Other Voices, v.1, n.1 (March 1997)
Copyright © 1997 by Stan Barrett, all rights reserved
Amongst academicians and the "educated" generally, very little attention is paid to the practice of necromancy. There is an assumption in these circles, one which no longer need even be stated, seeming self-evident, that this practice has been discredited, and that educated persons have evolved beyond such superstitions. "To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits, / To report the behaviour of the seamonster," etc., etc., " all these are usual / Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press," Eliot writes in "The Dry Salvages" (Collected Poems, section V, lines 1,2 and 12). Eliot's remarks serve as testimony to that intellectual scorn willing to tolerate the existence of such "pastimes" so long as they remain the stuff of intellectually disreputable forums like super-market tabloids or fledgling cable television networks. But alas! Necromancy is not an art whose legacy is so easily dispatched!
Necromancy is a strange word. Derived from the Greek nekromanteia, which itself is a coupling of nekros meaning corpse and manteia meaning divination, its most common current usage is to designate "the practice of communicating with the spirits of the dead in order to predict the future" (American Heritage Dictionary). Setting aside for the moment the ostensible design of necromancy, the word's most peculiar aspect is the twist of logic unspoken in the gap that lies between the word's etymology and its currency; for there is a pronounced difference between an actual dead body serving as the physical basis for prophecy, a kind of communion with corpses where an augur might read a cadaver in the way he or she might read beads or tarot cards, and a communication with what is specifically non-corporeal: spirit. Certainly, the prefix "necro-" in some ways designates death generally, but the physicality of the corpse always hovers behind it (as a specter) -- if this were not so, newspapers might list daily necrologies rather than obituaries. What is it, then, that permits the word "necromancy" its transformative power? How does one move from corpse to spirit, from divination to communication, from body to soul at this too-late moment when the living would cling to the mere idea of a common language with the dead? The word "necromancy" is indicative of the deepest, even ancient, ideological and cultural faith in a specific kind of "meaning": a kind of meaning wholly commensurate with augury and ideas of divine causality, the kind of meaning we sense is expressed when Eliot, so quick to mock the pastime of conversing with spirits, writes in "Little Gidding," "And what the dead had no speech for, when living, / They can tell you, being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living" (Collected Poems, section I, lines 50 - 51). But finally, it is too the same faith in meaning traditional critical practice places in its model for the relationship between author and text. Traditional literary criticism is a brand of necromancy unto itself, and if, as Eliot said in 1961, "Literary criticism is a distinctive activity of the civilized mind" (Selected Prose, title page), it is important to recognize that the civilized mind is a construction that must inevitably have recourse to the most primitive of superstitions.
Given the critical tradition's penchant for divination of authorial intention, it is no wonder that the critic has long been the object of a particular artistic scorn. In his essay Literature and Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre mocks the critic's flight from the living, using as a basis for his characterization this same necromantic quality of traditional criticism. He writes:
The critic lives badly; his wife does not appreciate him as she ought to; his children are ungrateful; the first of the month is hard on him. But it is always possible for him to enter his library, take down a book from the shelf, and open it. It gives off a slight odor of the cellar, and a strange operation begins which he has decided to call reading. From one point of view it is a possession; he lends his body to the dead in order that they may come back to life. And from another point of view it is a contact with the beyond. Indeed, the book is by no means an object; neither is it an act, nor even a thought. Written by a dead man about dead things, it no longer has any place on this earth; it speaks of nothing which interests us directly. (28).
In Sartre's essay, the critic inhabits a necropolis: his cemetery, his library. One begins to understand the artist's instinctive aversion to this querulous bourgeois crypt-keeper whose use for criticism amounts to escapism, an escapism founded upon the mere pretense of inhabiting a privileged space and possessing privileged faculties that permit the author to regain presence.
