Barthes and Barzun

in Philosophy and Literature 13 (1989): 221-29.

Denis Dutton

In 1965, Raymond Picard, later holder of the Chair of French Literature at the Sorbonne, published in La Revue des Science Humaines a conservative assault on Roland Barthes and la nouvelle critique. Barthes responded in the following year with a counter-attack which now appears for the first time in English. Criticism and Truth (University of Minnesota Press, $25.00, cloth, $10.95 paper) has been translated by Katrine Pilcher Keuneman, who has also provided a fine introduction, helpful footnotes, and a section of background material on the names which crop up in the course of Barthes’s discussion.

Roland Barthes

Debates such as this one have usually lost their emotional edge after twenty years, and this is no exception. Still, the book is useful bit of documentation for a turbulent period in French intellectual history. Picard had accused Barthes and the new criticism of being willful, arbitrary, purely subjective, cynical, obsessed with sex, jargon-ridden, and unclear. The response from Barthes is fairly predictable: the “old criticism” is no less subjective, its “evident truths” are already interpretations “only choices”; It refuses to acknowledge the power relationships in literature or in criticism. Its sense of “good taste” (shown in its rejection of psychoanalysis) is merely a system of prohibitions, and the value that it places on clarity in critical writing is based in ideology: “Language taboos are part of a small war among intellectual castes. Old criticism is one caste among others, and the ‘French clarity’ it recommends is a jargon just like any other.” Barthes contends, “This backward-looking jargon is in no way shaped by precise requirements of reasoning...but by a community of stereotypes, sometimes twisted and overloaded to the point of bombast.”

The issue of clarity is taken up by Philip Thody in his engaging (and very clear) forward to the book. Thody ruminates on the way in which English academics — most markedly philosophers from Hume through Russell and Ryle — tend to gravitate toward ordinary language, as though they might be “expected to make their views clear to any of their colleagues in medicine or the sciences who might drop in for a chat about Structuralism or Phenomenology on his way to lunch.” Although Thody claims he is sympathetic with this style of philosophy, he still has Barthesian reservations: “I can see that such a preference is based upon the presupposition that the sceptically-minded, rationalistic, Anglo-Saxon professional middle classes are going to stay in power.”

Perhaps Thody thinks he can see it; I certainly cannot. If a professional class wants to sustain a dominant power position, the last thing to do is to speak clearly, using a commonly intelligible vocabulary. Rather, the trick is to nurture and maintain a privileged status by developing a private argot or jargon. The lawyers have been doing this for centuries. It’s a mistake to suggest that a group might wish to hold dominant power by speaking clearly, using ordinary language. In fact, historically it has been just the reverse: whether in the context of legal practice, Masonic mysteries, psychiatry, tribal rituals, Pentagon policy, Church doctrine, Boy Scouts, or deconstructionist English departments, jargons and esoteric forms of discourse (Latin, for example) have always been instruments used to exclude, intimidate, or subordinate “outsiders.” Open communication and intelligibility threaten powers elite; they choose obscurity because it helps to insulate them from criticism, since it is hard to criticize what you have trouble understanding. In the political world at large, liberation for oppressed minoritie s— or benighted majorities, for that matte r— comes about when free criticism is possible, and that is only possible when discourse is generally intelligible.

Barthes gives the game away when he claims that the conservative “French clarity” of Picard et al. is “in no way shaped by the precise requirements of reasoning,” and that such “clarity” coming from Picard is just a stylistic stereotype, an advertisement for intellectual caste. Barthes may (or may not) be entirely correct in this instance, but his accusation suggests that there might be discourse which is shaped by the requirements of reasoning. This admits the possible existence of intrinsically clear forms of discourse, forms whose “jargons,” if we insist on calling them that, are demanded by the actual nature of their subject matters (e.g., the languages of biochemistry or subatomic physics), as opposed to jargons which are nothing more than strategies to dominate by excluding outsiders and avoiding the threat of criticism (if you work at a university, just look around). Arguably, this applies to la nouvelle critique itself; in any event, Barthes does not respond to Picard’s “jargon” allegation by denying it, but by claiming that Picard is just speaking jargon too. Maybe they’re both right; and maybe this Hobbsian war of all jargons against all others tells us more about the peculiarities of French intellectual life than it does about the general nature of discourse itself.


