as a sort of consolation to the current generation of critics grieving the deceased critic, to Sontag's own work. She finds in the essay on Barthes her handle for reading Sontag now: "[Sontag writes:] 'Along with the backward look of grief comes the awareness that confers upon his large, chronically mutating body of writing, as on all major work, its retroactive completeness.' What Sontag says of Barthes's oeuvre has already begun to apply to her own. It becomes possible to see more clearly connections among beginnings and endings, lines of force, contradictions, preoccupations and desires: where the stress falls" (Miller 833). Miller thus rounds off the critical interweaving by using what Sontag writes about Barthes to write about Sontag; the essay on Barthes becomes the matrix par excellence of the several levels of critical fidelity that are in operation here.

It is tempting to view this hyper-reflexivity which interweaves critics and criticism as illustrative, precisely, of the conception of criticism which comes into play when the critic is conceived as artist. If criticism itself is to be taken as the object of study, then criticism is understood as a "primary language" and so the hierarchy of literature and criticism is nullified, making way for an inexhaustible regress into further criticism. This idea of the conception of criticism as art as a gateway to the proliferation of meaning is, of course, at the heart of Wilde's "The Critic as Artist:"
 I would say that the highest Criticism, being the purest form of
 personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation, as
 it has least reference to any standard external to itself, and is,
 in fact, its own reason for existing. [...] [It is] the beholder
 who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it
 marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so
 that it becomes a vital portion of our lives ... (121-3)


Barthes partially rearticulates this point in the 1963 preface to his Critical Essays, when he writes that "the meaning of a work (or of a text) cannot be created by the work alone; the author never produces anything but presumptions of meaning, forms, and it is the world which fills them." He adds that "the critic is a writer. Which is a supposition of being, not of value; the critic does not ask to be conceded a 'vision' or a 'style,' but only to be granted the right to a certain discourse, which is indirect discourse" (xi-xii). (8) Wilde and Barthes advocate the recognition of a more broadly-conceived criticism, such that it would be understood that criticism's domain is vital and indeed infinite; their images of criticism as the eternal filler-in of meanings make this clear. In making these claims, they remain, explicitly and proudly, within criticism. Sontag, when she urges the conception of the critic as artist in her writings on Barthes, moves outward from the domain of criticism, toward what is considered "primary" literature; indeed, this move constitutes an important basis for her defence of Barthes. In "Remembering Barthes," she writes that Barthes's "most wonderful books--Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover's Discourse--are themselves triumphs of modernist fiction in that tradition inaugurated by Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge." (9) This evaluation bespeaks a subjacent-and unacknowledged--reinstating of the primary/secondary hierarchy of literature and criticism, which seems problematic insofar as it has the effect of neutralising Barthes's unparalleled experimentalism and energy within the domain of criticism itself. (10) Sontag's intention in designating Barthes as litterateur can perhaps be seen as an act of generosity made by a critic who, for her own part, wishes to be remembered as a writer: Miller avers that while "Barthes wanted to be a novelist, Sontag was one, and wanted to be remembered above all as a novelist" (833). Whether or not this putative concern for her own legacy influences her typification of Barthes's writing cannot be decided; what remains, indisputably, is Sontag's stern resolution to recuperate the critic for the domain of literature.

Sontag's writing on Barthes, in both the obituary "Remembering Barthes" and the longer essay, "Writing Itself," can be summarised as being governed by two defining orientations. The principal orientation, as already mentioned, is that which determines Barthes as an aesthete. Linked to this and attendant upon the definition of the critic as artist is the praise of the successful generic blurring operative in Barthes's later writing, which is seen as symptomatic of literary modernism. This brings us to Sontag's second orientation: subtending the championing of the critic as artist, and pulling slightly in the opposite direction, is the implicit valorisation of literature at the expense of other genres of writing. This movement seems to rob Barthes of his sociological, historiographical, biographical and analytical teeth. In short, the critic as artist, in Sontag's characterisation, is necessarily diminished as a critic, for, as Alec McHoul and David Wills put it, Sontag's Barthes is "a uniquely creative subject who existed and worked independently of discursive possibilities in order to produce a unique corpus. By these tactics, Barthes becomes literature, a literature marshalled outside theory" (McHoul and Wills 262, my emphasis). (11)

Both characterisations of Barthes--the critic as artist, and the preeminent litterateur--are deforming. To say as much should not be understood as being pejorative or damning: distortion and projection, as Sontag and Barthes themselves fully realised, are indissociable from the critical act. Sontag's deformation of Barthes is more engaging than most. Her adroit and informed study of her mentor is vibrant with curiosity and affection, and wears its formidable erudition and its familiarity with Barthes's entire output lightly. In fact, the representation of Barthes and his work given in "Writing Itself" is executed with such skill as to be read as a piece of ingenious critical synthesis, and, simultaneously, as the axiomatic and lucid account of the only possible Barthes. Its inevitability, in other words, is deceptive. This is why the deformations in question must be examined and assessed. Sontag's essay is of crucial importance within the context from which it arose and on which it has subsequently had enormous influence--that is, the reception of Barthes's corpus in Anglo-American literary and academic communities. "Writing Itself" is standard reading for any student of Barthes and shapes in many cases the reader's first or only encounter with Barthes. It is the introduction to a collection (A Barthes Reader) which has never been out of print, a selection of Barthes's work encompassing most of his career. The volume is indispensable for any Anglophone Barthes specialist, not only because of Sontag's introduction, but because it remains the only English text to include Barthes's important Inaugural Lecture at the College de France. Reception of Barthes in the UK and US has been profoundly influenced by the dates and chronology of translations of his work, as Elizabeth Bruss has shown. (12) Bruss points out that "the Anglo-American Barthes" became a creature prey to critical distortion in ways that the organically-evolving French Barthes did not. She demonstrates that the peculiar, unchronological order of Barthes's publications in English had the effect of "defin[ing] Barthes's structuralist writings as the core of all that came before and after them, the goal and crowning achievement of the earlier work, the point of departure for his last (and ostensibly uniform) poststructuralist phase" (Bruss 366). This led, Bruss argues, to endemic readings of Barthes's writerly development as a "story" hinging on his erstwhile adherence to a mode of criticism variously characterised as rigorous or as merely trendy. It is interesting to note that Bruss diagnoses, in the US reception, a stress on Barthes the quasi-scientific structuralist which is diametrically opposed to Sontag's emphasis. Still, Bruss puts her finger on an issue very pertinent to Sontag's work on Barthes when she writes that "[t]he distance, the lag of time, and the loss of context that translation introduces was just enough to turn Barthes into a malleable figure that one could twist into any number of different and aesthetically arresting poses--tragic, heroic, or laconic--at will" (368). Sontag's knowledge of Barthes's French intellectual context prevents her from crassly reproducing the potentially erroneous interpretive commonplaces that Bruss hints at. However, her essay on Barthes is recognizably an example of what Bruss so marvellously describes as an "arresting pose." Its employment of the idea of the aesthete as the essay's unifying principle and its stress on the literary tell a "story"--a very consciously assumed one--of an "imported Barthes," and one convincing enough to inflect, now and for quite some time to come, readings of Barthes. It seems, therefore, imperative to examine Sontag's essay in terms both of its insistences (Barthes the aesthete, the literary figure) and of its omissions (Barthes the combative, the analytical, the tragic).

In "Remembering Barthes," Sontag heralds the characterization of Barthes which she will subsequently develop at greater length in "Writing Itself," when she declares that "Barthes's work, along with that of Wilde and Valery, gives being an aesthete a good name" (par. 10). In the later essay, every phase of Barthes's career is presented as exemplifying the "aesthete attitude." Sontag's grounding terms for what precisely the aesthete attitude consists of are never made entirely clear. The essay seems to operate on the assumption that its readers, being of appropriately catholic taste, will know what is being invoked. For the reader not familiar with Sontag's earlier critical work and affiliations the reliance on aestheticism may well seem slightly arcane; at the very least, it smacks of a decision made before the reader entered the room. However, the mention of Wilde as the acme of "true aesthet[icism]" (xxviii) gives us a clue to what is at stake. The parallel between Wilde and Barthes is present throughout the essay, and the terms in which Barthes is lauded are often, as already mentioned, those which either were inaugurated by, or are generally used to designate, Wilde (the critic as artist, the aphorist, the professor of taste, and so on).

