an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 13, Winter 2016/2017, ISSN 1552-5112                                                                                                            



‘The Word Shines Forth’: Barthes and Prose/Poetry



Adam Piette







Barthes in ‘Y a-t-il une écriture poétique?’, the fourth essay of Le Degré zéro de l’écriture (1953), turns his mind to the distinction between prose and poetry, concentrating on the difference between classical and modernist definitions of the genres. That move from classical to modernist definitions supports the main argument proposed by Degré zéro as a history of writing: that the birth and development of ‘Literature’ as a concept and field of knowledge and experiment in the 19th century is a history of the gradual destruction of bourgeois consciousness as a ‘classical’ and transparent form of Enlightenment thinking; and a movement towards the radical reflexivity of post-Romantic writing and the ‘solidification progressive’ which creates the ‘Forme-Objet’ (172-3). The history of writing, as Barthes suggests in his introduction, begins with Chateaubriand’s narcissistic compositional style as formal self-regard, moves through Flaubert’s sense of the formal object as the spectacle of achieved craftwork, and through Mallarmé’s destructiveness of all language; culminating with the degree zero of writing in 20th century modernism and late modernism. This is characterised by ‘neutral’ writing, a writing of negation, powerlessness, and absence; a ghostly remnant of the formal object after the murder committed by Mallarmé.

  The prose / poetry distinction shifts from a classical-social view of form: poetry is simply prose with decorative elements added on such as metre, rhyme, the ‘rituel des images’ (196). The shift from classical to modernist in poetry is mapped, for Barthes, onto the differences between Baudelaire’s classicism and Rimbaud’s radicalism. With Rimbaud, poetry is no longer merely an attribute or add-on, it is substance itself; poets thinking about their language as ‘une Nature fermée, qui embrasserait à la fois la function et la structure du langage’ (197).  This ‘Nature fermée’ is defined in the first essay of Degré Zéro: ‘Qu’est-ce que l’écriture’ as identical to language-as-environment, where ‘une Nature qui passé entièrement à travers la parole de l’écrivain, sans pourtant lui donner aucune forme’. It is like an abstract circle of truths round the subject ‘hors duquel seulement commence à se deposer la densité d’un verbe solitaire’ (177). With the prose-poetic context of ‘Y a-t-il une écriture poétique?’, Barthes is thinking of symbolisme here, Mallarmé’s melancholy gardens, ‘l’oubli fermé par le cadre’ of his mirrors (‘Ses purs ongles très haut’).


The park or Eden implied by ‘Nature fermée’ might tempt one to a transcendental sense of language as organic form; but for Barthes the hermeticism captures both the function and the structure of language since, with Mallarmé’s murderousness and Rimbaud’s anarchist energy, the enclosedness of the poem, given that it reproduces the arbitrariness of language as a system of signs, invites the potential for a radical erasure of the act of signifying: poetry ‘peut très bien renoncer aux signes, car elle porte sa nature en elle, et n’a que faire de signaler à l’extérieur son identité’ (197). The collapsing of the interior/exterior distinction that this hermetic principle of arbitrary language-space summons into being leads to the collapse of the prose/poetry distinction, too - by a complex act of intuitive reasoning: ‘les langages poétiques et prosaïques sont suffisament séparés pour pouvoir se passer des signes mêmes de leur altérité’ (197).


It is worth dwelling a moment on the logic here. Since poetry constitutes a whole natural world to the poets, therefore they need not even seem to be addressing the social world as classically-trained bourgeois poets had done. The poem is its own world, its language-nature screening off the social world of audience and readership and conventions. ‘Prosaic’ language is identified with bourgeois social exteriority; since that has been screened off in the act of enclosure, then it follows that the traditional signs of difference between poetry and prose no longer pertain: the poetry of the garden is not ornamental, but fundamental – it can freely generate a distinction-free art-language that is neither prosaic nor conventionally poetic. This new form might be free verse, or prose poetry, or the stranger fictions we find in Un coup de dès or Illuminations; what is essential is that the shift to the modernist form-object as language fetish that Barthes intuits in symboliste hermeticism, replaces the old ornamental distinction between prose and poetry with a formal prose-poetic contradiction, whereby the form-object at once posits itself as ‘Nature fermée’ and as zero-sign. The plus/minus logic of classicism (Poetry = Prose + a + b + c / Prose = Poetry – a – b – c) becomes the more radical self-canceling language-object of modernism. Prose poetry is designed both to make the prose/poetry distinction so extreme as to erase the classical prosaic altogether; and to enable a radical language that posits and cancels at the same time the signifying system so hermetically enclosed by the act of composition.


