Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Robinson Crusoe a Venir: Gertrude Stein and Roland Barthes

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Robinson Crusoe a Venir: Gertrude Stein and Roland Barthes

Article excerpt

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(Arthur Rimbaud)

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is a novel that has been rediscovered and reinterpreted through successive generations and periods; a variety of artists including Michel Tournier, J.M. Coetzee, J.G. Ballard, Franz Kafka and Paul Valery, to name but a few, have been captivated by the story of Robinson Crusoe. It is a novel of transhistorical persistence, capable of infinitely diverse applications. In this paper I want to reveal the seductiveness that Defoe's story had in two unrecognised instances: Gertrude Stein invokes Defoe's novel at the end of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and throughout Roland Barthes' oeuvre one finds references to Robinson Crusoe. In My Debt to Books Stein describes herself as `very young' when she read the first books that she mentions on this occasion, Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe; and when she goes on to describe the experience of rereading a book that she happened to find "on the quays the other day," it is none other than The Swiss Family Robinson. In contrast to this seemingly obvious relation of Stein to Crusoe, it might seem a very unusual and rather eccentric idea to discuss Roland Barthes' rewriting of Robinson Crusoe, since Barthes never actually wrote a rewriting or indeed any novel at all. Yet, strange as it might seem, there are several reasons why I want to discuss this never-written rewriting.

Roland Barthes: Art as Bricolage

In his Inaugural Lecture to the College de France, Barthes described himself as a "fellow of doubtful nature, whose every attribute is somehow challenged by its opposite." (1) What Barthes has written often derives from a moved, uncertain, hesitant form, both fictive and intellectual: "I must admit that I have produced only essays, an ambiguous genre in which analysis vies with writing." (2) The question is how are we to interpret the self-deprecating negative definition of the essay as `only'? Michele Richman writes that "according to one recent assessment, the marketplace has demoted [the essay] to an even lower commercial value than poetry." (3) Since the essay is defined neither as system not as dissertation, one is necessarily led to the invention of a new economy of text and to the reinterpretation of the idea of the `work'. No other genre ever raised so many theoretical problems concerning the origin and the definition of its form: an atopic genre or, more precisely, an eccentric one insofar as it seems to flirt with all the genres without ever letting itself be pinned down. The essay is a melange of genres and the most modern characteristic is its patchwork of quotations. This helps us to appreciate the paradox of the essay as `only', precisely because it is an open-ended, interminable writing machine. It is only with our recognition of the modern conception of text and subject, of reading and writing, and the dissatisfaction with the confines of the critical essay, that the essay now begins to enter theoretically the history of literature. With Barthes, the essay makes its entry into the history of literature as a `reflective text', one which goes to the extreme of destroying its own discursive category. Barthes formed modifications along the analysis/ writing axis, the search for the scriptible may well be the ultimate goal of all Barthes' readings. Moreover, to become the scriptible may even be the goal of Barthes' own writing; if there exists an underlying unity to the writings of Barthes, it lies in the secret ambition of bringing together in one writing movement, in a single text, modes of discourse that had previously been separated: that of the ecrivain and that of the ecrivant and also that of the producer of the text and its user. Instead of a finished novel, what commands our attention now is a report on the problematic and critical process of the novel: of the one in the process of being written, but also the process of the novel in general. …

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