barthes - textual analysis of a tale by edgar poe

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A Roland Barthes´ article about how to analyze an Edgar Allan Tale


Text: Roland Barthes, " Textual Analysis of a Tale By Edgar Poe," from Poe Studies, vol. X, no. 1, June 1977, pp. 1-12.] Textual Analysis of a Tale By Edgar Poe Roland Barthes Translated by Donald G. Marshall University of Iowa This essay is the third in our current series of translations sampling contemporary European responses to Poe (see Poe Studies, 9 [1976], 1-6, 33-39). "Analyse textuelle d'un conte d'Edgar Poe" originally appeared in Semiotique narrative et textsuelle, ed. Claude Charbrol (Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1973), pp. 29-54. The translation is published by permission of the author and Librairie Larousse. Translator's Note I think Poe would have thoroughly enjoyed Roland Barthes' essay. Its elaborate and playful rationalism is quite in the vein of the "Philosophy of Composition." Barthes has more formal schooling (in classics and theater) than Poe had, but is also something of a polymath and autodidact, well-read in linguistics, semiotics, mass culture and psychoanalysis. His structural Freudian study of Racine precipitated a heated controversy, and he has written on authors as diverse as Robbe-Grillet, Brecht, Loyola, Fourier, Sade, and Michelet. Now firmly entrenched at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, he remains essentially a man of letters, rather than an academic. With immense curiosity and immense style, he combines an admirable capacity for and ability to communicate a sympathetic pleasure in texts. Any French critic worth his salt writes on Poe sooner or later (though Barthes says his conscious motive in choosing "Valdemar" was merely pedagogic). But anyone with a sense of Poe's own diverse interests and lively intelligence may suspect a deeper affinity (and Barthes admits his unconscious may have done the choosing). For one thing, Barthes' erudition functions like Poe's "science." This essay deploys -neither superficially nor incorrectly -- terms and notions from the linguists Roman Jakobson and Emile Benveniste, from philosophers as different as Jacques Derrida and J. L. Austin, and from a range of disciplines including psychoanalysis, medicine mathematics, and classical rhetoric. As with Poe, the erudition is aimed at an effect: in Barthes' case, pleasure. This idea has figured in his critical chinking from the beginning and takes stage center in The Pleasure of the Text (1973) . We should remember, I think, that Barthes' work aims at pure pleasure, at playing the game. We might think [column 2:] of the recreation in ingeniously constructed detective stories or of those vastly intricate conventions of description which help the love-struck poet concentrate intently on his (or her) beloved's minutes" particularity. Perhaps Barthes was inspired by classical philology -- this very typography may recall the commentaries and apparatus criticus of textual editing, though these blossom here under the warm double sun of semiotics and psychoanalysis. Certainly, the true philologist's devotion to detail is directly proportionate to his passion for the text. The reader in a hurry may find this frustrating, but to the text's true lover it is meat and drink.

