B/B or S/Z
Roland Barthes: S/Z (Editions du Seuil 1970)
An idle boy that sleeps in Pleasure's lap - Circle of Ralegh
What did poor Balzac do to deserve this kind of treatment? The novella Sarrasine - a stinging parody of early Romantic drama, replete with passionate artists, scheming cardinals, post-Napoleonic greed, the mother of all surprise endings and a full fledged operatic mise en scène that would give Visconti palpitations, and that turns out to be much ado about a castrato - is burdened grace à Barthes with a lugubrious semiological critical apparatus reminiscent of the most absurd Pharisaical commentaries. S/Z is not guaranteed to cure insomnia like Système de la mode, but I wouldn’t take any Nyquil before reading it.
The greatest fault besides tedium in S/Z pervades much semiological cum Marxist analyses of literature and sub-literary social communication. What most tickles Barthes’ clitoris is his unearthing of metalinguistic background messages that he claims to find in hidden signs of normalcy scattered through Balzac’s text. By “normalcy,” of course, Barthes means “normal” heterosexual sexuality. Balzac, you see, is supposed to inter a subtext of acceptable sexuality through the text of S/Z in such a way as to make the conclusion even more shocking. The only problem is Balzac lost his illusions on this subject long ago. In fact, he never had any.
“Normal” sexuality which encompasses Romantic views about a sort of inspired love focusing on an intuitively chosen special individual, such views as were carefully constructed by Rousseau and others to promote sexuality as a way of breaking down class barriers, this normal sexuality is relentlessly displayed by Balzac as intertwined with behavior at odds, to say the least, with the original concept of Romantic love. Balzac depicts Romantic love as an unhealthy obsession in La Duchesse de Langeais where a love as violent and naïve as Sarrasine’s just misses condemning the Duchess to disfigurement and does condemn her to an unexpected monastic existence. One of Balzac’s best jests against essentialism and intuitive insight occurs in this novella where Armand de Montriveau concludes from the very first chords of the religious performance that the organist must be French. And not only French but Parisienne.
An equally unhealthy obsession occurs in Balzac’s other novella about homosexuality, La fille aux yeux d’or whose unexpected ending involves the hero’s sister in a net of lesbian intrigue. As in Sarrasine homosexuality appears as a means of upsetting conventions of Romantic love by the notion that such love can be homosexual. Balzac does not reinforce the normalcy of heterosexual love; rather he depicts in a particularly poor light the very idea of a love centered on a chosen individual. He plays on prejudices about homosexuality to shock the reader, but in the end nothing is normal for Balzac, neither heterosexual nor homosexual love.
Balzac is a particularly poor choice as a writer to unmask simply because his work is a tireless destruction of the Romantic, post-Napoleonic canon. A better choice would have been Jane Austen or D.H. Lawrence both of whom engaged in orgies of self-congratulatory masturbation. Balzac told the world he masturbated, something that a man’s man like Lawrence would die before admitting. Romantic sexuality was only one of many illusions Balzac found in the new post-revolutionary world. He never wavered from undermining the Romantic artist, the inspired individual who reveals some sort of transcendent truth in his work. Poet after poet is exposed as a greedy fraud from Théodore de Sommervieux to the incomparable Lucien de Rubempré whose very name bears a dubious provenance. The tableau of the world of Parisian publishing and journalism is Balzac at his Juvenalian best. One is left with the uneasy feeling that there cannot be such a thing as literature at all.
Balzac’s one sentimental weakness is for the innocent maiden trampled by the forces of Restoration greed. The naiveté of the Balzacian ingénue’s love is itself not entirely healthy for it blinds the maiden to her imminent destruction. A propos of Barthes’ obsession, Cousin Pons and Schmucke share a barely suppressed homosexuality that numbers them among the Augustines and Esthers of the Parisian world.
Ah yes, Barthes. S/Z does compare favorably with those over wrought schoolboy editions of Balzac produced by Larousse and Gallimard. Many of those do have a socially integrating function and do exhibit a number of unspoken assumptions. A critical analysis exposing the manipulative assumptions in textbooks would be a worthwhile activity. But please, just a few paragraphs!