"Writing Itself" proceeds in diagnostic fashion. The most apparent and frequent rhetorical move in the essay takes the following form: a tendency or disposition of Barthes's is described; this is then represented as being either symptomatic of, or a bold extension of, modern aestheticism; finally, the tendency is summed up as having as its ultimate goal the expression and advocation of "pleasure." The frequent references to "pleasure" (and associated terms such as "felicity," "happiness" and so on) over the course of the essay form a progression of sorts toward their recapitulation in the final words of the essay. The stress on "taste" is part of the same cathexis. Thus Barthes is diagnosed, early in the essay, as having, as a function of his existing in "an era of hypersaturated awareness," a "formalist temperament" which is notable for its "reliance on the criterion of taste" and its "refusal to propose anything that does not bear the stamp of subjectivity" (ix). This is, so far, just and incontrovertible. Shortly thereafter, however, the citing of "taste" as the root cause of Barthes's critical poetics, and even of his existence as a critic, begins to seem rather too resolute. Barthes's careful and principled avoidance, in his late works, of any claim to objective authority is, it seems to me, partially evacuated of its ethical seriousness by being referred to wryly as a disavowal of the "as it were, vulgar roles of system-builder, authority, [...] expert, in order to reserve for himself the privileges and freedoms of delectation: the exercise of taste" (x). Similarly, on the following page of the essay, Barthes's conception of criticism is neatly summarised as a question of preference:
 To decide that the point of criticism is to alter and to relocate
 meaning [...] is in effect to base the critic's exertions on an
 enterprise of avoidance, and thereby to recommit criticism [...] to
 the dominion of taste. For it is, finally, the exercise of taste
 which identifies meanings that are familiar; a judgment of taste
 which discriminates such meanings as too familiar; an ideology of
 taste which makes of the familiar something vulgar and facile.
 Barthes's formalism at its most decisive [...] is perhaps best
 understood thus, as the liberating avoidance of the obvious, as an
 immense gesture of good taste. (xi)


Though Sontag clearly does not want us to read this over-literally, the point is sufficiently skillfully fashioned as to be convincing, and this is problematic. For to encapsulate Barthes's critical method as merely a question of preference is a rhetorical manoeuvre which deftly elbows out, or at least obscures, the ethical and political motivation of much of this work. Sontag takes as given Barthes's erudition and formidable analytical attention: her appreciation of these qualities is clear ill "Remembering Barthes." Readers of "Writing Itself" could, however, be forgiven for forming an image of Barthes as a fastidious, jocund fop. The bitter dissatisfaction with the status quo and frequently savage critical articulacy that is apparent in much of Barthes's work is camouflaged by Sontag's emphasis on the elegance and quiddity that exists in the same essays. The selection from Mythologies in A Barthes Reader is telling: as well as the long semiological afterword, "Myth Today," Sontag includes "The World of Wrestling," "The Face of Garbo," "Striptease" and "The Lady of the Camellias." These are all essays of spectacle, of play, with none (or very little) of the severe censoriousness and anger which inform other mythologies such as "Blind and Dumb Criticism," "Billy Graham at the Vel'd'Hiv" or "Poujade and the Intellectuals." The hostility toward what Barthes calls "petit bourgeois stupidity" and to any discourse which dulls the critical faculty is largely absent from Sontag's selection, and this partially facilitates her characterisation.

