Barthes: Author or Writer?

Courtney Kàohinani Rowe, English 111, 1999

Barthes' S/Z is the most peculiar mix of fiction and theory. In many ways, the text can be read as simply Barthes' own comments on Balzac's "Sarasine." Yet by breaking the story in smaller nodes, by interspersing it with comments, by making new connections within the text to outside references as well as references within the original story, Barthes creates a new Sarasine, a new piece of fiction. Then, the question is, should one consider Barthes a writer or an author?

Barthes himself makes a clear distinction between the two in his essay "Authors and Writers"(see Monica Lancini's comparison of this essay with one by Foucault.) One easy classification is calling Balzac an author. Barthes mentions him in his discussion of authors in "Authors and Writers" and S/Z is Barthes' proof of this he dissects and interprets Balzac's language exactly as one should be able to with an author's text. But what is Barthes himself, author or writer, and, based on that, how should we interpret his S/Z?

Certainly Barthes' contribution to S/Z , on the surface, seems like a writer's text. It proposes a series of specific ideas which should be able to stand on their own without the language in which they are presented. Yet it would be hard to believe that Barthes considered himself a writer, as opposed to an author, since he seems to view writers so negatively in "Authors and Writers." Yet can Barthes be viewed as an author?

Reading "Sarasine"the way Balzac originally wrote it and reading it with Barthes' spacing and interruptions are without question two extremely different experiences. The breaking of the text into irregular nodes forces a much slower read, as well as creating new connections.

Take, for example, how the breaking up of the very first line changes its impression on the reader. Encountering Balzac's "I was deep in one of those daydreams which overtake even the shallowest of men, in the midst of the most tumultuous of parties"gives a quick overview of the narrator, a daydreamer, though not shallow, distracted at a party. Yet all Barthes first gives his readers is: "I was deep in one of those daydreams." The mere breaking of the line makes the reader pause and consider these first eight words without the extra knowledge the rest of the sentence brings. Naturally, the reader will draw his own conclusions as to the nature of "those" daydreams and as to the narrator's reason to be in one, without Balzac's help. Besides breaking the narrative into pieces, however, Barthes adds his own comments. Having only just been told that the narrator is daydreaming, the reader is told that he will be roused from it twelve nodes down the line, ruining any type of suspense. The reader is also given, as unquestionable fact (just as unquestionable as Balzac's statement that the narrator is dreaming) that the daydream itself will be fairly ordinary, and set up the series of antithesis that will continue throughout the story. And all this information is given before the first sentence is entirely read.

Barthes' S/Z creates a very different Sarasine from Balzac's original. In many ways, it is a different fictional piece, because of Barthes' breaks and comments. This of course leaves the question of whether Barthes is an author or writer. He certainly uses language (both his own and, through spatial manipulation, Balzac's) to do more than just relate his ideas. Yet the official point of S/Z is to do no more than relate ideas, which should be able to stand on their own. Perhaps Barthes himself is one of the bastard hybrids he speaks of at the end of "Authors and Writers," the author-writer.

discussions of S/Z

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