Jacques Barzun

Jargon and clarity of prose style have always been on the mind of Jacques Barzun, who has recently come out with a new collection of essays, published at the same time as a new edition of an earlier anthology. A Word or Two Before you Go.... (Wesleyan University Press, $14.95) contains both new pieces and work dating back to 1942 (when Barzun was 35); this book features the most spectacular red, black, and gold marbled endpapers I have ever seen. And 1945 is the date of the earliest work in the plain little second edition of Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing (University of Chicago Press, $5.95 paper). There is no single essay which appears in both books, though there is overlap in the preoccupations about current usage and the debasement of language. I find it impossible not to enjoy even those essays with which I disagree.

Since Barzun’s observations span a generation or two, it’s interesting to consider which of these essay remain as valid as when they were written, and which have since in some way lost poignancy. Barzun’s 1950 “A Writer’s Discipline” in the Chicago collection presents what is still excellent practical advice for tackling the craft of writing: getting organized, overcoming writer’s block, the effort to revise, and how to use criticism to protect your work, rather than yourself. On the mechanics of revision: “The plastic aspect of written matter is important, and the best revision is undoubtedly made from a clean copy embodying previous revisions. One reason why so much nineteenth-century work is good is that printers’ revises were cheap and the writer carved direct on cold print.” May we perhaps expect the word processor cum laser printer to help initiate another golden age of prose? Fat chance, to judge by the pessimistic tone of many of these essays.

Barzun would doubtless disapprove of that hey-I’m-an-OK-guy use of ‘fat chance’. In A Word or Two he says that in writing “the effort to be friendly and informal seduces one into being chummy and slovenly. Writers suppose that their unbuttoned state will lure and coax the reader along. But the reader is not so easily won....” Writers, he instructs,

must increasingly sort out and clean up what comes in by eye and ear, and reject most of it. This task requires not so much an effort of thought as a scrutiny of feeling: one must detect and repress the wish to coy, arch, playful, jocular, folksy, learned, mysterious, elegant, and (above all) inventive. These affectations underlie most of the expressions that first present themselves as one begins to write. The emotional colorings do not always appear clearly to the conscious mind, or the words would be dismissed out of hand; rather, they are whispered temptations. The struggle against them is to become master of one’s vocabulary instead of mastered by the words.

There is a certain purity in all this. In a loving foreword to the Chicago anthology, Morris Philipson contends that just as Barzun’s essays “deflate pretension and excoriate ignorance, so do they extol honesty and honor integrity.... Barzun’s crucial terms of evaluation are moral, not aesthetic. What is execrable is what misleads, what traduces, what injects error, what cloaks the absence of thought or feeling, what pretends to be something other than what it is, what is false.”

The “Advice to a Young Writer” (1960) in the Chicago collection says literary skill is “getting scarcer, it would seem, so that readers have to get cleverer at guessing riddles.” Of course; and it may be that for a professional writer “practicing to write well and finally writing well will repay.” The counter-consideration is that for the standard academic writer in the humanities (not to mention the social sciences), there might be — twenty years now after the Barthes/Picard debate — a penalty for good writing. Someone once said that the trouble with Mill was that he wrote so clearly people found out what he meant. That danger threatens today more than ever. (I wonder if the history of academic philosophy might not have been significantly different had writers such as Hume and Mill adopted a cryptic style which required generations of scholarly interpreters the figure it all out. Their clarity is a mistake the Germans have usually managed to avoid.)

If Barzun sounds now-and-again like he is living in the wrong century, he probably is. But then what he says in “Advice to a Young Writer” is no less true for that: the rewards for good writing,

presuppose that what is well written also concerns the lives and minds of your contemporaries. This relationship does not limit you to current events or fashionable ideas, to the newspaper headlines or the jargon of your profession. Rather, to be a writer and not a hack, you must clear your mind of cant and allow that multitudinous messages to come to you from the souls of your fellowmen. They are the secret source of your abundant ideas.