  Barthes then makes the following move: modernist French poetry also inverts another binary, thought and language. If Enlightenment thinking conceives of thought as giving birth to language which translates and expresses that thought, subsequently in modern poetics:


les mots produisent une sorte de continu formel dont émane peu à peu une densité intellectuelle ou sentimentale impossible sans eux; la parole est alors le temps épais d’une gestation plus spirituelle, dans laquelle la “pensée” est prepare, installée peu à peu par le hazard des mots (197)


Language becomes a generative and aleatory power under such conditions, creating its own temporality, a dense time that gives birth to thought. This inversion of classical logic is indebted to the manner in which prose poetry (or a textuality free of ornamental distinctions between genres) enables a thick texturing of chancy language as generative textual spacetime. The density Barthes is theorizing here is partly structured in opposition to the relational economy of classical language: wherein words point thinly to other words in a superficial chain of intentions. Words under the classical regimen are neutralized in the negative sense, emptied of significance, colour, texture by convention and tradition (198), and reduced to algebraic gestures, mere vehicles of communication (198-99). Modernist language presents the Word as shining forth beyond signifying chains, beyond meaning-relations, annulling relational logic in order better to present its dense materiality:


Le Mot éclate au-dessus d’une ligne de rapports évidés, la grammaire est dépourvue de sa finalité, elle devient prosodie, elle n’est plus qu’une inflexion qui dure pour présenter le Mot. (199)


The Word shines forth above/beyond its relations to all other words so that grammar becomes prosody under the special temporal conditions of the poem: what Barthes implies here is that the syntactical relations that govern instrumental language are what Enlightenment folds into its classical idea of prosaic logic. These rule-bound conventions give way to procedures that isolate and elevate the language-object, just as the layout presentation to Mallarmé’s Un coup de dès creates the conditions for the possibility of ‘la densité d’un verbe solitaire’. That act of presentation foregrounds language as arbitrary, and as prosodic in the absolute sense that the gesture, because it so mysteriously posits and cancels itself out, triggers a reflexive poetics that invites deconstruction of Enlightenment language-logic as ‘grammar’. Barthes is thinking of Mallarmé’s defence, in the note added to Divagations, of his prose-poetic procedures and his use of white space in Un coup de dès:


Sans doute y a-t-il moyen là, pour un poète qui par habitude ne pratique pas le vers libre, de montrer, en l’aspect de morceaux compréhensifs et brefs, par la suite, avec expérience, tels rythmes immédiats de pensée ordonnant une prosodie.


The radically fragmented, white-space-punctuated, a-grammatical and polysemous compositional practice enables a prose poetics in Todorov’s sense of a type of discourse which lies above and beyond interpretation and technique: it enables the study of ‘the underlying properties of literary discourse itself’ (The Poetics of Prose, transl. Richard Howard [Oxford: Blackwell, 1977], p. 34) – at the same time as being embodied as rhythm of the mind. In Mallarmé’s own terms, this shift to poetics is also a trumping of prose poetry as traditionally defined: ‘à ce qui fut longtemps le poème en prose, et notre recherche, d’aboutir, en tant, si l’on joint mieux les mots, que poème critique’ (bibliographical note, Divagations). The critical poem is a fusion of poetry and prose that steps beyond prose poetry towards an intellectual/affective and reflexive presentation of language to the eye and ear. For Barthes, the formal continuity of prose/poem (not prose poem) generates poetics as intellectual and sentimental density: a density that achieves the degree zero of a discourse beyond all social relations. And as if to exemplify the shining forth of the Word, it is whilst defining the encylopedic and virtual totality-effect of Mallarmé’s critical poetics that Barthes’ own prose rises above normative and relational logic:


Chaque mot poétique est ainsi un objet inattendu, une boîte de Pandore d'où s'envolent toutes les virtualités du langage; il est donc produit et consommé avec une curiosité particulière, une sorte de gourmandise sacrée. Cette Faim du Mot, commune à toute la poésie moderne, fait de la parole poétique une parole terrible et inhumaine. Elle institue un discours plein de trous et plein de lumières, plein d'absences et de signes surnourrissants, sans prévision ni permanence d'intention et par là si opposé à la fonction sociale du langage, que le simple recours à une parole discontinue ouvre la voie de toutes les Surnatures. (200)


Something of the surnatural (which Barthes had defined in ‘Qu’est-ce que l’écriture’ as transgression of the enclosed Nature of language as a system [177]) is traceable in Barthes’ own critical prose here, where the ghost of a six-beat measure is discernible:


une ‘boîte de Pan’dore d'où s'en’volent ‘toutes les virtuali’tés du lan’gage;

il est ‘donc pro’duit et conso’mmé avec une ‘curiosi’té particu’lière,


Cette ‘Faim du ‘Mot, co’mmune à ‘toute la poé’sie mo’derne,

‘fait de la pa’role poé’tique une pa’role ter’rible et inhu’maine.


Elle insti’tue un dis’cours ‘plein de ‘trous et ‘plein de lu’mières


At the same time this rhythmical regularity is broken by interpolated long and short clauses, as though in concert with the double nature of the performance. The critical poem is full of holes and of light, of absences and over-nourishing signs insofar as it posits and cancels, feeds and nullifies, signifies and abolishes all signifying. Barthes captures the rhetoric of this act or presentation as poetics in the fusion of a rhythmical prose (re-presenting Mallarmé’s ‘rythmes immédiats de pensée ordonnant une prosodie’) with an inhumanly intellectual a-rhythmical clause where the musical voice breaks down (cf. the deliberately exhausting over-nourished rhythm – 8-beat/9-beat – of  sans prévision ni permanence d'intention et par là si opposé à la fonction sociale du langage, que le simple recours à une parole discontinue ouvre la voie de toutes les Surnatures’). Barthes practices an inhuman and discontinuous ‘parole’ at the very moment the ear registers a prose-poetic texture to the vocalization.

  This discontinuity is a direct effect of the breaking down of the social communicableness of Enlightenment language: ‘Le discontinue du nouveau langage poétique institute une Nature interrompue qui ne se revèle que par blocs’ (200-201). The effect of this discontinuous poetics is to isolate the word-as-object, and to reveal a spacetime of the poem as virtual environment (as of ruins on a desert plain). In essence, virtuality is key to the prose/poem since the natural is a language-environment: yet the rhythmical embodied power of the performance gives objective materiality to the objects found in the text-world: ‘La Nature y deviant un discontinue d’objets solitaires et terribles, parce qu’ils n’ont que des liaison virtuelles’ (201). The paradox here is a direct consequence of the double-nature of the critical poem: it de-realizes (since it is so virtually textual) at the same time as it materializes (form-objects summoned into tactile, haptic being by the extraordinary focus, foregrounding and isolating procedures the discontinuous style enables). Virtuality becomes a verticality of a real object in the text-world, its roots plunging into all the verbal potentialities of the word-as-object (‘la Nature deviant une succession de verticalités’ [201]). 


