Tag Archive | Barthes

Faire l’amour, ou la cuisine

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Michel de Certeau (1925-1986) in his two volumes work L’invention du Quotidien (1980) widely explores a range of topics such as the relationship between space and discourse, psychoanalysis, semantics, the body, etc. Indeed, the first volume does look like a miscellaneous where order is difficult to follow from chapter to chapter. The second volume however is far more focused on the activities of inhabiting and cooking as the two most characteristic human activities, belonging to everyday life.

Certeau dedicates extensive pages to the activity of cooking stressing its importance configuring domestic space, a sense of belonging to a particular family, and to tradition. He acknowledges the importance of this repetitive but creative activity which has traditionally belonged to women and has been disregarded, in a similar way Bachelard talks on the ‘wax civilization’ referring to housekeeping work, and its importance on keeping alive memories and an habitable space. Certeau’s poetic text on cooking is worthwhile to consider:

‘Pourquoi être si désireuse et si inquiète d’inscrire dans les gestes et dans les mots une même fidélité aux femmes de mon linage ? […] Peut-être est-ce cela même que je cherche dans mes bonheurs culinaires : la restitution, au travers des gestes, des saveurs et des compositions, d’une légende muette, comme si, à force de l’habiter avec mon corps et mes mains, je devais parvenir à en restaurer l’alchimie, à en mériter le secret de la langue, comme si, de ce piétinement obstiné sur cette terre mère, devait un jour me revenir la vérité de la parole’ (1994: 217).

Certeau, in a certain Barthesian way, establishes the semantics of space, gestures, and the body, also of cooking: ‘légende muette’ where the whole ritual of choosing, buying, preparing and configuring the ailments in a particular way was impregnated by narrativity. The kitchen is the place where this ritual takes place; it is a feminine place on which the whole of the home is sustained: the old hearth of the house was the fire which both cooked and warmth up, all the space (which at the beginning used to be conformed by one single room) was articulated around the fire.

Fire is what might bring together cooking and love – explored in some way also by Bachelard in La psychanalyse du feu (1937). Certeau notes the function of the mouth and the hands in eating and sexuality: ‘Nous mangeons avec notre bouche, orifice corporel dont les parties (lèvres, langue, dents, muqueuses intérieurs) et les fonctions (gouter, toucher, lécher, caresser, effleurer, saliver, mâcher, avaler) interviennent au premier chef dans la relation amoureuse’ (1994: 276). Moreover cooking has always been a tool of seduction, a good dinner – with wine included – is a kind of activation of the unconscious analogies eat and sex have in common, as well as the table and the bed:

‘La nappe est aussi, déjà, le drap du lit ; ses taches de vin, de fuit font penser à d’autres marques. L’odeur accentuée de la nourriture chaude, la proximité du corps de votre invité(e), son parfum éveillent l’odorat, stimulent ses perceptions et ses associations, vous font imaginer d’autres odeurs séductrices, parfums secrets du corps dénudé, devenant enfin tout proche. L’invité rêve, il songe, il espère déjà’ (1994: 279).

Erotic and love language is full of culinary metaphors: ‘L’échange amoureux transforme par instants le partenaire en comestible délectable […] le « dévore du regard, de caresses », le « mage de baisers ». L’aveu des amants séparés reste dans le même registre : « Tu me manques, j’ai faim de toi, je voudrais te manger »’ (1994: 277). Naturally, Certeau reminds of Manet’s painting where this relationship is strongly insinuated:

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The naked bodies and the food in a picnic evokes the image of the bed – also the semi-reclined position of one of the men relates to a laying down with a naked woman in front of him. The depiction of the food suggests they just have eaten, the food is slightly untidy suggesting relax, as well as relax of the body. The viewer is left to end the narrative.

Letters from Kabul

letter_ww2If there is an image one can repeatedly find in war literature and film is the reading of a letter, and if there is something especially beautiful one can remember of war literature and film is the reading of a love letter. I was wondering why one find it especially romantic, and I think again Ricoeur will give us an answer.

What characterises a war country is the difficulty of communications, one is not able to to contact the ‘outside’ world whenever one wishes to, even today, which increases the usual qualities of a love letter, mainly desire and waiting, which actually feed each other in an increasing circle of desire and waiting. The non-communication between the two worlds translates into an isolation not just for the war country but for the other one too, say, for example, Afghanistan and England. Isolation is at the end a subjective perception of being deprived of something outside your possibilities, so both the person in London and that in Kabul feel isolated regarding each other, and here comes the importance, even the magic of the letter.

The letter, in such circumstances, becomes the maximal expression of the other, of the other’s presence, acquiring a high, almost vital, importance. At the lack of the other’s body, gestures, voice, words, gaze, anything which constitutes this other, the letter means the whole of this other; it means remembrances, gestures, body, voice, gaze, and meaning. The other is displayed by the letter in the act of reading, especially when one really desires and lacks this person, so the letter as such becomes a metaphor which introduces the reader into the world of the other; thus, London is born in Kabul, whatever it does mean for the reader, every time the letter from London is read, and vice versa. Actually, one puts reality in suspense and inhabits the letter, the one who, and what, is displayed by it. But London is not just displayed in Kabul by and for the reader but it is displayed according to the properties of the one who has written it in London, the writer is completely present in a letter, especially in a love one because that is the main goal of these kind of correspondence: to embody oneself in the mind of the reader through the world displayed by the letter. A good letter, we can say, should be similar to a Barthes’ idea of the text in The Pleasure of the Text, even the body should be expressed by the words without necessity of talking about it, and it may be one of the reason why female and male letters are different, they are also sexualised letters.

That is the power of a letter fulfilling the self by embodying the desired other overcoming distance, even time. A simple letter can mark the time of a person whose source of hope, love and friendship is there: if the post arrives at 7pm, it becomes a crucial hour which one trusts knowing that the spirit is being feeder there for the next 24 hours or more. Whatever the time is between letter and letter, it works by means of hope and it brings the person forward in his or her doings because tomorrow is born from the hope of a letter.

Still Something to do

Asian-Ballet-Watercolor-Painting-360x480thIn 1928 Virginia Woolf was concerned about women, money, and writing. Her essay A Room of One’s Own is an attempt to analyze the situation of female writers through the history of literature, and to figure out why they are far less in number than men. Even if for many the reasons concerning such situation could appear clear enough, there is one particular reflection in Woolf’s thoughts far from being solved, even thought of, eighty years later she put it into words.

Among the women writers Woolf cites Jane Austen is one of the most acclaimed by her. It is not because of being better than, for example, Charlotte Brönte, but because of the mode in which she wrote, that is, completely free from male conventions. In fact, Woolf is looking for something purely feminine, a mode of being in the world as a woman, not as a woman according to a patriarchal society, which is still where we still live. “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body”, that is an interesting statement, and it shows how Woolf was thinking about the essence of being woman or man and their corresponding artistic expressions. She was not so far from Barthes’ The Semiotic Challenge or The Pleasure of the Text considering the writing as adapted to the author’s mind or physical expression; at the very least, as a living entity. This self-expression is what Woolf found in Jane Austen and not in other female writers:

“They [Jane Austen and Emily Brontë] wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue -write this, think that. They alone were deaf to the persistent voice, now grumbling, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-conscientious governess, adjuring them”

It is exactly that which gives freedom to a woman to be a woman, instead of trying to put oneself within the male paradigms in order to be accepted or considered. The book should be adapted to the body, and it can be applied to other realms of the existence. That is what part of Feminism has lost: her own body. Instead of it, it has been the male body what has been defended every time some woman has tried to become a man. Part of the results from Feminism in the Twentieth Century have been to adapt the woman to a male society, instead of adapt society to the female body.

Our Body, Our Language

dancing,women,art,dance,painting,womans-59550cc39b7428ffade728ba4e533455_h_largeSince the second half of the nineteenth century is possible to see in the history of literature an increasing prominence of the human body and its importance. It was Freud who put into words the relation between our interiority and our body and clearly talked about an interpretation of the physical signs to know our inner problems. The body talks, indeed, as we are a human unit, and it is a pity to see how nowadays medicine is just concerned with the physiological. A lot of health problems have their origin somewhere deeper within us but the fashion today is to cut off what is superficially wrong and, of course, the problem usually comes again later on. Well, the main problem in our medical system is that humanities have absolutely no importance and we find doctors with no idea of what a human being is beyond his or her flesh. But this digression was not my intention.

Coming back to literature, I would say Zola is one of the most important authors concerned with the body reactions to our own actions. In fact, Thérèse Raquin and Laurent after killing Camille do not present spiritual regret but physical regret, to say so. It is a very interesting point how, even when a person could have lost all his or her feelings, the body remains and expresses through illness the consequences of an action. They do not ‘feel bad’ but they feel ill, terribly ill until the point of desiring death. That is what Zola does wonderfully, he experiments with the most physical part of the human being and this part talks as well.

In a more linguistic approach, it is excellent the work of Roland Barthes and even of Michel Foucault regarding the language of the body. Barthes, in The Semiotic Challenge finds a correlate between the body and the language and argues how illness belongs to the language of the body. Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic presents a similar approach regarding the sign found both in the body and the language. It is possible to read a human body as it is possible to read a text and until now the most wonderful example I can give of is Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes establishes a parallel between the textual and the human eroticism and seduction. Language and body are extremely related in this case but they are so indeed in a lot of situations.

Lawrence is another author dealing with the language of the body and between bodies. Most of his female characters feel their sexual needs as something which goes beyond the physical and expresses itself in the whole person, something similar happens to Thérèse Raquin. The awakening of the body has consequences all over the psyche and soul of the character and the process of attraction starts with a physical communication which usually is expression of something deeper. When the body is able to express the truly personality of the person harmony is likely to appear.