The point that "much of Barthes's work is devoted to the repertoire of pleasure" (xxii) is not arguable. It is demonstrably true. It is, rather, the lacunae between Sontag's several mentions of "pleasure" that are problematic. They passively allow the retrospective construction of a corpus stripped of its barbs and resistances. It may be that Sontag has chosen the "aesthete attitude" as the guiding principle of her essay not least because it permits a convincing representation of Barthes as well as having the added benefit of eliding the knottier or more tedious aspects of Barthes's cultural specificity (his distaste for a specifically French bourgeoisie; the Picard affair; the particularities of a career at the margins of academia) into a smoother and more transnational artistic development. (13) The characterisation of Barthes as the hedonistic aesthete is, despite its exclusions, well-established and beautifully expressed--and of course it must be recalled that Sontag's writing is unremittingly generous. Her assessment of Barthes foregrounds a sensibility, on both her part and his, that is in every way admirable. Written very soon after Barthes's death, it was natural that this essay should take the form of a tribute. This, as well as the remit of writing an introduction that would provide an overview of Barthes's career, means that "Writing Itself" necessarily involves a unification (the "retroactive completeness" Sontag mentions on her first page) reliant on a conception of the person that Barthes was. Sontag chooses, early in the essay, that her Barthes is to be a literary figure: she dismisses fairly summarily the semiological work that would be less tractable in being bent to this characterisation. This also constitutes a refutation of contemporary readings of Barthes that focus (as Bruss has shown) on his structuralist material. The following statement, given how the essay subsequently unfolds, can therefore be read as a performative: "[W]hen the current enclosure of his reputation by the labels of semiology and structuralism crumbles, as it must, Barthes will appear, I think, as a rather traditional promeneur solitaire, and a greater writer than even his more fervent admirers now claim" (viii).

McHoul and Wills, in an article on Barthes which involves a rather vicious attack on Sontag's essay, object to the unification of the corpus that Sontag deploys. (14) Sontag uses Barthes's death as a starting point and principle of construction, they say. "This is after all the expected product when a great figure dies - some assertions about his mind, his life and times, some attempt to produce generalities about his work. And all because of an accident--the encounter of a body with a van. Why should we be interested in that?" (262). They rail against Sontag for having homogenised Barthes: "[Barthes himself was] careful to avoid a text-by-text unity. In her introduction to the Barthes Reader, Sontag manages just that--to stitch a common thread through the manifold texts which happen to have appeared over the signature 'Roland Barthes.'" McHoul and Wills do not admire Sontag's synthetic skill. In a manner which evidently prides itself on being more faithful to Barthes's mutations and theoretical tenets than they perceive Sontag as being, they condemn her for her one-sided recuperation of Barthes. Asking whether it is fair to say that Barthes, in his later work, "went soft" or left behind the rigours of formalist semiology, they conclude that "Sontag cuts across all such possible discontinuities--for her, Barthes always was soft, the author of genius, the man of feeling and letters. [...] Formalism and deconstructionism, it seems, can finally be put to one side now that the body of Barthes [...] has been consigned." They say that Sontag has failed "to look more than one way," and cite her statement that "Barthes's endeavour was the quintessentially literary one: the writer's organizing under a series of doctrinal auspices, the theory of his own mind." (viii). This statement, they think, is Sontag's way of clearing the ground for her own exclusivist characterisation: "With the authorial mind firmly in place, the problem of the institutional and discursive relations between texts ('doctrinal auspices') can be put to one side. What matters in the end is a uniquely creative subject who existed and worked independently of discursive possibilities in order to produce a unique corpus" (262).

Though McHoul and Wills's criticism of Sontag is probably over-aggressive, their point in highlighting how Sontag represses the importance of "institutional and discursive relations" in Barthes's work is a just one. They show that Sontag's valorisation of a literary Barthes over any other possible Barthes misses precisely those elements that make his gestures toward the literary so daring. It is the insertion of "the literary" into an analytical framework which renders Barthes's writing so generically interesting and allows it to be claimed for a number of domains, and therefore each of these domains must be retained in the mind of Barthes's critic. McHoul and Wills claim that Sontag is unfortunately in thrall to the idea of the literary as "the emotional surrender to the 'work,'" and point out that the field of consideration should be broadened: "What it is better to say is that Barthes risks writing literature--i.e., that there is a deliberate casting of the die, a demand made by the texts that they be permitted to be recuperated by literary ideology. That risk is continually run and, to display it as risk, the possibility of the non-literary [...] must be continually run up against" (275). Sontag does, in fact, put her finger on this "risk" tendency in Barthes, when she writes that he wished "to have a superior relation to assertion: the relation that art has" (xvi). However, frustratingly, this point, like so many others in her essay, topples too simplistically into gratification--"the relation that art has, of pleasure." In truth, the writing is more unsettling than this implies.