  If the critical poem in modern mode generates a prose/poetics of dédoublement, that doubling is not only a feature of Degré Zéro textuality (i.e. both materializing and de-realizing procedurally on the page), but can be traced throughout Barthes’ work beyond the structuralist/deconstructive borderlines of his time. In a very real sense, the dédoublement at the limit horizon between prose and poetry inaugurates the very forms and modes of Barthes’ own late modernist procedures as theorist and writer. Those limits can be registered most fruitfully in Barthes’ sensing of the aural peculiarities of writing: from the seemingly narrow question – how do we hear the new prose/poetic surfaces of late modernist textuality? – blossoms a beautifully fructifying Barthesian polemic and meditation on language and the world. The dédoublement we have been featuring in the arguments concertinaed into ‘Y a-t-il une écriture poétique?’ sound out in Barthes’ theorizing of ‘double entente’ in S/Z, for instance. The double meaning marshaled by a poised ambiguity or ‘équivoque’ (Barthes’ example is the tenor’s ‘Vous ne risquez pas de rival’ which can mean both ‘because you are loved’ or ‘because you are courting a castrato’) are not, for Barthes, reducible to the simple double-signifying (two signifieds for one signifier) of a play on words: they demand two addressees, two subjects, two cultures, two languages and, critically, ‘deux espèces d’écoute’. Double hearing divides hearing itself so as to generate noise, rendering communication ‘obscure, fallacieuse, risquée’ (OC III, 239). This is the ‘dark’ side to the doubling: yet, Barthes insists, in a doubling move indebted to the prose/poetics theorized in Degré Zéro, noise is also an act of communication, an offering to the ear of the reader as nourishing text: what feeds, is counter-communication itself. The noise breaks down classical literature as such, impregnates it, and presents the text as counter-communicating discursive surface: ‘ce que le lecteur consomme, c’est ce défaut de communication, ce manque de message’ (240).

  The double hearing of a prose/poetics creates white noise that drowns out classical forms of communication, then, at the same time as it offers a pregnant verbal surface that nourishes because it baffles easy comprehension. The dédoublement is therefore a fusion of listening procedures: we can listen for the blankness and obscurity as annihilation of voice, or we can listen for the buzz of rival voicings, hearing both as ‘un discours plein de trous et plein de lumières’. That sensing of double listening was sustained and held to by Barthes throughout the 1970s: in 1977, he collaborated with Roland Havas on an entry for the Encilopedia Eidaudi, ‘Ecoute’. Double hearing is theorized as an aural/discursive form of the fort/da dichotomy. The first stage is the listening for the return of the mother: this is the moment of the sign, and of possibility. Then follows the second stage where listening mimes the regular return in semi-symbolic or play-ritual form: this is the moment of meaning and of secrecy. The double hearing is generated by the contradictory manner in which the mind encodes the sounds heard/made: ‘ce qui, enfoui dans la réalité, ne peut venir à la conscience humaine qu’à travers un code, qui sert à la fois à chiffrer cette réalité et à la déchiffrer’ (343). The entwining of first and second forms of listening (listening out for mother; playing the game that mimes the sounds of her returning) fashions a double hearing that encrypts and decrypts at the same time. The blend can be taken up a level, the first phase of which Barthes calls hermeneutic listening, or hearing as decoding for the secret:


…écouter, c’est se mettre en posture de décoder ce qui est obscure, embrouillé ou muet, pour faire apparaître à la conscience le ‘dessous’ du sens (ce qui est vécu, postulé, intentionnalisé comme cache) (‘Ecoute’, p. 343)


This is blended with the second elaboration: psychoanalytic listening, which involves an encoding of the sounds being made by one’s own game with one’s own unconscious; encoding that is itself double since its fort/da structure fuses degree zero neutrality with purposeful textuality, emptying of content with higher forms of theoretical action: ‘elle est ce movement de va-et-vient qui relie la neutralité et l’engagement, la suspension d’orientation et la théorie’ (347). This is difficult and itself, one might argue, encrypted by Barthes. What he means is that the very movement of the vocal performance of the analysand between revelatory and baffling procedures creates a resonance which invites the psychoanalyst into the core of the unconscious (347). That resonance is, I would suggest, comparable to the coming together of the contradictory soundings generated by prose/poetics. ‘Ecoute’ compares the resonance that double hearing yields to the manner in which the act of listening chimes with hearing oneself speak. Barthes believes that, at the psychoanalytic pitch, we hear the voice of the other as purely musical (‘les modulations et les harmoniques de cette voix’) and connect that with the strangeness of listening to one’s own voice through ‘les carités et les masses de notre anatomie’ (347-8). The doubling caused by the very mediations merge interior and exterior as they merge decoding and encoding, unconscious and ego-defences, hearing with music-making, prosaic event with a poetics combining hermeneutic and psychoanalytic hearing.