We are not surprised, then, to see a revolution in critical theory, a movement away from the critic's traditional attitudes, toward a practice ... more in touch with the living. In his self-characterized "essay" S/Z, Roland Barthes seeks this new, living mode of existence for the critic, and explores a new critical method. Oh, to be sure, those suspicious of any hope for criticism will ask in chorus with those allied to the old order, "When, my friend Barthes, did rummaging about in putrefying flesh and dismembering skeletal forms become such a noble and liberating task?" But one should not think Barthes ill-prepared to address this affront. He understands fully the long, theological literary tradition he fights. In S/Z, he writes:
The mastery of meaning, a veritable semiurgism, is a divine attribute, once this meaning is defined as the discharge, the emanation, the spiritual effluvium overflowing from the signified toward the signifier: the author is a god ( his place of origin is the signified ) ; as for the critic, he is the priest whose task is to decipher the Writing of the god. (S/Z, 174)
There is little to be admired in such a representation: authors assume the position of that which they've inevitably labored to overthrow, critics fall in rank and file as ministers for and of an unEarthly world, and the reader (woe be unto the reader) is asked to docilely accept the blessd communion wafer and feel within the critic's cracker ("transparent" critical prose) a transubstantial presence (meaning) that is the intent of the author, body and blood. One quickly recognizes that this model presupposes a substantial difference between "critical" and "literary" text. But, setting this recognition aside, what is the peculiar nature of the "literary" text according to our traditional model that it is simultaneously corporeal and divine? For the book is corporeal, and without the reader, it is barely even that. Of the book "left to itself," Sartre writes, "there remain only ink spots on musty paper" (28 - 9). But in the hands of the critic, this carcass would become the flesh by which the common reader might be guided to a truly spiritual realm. The Writing of the god is not merely the writing of the god, but is also his Son, the Word. The text in such a model is Christ-like. Within this context one may draw two conclusions: first, that any critic who would align him or herself with a new paradigm must be careful that it precludes the possibility of the critic's elevation to that position formerly held by the author, formerly held by god; and second, that in this idea of criticism and judgment, of assessment and usurpation, there is ever a certain politics which must be accounted for and acknowledged, else the impossibility of a new, progressive "model".
As we move through Barthes's S/Z, we know that we are neither in the realm of criticism, nor are we in the realm of traditionally-defined "literary fiction." We see how Barthes eludes traditional categories by moving outside the artist/critic binary, by subsuming this binary, by turning this binary against itself infinitely. We trace with ease Barthes's oscillation between fiction and criticism: there are plots in S/Z ("the 'story's' interest," tensions intrinsic to narrative structure), characters (codes, or Proper-name-less semic fields), suspense (delays in the divulgence of the relationship between S/Z and Sarrasine), and cultural indices (ideas of traditional criticism not the least amongst them). There are too traditional critical approaches to Sarrasine in S/Z, if they tend to be supremely self-conscious in nature. Barthes offers a succinct terminology for and commentary upon this method of oscillation elsewhere in his own corpus:
The Neutral is not an average of active and of passive; rather it is a back-and-forth, an amoral oscillation, in short, one might say, the converse of antinomy.... The Neutral is therefore not the third term--the zero degree--of an opposition which is both semantic and conflictual; it is, at another link of the infinite chain of language, the second term of a new paradigm, of which violence (combat, victory, theater, arrogance) is the primary term. (RB, 132-3)
The question then, is not so much one of how Barthes manages to synthesize criticism and fiction. Though Barthes's text supports the idea of this movement back and forth between the two terms of the artist/critic binary in ways more complex than the mere presentation of literary text and commentary, it does not support the idea of a text which is an harmonious synthesis of opposites. The Christ-like text is a dangerous formulation, and indeed, Barthes notes that the mere synthesis of "two diametrically opposed terms" marks the abolition of difference and the end of meaning (S/Z, 186). Synthesis necrotizes discourse in the same way as the pre-scripted dialogue of a Catechism is meant to function. The reader, then, must wonder at how oscillation sustains what synthesis destroys, and how this critical technique is politically significant.
There is a familiar, ancient, Biblical account that offers a succinct comparison of synthesis and oscillation in critical practice: the story of Christ (our paragon of synthesis) and his confrontation with the Adulteress in the book of John. What a moment for authors and critics alike! The story begins with Christ sitting, teaching those gathered about him, when the Pharisees enter with a woman "caught in adultery". And these Pharisees, these all-but-bourgeois, white-washed sepulchers, as the story goes, would have Christ pass judgment upon her. The text notes, "They were using this question [the question of her fate] as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him" (verse 8:6). At the heart of the Pharisees' trap, that in judging the adulteress Christ will either contradict ancient Hebraic law which requires her death, thereby contradicting God the Father, or he will fail to be merciful, thereby contradicting himself, in any event revealing himself as less than synthetic divinity, is simultaneously a recognition of criticism's political value, and that categorical judgment, like univocal, theological criticism, gives rise to categorical judgment. That the Pharisees demand Christ pass judgment is thus a reflection of their political interest in reclaiming the spiritual authority he had managed to usurp from them. But Christ's interests are twofold: to escape this trap and preserve his authority, and by his judgment, to further the ends of his religious teachings.
The text continues: "But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not" (verse 8:6). If ever there was an image to vex and aid a reader, here we have it: the only recorded instance in the Bible of Christ writing. Who is not curious as to what the finger of God/man carves into the Earth? The overdetermination of this image is almost sublime: the Word carving bodily body into body without disclosing to the reader that which is inscribed. But beyond, Christ resists the political implications of the question at hand, of condemning and judging, not merely through silence, but by the act of producing writing, writing that goes unread, that resists purely in its refusal to acknowledge the presence of speech.
Again, the text: "So when they continued asking him, he lifted himself up, and said unto them, 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.' And again he stooped down and wrote on the ground" (verses 7-8). The movement of stooping and straightening, this oscillation which calls to mind the movements of Barthes's text and his idea of the Neutral, is worthy of special attention, for it is from the stooped position, a position which indicates a conscious disavowal of authority, that Christ writes and teaches, and from his straightened (authoritative) position that he pronounces judgment. And this refusal to judge is certainly a judgment on the other, though it wears the guise of instruction (another face of traditional criticism). It is a political move: Christ evades the trap set by his accusers not so much by refusing to pass judgment on the Adulteress, but rather by judging everyone simultaneously, and eliminating by an implicit universal conviction the pool of all potential judges.
Having arrived at the famous condemnation with which Christ dismisses the Adulteress, we see a link between that old paradigm of violence which Barthes evokes, and which will become so explicitly linked with a masculine aesthetic for theorists like Cixous and Derrida, and Christ's politics which his judgment's victory permits him to advance. The sinner here, quite specifically, is Woman, the Adulteress, a transgressor of sexual mores. The Biblical account continues: "When Jesus had lifted himself up, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, 'Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?' She said, 'No man, Lord.' And Jesus said unto her, 'Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more'" (verses 10 - 11). Without space to gesture beyond recognizing the command to sin no more as a social desire to regulate the body for the preservation of political institutions, as dictate to cease transgressing, to seek absence, to resume the necrophilic existence of marriage, it is sufficient to hold this recognition up vis--vis the observation that Christ stands as he dismisses her. The resistance affected in the act of writing is reappropriated by the old paradigm for its own advancement. It is as Nietzsche puts it: "Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had--power" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 212). Christ writes no more.
But to end any reading with such a note of finality, particularly so a-traditional a reading of such an ancient text, is to fall into the trap of our old model. It is the cessation of productive oscillation that must make wary any reader, critic, or author: judgment so far as cultural texts are concerned is both a necessary and largely escapable violence. But it is escapable only in so far as it is self-consciously employed as a method of producing discourse as the least possible violence. Barthes's text thus speaks directly against the settling into a single structure which must of itself come to be repressive. As he demonstrates, there is no space which has already been inhabited that can ever be secure. The reader comes to see the value of Barthes's text as a transgression, or that which passes tirelessly through limits: S/Z is the conscious, infinite penetration of that non-dialectical author/critic opposition for the sake of author, critic, and reader, simultaneously.
It becomes important, then, that the reader observe the mechanism in S/Z which permits Barthes's back-and-forth movement, for what Barthes introduces here, in opposition to necromancy, is a type of necrophagia, whereby criticism resuscitates literature and vice versa by an infinite process of consumption that is never total. How is it that S/Z is perfectly a "supplement of deficiency" (S/Z, 175), that his text consumes and resuscitates Sarrasine, that it demands a reader read (reread) Sarrasine through S/Z, and S/Z through S/Z, and S/Z through Sarrasine, thereby avoiding "stability" or static conclusion? We arrive here at the notion of the limit text. Limits, of course, are inescapable in narratives and criticism alike, but for limits to be decisively and conspicuously (so self-consciously) embedded in the text as a central metaphor of and for the text, that is a radical move, and it is one that Barthes holds up as a tool the reader should appropriate in challenging Barthes's own text. For example, he writes:
We know the symbolism of the braid: Freud, considering the origin of weaving, saw it as the labor of a woman braiding her pubic hairs to form the absent penis. The text, in short, is a fetish; and to reduce it to the unity of meaning, by a deceptively univocal reading, is to cut the braid, to sketch the castrating gesture. (S/Z, 160).
The text, the braiding of Barthesian codes, is fetish, but more than that, consistent with Barthes's imagery, the chimera of the phallus: traditional meaning itself. The substitution of fetish (text) for penis (theological meaning) recalls that movement required to achieve the transition from body to soul, so long as the fetish remains undifferentiated from the penis. To refuse this distinction as does traditional criticism, to thus deny transgressive value and inexhaustible text, is to cut off one's nose to spite one's face. Yet, we see here too in this passage the univocality that is castrating sketched here before us in Barthes's formulation, for there is a definitive reliance upon a single interpretation of Freud's "considerations." We know the symbolism of the braid. The text's limit is self-consciously, if implicitly, present within the text, pointing the reader toward the limit that is Sarrasine, allowing the reader to turn S/Z back upon itself. For can one properly extract Sarrasine from S/Z any more than one can extract the castrato from Sarrasine? Barthes writes: "a story about castration is not told with impunity.--This fable teaches us that narration (object) modifies narration (action): the message is parametrically linked with its performance; there is no question of an utterance on the one hand and on the other its uttering" (S/Z, 213). There are implications for judging (telling a story) and for the way in which one judges. One cannot "know the dancer from the dance," to borrow a phrase.
Jorge Luis Borges gives readers a useful formulation in his short story "The Garden of the Forking Paths," which demonstrates that the most effective limit is that absence within a discourse hinted at by the conspicuousness of its absence: 'In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited?' I thought for a moment and then replied: 'The word is chess.' (99). For the reader of S/Z, Borges's riddle prompts an obvious question: if castrato, the word so conspicuously omitted from Balzac's text surfaces relentlessly in S/Z , what is the word omitted from Barthes's text? Barthes himself provides the answer which we have guessed at (divined) from the beginning in Roland Barthes:
In an author's lexicon, will there not always be a word-as-manna, a word whose ardent, complex, ineffable, and somehow sacred signification gives the illusion that by this word one might answer for everything? Such a word is neither eccentric nor central; it is motionless and carried, floating, never pigeonholed, always atopic (escaping any topic), at once remainder and supplement, a signifier taking up the place of every signified. This word has gradually appeared in his work; at first it was masked by the instance of Truth (that of history), then by that of Validity (that of systems and structures); now it blossoms, it flourishes; this word-as-manna is the word "body." (RB, 129-30).
It is the nature of manna that interests us, for the idea of manna demands a certain faith in process. If you try to horde it, it decays, but consume it, and it becomes an activity within you, a part of you, and a means to further activity. And the process of gathering and ingesting cannot cease. Reading and rereading, critical practice and writing, in short, a living, bodily model of textual necrophagia (in the most beautiful sense of the word) is what Barthes reveals to the reader. Here at last is our substitute for the Eucharist.
We can imagine Barthes smirking as he writes, "Castration is contagious, it touches everything it approaches" (S/Z, 198), the implications of this remark being equally resonant for both Sarrasine and S/Z. Castration centers itself within the text as limit and metaphor for limit, as the neutral and metaphor for the Neutral (and it should be remembered that Le Neutre wonderfully deconstructs itself in French). But Barthes's Neutrality cannot merely be assumed by the reader to be the attitude of any given author (particularly Barthes) simply because there is an apparent adherence to oscillation as method. There is nothing inherently trustworthy about Roland Barthes. The reader in fact knows that Barthes is not entirely straightforward because he tells a narrative. Barthes writes:
The nesting of the blocks of narrative is not (merely) ludic but also economic. Narrative does not engender itself by metonymic extension (subject to its passage through the stages of desire), by paradigmatic alternation: narrative is determined not by a desire to narrate but by a desire to exchange: it is a medium of exchange, an agent, a currency, a gold standard. What accounts for this central equivalence is not the "plan" of Sarrasine, but its structure. (S/Z, 90).
Barthes's narrative is also characterized by a desire to exchange. But as he notes in S/Z, the story of castration (Barthes's story) prevents the completion of the bargain, the arrival of the predicate (truth). There is no divination of the future. Where Barthes would exchange paradigms, he does not permit his paradigm to reappropriate the old model in a conclusive arrangement as Christ conversely employs his reluctance to pronounce judgment for the purposes of judgment. Instead, Barthes allows inadequate structure to abolish itself via the limit, to become movement. Necromancy, then, has its place in S/Z at the limit of the text along with necrophagia, but necromancy is always recognized for what it is and consumed by a bodily text. Similarly, we embrace the idea of manna though we recognize its mythical origin as God. And thus, S/Z will be reread and will not be relegated to the station of the un-transgressing, infinitely-transgressed ex-Adulteress, for the Barthesian movement of oscillation never radiates outward, never ceases to transgress. S/Z should not be read as a meta-Sarrasine, and there is no meta-S/Z to follow (in the transcendental sense of the prefix):
And this is in fact the function of writing: to make ridiculous, to annul the power (the intimidation) of one language over another, to dissolve any metalanguage as soon as it is constituted. (S/Z, 98).
There is a specific gain which this idea affords writing: no longer is there gesture without motion or shape without form, there is no possibility of shadow between essence and descent, and there is no possibility of a shadow-language. There is instead body and play -- jouissance -- arrived at by route of necromancy and castration. Oscillation moves through and away from the theological, necrophobic tenets of traditional critical practice: it is the movement and method of S/Z, a truly monstrous creation.
Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (translated by Richard Howard). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z (translated by Richard Miller). New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
The Holy Bible (King James Version). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.
Borges, Jorge Luis. "The Garden of the Forking Paths." Ficciones. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1962.
Derrida, Jacques. "Violence and Metaphysics." Writing and Difference (translated by Alan Bass). Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems, 1909 - 1962. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1963.
Eliot, T.S. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Portable Nietzsche (edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann).
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Literature and Existentialism (translated by Bernard Frechtman). Toronto: Carol Publishing Group, 1994.
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