Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text describes the relationship between the reader and the writer in terms of the paradox a writer must coerce in creating a narrative that exhibits originality to interest the reader and tangibility so that the reader may understand the signification of the text. Barthes states that in writing he, the writer, must “seek out the reader without knowing where he is”(Barthes 4). Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son epitomizes the paradox encountered by Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text.
In writing, the writer must ascertain credibility over the reader in order to attempt to find the reader through the text. Barthes attempts this seductive control by initially writing in the first person narrative and then addressing the reader directly in the second person, switching back and forth throughout the essay. Calvino addresses the reader in the same way. The first sentence of the book speaks to the reader directly; “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” (Calvino 1). Calvino continues to directly engaging the reader, narrating directions in order to prepare for reading the text. In order to achieve coercion of the reader, the writer must incite both pleasure, defined in text as “the text that comes from culture and does not break from it” (Barthes 14), and bliss, defined in text as “the text that imposes a state of loss” (Barthes 14). Barthes calls this “fight for hegemony” by language an attempt to become “doxa” or nature (Barthes 28). This stride to become “doxa” is the “essence of ideology” because as a reader “there is no other solution than to inhabit one of them” (Barthes 29). This ideological overcoming is the “signification” of the text for the reader (Barthes 29). Barthes states that “ideology can only be dominant” (Barthes 32), in that the “book creates the meaning, the meaning creates life” (Barthes 36). This signification begins with sentences which Barthes states that “the sentence is hierarchal” (Barthes 50) and describes writers as sentence thinkers (Barthes 51). Sentences imply “subjections, subordinations, internal reactions” (Barthes 50). In the completion of a sentence, it “runs the risk of being ideological” (Barthes 50), therefore providing signification to the reader. Barthes defines significance as “meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced.” (Barthes 61) This sensual production that Barthes described is achieved through interpretation through the reading. This analysis of text allows the reader to encounter their individuality which Barthes states “makes my body separate from other bodies” (Barthes 62). Barthes states that this is the pleasure of the text, the “value shifted to the sumptuous rank of the signifier” (Barthes 65) The simultaneous existence between bliss and pleasure in text is “”a living contradiction”: a split subject, who simultaneously enjoys, through the text, the consistency of his selfhood and its collapse” (Barthes 21). A text must balance originality for the reader with tangibility in order for it to be understood within the reader’s contextual perspective. Barthes describes this balance as “always and throughout between the exception and the rule.” (Barthes 41) Calvino balances this “living contradiction” by placing the reader in the context of buying the book, stating to the reader “you derive a special pleasure from a just-published book” (Calvino 6) in that the book is new and initially intrigued the reader in their selection to read it, portraying all the other books in the bookshop as superfluous in a personalized context since the reader has not read or bought them yet for many different reasons. By engaging the reader directly through hypothetical yet accessible contexts that the reader may encounter throughout their experience in purchasing the book, Calvino already asserts induction over the signification of his written text to the reader. The reader is instructed that “there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly” (Calvino 8). The second person narrative commandeers respect through directly providing signification for the reader by directing the reader how they should begin reading the book. By confronting the reader as though the book is a book within a book, such as Barthes is a book about books, the writer develops seductive control in asserting their expertise through direct narrative. Calvino warns of this writing ploy, stating to the reader “watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it-a trap” (Calvino 12). Barthes states that “Storytelling is a way of searching for one’s origin” (Barthes 47). Through engaging the reader in first and second person, Calvino draws the reader in authoritatively by inciting interest in the narrator’s origin as well as the reader’s own. Calvino alludes to the metaphor of a traveler who has missed a connection which is the position he puts the reader in by dictating the narrative directly, asserting control over the text and the story it signifies. The reader, the traveler, is hindered from their destination by the narrator’s control over the text as the narrator points out that this missed connection, the “something else” is what “makes it risky to identify with me” (Calvino 15). The narrator informs the reader of the paradox Barthes describes in his discourse, The Pleasure of the Text. According to the narrator the reader “must remain both oblivious and highly alert”, they must “take in the murmuring effect and the effect of the hidden intention.” (Calvino 18). The reader’s role as the signifier of the text is directly addressed by the narrator, affirming the responsibility the reader must exercise in order to interpret the text which is necessary to obtain any pleasure and bliss from reading. The narrator tells the reader that the text inhibits “a sense of concreteness that you perceived from the very first line bears in it also the sense of loss, the vertigo of dissolution” (Calvino 37). This sense of familiarity blended with a sense of loss is what Barthes ascertains where pleasure and bliss spawn from. The repetitive assertion of authority by the narrator to the reader creates bliss (Barthes 41). Barthes describes this excessive “eroticism” on “two opposing conditions: if it is extravagantly repeated, or on the contrary, if it is unexpected, succulent in its newness.” (Barthes 42). Calvino’s narrative exhibits both opposing conditions in order to create bliss for the reader as the first to second person narrative provides a repetitive yet unexpected method of conveying signification through the text.
In Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son a patient in the hospital F*ckhead works tells him “there is a price to be paid for dreaming” (Johnson 117). F*ckhead must come to terms with his drug addictive past in order be able to dream of establishing any hope for a future. Through F*ckheads personal accountability for the narrative of the text, the reader is seduced into the text through an original account of drug addiction which seduces the reader in discovering F*ckhead’s past in order to bear witness to his reconciliation. In order for the reader to conjure any hope for F*ckhead’s future, the narrative provides a historical background inciting relevance to the reader for F*ckhead’s improvement. The dysfunctional behavior of the narrator transitions throughout the text from the incoherent behavior of a drug addict to the resolution of that incoherence. F*ckhead begins the text without any regards to whether he lives or dies, prophesizing the car he has hitchhiked into crashing. He responds to this prophecy by stating “I didn’t care. They said they’d take me all the way.” (Johnson 3) Barthes definition of storytelling as “searching for one’s origin” (Barthes 47) becomes evident as F*ckhead begins to realign himself as a functional member of society. “Jesus’ Son ends with F*ckhead stating ““All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” (Johnson 133) He transitions from not caring whether he died or not to actually caring about his life while acknowledging that he is a weirdo as remnants of his drug addled behavior still manifest themselves through his personality as F*ckhead develops a peeping Tom addiction to an Amish couple and viewing their dull and normal life excites him. As his drug addiction begins controlling his life to lesser extents, he obtains regular employment and “Jesus’ Son” ends with the hope that F*ckhead may transcend his name after all and become something more in his life than just a F*ckhead.
Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son epitomizes the paradox encountered by Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. The reader is seduced into the narrative through the ideological construction of the stories in which conflicts are demonstrated yet not clearly resolved, allowing the reader to lay at the mercy of their own prejudicial interpretations.
- Barthes, Roland, Richard Miller, and Richard Howard. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.
- Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1993. Print.
- Calvino, Italo, and William Weaver. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. London: Vintage, 1998. Print.