  The double hearing of a prose/poetics may entwine binaries in ways that resemble structuralist oppositions; but for Barthes what makes the combination of pairs go beyond binary oppositions is the degree zero inhuman virtuality that he had identified as constitutive of prose/poetics’ fusional resonance. That degree zero he theorized as a form of the neutral, or of neutralization; always in aesthetic terms set against classical literature as transparent communicative form, and dynamically both resonating cause and consequence of the entwining of contradictory texts and ‘ententes’. In 1965, he meditated on Philippe Sollers as a writer, and admired Sollers’ braiding together of ‘il’ and ‘je’ to unleash the voice of literature as a drama of encounter: two languages wrestling and meshing to create verbal being (OC V, 594). That verbal being has, paradoxically, body: a body close to the breathing presence of the prose/poetic text, but a body not transparently a sign of the subject, but rather signifying a double hearing of subjectivity as neutralized, in the specific Barthesian sense of suspended dynamically between neutralisations as ‘un langage de l’abolition qui se cherche’ (594). As such, Barthes moves on from the formalist dead inhuman of Degré Zéro where the neutral is identified as a purely formal negative absence of literariness as such: ‘l’écriture se réduit alors à une sorte de mode negative dans lequel les caractères sociaux ou mythiques d’un langage s’abolissent au profit d’un état neutre et inerte de la forme’ (OC I, 218). Neutralization is a sign, rather, of the double hearing of fort/da poetics, a dynamic pitching together of abolition and self-probing. It is the discontinuous, oscillating engagement that he talks about in his 1977 seminar on the ‘Neutre’: cf interview V 737. If the double hearing is this very fusion of abolition and richly reflexive enquiry, this matches the manner in which Barthes’ own writing doubles up as critical prose, the texts being analysed/listened to. In his 1972 essay on Genette, Barthes had pondered Genette’s poetics, and thought about how Genette, in his readings of Proust, becomes a poet with his prose; not only in terms of style, but in the ways Genette allows Proust to haunt his own sentences, engendering, Barthes says, ‘un vibrato différent de celui auquel nous avait habitués une lecture compacte de l’oeuvre’ (‘Le retour du poéticien’, OC IV, 144-7 [p.145]): where the vibrato is like the resonance generated by psychoanalytic hearing, for it foregrounds the critic’s own double hearing as textual prose/poetics, an abolitional/questing language that doubles up the creative with the critical, or ‘[Genette] le poéticien devient poète’ by creating a second ‘langage’ through analysis of Proust’s language, a language vibrating with Proust’s accents, yet fully (and emptily) Genette at the same time.

  This doubled up music comes across as a neutral hybrid of two tongues: Barthes in the essay on Chateaubriand in his Nouveaux essais critiques (1972) reflects on the entwining of two languages generated by the neutral double hearing of art, and theorizes the prose/poetic hybrid as anacoluthon, the rhetorical figure of radical discontinuity whereby ‘la langue humaine semble se rappeler, invoquer, recevoir une autre langue (celle des dieux, comme il est dit dans le Cratyle)’ (IV, 60). That anacoluthon inaugurates a new logic characterized by extreme verbal rapidity, Barthes writes – meaning that the sudden jump-cut that the figure describes enables a sudden speeding up of thought on the page. The example Barthes explores in Chateaubriand is in his writing on the Cardinal de Retz and the sudden and unexpected appearance of the orange groves of Valence: the anacoluthon has the effect, Barthes writes, of introducing ‘une poétique de la distance’ (61); in other words, the discontinuity acts like a spatio-temporal jump-cut, a form of montage, juxtaposing two different languages, two different tongues, generating neutral power, with the force of a neutralizing prose/poetic chronotope.