Barthes's engagement with literature is, in Sontag's terms, always happy-go-lucky. His characterisation as an aesthete goes hand in hand with Sontag's refusal to allow Barthes a sense of tragedy. This is expressed in "Remembering Barthes" as follows: "[H]e was anything but catastrophe-minded. His work offers no visions of last judgments, civilization's doom, the inevitability of barbarism. It is not even elegiac. Old-fashioned in many of his tastes, he felt nostalgic for the decorum and the literacy of an older bourgeois order. But he found much that reconciled him to the modern" (par. 16). This is expanded upon in "Writing Itself," when Barthes is contrasted with Benjamin and asserted as not being "tormented by the catastrophes of modernity or tempted by its revolutionary illusions[. He] ha[s] a post-tragic sensibility." (xxii). It is puzzling that Sontag can write that Barthes is untormented by catastrophe and has a post-tragic sensibility--for the "post-tragic" is, by definition, neither unmarked nor blithe. Furthermore, her assertion that "the writer who can pronounce" that "the present literary era [i]s 'a moment of gentle apocalypse'" is "happy indeed" seems far off the mark. Surely it is not necessary for Barthes explicitly to formulate resounding Benjaminian phrases decrying the sad inextricability of civilization and barbarism in order still to be accorded what is a recognizably elegiac attitude. The sense of apocalypse is not rendered "happy" by the adjective "gentle" ("douce" in the original); in fact it is that very adjective that makes it elegiac in the sense Sontag denies, as it provides the evidence that Barthes is making a virtue of necessity in the "late moment in culture" (viii) in which he lives. Sontag does indicate that, for Barthes, "literature is already a posthumous affair" (viii), but she does not develop this profoundly important point. For Barthes, the "posthumousness" of literature is not a question of nostalgia limited to what, in Sontag's genteel formulation, is called "the decorum and the literacy of an older bourgeois order." His attitude to literature is characterised by a desperate sense of guilt and tragedy due to his love for it--"I love literature. [...] I love it in a harrowing fashion, at the very moment when it is dying-but precisely: not without complexes." (15) The place of literature--which is gratuitous, "perverse," uninstrumentalisable--in a goal-oriented society is a constant matter of serious concern for Barthes. (16) From his first book, Writing Degree Zero, to his final lecture at the College de France shortly before his death, Barthes is permanently preoccupied with the social and cultural problems attendant on the "division" or "war" of languages, in which literature--or the exclusion of literature--is profoundly imbricated. (17) Separation is defined by Barthes as the writer's tragedy. It seems to me much more vital to couch Barthes's lifelong engagement with literature in these terms--his profound humanist concern for the place of literature in our society--than to sum up, as Sontag does, his "inwardness" as the most "quintessentially literary" thing about him.

"Literature becomes the Utopia of language." This is the final line of Writing Degree Zero. (18) Sontag dubs this a "euphoric formulation" (xxx). But Utopia is not achieved, and the articulation of utopian ideas relies more on pessimism about the present than on "euphoria." The invocation of utopia is, to put it crudely, a coping mechanism. In Barthes's words, "[c]onfronting the present, my present, utopia is a second term that allows the sign to function: discourse about reality becomes possible, I emerge from the aphasia into which I am plunged by the turmoil of everything that upsets me, in this world that is mine." (19) Even if we accept Barthes's encapsulation as an aesthete, we must wonder why Sontag ignores the implications of utopia in the aesthetic model. Sontag concentrates on the "playful" aspects of Barthes's subversion--and of Wilde's, arguably--without drawing attention to the grave dissatisfaction which underpins both Barthes's restlessness and (implicitly) the dialectical thinking inherent to Wilde's arch rhetorical inversions in essays such as "The Critic as Artist."