There’s an idea maybe even Barthes could accept.

As an example of Barzun missing the mark, I would cite his little 1974 note on a sexism and language (in the Chicago collection). It won’t do to point out that “mankind” is not the opposite of “womankind” as “menfolk” is the opposite of “womenfolk.” After all, consideration of the issue must to an extent involve how the objects of such terms themselves tend to see it. If some women feel in various usages and context that they — in innocence or by subtle design — are left out by “mankind,” then Barzun’s etymological excursus is probably not going to change their minds. And why should it? Nor need we concede that “chairperson” will inevitably push us down the silly slope to “woperson.” But even Barzun himself appears to have had his consciousness somewhat raised when, a decade later in a new contribution to the Wesleyan anthology, he drops the exclusive use of he/his to say, “All writers have had cause to be grateful to his or her copy editor.”

This sentence, however, is merely an incidental admission in an essay slamming copy editors. In fact, fully three of the contributions to these books are devoted to detailing the incompetence of the copy editors Barzun has suffered in his long career. Obtaining employment as a copy editor isn’t hard since, as Barzun explains, “any person with good eyesight who is conscientious can learn the routine. Only for encyclopedias, technical works, and the like, is knowledge of subject matter required.” He catalogues many egregious alterations inflicted on his manuscripts and those of his friends, such as changing a perfectly good “consecutiveness” to an incorrect “continuity,” “Muslim” to “muslin,” “postman” to “postal service employee,” and so on. Now this strikes me as petty stuff; were we inclined to keep lists, the editors of this journal could from the other side list from over the years innumerable entertaining gaffes by our authors.

It is true, as Barzun says, that many of the (often freelance) copy editors employed by commercial publishers are young and inexperienced; but this seems all the more reason not to blame everything on them. After all, what kind of publisher sends a Jacques Barzun manuscript to a greenhorn who doesn’t know that Gladstone was a (capital) Liberal Prime Minister of who tries to hold out for “anti-intellectual”? (And Barzun is wrong in implying — but only in the Wesleyan anthology! — that the Chicago Manual would require these usages.) Copy editors have some of the most tedious, demanding, underpaid, generally thankless, and yet important work in the literary world. Very few writers, including those who hold academic chairs, are as fastidious in their use of language as Barzun; many are (to me) unbelievably careless, or even ignorant. There’s something churlish about the emeritus Professor recounting the many failings of copy editors while never finding time to tell of an instanc e— and every writer can recall a few — where a young and perhaps even ignorant copy editor saved him from making in some small way a public fool of himself. I’ve saved a few professors in many day, and have in turn been saved myself by other copy editors. I did remember to say “Thanks.”

All of which brings me to a last speculation. Could it be that the appearance of that one grudging admission I quoted earlier, “All writers have had cause to be grateful to his or her alert copy editor” (A Word or Two, p. 85), is itself some copy editor’s act of private revenge? You see, at Philosophy and Literature, the drudges at the top of the masthead are the very pedants who copy edit it. Peering from beneath their green visors, red felt-tips in hand, they always insist on “Every writer has had cause to be grateful to his or her alert copy editor,” or better, “All writers have had cause to be grateful to their alert copy editors.” At least that is what they insist on when they really are alert, and not — as does happen — dozing at the wheel. Barzun spends all his space deriding copy editors who overstep their calling; maybe he found one at Wesleyan who requires too little.

Though I believe Jacques Barzun’s grumpy remarks about copy editors demand a sharp response, I still regard him as a national treasure. But obviously not everyone will agree. In composing these remarks, I mistakenly typed “Barsun” at one point. My computer’s new built-in dictionary caught it, and for fun I asked it what it thought I meant. It answered with three possible alternatives: “parson” (its first choice), “parsing,” and “bearish.” They say machines can’t think....


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