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Alex Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A purse of kisses (#70 Balzac)

Come back, the words call, wistfully, hoping for the writer’s return. They are jumbled and abandoned, lacking story and purpose. Once they had it all, when he was there making sense of them. They felt an immense harmony in that happy time. Curiously, he vanished. Now determined to get to the deep bottom of this mystery, certain words, lead by Tragedy, Spangled, and Mis-buttoned gather on a page they have designated as the coast of their realm. Voluminously has a telescope. He scans the shore of the page trying to locate the writer who used him once and then went. Just like that, Inkling says, not disguising her sadness. Sophistication is bullish, cheer-up everyone, it hasn’t been long, not long at all. This causes a terrible outcry because words are neurotic about aging. If he takes too long to come back we’ll be outdated, Dapper says. Poppycock , says Misery, who hates unfounded melodrama. Mis-buttoned calls everyword to order. This is exactly the problem, she stresses. We words have no focus. Yes, Tragedy stands up and is about to make a life-altering announcement, when Voluminously interrupts. He’s alive! Voluminously has spotted the writer through the telescope. I’ve found him. Where? Spangled snatches the telescope. What kind of a page is that? After all the words have a turn to peer through the lens at the writer working without pause (without sleep even) on something they cannot fathom, Unsinewed who is the last to look states the obvious: It’s not a book. Fool-poet, arrogant because of his attractive hyphen, cannot tolerate their ignorance anymore. You words are troglodytes! There is more to life than books. Unhorsing faints. Whole revives him with a song. Let’s just call the writer, Yearn says. At least we know he is still alive. He’s bound to hear if we keep calling day and night. So they begin again. Come back, the words call.

I came to this kiss in Balzac’s Sarrasine via Death of the Author because I was wondering how words would feel about that very situation. When Roland Barthes has his way with the words the author is called a tyrant; acting as benign dictator (I suppose?)Barthes declares:

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained” – victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic, nor again in the fact that criticism (be it new) is today undermined along with the Author. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, “run” (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits menacing ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a “secret,” an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an antitheological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law


What a mouthful, now here is Balzac’s kiss:

‘If I should say a word, you would spurn me with horror.’

‘Coquette! Nothing can frighten me. Tell me that you will cost me my whole future, that I shall die two months hence, that I shall be damned for having kissed you but once—-’

And he kissed her, despite La Zambinella’s efforts to avoid that passionate caress.

‘Tell me that you are a demon, that I must give you my fortune, my name, all my renown! Would you have me cease to be a sculptor? Speak.’

‘Suppose I were not a woman?’ queried La Zambinella, timidly, in a sweet, silvery voice.

‘A merry jest!’ cried Sarrasine. ‘Think you that you can deceive an artist’s eye? Have I not, for ten days past, admired, examined, devoured, thy perfections? None but a woman can have this soft and beautifully rounded arm, these graceful outlines. Ah! you seek compliments!’

She smiled sadly, and murmured: ‘Fatal beauty!’

She raised her eyes to the sky. At that moment, there was in her eyes an indefinable expression of horror, so startling, so intense, that Sarrasine shuddered.

‘Signor Frenchman,’ she continued, ‘forget forever a moment’s madness. I esteem you, but as for love, do not ask me for that; that sentiment is suffocated in my heart. I have no heart!’ she cried, weeping bitterly. ‘The stage on which you saw me, the applause, the music, the renown to which I am condemned–those are my life; I have no other. A few hours hence you will no longer look upon me with the same eyes, the woman you love will be dead.’


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