Saturday, April 12, 2008

We lack jouissance

A few weeks ago, I questioned the appropriateness of Leon Wieseltier's preface to the new edition of Reflections, a collection of essays by Walter Benjamin. In the offending passage I quoted from, there was a small fragment with which, on its own, I must admit some sympathy. This is when he writes: "I confess that there are many pages of Benjamin that I do not understand . . ." Unfortunately, he completes this thought with ". . . in which the discourse seems to be dictating itself, and no direction is clear", which seems, again, designed to exert undue influence on the reader approaching Benjamin for the first time.

Nevertheless, I also confess that there have been many pages of Benjamin that I have not understood, though I am not so eager to assign the blame to Benjamin. It's possible that many of his pages, which often amount to sketches or fragmentary thoughts, are less explicable to me because, in fact, they are incomplete and were not intended for publication. Perhaps he simply hadn't completed the work necessary to make himself more clear, either because he didn't have time, or because he gave up on the item in question. But the truth is, I have some of the same problems with parts of essays that are clearly finished and were published during Benjamin's lifetime, so this provisional explanation doesn't satisfy me. I've written here before about my experiences reading Benjamin, describing a "vertiginous feeling" I have while doing so. While there are great moments of lucidity, when it seems as if complex ideas suddenly come into focus, the fact remains that I often literally don't know what the words on the page are supposed to signify. I have experienced similar problems with other critics. I'm thinking now of Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot. I have great difficulty understanding what they're talking about. For the most part, the words look like words I should understand, but the sense often eludes me. It takes me several passes before I am able to decide what is being said in a given passage.

What is the problem? Are these writers simply obscure? Is it all gibberish? I think there are a few problems. First, note that each of these three writers wrote in a language other than English--Benjamin in German, Barthes and Blanchot in French. I read neither German nor French, which means that I am, by necessity, reading these writers in translation. So something is lost, something which perhaps makes it difficult for me, at least, to access these writings. Richard Howard writes in his preface to Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text:
. . . the French have a vocabulary of eroticism, an amorous discourse which smells neither of the laboratory nor of the sewer, which just--attentively, scrupulously--puts the facts. In English, we have either the coarse or the clinical, and by tradition our words for our pleasures, even for the intimate parts of our bodies where we may take those pleasures, come awkwardly when they come at all. So that if we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take--the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its most abrupt and ruthless pitch--we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French utterance; we lack jouissance and jouir, as Barthes uses them here. The nomenclature of active pleasure fails us. . .
Howard goes on to discuss the solutions translator Richard Miller devised to bridge this gap, but the point here is the gap itself. Is it possible that these texts are simply not to be understood? Obviously this is not an acceptable answer. Others seem to be able to read them, and I consider it the height of presumptuousness to assume that readers are not actually reading, with pleasure or with understanding, what they say they're reading. (Ignoring for the moment the inexplicably popular writer, as well as those times in our lives when, perhaps, we do indeed claim pleasures in order to please others.) Though Miller generally supplies "bliss" for Barthes' jouissance, the latter is a term I've seen used by writers writing in English--one of those terms for which the translated word is simply not sufficient, so the original has entered the target language. Yet for it to do so, a body of readers would have had to understand the term conceptually.

In any event, too many people I respect consider these and other critical thinkers to be not just coherent, but of the utmost importance to them. One such person is Gabriel Josipovici, and if I'm able to profitably read Josipovici's critical essays, why then shouldn't I be able to read Maurice Blanchot's? Of course, Josipovici himself writes in English (and appears to be able to read French and German, not to mention Hebrew), so perhaps this is still the difference, for me? Or maybe that's only part of it.

As I might have expected, Steve Mitchelmore suggests a possible direction. This is only appropriate, since it was through This Space that I first learned of Josipovici. Last week, Steve posted a list of some of his favored texts of literary criticism, texts which he warns "may contain erudite literary argument." One of these is Maurice Blanchot by William Large & Ullrich Haase. (It also includes Michael Wood's wonderful The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, the only book on the list I've read.) In the comments to this post, Steve writes that he recommends the Large & Haase book because "it's a straightforward and memorable intro for English readers mired in English commonsense reading habits." That final phrase "English commonsense reading habits" jumped out at me, as if Steve had been reading my mind as I've been struggling with these issues and writers. (And as such, this book has been immediately added to the wishlist.)

