Reading the Erotic Body of Roland Barthes's S/Z

By Chang, Chih-Wei | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Reading the Erotic Body of Roland Barthes's S/Z


Chang, Chih-Wei, Papers on Language & Literature


Richard Howard has declared Roland Barthes's S/Z to be "[e]ssentially an erotic meditation" in his preface to the English edition of S/Z (ix). If we read S/Z as essentially "an erotic meditation," might we come into contact with the meditator's libidinal body embedded in the meditation? This seems likely, since in The Pleasure of the Text Barthes writes, "Does the text have human form, is it a figure, an anagram of the body? Yes, but of our erotic body" (17). Thus this essay's point of departure is the enigma of Barthes's erotic body. S/Z is Barthes's writing of his reading of Balzac's Sarrasine, a story about intercultural and intersexual misreading of the body, about the perverse semiosis of the body that problematizes cultural constructions of gender and sexuality. Seizing upon a text that plays with the instability of gender and sexuality to tackle the issue of textuality, Barthes has seemed to invest his erotic body in his reading of Balzac's tale. Reading the "anagram" of Barthes's erotic body as encoded in the interweaving of the text allows us to trace the shifting relations of corporeality, textuality, and sexuality. It also helps us reveal the clashing conflicts among different bodies of signs and record the cacophony of sexualities involved in S/Z.

As far as Barthes's erotic body is concerned, several critics have speculated upon Barthes's erotic practice in writing S/Z. Tom Conley argues that Barthes has turned his eyes away from the ubiquitous letter "X" in Balzac's text to avoid the sight of the female breasts ("X" being an ideogram stereotypically tracing the intersection, though in a flattened form, of two curving spheres). (1) Domna C. Stanton has demonstrated that in referring to the five codes alternatively as five "voices" Barthes is turning the text into an erotic object, braiding the fetishized voices of the maternal text as an incestuous Son (64-66). Noticeably, there has been a critical tendency to see Barthes as suppressing or occulting homoerotic desire, both Barthes's own and the text's, in his reading of Sarrasine (D. A. Miller 8-18; Diana Knight 130-34; Philip Stewart; Katherine Kolb 1570). On the other hand, Robert K. Martin (283-94) and Lawrence R. Schehr (93) present Barthes as inscribing and celebrating homosexuality as a ludic and hedonistic textual strategy. In figuring out the erotic body of Barthes, different critics have whipped up diversified imaginations, or "anagrams," of the same body. I would like to spell out another "anagram" of that body through reading S/Z as a text in which Barthes has attained the pleasure/jouissance of the text. While attempting to attune itself to Barthes's homosexual grain of the voice, this essay nevertheless also tries to lend an ear to other voices of desire sounding in S/Z. In order to experience Barthes's textual jouissance, it is more desirable, instead of concentrating on Barthes's homoerotic voice itself, to listen to its polyphonous/cacophonous interfusion/confusion with other voices of desire in the text. Listening to Barthes's voice in such a fashion will lead us to adventure into the jouissance of S/Z's erotic body, an erotic body in which Barthes has lost his own identity.

Furthermore, it should be stressed that the erotic body of S/Z is a textual body, to be observed in the polymorphous textuality Barthes imagines. Positing an opposition between the readerly text and the writerly text, Barthes sets out to analyze Balzac's narrative, a readerly text by Barthes's definition. But what the reader witnesses in the process of Barthes's analysis is the transformation of Balzac's readerly text into something else, the transformation itself being the bed of birth for the illusive changeling of Barthes's writerly text, not yet born and yet always in waiting to be born. This metamorphosis has an unstable relationship to the story on which Barthes performs his operation of transformation, for whereas Barthes's analysis involves an operation on textuality, Balzac's story involves one on sexuality. …

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