Thursday, March 26, 2009
The Pleasure of the Text
This morning on a very crowded F-train I started reading Roland Barthes The Pleasure of the Text. It's my first time reading it; I was prompted to do so by another book I read this summer, Long Life Cool White, which illuminated Barthes' reliance on constant notebook-ing.
The Pleasure of the Text is fairly straightforward. The basic premise is that reading can be an erotic activity, and when the reader is lost in the act (or the text, depending on how you see it), then there is a catharsis, or climax. Richard Howard, the book's introducer, labels this act of pleasure jouissance, and its accompanying noun he calls bliss (this being the closest word he can think of in English to Barthes' original French). Pretty sexy stuff!
There are, of course, more complex arguments made throughout the book. I haven't finished reading it yet. But I found it intriguing (and convincing) that I immediately thought of blissful moments in my life.
In my backyard there are two maple trees that were just saplings when my parents moved in. They're now quite large, and hang over our back porch. In the summertime, I used to sit outside on the deck reading, and stare up into the leaves. In a way, it was like looking through a chlorophyll filter into the sun.
When my Mom and I spent a week in England, tooling around the Virginia Woolf hot-spots, we took a train down to Cornwall, where her family had spent their summers. It was the most beautiful place I have ever been to date. The time spent with my mother was also absolutely priceless, and helped me to realize how lucky I am to have a parent I can also consider my best friend. We also visited Knole, a Tudor mansion of epic proportions, and the family seat of Vita Sackville West. I can still remember what the scones and tea tasted like in its tea shoppe, even though I had strep throat and could barely swallow.
The way it feels to walk off a stage, body jittery with adrenaline, your shaking water bottle and propensity to smile when someone praises you, the delightful sweat of a job well done. The clear feeling of a throat that's sung its heart out for two hours.
Frequently, if I'm feeling low I'll recall my first scotch on the rocks, at Marlow & Sons, the way the ice clinked against my glass and the flickering candles at the bar. It was one of my boyfriend and I's first dates, and nothing beats the excitement of getting to know someone over a wonderful dinner. That was a year ago. I still feel that anticipation when I'm on my way to see him.
For me, writers who are able to capture moments like these: filled with nostalgia and sense memory (the way things taste, sound, look and feel) are TRUE writers. The most obvious example is Proust's madeleines, but lately, with her name so much in the news, I've been thinking of Plath, and how much her simple descriptions of a rainy night indoors, or the way her curlers set in her hair, her lengthy and somewhat indulgent description of a first date, or her feast of tuna and hard boiled eggs while reading Yeats in her college dorm room reminded me so much of what Barthes means when he describes reading as the ultimate experience.
Just look at the comments on the New York Times post on her legacy: over twelve pages of people up in arms to defend her or drag her name through the mud. If anything, the sheer volume of discussion is enough to warrant the importance of her work.
I'm wondering, what are your blissful moments?
Which writers capture bliss for you?