"Commonsense": this word by itself says a lot, doesn't it? I think the idea of "commonsense reading habits" as related to what I was getting at recently in a couple of posts in which I lamented a kind of writing that I called "depressingly utilitarian", which I further identified as primarily Anglo-American. I said that this writing--journalism, columns, opinion pieces, not true essays--means to impart information. And we, as readers, expect usefulness; we expect information. We don't expect to work too much. We resent work. We might be conditioned to shout down someone who appears to be making an issue too "black and white" (usually when we simply disagree: everyone else is always more intractable than we are), but in reality, we have difficulty with nuance; ambiguity bugs us. I mentioned Anglo-American writing, but I can really only vouch for my observations as a middle-class, white American, with a lazy college degree, and a blandly liberal, yet politically conservative, upbringing. We expect writing to speak plain truths--we assume truths are plain. We want the language, in general, to be plain-spoken. If a book cannot be simply opened up and read and grasped by an uninitiated reader, then it must be bullshit ("gibberish"). Writing that is not plain-spoken is difficult and therefore pretentious. People who claim to enjoy supposedly difficult writing are poseurs (or, possibly, elitists). Philosophy is suspect. In my life, I've had more than one person say to me that they had no intention of reading philosophy, because why should someone else's random thoughts on life have any bearing on your own? What makes the philosophers' "opinions" more worthy of consideration than my own? What use could they possibly have? Or, why read philosophy when science has actual answers? (I realize these are gross generalizations and over-simplifications and that plenty of Americans do not subscribe to these attitudes. Forgive me.) My instincts tell me that this problem has to do with the culture of capitalism (and of course it has everything to do with education), but I have neither the time nor the energy to expand on that notion right now. (Having neither time nor energy being intimately related to said culture.)

Ok, I'm all over the map in this post (so it feels), and I'm going to have to come to an unsatisfactory close. Steve's recommendation and the acknowledgment contained in his "commonsense" phrase, these are reminders that some things do require work, pleasure among them. One must learn to read philosophical and critical writing. One must spend time with it (time which may be hard to come by). And those of us used to expecting utilitarian writing, used to a certain kind of reading, may need to teach ourselves how to read differently, better, and may need some assistance in learning how to do so as we approach certain kinds of writing.

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Blogger ClavdiaChauchat said...

I've been a reader for a few months now [ever since Jacob Russell directed me to your post on Proust and The Problems of Writing]. I found this post especially interesting as I take a quite a different approach to reading -- preferring that which seems nonsensical or even opaque. This goes hand-in-hand with my tendency to try and read innocently, though I'm much less successful with that than I'd like.

I wrote recently about a different intention that can and should be found when interacting with philosophy or more difficult reading -- the exploration of the mind's natural wonder and disposition to inquiry.

I also wanted to say hello and to offer encouragement with Proust -- volume 6 makes all the long, convoluted discourse so very worth it.

April 12, 2008 7:21 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

I certainly encounter the attitudes you're describing in my students -- the unwillingness to work to figure a piece of writing out. I think that learning to do the kind of reading you are describing takes a certain amount of maturity and humility -- or maybe self-awareness is a better word. We need to see that that there is so much out there we have little inkling of and then be willing to seek it out. We also need to learn how to deal with uncertainty -- to read on, even if it's not entirely clear what the text says. This isn't a terribly easy thing to do.

April 12, 2008 7:23 PM  
Blogger david e. ford, jr said...

whoa . . . this is an amazingly prescient post for me for a variety of reasons. first of all, i recently read the pleasure of the text for the first time and it was howard's introduction that spurred me to do so. it is a great book because it is somewhat opaque but it is also whimsical in the best possible way.

in any event, the sort of phenomenon you are writing about is maybe sometimes a bit more complicated than it might seem. what i meant to say by this is that there is some writing that is unnecessarily difficult to untangle while at the same time there are ideas for which there is no other way to properly express them than in a technical (read: difficult) fashion. two writers that i admire quite a bit are richard rorty and edmund wilson and one of the reasons i admire them so well is that they are able to explicate fairly complex ideas in a limpid manner. it is almost as though they are confident enough in the validity of their ideas that they see no need to make their presentation unnecessarily convuluted. at the same time, i have been reading a fair amount of derrida of late and not only is some of his writing justifiably difficult to digest, but he also in his writing sort of seems to get to the heart of why language is ambiguous and why for example you might read a sentence in which you completely understand the meaning of each word but still may struggle with the sense of that particular combination of those words.

this also sort of reminds me of this really annoying encounter i had with a guy in a local coffee shop. i was reading the gift of death by derrida and this fellow sits next to me and starts talking to me about his college philosophy class and how he thinks people like derrida may be brilliant but that they contribute nothing to the real world and in fact may even be responsible for the overall decline in morality in our society (whatever this means). i tried for a time to argue my own position in the matter, but every time i would do so, the fellow would remark that he did not disagree with anything i had said, but he still disagreed with me. whatever that means.


April 13, 2008 5:23 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Clavdia - thanks for reading and dropping by. I appreciate the Proust encouragement, though I should say that I already think it's worth it! (Even if I've been having trouble getting going on volume five, but that has more to do with my life than with the book.)

Dorothy - your reference to your students reminds me of something I left out, in part because I wasn't sure how to frame it. I am in my late 30s, working through this stuff largely on my own. One of my pointless regrets (is regret even the right word?), is that when I had time, in my youth, I didn't spend it learning to read. But, I'd have had to already known, at a young age, what I'd be interested in when I was older, in order to be able to plan my coursework. I think this is a major problem with education, though I'm not sure what the solution is. (Another: we are not taught foreign languages until high school, when it is already too late.)