Poe was similarly fascinated with detail: the "Marginalia" on punctuation were not written merely to fill space. Such fascination is, in fact, the mark of the artist. No one ever wrote a poem or novel vaguely. Poe may be the earliest of American authors who confounds our distinction between critical intelligence and creative imagination. He insisted his writings were not produced in an unconscious trance of inspiration, but resulted if anything from a hypertrophy of self-consciousness. Barthes similarly argues that the distinction between writer and critic, between writer and reader, is artificial. The critic reads a writing, but he writes his reading. It is notable that Barthes transcribes Poe's text absolutely literally, line by line, without any of the selection or rearrangement by which a literary critic customarily makes a text fit his interpretation, subordinating it to the coherence of his own thought. Barthes' commentary is interlinear: he writes his reading "between the lines" (the "lexias"). We may object that criticism is of course a parasitic discipline, that the writer's text is already there, a product of original creation. But in the "Longfellow Wars" that followed his charge of plagiarism, Poe himself concluded that the liability to borrowing was in direct ratio to the poetic sentiment: "for the most frequent and palpable plagiarisms, we must search the works of the most eminent poets." Barthes locates the borrowing in "codes." These are structured collections of citations which seem, "intuitively" as we say, to make sense. We could pick out the sentences of a story which carry the plot ("actional" code); those which rouse or satisfy the reader's interest (code of the "Engima"); sentences, phrases, or words which resonate with symbolic overtones; those which draw on particular knowledge ("cultural code"); or those which shape the implicit relation of narrator to reader ("code of communication"). A text "weaves together" all these codes and others, but does not invent them. Similarly, we unconsciously use the grammar of English in speaking; we didn't invent that grammar and cannot consciously change it, though paradoxically, with myriad speakers over long periods of time, [page 2:] it changes. So with the codes of mass culture, of fashion, and of literature. Barthes' criticism aims to catch the fleeting moment of reading, when the actual text meshes with the alreadyconstituted codes according to which we read it and make sense out of it. Barthes would readily admit that his own writings are also constituted by codes; he does not intend to disguise the fact, but to revel in it. If he does not explicitly name other writers he borrows from or alludes to, it is because the game is played, he assumes, before an audience of cognoscenti. He expects them to recognize the references and appreciate his subtle variations on them. Consider the essay's final observation: writing occurs when we can no longer say exactly who speaks, but only that "there begins to speak." In French, the phrase is ca commence a parler. "Ca" translates Freud's "id." Implicitly, it is the unconscious which speaks in writing. But the codes too are unconscious -- are the unconscious. (In translating, I tried to suggest "Here beginneth . . . ," the formula that introduces liturgical readings.) Thus a version of what we recognize as the "intentional fallacy" becomes for Barthes (as for recent French criticism generally) not just a negative principle ("do not inquire into the author's mind"), but a positive theory of the nature and origin of the text. I would not, however, want to leave the impression that Barthes is playing a hermetic game based on the peculiar pleasure of manipulating esoteric knowledge. He neither attempts to lay down the "definitive" interpretation nor to impose himself as an "authority" whose comments must be dutifully registered in all future Poe criticism. He immensely enjoys his reading and finds that dissecting it minutely increases the pleasure. But he is also generous with his own reader. He does not want to tell you what

to think, but rather set your thinking in motion; not put words in your mouth, but be midwife to your own speaking. Barthes' eminence among recent French critics is due in large part to the fact that however much or little one may know about the specialized fields he delights in, his writings are immensely entertaining and thought-provoking. The measure of his success is the productivity of his writing, its desire to nourish the continuous expansion and supplement of critical reading and writing, rather than the fixed reproduction of the "correct" reading. A final word about the translation. I have tried to be accurate, but have sometimes yielded to the temptation to express an idea, as the phrase goes, in the way I think Barthes might have said it had he been writing in English. I have twice added a quotation from Poe's text where Barthes' words were dose to Baudelaire's translation, but the allusion might be lost in the English. "Significance" is throughout translated "signifying." I aimed at the active, verbal sense of the English present participle, and assumed Barthes did not use "signifiant" because that word had already become a technical term in linguistics (normally translated "signifier"). I translate "science" as "systematic knowledge" or "systematic study," because the overtones of the English "science" seem to me quite different. The French reflexive verb is somewhere between the English active and passive. When, for example, Barthes says the text "constructs itself," he should be understood in this "middle" voice. D. G. M. [column 2:] Textual Analysis Structural analysis of narrative is currency in the process of being fully worked out. All the studies have a single scientific origin. semiology or the systematic study of significations. But already (and this is good) they show divergences from each other, according to the critical view each takes of the scientific status of semiology, that is, of its own discourse. These (constructive) divergences can be grouped under two main trends. According to the first, analysis, confronting all the narratives in the world, tries to establish a narrative model (formal, of course), a structure or a grammar of Narrative, beginning from which (once it is found) each particular narrative will be analyzed in terms of deviations. According to the second trend, the narrative is immediately subsumed (at least when it lends itself to being so) beneath the notion of "Text," space, process of significations at work, in a word, signifying (I will return to this word at the end), which one observes not as a finished, closed product, but as a production in process of making itself, "plugged into" ocher texts, other codes (this is intertextuality), thereby artic