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Book Review : Contemplating Language With Barthes and Burgess

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The Rustle of Language by Roland Barthes (Hill & Wang: $25) and But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen? by Anthony Burgess (McGraw-Hill: $24.95)

The titles of these volumes offer immediate clues to what distinguishes these two extraordinary and prolific writers from each other. Roland Barthes, who died in 1980, was a writer of exquisite subtlety and refinement, a writer not unlike Henry James in his unceasing exploration of nuance, though in Barthes’ case the nuance increasingly had to do with the relationship between sense and mind, perception and conception, and Barthes’ writing became less abstract and convoluted as he aged.

There is something passively voluptuous about Barthes’ sensibility; particularly in the last years of his life, he was like those exotic creatures who inhabit the floors of tropical seas, all antennae and cilia, intensely alert and instantaneously responsive to anything the current carries their way. But this image omits Barthes’ diligence, and no one publishes 11 books, 150 essays, and more than 50 introductions and miscellaneous pieces in 15 years by giving in very often to the desire to soak in a hot tub.

Vulnerable, Sad

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The more than two score pieces on language and literature in this collection display a mind that is vivid, powerful, sinuous; they also give us, sometimes in oblique glimpses, a man who is vulnerable, profoundly sad, and, perhaps most characteristically, generous--to Bertolt Brecht, Roman Jakobson, Emile Benveniste, Julia Kristeva, Gerard Genette, Jules Michelet, Marcel Proust, those predecessors and contemporaries who answered most fully his always surging desire with the pleasure of their texts. Perhaps it is time to let Barthes speak for himself, here from the closing paragraph of the title essay, “The Rustle of Language":

“I imagine myself today something like the ancient Greek as Hegel describes him: he interrogated, Hegel says, passionately, uninterruptedly, the rustle of branches, of springs, of winds, in short, the shudder of Nature, in order to perceive in it the design of an intelligence. And I--it is the shudder of meaning I interrogate, listening to the rustle of language, that language which for me, modern man, is my Nature.”

Favorite Readings

As admirable as this interrogation is in the pieces that make up the first two-thirds of the volume, my pleasures came more frequently in the last portion, where the topics become less academic and the severity of interrogation gives way to gentler, less systematic and less mediated responses.

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Of these latter items, I would single out “Reading Brillat-Savarin,” the late 18th, early 19th-Century inventor of modern gastronomy, which offers a multiminded reading of the scientific, social, linguistic, political, physiological, historical and aesthetic significances of this remarkable book.

In this essay, all of Barthes’ learning and imagination is called into play, and the result is that the reader is put in the position of an astonished witness to one encyclopedia reading another--a kind of cybernetic jouissance.

If Barthes’ title hints at someone who is all champagne and souffle, Burgess’ suggests someone who is all stout and mutton--a writer who is bluff, direct, witty and business-like. Indeed, Burgess is among the most fecund of serious 20th-Century writers, having published about 60 books, nearly half of them novels. One could say of Burgess what William Dean Howells once said of himself: he seems more like a corporation than an individual writer.

Burgess’ book consists of nearly 200 reviews, reflections and short essays, one-third of his journalistic writing published over the past seven years in the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, and the Observer. His audience, then, is not primarily academics, and the tone of the piece is buoyant rather than solemn. But if there are pieces titled “Grunts From a Sexist Pig,” “Shmuck,” and “Anal Magic,” and others on travel, film, food, music (Burgess is a composer), the vast bulk of the reviews is devoted to language and to literature, in English and in translation (he is also a translator).

Early in life Burgess was a lecturer in phonetics, and the reviews of dictionaries and other books dealing with slang, “Teenspeech,” translation, the history of language, quotations, “Yidglish,” and linguistics are as professionally precise as they are informative.

Burgess has that rare capacity to clarify the complex without resorting to generalizations. Here is what he says at the end of a lucid review of a book about Chomsky’s contribution to modern linguistics: “Anyone put off by the political overtones of ‘Chomsky’s Revolution,’ remembering that Chomsky is a bit of a Marxist firebrand, might like to consider that there may well be a logical relation between radical politics and generative grammar. Language is not an intellectual construct, a hieratic cultural creation, but the property of the people. Nobody is better than anyone else at it.”

But for me, the most engaging pieces in this collection are those devoted to literary subjects--novels, biographies of novelists, and literary criticism. It is here that one senses the passion of a practitioner contemplating others who create fictions, not as competitors but as co-conspirators in making mere words stand compellingly for a sense of life in all its richness, complexity, and contradictoriness.

Some of the best of these pieces review books about Shakespeare, Joyce, and Hemingway, all of whose lives and works Burgess has studied and written about in separate critical books.

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To review two such collections as these is to be obliged to reflect on the wondrous variousness of language and literature and the people who are ardent about the forms of the human imagination. It is hard to conceive of two writers less alike in experience, philosophical outlook and literary style.

In the end, what distinguishes the sybaritic and pagan Frenchman from the industrious lapsed Irish Catholic is not nearly so important as what characterizes them both: their drive to engage the world, their amorous relation to life. It is as if both Barthes and Burgess use language to express their longing, in Frost’s words, “for weight and strength/To feel the earth as rough/To all (their) length.”


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