Prompt 1: According to Barthes all texts contain a plurality of meanings, and he offers five codes/”voices”/perspectives that can be used to interpret a text. Do you think Barthes technique would be helpful in identifying plural meanings in a historical text?
Barthes’ dissection of “Sarrasine” is important, not so much for what he concludes about the story itself, but for the method he uses to analyze it. One of the essential takeaways from S/Z is the value in rereading texts, not simply consuming them.
As Barthes states, “Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us ‘throw away’ the story once it has been consumed (“devoured”), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors), rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere), multiplies it in its variety and its plurality” (15-16).
All of that to say, historians should not be consumers of the texts they read. They should read and then reread to be able to discern the many voices and meanings that can be found in a historical text. Barthes’ technique is important because it reveals the depth to which one can analyze and break down a text, whether literary or historical.
Prompt 2: Barthes speaks of a “writerly” approach to writing, ie, one that champions a sort of creative work on the part of the reader. What is a “writerly” (á la his understanding of the term “writerly”) approach to doing history and how can the methods we’ve learned about assist with this “writerly history”?
Based on some readings we did last semester in our methods class, it seems as though the field of history has begun to embrace a similar appreciation for “writerly” history as literary critics did in the late twentieth century.
As Peter Novick traced in That Noble Dream, historians in the late nineteenth century sought an objective truth through a “scientific” approach, which didn’t leave much room for alternative interpretations. In addition, many American historians defined “American” history as white, male, and generally upper class. As the field of history developed, scholars began to understand the plurality of histories: female, African-American, American Indian, queer, etc. By the 1980s, scholars like Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg were seeking to understand peasant culture in the Early Modern Period. Because they had some challenges in available source material, these historians were perhaps forced to be more comfortable with a plurality of understandings; for instance, by consistently using words like “perhaps” and “may have,” they revealed their relaxed view of historical truth compared with historians of the 1880s.
It seems like a “writerly” approach to doing history is one that embraces a plurality of understandings or interpretations of the same event, time, or place in history. Certainly historians must argue something in their work, but by embracing a freer writing style that is okay with uncertainties and questions, readers of writerly histories can examine the historical evidence themselves to draw their own conclusions. The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis is the best example of this type of history that I can think of.
Prompt 3: For this week’s blog post, what is your own favorite book, and why? What is your favorite literary and/or scholarly passage? Give us the passage and then break it down for us –the vocabulary, the literary devices, the form and the meaning. If you don’t have a single all-time favorite, use one that is among your favorites or that you have really enjoyed. This could be audio or written.
I was an English major in undergrad at a small liberal arts college in SC. The English department faculty at my school were all pretty old, and definitely old-school, so many of my literature classes were classic British Lit and early American literature. I don’t remember reading a novel for any of my classes that was written after 1930. With that said, a lot of literature that I now appreciate for its literary value is pretty old. One of my favorite books is Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Hardy was a pastoral writer of the late nineteenth century and his writings were greatly influenced by nature. I like this book because of his beautiful descriptions of nature and rural life in nineteenth century England. It also has a pretty interesting plot (love story driven like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice) but written by a man featuring a strong and dynamic female protagonist. As far as 19th century Brit Lit goes, this is pretty good stuff!
One of my favorite passages comes from the middle of the book. Sorry it’s a little long!
Bathsheba went along the dark road, neither knowing nor caring about the direction or issue of her flight. The first time that she definitely noticed her position was when she reached a gate leading into a thicket over-hung by some large oak and beech trees. On looking into the place, it occurred to her that she had seen it by daylight on some previous occasion, and that what appeared like an impassable thicket was in reality a brake of fern now withering fast. She could think of nothing better to do with her palpitating self than to go in here and hide; and entering, she lighted on a spot sheltered from the damp fog by a reclining trunk, where she sank down upon a tangled couch of fronds and stems. She mechanically pulled some armfuls round her to keep off the breezes, and closed her eyes.
