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Barthes - Textual Analysis of a Tale by Edgar Poe

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

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Published by: metallicauricelio on Feb 05, 2010
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06/27/2014

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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 PoeRoland BarthesTranslated by Donald G. MarshallUniversity of Iowa
This essay is the third in our current series of translations sampling contemporaryEuropean responses to Poe (see
 Poe Studies,
9 [1976], 1-6, 33-39). "Analyse textuelled'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 NoteI 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 hasmore 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 heatedcontroversy, 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 HautesEtudes, he remains essentially a man of letters, rather than an academic. With immensecuriosity and immense style, he combines an admirable capacity for and ability tocommunicate a sympathetic pleasure in texts. Any French critic worth his salt writes onPoe 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 andlively intelligence may suspect a deeper affinity (and Barthes admits his unconsciousmay 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 RomanJakobson and Emile Benveniste, from philosophers as different as Jacques Derrida andJ. L. Austin, and from a range of disciplines including psychoanalysis, medicinemathematics, and classical rhetoric. As with Poe, the erudition is aimed at an
effect:
inBarthes' case, pleasure. This idea has figured in his critical chinking from the beginningand takes stage center in
The Pleasure of the Text 
(1973) . We should remember, Ithink, 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 thosevastly intricate conventions of description which help the love-struck poet concentrateintently 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 doublesun of semiotics and psychoanalysis. Certainly, the true philologist's devotion to detailis directly proportionate to his passion for the text. The reader in a hurry may find thisfrustrating, but to the text's true lover it is meat and drink.
 
Poe was similarly fascinated with detail: the "Marginalia" on punctuation were notwritten merely to fill space. Such fascination is, in fact, the mark of the artist. No oneever wrote a poem or novel vaguely. Poe may be the earliest of American authors whoconfounds our distinction between critical intelligence and creative imagination. Heinsisted his writings were not produced in an unconscious trance of inspiration, butresulted if anything from a hypertrophy of self-consciousness. Barthes similarly arguesthat 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 transcribesPoe'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 itto the coherence of his own thought. Barthes' commentary is interlinear: he writes hisreading "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 mosteminent poets." Barthes locates the borrowing in "codes." These are structuredcollections 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 whichrouse or satisfy the reader's interest (code of the "Engima"); sentences, phrases, or words which resonate with symbolic overtones; those which draw on particulaknowledge ("cultural code"); or those which shape the implicit relation of narrator toreader ("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 inspeaking; 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. Sowith the codes of mass culture, of fashion, and of literature. Barthes' criticism aims tocatch the fleeting moment of reading, when the actual text meshes with the already-constituted 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 doesnot 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 andappreciate his subtle variations on them. Consider the essay's final observation: writingoccurs when we can no longer say exactly who speaks, but only that "there begins tospeak." In French, the phrase is
ca commence a parler. "C 
a" translates Freud's "id."Implicitly, it is the unconscious which speaks in writing. But the codes too areunconscious -- are the unconscious. (In translating, I tried to suggest "Here beginneth . . . ," the formula that introduces liturgical readings.) Thus a version of whatwe recognize as the "intentional fallacy" becomes for Barthes (as for recent Frenchcriticism generally) not just a negative principle ("do not inquire into the author'smind"), 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 hermeticgame 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. Heimmensely 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 bemidwife to your own speaking. Barthes' eminence among recent French critics is due inlarge part to the fact that however much or little one may know about the specializedfields 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 thecontinuous expansion and supplement of critical reading and writing, rather than thefixed reproduction of the "correct" reading.A final word about the translation. I have tried to be accurate, but have sometimesyielded 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 aquotation 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, andassumed Barthes did not use "signifiant" because that word had already become atechnical 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 betweenthe English active and passive. When, for example, Barthes says the text "constructsitself," he should be understood in this "middle" voice.D. G. M. [column 2:]Textual AnalysisStructural analysis of narrative is currency in the process of being fully worked out. Allthe 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 maintrends. According to the first, analysis, confronting all the narratives in the world, triesto 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 interms of deviations. According to the second trend, the narrative is immediatelysubsumed (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 theend), 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 articulated with society, History, not along paths fixed in meaning, butcitational. It is necessary, then, in a certain manner, to distinguish
 structural analysis
from
textual analysis,
though I do not here wish to declare them antagonistic. Structuralanalysis properly so called is especially applicable to oral narrative (to myth). Textualanalysis, which I will try to practice in the following pages, is applicable exclusively towritten narrative."Textual analysis does not try to
describe
the structure of a work. It does not aim torecord a structure, but rather to produce a moving structuration of the text (astructuration which displaces itself from reader to reader throughout the length of History). It aims to remain within the signifying volume of the work, within its
 signifying.
Textual analysis does not seek to know what determines a text (what brings

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