In her conclusion, however, Sontag partially rescinds her characterisation of a blithe Barthes. Evidently moved by his remarkable late writing, she states that here, it seems, "he has come to the end of something--the enterprise of the critic as artist--and was seeking to become another writer" (xxxv). This quiet reflection on the new kind of writer she perceived Barthes as becoming at the end of his life is nourished by her reflection on Barthes's last book, Camera Lucida. (20) "The subject of photography," she writes, provides Barthes with "[a] great exemption, perhaps release, from the exactions of formalist taste" (xxxv). In this work, of course, Barthes states his determination to throw off the conventions of critical discourse about photographs and photography. Not for him the "orthodox [...] network of essences: material essences (necessitating the physical, chemical, optical study of the Photography), and regional essences (deriving, for instance, from aesthetics, from History, from sociology)" (Camera Lucida 21); rather, the essence (singular) or "noeme" of Photography, for Barthes, can only be found in "myself[,] as mediator for all Photography" (8). It is his emotion only which he will use to found his theory. Sontag cites Barthes's desire, when "looking at certain photographs, [...] to be a primitive, without culture." She sees this as symptomatic of Barthes's tendency ("plaintive [and] desperate"), increasingly apparent in his late writing, to make of his writing an embrace of sorts. Always, she writes, he feels "the need to touch" (xxxv).

It may be modesty which precludes Sontag from pointing out that touch is one of the central tenets of Barthes's approach to photography in Camera Lucida, and that it is an idea which he has taken from her. (21) In On Photography, Sontag writes that "a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. [...] [A] photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects)--a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be" (154). (22) Toward the end of his book, Barthes points out that the concept of the touch of the photograph had allowed him to construct this text, which is a paean to "the photographs which touched me (out of which I had methodically constituted Photography itself)" (116). That the verb is used in both senses but especially in its physical sense ("toucher" in the French means both to touch and to affect) is apparrent when we read, earlier in the text, his beautiful reflection on Sontag's point:
 [T]he photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch
 me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links
 the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though
 impalpable, is here a carnal medium. [...] What matters to me is
 [...] the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its
 own rays and not with a superadded light. (Hence the Winter Garden
 Photograph, however pale, is for me the treasury of rays which
 emanated from my mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her
 dress, her gaze, on that day). (80-82).


Thus we see that Barthes, profoundly moved by Sontag's formulation, places the touch of light, the notion of which she has made him aware, at the core of his study of photography: "It is a mistake to associate Photography, by reason of its technical origins, with the notion of a dark passage (camera obscura). It is camera lucida that we should say ..." (Camera Lucida 106). He is touched as he looks, and this touch founds his text, and his view of photography as what Sontag calls "a realm of pure haunted spectatorship" ("Writing Itself" xxix).

Sontag remarks that "[i]n the account of photography given in Camera Lucida there are hardly any photographers--the subject is photographs (treated virtually as found objects)" (ibid.). Camera Lucida, a reflection on certain photographs intensely informed by the focus on the puncture-the detail which, by definition, is personal and inarticulable--is, in many respects, the opposite, so to speak, of On Photography, which contains no photograph but many photographers, and is preoccupied by what Barthes would call the studium. Barthes's concern is with the private, and Sontag's with the collective, and with the sometimes worrisome role of photographs in the world. Yet Barthes and Sontag, as writers on photography, find their overlap there as they do in other areas of their writing. The concluding section of Camera Lucida involves, for the first and only time in that text, a concerned meditation on the status and power of the photographic image, which, though untagged this time, is again drawn from Sontag, and inflected by her moral concerns as so powerfully expressed in On Photography. This could be written by either of them: "Pleasure [now] passes through the image: here is the great mutation. Such a reversal necessarily raises the ethical question: not that the image is immoral, irreligious, or diabolic [...] but because, when generalized, it completely derealizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it" (Camera Lucida 118). Barthes continues, in what is almost a direct quotation from On Photograph#, "[w]hat characterizes the so-called advanced societies is that they today consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs; they are therefore more liberal, less fanatical, but also more 'false' (less 'authentic.')" (23) Now and then, he adds, we might hear a cry--similar to Sontag's call for an "ecology of images"--which would say "let us abolish the images, let us save immediate Desire (desire without mediation)" (ibid.).