Whether she slept or not that night Bathsheba was not clearly aware. But it was with a freshened existence and a cooler brain that, a long time afterwards, she became conscious of some interesting proceedings which were going on in the trees above her head and around.
A coarse-throated chatter was the first sound. It was a sparrow just waking.
Next: “Chee-weeze-weeze-weeze!” from another retreat. It was a finch.
Third: “Tink-tink-tink-tink-a-chink!” from the hedge. It was a robin.
“Chuck-chuck-chuck!” overhead. A squirrel.
Then, from the road, “With my ra-ta-ta, and my rum-tum-tum!”
It was a ploughboy. Presently he came opposite, and she believed from his voice that he was one of the boys on her own farm. He was followed by a shambling tramp of heavy feet, and looking through the ferns Bathsheba could just discern in the wan light of daybreak a team of her own horses. They stopped to drink at a pond on the other side of the way. She watched them flouncing into the pool, drinking, tossing up their heads, drinking again, the water dribbling from their lips in silver threads. There was another flounce, and they came out of the pond, and turned back again towards the farm.
She looked further around. Day was just dawning, and beside its cool air and colours her heated actions and resolves of the night stood out in lurid contrast. She perceived that in her lap, and clinging to her hair, were red and yellow leaves which had come down from the tree and settled silently upon her during her partial sleep. Bathsheba shook her dress to get rid of them, when multitudes of the same family lying round about her rose and fluttered away in the breeze thus created, “like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.”
There was an opening towards the east, and the glow from the as yet unrisen sun attracted her eyes thither. From her feet, and between the beautiful yellowing ferns with their feathery arms, the ground sloped downwards to a hollow, in which was a species of swamp, dotted with fungi. A morning mist hung over it now — a fulsome yet magnificent silvery veil, full of light from the sun, yet semi-opaque — the hedge behind it being in some measure hidden by its hazy luminousness. Up the sides of this depression grew sheaves of the common rush, and here and there a peculiar species of flag, the blades of which glistened in the emerging sun, like scythes. But the general aspect of the swamp was malignant. From its moist and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under the earth. The fungi grew in all manner of positions from rotting leaves and tree stumps, some exhibiting to her listless gaze their clammy tops, others their oozing gills. Some were marked with great splotches, red as arterial blood, others were saffron yellow, and others tall and attenuated, with stems like macaroni. Some were leathery and of richest browns. The hollow seemed a nursery of pestilences small and great, in the immediate neighbourhood of comfort and health, and Bathsheba arose with a tremor at the thought of having passed the night on the brink of so dismal a place.
Even if you haven’t read this (or seen the movie that came out a couple of years ago), Bathsheba is clearly fleeing some sort of negative experience. (It’s complicated to summarize, but basically her new husband, Sergeant Troy, has just confessed to loving, and always having loved, another woman.) Bathsheba escapes and goes along a dark path, finding what appears to be an “impassible thicket” where she sits “upon a tangled couch of fronds and stems.” The tangled and twisted sprigs symbolize her mental state; she is confused and shocked.
Bathsheba settles down in the brush, and by dawn of the next day, she has become “freshened” and renewed. The cloud of confusion lifts away so that she can see things as they truly are. The morning dew washes away her character flaws, taking away her pride and vanity that have been plaguing her up to this point in the book. Rather than focusing only on the tragedy of her situation, Bathsheba begins to notice all of the sights and sounds around her. Her senses are awakened; she hears the birds’ unique songs. She sees a ploughboy by the pond and watches the horses, “flouncing into the pool, drinking, tossing up their heads, drinking again, the water dribbling from their lips in silver threads.” Images and sounds of life and vitality surround Bathsheba now (compared to the frazzled twigs she slept on the night before).
This is probably the more important symbolism of the passage. Bathsheba notices a swamp that she at first thinks is beautiful but then realizes its malignant qualities lurking beneath the surface. