Books like S/Z: An Essay

S/Z: An Essay

1975, Roland Barthes


I must be honest this was a re-read for me. Barthes's works were pre-eminent when I was navigating my way through university. So encouraged were we to embrace this 'enfant terrible' that I very nearly wrote my PhD on his ideas (in the end it had to be Poe!). Looking back now though there is no doubt that 'The Pleasure of the Text' and 'Death of the Author' and 'S/Z' changed the way that I thought about books: their provenance, the nature of writing, the author and above all the TEXT.The core of S/Z is a textual analysis of Balzac's short novel 'Sarrasine'. The story of 'Sarrasine' concerns the eponymous young sculptor who falls in love with someone he believes is a woman but who turns out to be a castrato. Sarrasine is killed before he can murder his putative lover for his/her deception. To those of us who had been reared on the Leavisite 'Great Tradition' literary appreciation (there goes that word 'literary' again) which looked at whole texts in their moral and social entirety, S/Z was a bolt from the blue - this was not so much an assessment as a dissection of every line of the story. Key to this is the weight and meaning of every word used by the author. This semiotic approach argues that words carry with them hidden signs that go much deeper than accepted definitions and so penetrates the psyches of the individual reader to the extent that he or she ascribes both intended and unintended meaning to a text. In this way an individual reader may play a part in actually constructing the text and its meaning. Thus when an author chooses a particular word he he is sending both a conscious, and maybe, an unconscious sign to the reader. In effect, he has lost control of parts of his writing. The idea, therefore, behind S/Z is a paradigm of Barthes's notion that the author, as a sole conceiver of a text, is no more. Extended literacy in the last 150 years and the interaction of science and other subjects all feed into what can be brought into play. The rise of genre fiction too, is particularly relevant - the readers of ghost stories, for instance, recognise, impute, rationalise and yes, demand certain elements to be present in their chosen subject. Not all structural analysis should follow Barthes's 'reductio ad absurdum', of course, but some of the inferences Barthes draws are resonant today, take this passage when La Zambinella (Sarrasine's 'lover') is confronted by a snake:'he felt her shiver. "What is wrong? You would kill me" he cried, seeing her grow pale, "If I were even an innocentcause of your slightest unhappiness""A snake," she said, pointing to a grass snake which was gliding along a ditch. "I am afraid of those horrid creatures." Sarrasine crushed the snake's head with his heel.'Barthes comments here are interesting: 'the episode of the snake is the element of a proof whose enthymeme (albeit defective) we know: Women are timid; La Zambinella is timid; La Zambinella is a woman.'Leaving aside the irony that La Zambinella is a castrato, the inference from the text, which importantly can be read in reverse too, addresses a condescending attitude to women which is causing much debate currently. The signals emanating from just this one incident in the book is indicative of how Barthes tries to draw out underlying assumptions and prejudices that exist in all words. The words we use, and the context in which they are used, assume a vital importance that often we are unaware of.So these and other books by Barthes, Culler and Derrida established semiotics as a key part of our reception of texts. It has made us much more aware of the fact that a book is saying very much more to us than the author intended or that a superficial reading may imply - we take part in the creation of a work as a vital component, without whom it could not be written. For this legacy and the sheer brilliance and originality of Barthes's reasoning, I award this landmark book five stars.

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