The Veiling of Homoerotic Desire in Roland Barthes' S/Z

Carrie Watterson

The greatest fault of writing in Socrates' and Ra's opinions is that the distance of the written word from its source must render it empty, dumb. If the speaker is not present to defend the word, it can only offer the reader one statement, one meaning; the reader has no further recourse to explore the idea more deeply. "This pure repetition, this 'bad' reissue, would thus be tautological. Written logoi 'seem to talk to you as though they were intellegent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing forever.'" (Derrida, 136) The privileging of speech presumes an ideal unity with the idea towards which the recipient of information always strives, the "limitless memory" or "infinite self-presence." (109) But it is the very impossibility of the idealized communion with omniscience that triggers human desire to bring themselves closer to the idea by any means available. Absence is not a tragedy, but an opportunity; desire is not a lack, but a motivation to more. "If a speech could be purely present, unveiled, naked, offered up in person in its truth, without the detours of a signifier foreign to it, if at the limit an undeferred logos were possible, it would not seduce anyone." (71) As in the Oedipal scene, desire is created at the moment that dyadic unity is rendered impossible, as castration impels the subject into an assumption of identity and a subjection to language and law. In speech, these means are more immediately accessible; one may seek elucidation from the author of the idea. But writing is not, therefore, a less valuable tool in accessing Truth. On the contrary, in the absence of the author, the reader must interrogate the words directly, which are freed from the tyranny of authorial intention. The words themselves may be repeated infinitely without change, but the meanings they hold are open to infinite interpretations. "This 'I' which approaches the text is already itself a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite or, more precisely, lost (whose origin is lost)." ( S/Z, 10) Each reader brings a specific scheme of knowledge, experience, prejudice and expectation to any given text, and that individual's reading of the text cannot but be colored by any conscious or unconscious agenda brought to the work.

Barthes' choices of focus and of omission are no more innocent nor incidental than those he points out in Balzac's Sarrasine. For Balzac, "it is necessary that the word castrato not be spoken," (178) and for Barthes it appears that it is necessary that physical castration not be closely examined. The focal mystery driving Balzac's tale is that of the of the castrato, yet in two hundred and seventeen pages of exhaustive criticism of nearly every individual action, hermeneutic, seme, symbol or reference that surrounds the central castration, he systematically veils the import of the circumstances surrounding the focal physical act (which Barthes himself calls "a whole little anterior novel" (186)). While Barthes admits that his codes are somewhat arbitrary, his choice of focus is not. Castration is woven prominently throughout his analysis and applied to nearly every character in the story yet self-consciously suspended from the one concrete example in the primary text. Balzac has removed the focus one step by casting the narrative, recounted for the specific purpose of revealing the mystery of the castrato, in the story of Sarrasine, a figure only incidental to the narrator and his audience. Barthes distances his readers further yet by dispersing the experience and the act of castration among all the various incidental characters while explicitly and implicitly excluding the castrato from the discourse. Balzac maintains silence around the word "castrato" because "good narrative writing is of this very undecidability," (178) but Barthes' veiling of the castrato serves to obscure the flaws in his axis of castration.

Given Lacan's contemporaneous influence on the theoretical community, why would Barthes choose to incorporate so prominently into S/Z such a clearly faulty application of psychoanalysis? While Barthes appears to reject gender as the operative conflict driving the action of Sarrasine, he implicitly reinscribes the violence of heterosexual identity formation as the operating force in the narrative, thereby quite effectively veiling the homoerotic desire that in fact drives Sarrasine. Barthes' rejection of biological sex as the oppositional division of castrators and castrated is reinscribed by his masculinization of the castrating women and the feminization of the castrated men. This exercize serves to displace the anxiety surrounding male-male desire onto the disturbing, but largely irrelevant, characters who occupy the female position.

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