The Barthes of the earlier, semiological writing on photography incisively critiques mass-produced images, photographs "in the world." These essays on photography, "th[at] most social of institutions," (24) seem closer to Sontag's concerns about photography than the introspective Camera Lucida. Sontag includes, in A Barthes Reader, "The Photographic Message" (1961), with its deft analyses of myth and cultural coding as present in the press photograph. Perhaps strangely, she omits the famous deconstruction of the Panzani pasta advertisement in "Rhetoric of the Image" (1964). Her inclusion of "The Third Meaning" (1970), the eponymous focus of which prefigures the notion of the puncture, is indicative, perhaps, of a belief that Camera Lucida is the logical endpoint of Barthes's writings on photography. In his late writing, she points out, "Barthes more and more entertained an idea of writing which resembles the mystical idea of kenosis, emptying out" ("Writing Itself" xxxvi). Barthes's idea of looking "empties out" too, as she realises; in the sphere of the private photograph, he cannot interpret the image as he had in the earlier work: "[N]o culture will help me utter this suffering which I experience entirely on the level of the image's finitude (this is why, despite its codes, I cannot read a photograph): the Photograph--my Photograph--is without culture: when it is painful, nothing in it can transform grief into mourning" (Camera Lucida 90). His previous writings on photography were steps toward this astounded looking, which he speaks of in terms of "madness" and love. Looking at this looking, Sontag writes that "Barthes's temperament, style, sensibility, had run its course." This writer's trajectory, she adds, can tell us more, "with more grace and poignancy and with far greater intellectual power than that of any other contemporary," about how we can look, experience, "read the world; and surviv[e] in it" ("Writing Itself" xxxvi).

The final paragraphs of "Writing Itself" are noticeably more vague than the rest of the essay, and, in their invocations of "absence," "depersonalization" and "spiritual strivings," can be seen as offering a space to the writer Sontag feels Barthes was on the way to becoming. She allows that he surpasses "his aesthete's position'--which she has so trenchantly outlined--in the end "There was an emergence of a vision of 'wisdom' [...]: skeptical of dogmatisms, conscientious about gratification, wistfully attached to utopian ideals" (xxxvi). Here she reclaims a sense of pathos (not to be understood pejoratively) and seriousness which has been conspicuously absent from the representation of Barthes the aesthete Engaging, persuasive and thought-provoking as that representation has been, it seems suitable that Sontag abjures it at the last, just as she says, within the terms of her own argument, that Barthes does. The formal sleight-of-hand at the end of "Writing Itself" makes it seem that the Barthes for whom Sontag grieves, and her own written tribute to him, converge in soundless unison: "It is the point at which the aesthete's view self-destructs: what follows is either silence--or becoming something else" (xxxvi).

Notes

(1) See "The Salmagundi Interview" [1975], The Susan Sontag Reader. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. 329-46.

(2) "The longest [essay], and the one Sontag is most proud of, is on Roland Barthes: '["Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes" is] the single most ambitious essay in the whole collection [Where the Stress Falls] and the one that took me longest to write,' she says" ("The Risk Taker," The Guardian (Review section), Jan. 19. 2002. <http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments /politicsphilosophyandsociety/ story/0,,635799,00.html> Accessed 15 April 2006. "Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes" is the preface to A Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (London: Cape, 1982). vii-xxxvi.

(3) Brigitte Peucker, "Looking and Touching: Spectacle and Collection in Sontag's Volcano Lover." The Yale Journal of Criticism 11.1 (Spring 1998): 159-165.

(4) Nancy K. Miller, "Regarding Susan Sontag." PMLA 120.3 (May 2005): 828-33.

(5) Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist." Plays, Prose Writings and Poems. Ed. Anthony Fothergill. (London: Everyman, 1996): 97-163.

(6) Lisa Levy, "Critical Intimacy: Comparing the Paradoxical Obituaries of Susan Sontag." Believer Magazine, April 2006. <http://www.believermag.com/issues/ 200604/?read=article_levy> Accessed 15 April 2006. Par. 28.

(7) Conversations with Susan Sontag, ed. Leland Poague. Jackson: U Mississippi P, 1995. 208.

(8) Roland Barthes, "Preface," Critical Essays. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1972. xi-xxi.

(9) Susan Sontag, "Remembering Barthes." The New York Review of Books 27.8 (May 15 1980): no page; paragraph 12.

(10) It is worth noting that the determination to have Barthes canonised as a "novelist" is a recurrent and tenacious topos in studies of Barthes, especially those by French authors. For a representative example of the characterisation of Barthes as romancier manque, see the introduction to Marielle Mace and Alexandre Gefen's collection, Barthes, au lieu du roman (Paris: Desjonqueres/Nota Bene, 2002): 9-12.