David - thanks for the comment. Are there any particular Rorty or Wilson texts you would recommend? (I have a copy of Wilson's To the Finland Station.)

This is not in reply to any one of you in particular, but in part prompted by your comments: I also wanted to make a point about the precision of these writers. Perhaps they seem opaque to us (me) because the language is actually used in a more precise way than we are used to. In my impatience (impatience learned through reading the sorts of "information" writing I'm trying to describe; also, just impatience bred through the sheer speed of life), I want to be able to absorb the meaning quickly, and not spend time with it, when the precision of the language requires that I spend that time. Does this make sense?

April 13, 2008 1:05 PM  
Blogger david e. ford, jr said...


i haven't read anything by wilson that i haven't found to be worth reading. axel's castle i think is particularly amazing because it was basically the first english language explication of some of the major european modernist writers. wilson is admirable for his ability to take these difficult texts--eliot, joyce, proust et cetera--and crystallize what he thinks the authors are trying to do in a way that is as lucid as the texts themselves often are not. but at the same time, it is not 'dumbed down' in any way. outside of this, the two volumes published by the library of america (criticism of 20s and 30s & criticism of 30s and 40s) both contain wonderful pieces of criticism. and his short story collection (memoirs of hecate county) is also great.

i was actually recently turned on to rorty and the first book i picked up (philosophy & social hope) is a collection of essays that i suppose one might say are written for a general audience and that sort of outline his philosophy, how he got there and what practical applications it has. i just picked up a copy of contingency, irony and solidarity and have just started picking my way through it. his early sort of statement of his philosophy was philosophy and the mirror of nature and though i understand it is worth reading, i also know that rorty himself repudiated some of what he wrote.

if you follow along at all with what poststructuralists like derrida say then the notion of precision in language is something of an illusion. i think that even if a particular text uses language in a more precise way than, say, a wikipedia article, there are almost always multiple senses in which the text can be taken. there certainly is something to your notion of patience--much of what is worth reading requires it.

April 13, 2008 4:42 PM  
Blogger NigelBeale said...

I'm reminded of Keats's Negative Capability here: 'when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.'

I like your point about patience... ironically, I'd say that it is the desire to understand that keeps us working...

April 14, 2008 7:27 AM  
Blogger Jacob said...

Philosophy is more than just opinions. It is a tool like math and is meant to be used in conjunction with other disciplines. It's abstract like math because it presents formulas and such. You have to put to use.

April 14, 2008 12:26 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks for the recommendations, David.

Nigel - oddly enough, I just came across Keats' "negative capability" yesterday... I found it relevant as well.

Jacob - I'm not so sure about your comparison of philosophy with mathematics, but I'm glad you said "Philosophy is more than just opinions". I intentionally left the line about "philosopher's opinions" hanging there: I was hinting at what I see as a widespread problem, wherein everything is reduced to a matter of opinion, each one equally valid.

April 14, 2008 12:41 PM  
OpenID senseabove said...

Ditto David's first sentence, first off, not to mention much of these comments. I recently gave up on the Pleasure of the Text, partly because I felt I was missing something; who knows by what fault— translation, unfamiliarity with references, etc. But I've enjoyed Barthes before, and know others who've enjoyed PotT, so I've the same sentiments as you, Richard. And I've wondered why I enjoy puzzling out Derrida's fascinatingly tangled mess or Bloom's a- and elusiveness, but I'll give up on Barthes or Jameson.

I do think knowing the allusions is a major deciding factor, for me, and part of that is due to my impatience for the meaning. When I'm at least skirtingly familiar with most of the references, as with Bloom, I'm less intimidated about chasing the odd one down or learning something particular about those I know, i.e. it's not too daunting to familiarize myself with The Mental Traveller since I've read Blake before. But when I'm clueless to most of them, be they theoretical background (I'm unsure of reading Jameson because I know so little of Marx, and I've been lead to believe one should know Marx before Jameson) or literary allusions, I find it hard to continue. Of course, this is part of why I enjoy Derrida so much; he makes dense allusions, but his writing often quotes and deals so explicitly with their written language that it's easier to both grasp the point of origin and follow the discussion. The difficult part is simultaneously tracking the contingency of the text, its purported meaning, and the play of its deconstruction. It's a bit like learning to ride a bike, I think, in Derrida's case; he is getting easier to follow the more I read him, but it still takes me a few pages to get going each time I start.

And then there's Rorty. I finished Contingency, Irony, Solidarity not two days ago— he and Don Quixote unfortunately stalled my Proust adventure halfway through volume two— and was full of what you've dubbed "vertiginous feeling" for the most part of reading it. I've skimmed the collection of essays David mentioned before, and based on what I've been told of it, it sounds like a great place to start. But if you can find CIS and not the other, I'd highly recommend it. As David said, Rorty's writing is a pleasure to read, and the preface to CIS makes it sound like an early version of Social Hope, at least in regard to being aimed at a more general audience than philosophy professors. You'd probably enjoy Rorty, based on the problem you just noted in your last comment. That's an attack he defends against in CIS.

April 16, 2008 10:58 PM  

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