Barthes and King on Writing

Spinoza writes:
The intellectual love of a thing consists in the understanding of their perfections.
Swedenborg, if you permit him to be called a philosopher, writes: I saw three angels, they had hats on their heads. (Ezra Pound)

The first chapter of Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero, from 1953, is called “What Is Writing?” In Stephen Kings’s On Writing, from 2000, there is a chapter called “What Writing Is”. Both are only a few pages long. The question is, are they about the same thing? Does Stephen King answer Roland Barthes’ question?

Barthes says things like:

Any written trace precipitates, as inside a chemical at first transparent, innocent and neutral, mere duration gradually reveals in suspension a whole past of increasing density, like a cryptogram.

Writing as Freedom is therefore a mere moment.

Stephen King says,

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. … Come to it any way but lightly.

Barthes says that writing is a kind of freedom: “the entirely free relationship between language and its fleshy double”. King says that writing is a kind of telepathy: “Look—here’s a table covered with red cloth. On it is a cage …” I think they are ultimately talking about the same thing. But Barthes (though also a writer) is approaching it as a theorist and King is approaching it as a practitioner. Barthes, perhaps more importantly, is addressing the student and scholar, while King is addressing the would-be writer.

Writing Degree Zero and On Writing are very different books, admirable and infuriating in different ways. Which one you prefer is probably not so much a matter of taste as a matter of what mood you are in. There are days when you are open to the idea that writing is “an ambiguous reality … aris[ing] from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time [while] refer[ring him] back … to the instruments of creation”, and there are days when you think it’s better to approach it simply as “a meeting of minds”, an activity that is in any case more “serious”, “damn it”, than washing the car. There are days when you think of writing as the only Freedom (with a capital F) you’ve got; and there are days when it appears as impossible as a telepathy (“No myth-mountain shit; real telepathy”).

King announces that he’s sitting in his best “transmitting place”, at his desk “under the eave”, and that he’s imagining you, dear reader (he addresses you directly), in your “far-seeing place”, like a “couch on a sunporch”. He has a way of putting his daily cares and joys “up top” and work “in a basement place where there are lots of bright lights and clear images”. You, at the very least, he imagines, are looking for an escape. He knows there’s not just space but time between you. Even if you read him immediately upon publication, his words will be three years old. Still, the two of you are going to pull off a little “mentalist routine”. He’s going to work his magic:

Look — here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Now it’s hard to dispute that the trick works. Anyone who knows how to read will see the rabbit in the cage, right? Well, King reminds us that there’s “a lot of room for interpretation”, “necessary variations”: “some will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet …” And yet an image is communicated … to anyone who reads English, that is. This is where Barthes comes in.

We know that a language is a corpus of prescriptions and habit common to all the writers of a period. Which means that a language is a kind of natural ambiance wholly pervading the writer’s expression, yet without endowing it with form or content…[but] under the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the authors’s personal and secret mythology, that subnature of expression where the first coition of words and things takes place … Failing the power to supply [the writer] with a freely consumed language, History suggests to him the demand for one freely produced.

There’s is something mystical about this way of putting it. The difference between Barthes and King is like the difference Ezra Pound also pointed out between Coleridge and Dante: Dante defined a “canzone” as “a composition of words set to music.” Coleridge described the poet as “everywhere present, and nowhere visible as a distinct excitement”. Both statements are “true”, said Pound, but one seems a better place to begin.

Perhaps it depends on whether you focus on the two-dimensional surface of the page (the work space Frege proposed for the logician) or you try to engage with the “the huge impossibility of language” (as Robert Graves proposed for the poet). It is as though writing is supposed to make tangible what is an intangible, all-pervading ambiance of language. But we should keep Wittgenstein in mind here:

The idea of the intangibility of a mental state … is of the greatest importance? Why is it intangible? Isn’t it because we refuse to count what is tangible about our state as part of the specific state which we are postulating?

Once you’ve given yourself the time and the space you need to write—once you’ve coordinated the here and now of your writing moment—writing is, in a certain sense, “easy”. You have your entire vocabulary to draw on, and since you are, for the moment, alone and no one is watching, you can say whatever you want. The words won’t even refuse to be combined in ungrammatical ways. Consider, by contrast, the mason or the carpenter, whose work is forever governed by the laws of physics. Sure, your pen or computer has to obey the laws of physics, but your words are free. It is no more difficult to write them down than to think them.

Perhaps this is why Roland Barthes thinks of writing as a sublime kind of freedom. And why Stephen King calls it, almost without metaphor or irony, a kind of telepathy. Because the materials of writing exert so little resistance against our choices, because words are almost made of nothing, are weightless and colorless (in the sense that their color does not, normally, affect their meaning), we forget that they—the words—are what we are making our writing out of. Indeed, we forget that we are actually making something—sentences, paragraphs—not just doing something—writing. We think that writing is just the act of meaning, an entirely abstract activity. We think it is intangible.

Against this, let’s remember James Randi’s remark about Uri Geller. “If he’s using his mind to bend those spoons,” said Randi, “he’s doing it the hard way.” Geller also claimed to be telepathic. Now, in both cases, Geller was probably very intentionally concealing “what is tangible” about his act from the audience, namely, the important work that his hands were doing in bending the spoons. It was, in short, a trick. (I’m told he’s now openly performing the trick as such; he has stopped calling himself a mystic.) To think of writing as some remarkable species of freedom, or a kind of telepathy, is, really, to think of it as a kind of magic. It is a refusal to count “what is tangible” about the activity as part of the specific activity we are doing. In reality, writing is just another thing we do with our hands. In really good writing, of course, like that of Barthes and King, that trick just happens to be concealed.

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