Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'I Have Heard of the End of Writing': Kristjana Gunnars and Roland Barthes

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'I Have Heard of the End of Writing': Kristjana Gunnars and Roland Barthes

Article excerpt

The work of Icelandic-Canadian writer Kristjana Gunnars spans the boundaries of genre, resisting attempts to label her as a 'poet', 'novelist', 'memoirist', or 'theorist'. Concerns with the act and limits of writing resonate throughout her career, and that alone would have been enough to interest her in the work of Roland Barthes, but Gunnars also draws on Barthes's work for its relevance to the emotional life. Both her book-length poem-cycle Carnival of Longing (1989) and her memoir on the death of her father, Zero Hour (1991), embark on this project of theorising the relationship of emotion to writing. Their method is compared with Barthes's late books like A Lover's Discourse, offering a taxonomy of love which is not only psychoanalytical or literary but also personal and experiential. Surprisingly, however, these works have more in common with Barthes's much earlier Writing Degree Zero - a more historically specific, explicitly Marxist, and technical text. Gunnars productively (mis)reads and re-appropriates this text, using its discussions of the limits of language and the revolutionary role of the literary avant-garde to explore more personal, affective 'limit conditions'. I will show here what principles Gunnars derives from Barthes, not by way of a universal theory of literature, but a particular one: in processing the intense emotions of love, desire, and grief, a writer finds herself trying to describe and taxonomise these emotions, but in so doing she confronts the same limits of writing Barthes imagines for the avant-garde in Writing Degree Zero.

Roland Barthes's career as literary theorist, semiologist, and cultural commentator spans thirty years and a vast and varied body of essays, and he has become perhaps the most widely read practitioner of poststructuralism or 'French theory'. His polemical 1967 essay 'The Death of the Author' embodies an extreme version of some of these positions, but most of Barthes's work avoids the philosophical academicism of Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault. Indeed, his work has been particularly popular with poets and experimental writers because of its fragmentary, suggestive style, and its refusal to curtail its activities based on the limits of any potential genre - the essay, the (auto)biography, or even the prose poem.1 Gunnars's engagement with Barthes must be placed in the context of her career in cross-genre writing and productive overlap between experimentation and lyric modes. Unlike more overtly experimental writers, who use Barthes to justify their linguistic innovations as such, Gunnars adapts insights from literary theory in her writing about love, melancholy, grief, and other traditional lyric subjects. However, Gunnars is a 'perverse' reader of theory, using it for purposes other than that which it was intended and in innovative ways. She comments on her disorderly reading practices in The Rose Garden (1996), eschewing 'orderly' reading practices for contrary and even hostile ones, irrespective of whether the author - in this case, Marcel Proust - would have 'approved' (p. 6).2 Her experimentalism is of this affective variety, as is most clearly demonstrated in 1989's Carnival of Longing and the texts written around it.

Carnival of Longing is broken up into five cycles of poems which together explore the nature and origins of desire; in this most general way at least, its subject matter lines up with Barthes's in A Lover's Discourse. Some of the poems are blocks of prose; these tend to be focused on reflections on childhood experiences. However, most of the pages are devoted to single poems, conventionally lineated with short lines, which tend to take the form of first-person reflections on the experiences of desire and its writing, addressed to an unnamed 'you'. Whether lineated or prose, within each cycle the poems are not numbered or marked out from one another except by page breaks. The lineated poems follow a particular style: they avoid full stops and capital letters at the beginnings of lines or sentences (although not in the pronoun 'I' and proper nouns). …

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