(11) Alec McHoul and David Wills, "Bar S B R H S Barthes the Late(r) Barthes Constituting Fragmenting Subjects." Boundary 2, 14.1/2 (1985-6): 261-78.

(12) See Elizabeth Bruss, Beautiful Theories: The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982, 365-9. As well as the perspicuous section on Barthes, this book also contains an excellent chapter on Sontag (203-80), and Bruss makes some interesting parallels between the two critics' work (286-7, 467, 472).

(13) This is not to say that Sontag misrepresents or ignores Barthes's Frenchness. The essay deals ably with the French context, though, with the exception of the discussion of Sartre (pp. xix-xx), Sontag does not go into any detail on Barthes's intellectual contemporaries. Rather, she refers to French authors further back in time; these are usually subsumed into the "aesthetic" filiation.

(14) See endnote 11 above.

(15) "Deliberation," A Barthes Reader, 493.

(16) See Terry Eagleton's excellent formulation of this point in Literary Theory, when he discusses Writing Degree Zero: "Writing turns in on itself in a profound act of narcissism, but always troubled and overshadowed by the social guilt of its own uselessness [...]. There is no doubt that the 'guilt' of which Barthes speaks is the guilt of the institution of Literature itself--an institution which, as he comments, testifies to the division of languages and the division of classes. To write in a 'literary' way, in modern society, is inevitably to collude with such divisiveness." Literary Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996): 122.

(17) Sontag is wrong to say that Barthes "never mentions the word 'war'" (xxii). "The War of Languages" is the title of a 1973 article dealing forcefully with the problem of the division of languages; here we see Barthes making a concerted effort to valorise literature as being essential, and not simply enjoyable, because it alone manages to overcome the division of language by mixing diverse sociolects and discourses. This is also the central argument of the Inaugural Lecture. This point is never separable from a certain sense of anxiety for the fate of literature.

(18) Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, introd. Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.

(19) Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (New York: Farrar, 1977. Trans. Richard Howard), 76. This is the quotation used by Diana Knight as an epigraph in her Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)--an excellent study of the importance of utopia as "the meeting point of [Barthes's] lifelong concern with history, language, literature, sexuality and the organization of everyday life" (2).

(20) Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 2000.

(21) On Photography, published in 1977, appeared in French translation in 1979 (La Photographie. Paris: Seuil, 1979). Barthes had read it before beginning the composition of Camera Lucida in April 1979. The presence of Sontag's work and many other theoretical intertexts is unfortunately played down in the English edition of Camera Lucida: the translator, Richard Howard, chose to omit Barthes's list of bibliographical references to critical works, photographic journals and other more idiosyncratic texts. The French text contains Barthes's margin notes which indicate the writer to whose ideas he is referring at any given moment (Sontag, for example), as well as page references, which link to the works cited in the bibliography. In the English, these notes are absent, with the writer's name usually (but not always) subsumed without references into the body text instead. Also missing from the English text is the index of cited photographers. The status of Barthes's work as part, if only tangentially, of the generalised theoretical body of discourse on photography, is, it seems to me, damaged by this cutting of the scholarly apparatus.

(22) Sontag, On Photography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979).

(23) Compare Sontag, On Photography: "A capitalist society requires a culture based on images [...] The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images" (178-9).

(24) "The Photographic Message," A Barthes Reader 210.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Post Script, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes
Author:O'Meara, Lucy
Publication:Post Script
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:7319
Previous Article:The ethics of seeing: Susan Sontag and visual culture studies.
Next Article:The photographic imagination: Sontag and Benjamin (1).
Topics:


Related Articles
The Bookforum question.
Susan Sontag and the criticism of cinema's modernity: an introduction.
Putting her body on the line: the critical acts of Susan Sontag, Part I.
Putting her body on the line: the critical acts of Susan Sontag, Part 2.
Sontag's erotics of film style: between meaning and presence.
Approaching the cinema of silence.
Sontag and cinephilia.
Sontag, Bresson, and the unfixable.
The photographic imagination: Sontag and Benjamin (1).
Some notes on Antonioni and others.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters