Last week I read Roland Barthe’s 67page essay “The Pleasures of the Text”. Like most of his work, it is dense, and he continually repeats themes, adjusting and adding to the definitions he is working to establish. In other words, this was a difficult 67 pages, and I feel that I need to write about it for my own comprehension. This book defines an explains what Barthes considers to be the pleasure of reading. He does this, not by establishing what makes a “good” text, but by creating two different types of enjoyment: pleasure and bliss. The body of the essay is spent defining these terms.
The first challenge in defining pleasure from bliss comes with the indirect English translation of the term bliss. Pleasure has the direct French cognate with the same meaning, plaisir. However, bliss is translated from the French jouissance, which is defined (according to the first thing that came up on google) as “physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy,”. This is derived from the verb jouir, which is the polite, conversationally acceptable French term for “to orgasm”. The translator writes, “ In English, we have either the coarse of the clinical, and by tradition, our words for our pleasures, even for the intimate parts of our bodies where we may take those pleasures, come awkwardly when they come at all,” (v). The English bliss does not capture what Barthes establishes to be one of the most apparent differences between pleasure and bliss: pleasure is a state, where bliss is an action.
He continues to establish these terms by furthering the binary between bliss and pleasure. They are not different degrees of the same thing, but parallel forces. Barthes writes, “… pleasure and bliss are parallel forces, that they cannot meet, and that between them there is more than a struggle: an incommunication…” (20). And part of the reason for this incommunication is that bliss cannot be expressed in words, while pleasure can.
In the context of literature, there are texts of pleasure and texts of bliss. His preliminary definitions of these are as follows:
Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is liked to a comfortable practice of reading.
Texts of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the test that discomforts…unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions.
He defines texts of pleasure and bliss again in the context of selfhood. Texts of pleasure reinforce our sense of self, the immerse us in what Barthes calls a search for the story of our origin. In short, texts of pleasure put the reader into the “flow” state. They engage, but don’t disturb us; they challenge contemporary ideas, but don’t hit us over the head with their ideology.
The difference established between texts of pleasure and texts of bliss reminds me of the difference between what I will call inclusive texts and exclusive texts in the essay “Invitation and Exclusion” from Louise Gluck’s Proofs and Theories. She creates a binary between texts that are inclusive of the reader, which would be the equivalent to Barthe’s texts of pleasure, and texts that isolate the writer from the reader, roughly the same as texts of bliss. She claims that in inclusive texts, the reader “feels no division” from the writer (114). On the other hand, exclusive texts give the writer power over the reader; they have “no audience capable of appreciating the complexity of the trick,” (121). Inclusive texts connect, but they do not present the “new”, which Barthes establishes as a characteristic of bliss.
Since Barthes rarely used examples I could relate to, I will use different ones. Inclusive texts—texts of pleasure—present ideas, messages, emotions, and ask to be heard. The most literal example of this would have to be Sapphic poetry, which often literally addresses the reader, or at least addresses some god or goddess that we can project ourselves onto. She writes of various forms of eroticism/longing that have been experienced by most people. It makes the reader think—even 2,100 years later—I have felt that too.
listening from close by, to the sweetness of your
voice as you talk, the
sweetness of your laughter: yes, that—I swear it—
sets the heart to shaking inside my breast, since
once I look at you for a moment, I can’t
speak any longer,
but my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a
subtle fire races inside my skin,my
eyes can’t see a thing and a whirring whistle
thrums at my hearing (LP 31 lines 3-12)
On the other hand, American Modernist John Berryman writes texts of bliss that exclude the reader—or, as Gluck states, permit the reader to “overhear” them. For example, in his book Fame and Love (1970), which I will hopefully finish reading over the next few days, the narrator embodies a narcissistic persona. In “Images of Elspeth” (10-11), he describes his affection for (read: attraction to) a woman who prefers to date older rich men. While there may be a universal feeling of desire, the experience of rejection is unique.
But the one who made me wild
was who she let take naked photographs
never showed me but she was proud of.
My love confused confused with after loves
not ever over time did I outgrow.
Solemn, alone my Muse grew taller.
Rejection slips developed signatures,
many thought Berryman was under weigh,
he wasn’t sure himself.
Espeth became two snapshots in his keeping,
with all her damned clothes on. (lines 5-16)
Returning to Barthes and his examples, one of two writers that I have read of a what he considers a text of bliss is Victor Hugo, and Les Miserable hid the plot in hundreds of pages of historical exposition so well that it brought sixteen year old Rachel only boredom—which, he defines, as “bliss seen on the shores of pleasure”, but I define as an obligation (out of pretense) to something that isn’t worth the investment. Anyway the other example he briefly uses is Edgar Allen Poe, and I feel that Poe’s work is a perfect example for what I understand a text of bliss to be.
Barthes uses a passage from “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) as an example of this: “For God’s sake!—quick!—put me to sleep—or, quick—waken me!—quick!—I say to you that I am dead!” (43). Bliss is the unexpected. By looking at elements in this passage, we can understand that. The first and third quick are punctuated with an exclamation point, but the second is not, and none of the new sentences are capitalized. Then the passage ends with the impossible statement: “I say to you that I am dead!”. This can’t help but remind me of the use of repetition in “The Raven”, which I have previously discussed. It does not matter to the meaning of the poem weather the stanza ends with “Nameless here for evermore,”, “Darkness there and nothing more,” or “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’”, but the identical rhythm, the preservation of the /N/ alliteration, and the perfect masculine rhyme of “more” creates a pattern, which is broken almost every time.
In the final few pages, Barthes revises his definition of bliss to be best expressed as, but not limited to, prosody. Bliss is not the meaning of the words, but the texture of the words, the feeling derived from their sounds. He writes (only parenthetical asides were omitted):
[As in film, texts of bliss] capture the sound of speech close up… and make us hear in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence o the human muzzle… to succeed in shifting the signified a great distance and in throwing, so to speak, the anonymous body of the actor into my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss. (67)
Roland Barthes made a brilliant career of analyzing, re-analyzing, and occasionally over-analyzing everything. “The Pleasures of the Text” would be a case of over-analysis. This essay is heavily rooted in Barthes personal experience of literature, boredom, culture, and sex, which he presents as a universal truth about the reading process. I found it interesting and highly valuable as a writer. But by the end of the book, I was mentally quoting an old professor who would say, when we would get sucked so far into discussions that the discussion was no longer about the subject but about modifications of our ideas on the subject: “Well, we beat that one to death.” I closed this book, considering all the revisions of the concepts of pleasure and bliss that he spiraled through, and doing so, I thought to myself: wow, he really beat that one to death. Wow, so did I.