  The blend of human with other-worldly language that Chateaubriand’s poetic prose generates out of itself and the accents of the other times and voices under exploration is a music of dédoublement that goes to the heart of Barthes’ sense of the pleasure of the text. That pleasure can be summoned through the paradox of the neutral voice: seemingly inhuman (divine), it is sensuous, and at the same time, deeply musical with the body’s own sounds. L’écriture à haute voix’ (261) summons this strange prose/poetic hybrid, singing the ‘grain de la voix’, an erotic mix ‘de timbre et de langage’ that is at once simply phonetic, a matter of ‘incidents pulsionnels’, and richly embodied: ‘un texte où l’on puisse entendre le grain du gosier, la patine des consonnes, la volupté des voyelles, toute une stéréophonie de la chair profonde: l’articulation du corps, de la langue, non celle du sens, du langage’ (261). The double hearing is matched here by a double articulation, releasing the timbre from the language surfaces in the body’s own performance of the words. And Barthes releases his own verbal music in that articulation, a patterned texture (3: 2/2/2; 4: 3/3):


un texte où l’on puisse entendre:

              le grain du gosier,

                          la patine des consonnes,

                                      la volupté des voyelles,

toute une stéréophonie de la chair profonde:

              l’articulation du corps, de la langue,

                          non celle du sens, du langage


But it is a pattern that pitches itself as stereophonic mix of phonetic play (note the camp poetasting alliteration – ‘grain du gosier’, ‘volupté des voyelles’) courting the inner ear, and syntactical textures designed to court the logical eye (note the ‘on’-repetition from ‘l’on’ through ‘consonnes’ to ‘stéréophonie’ and ‘profonde’). 

  That stereophony is for Barthes cinematic in the sense that it zeroes in so closely, as with the double effect of close-up and amplified sound, on the body’s performance of the sounds of words. Once again, Barthes’ own verbal performance doubles up what he is saying with its own prose/poetic procedures. Cinema, he writes, picks up the melodic sound of words very intimately:


…et fasse entendre dans leur matérialité, dans leur sensualité, le souffle, la rocaille, la pulpe des lèvres, toute une presence du museau humaine (que la voix, que l’écriture soient fraîches, souples, lubrifiées, finement granuleuses et vibrantes comme le museau d’un animal, pour qu’il réussisse à déporter le signifié très loin et à jeter, pour ainsi dire, le corps anonyme de l’acteur dans mon oreille: ça granule, ça grésille, ça caresse, ça râpe, ça coupe: ça jouit. (261)


Again, we have order and pattern to the ear: note, for instance, how the triplet ‘fraîches, souples, lubrifiées’ is stereophonically matched by its neighbours ‘finement’-‘souffle’ -‘lèvres’. We have a design that courts the eye too: note the way the 5:1 shape of ‘ça granule, ça grésille, ça caresse, ça râpe, ça coupe: ça jouit’ matches the 5:1 of ‘dans leur matérialité, dans leur sensualité, le souffle, la rocaille, la pulpe des lèvres, toute une presence du museau humaine’ or the 5:1 (rather more arbitrarily it is true) of ‘fraîches, souples, lubrifiées, finement granuleuses et vibrantes comme le museau d’un animal’. But this designedness is cut across by the anacoluthon effect of discontinuity, the montage surprise jump-cut effect of the weird list: ‘ça granule, ça grésille, ça caresse, ça râpe, ça coupe: ça jouit.’ The proximity to the human voice and body sounds that cinema enables becomes Barthesian resonance and vibrato here, there on the page as a music of purely virtual phoneme (the ‘corps anonyme’ of the otherworldly language) and of deep grainy voicedness (the actor’s voice there in the ear). That double articulation may have a net effect of neutral white noise, yet its sensuous proximities are what constitute the very real pleasures of the text, the very real pleasures of reading Barthes’ prose/poetic voices, at one’s ear, resonating before one’s eyes, self-abolishing phonetic game and body-performance in the grain and granulations of the text as voiced. Barthes’ text doubly hears, doubly speaks, and makes one double up with pleasure, with a dédoublement that tracks as it generates a textual jouissance as intimate language-object that is as much ours, now, as it used to be Barthes’ own prose/poetic body.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 13, Winter 2016/2017, ISSN 1552-5112