08 April 2009

Ez said (Canto XXXVIII)

Canto XXXVIII begins with a quotation from Dante about counterfeiting money. For once the quotation is referenced, suggesting it's important. The rest of the canto is about economics and the arms trade. The thing that strikes me about many of these passages is just how bound they are to their time. Which is weird, because Ez's effort is clearly to yoke different eras and civilisations together in his analysis. Maybe it's just like the way past visions of the future are so often so quickly dated. Focussing on an imagined world, the writer doesn't notice the assumptions implicit in the text, which stand out glaringly to later readers.

Writers/readers. Guess, from the title of this post, what I've been reading. S/Z by Roland Barthes, that's what. I don't think Barthes had much to say about Ez specifically, but in S/Z he looks at the difference between conventional 'realist' writing and modernist writing; he was more concerned with the nouveau roman but I'm sure it can apply at least as well to modernist poetry.

He describes two kinds of text: lisible and scriptible in French. Literally, they mean readable and writeable, although they are unhelpfully translated, normally, as readerly and writerly. I'm reading the book en français, naturellement, so will use the French terms.

A lisible text is one in which the meaning and connotations are closely controlled by the text. Although there may be a certain pluriel or plurality of meaning, the apparent transparency of the text is an illusion. Barthes demonstrates this by an incredibly detailed analysis of 'Sarrasine', a story by Balzac, looking at how it employs various codes to build the meaning, and also showing how it is deeply intertextual - defining beauty, for example, in terms of earlier texts (including artworks). It's a tour de force, even if now it's suffering a bit from the blindness to unconscious assumptions that infects visions of the future. He says that some of the meaning depends upon some shared understandings. Now, about 50 years later, it's becoming clear that at least some of those understandings are time-bound.

By contrast, a writeable text is one that doesn't really exist until a reader constructs it out of the loosely linked raw materials. (This is why I think 'writerly' is a bad translation - it appears to put the writer in the foreground, which is precisely wrong.)

It's a simplistic contrast, as Barthes accepts, and his use of a particularly good text shows it up. A lot of the analysis shows that the reader has a large input into the construction of the meaning, or at least in choosing from the plural understandings that it allows. A work can't last if it allows no scope for the reader to be involved in its construction. I'd suggest there's also a case to be made that a purely writeable text can't last, either.

Anyway, the book has given me some things to think about. Here's one extract (my poor translation) following an unattributed fragment of speech:

It's impossible, here, to attribute to the comment an origin, a point of view. Now this impossibility is one of the means by which the plurality of text grows. The more the origin of a comment is unclear, the more the text is plural. In a modern text, the voices are denied any source: the speech (discours) or better still the language (langage) speaks, and that's all. In a classic text, on the other hand, most statements are sourced; one can identify their father and their owner. Sometimes it's a consciousness (a character or the author), sometimes it's a culture.

Clear relevance here to the unattributed quotations and comments throughout the Cantos. But again, as I've said above, I think there are cultural codes or assumptions embodied in the text, which are now dated and have to be re-learnt.

But is too much plurality a bad thing, Roland, hein?

No comments: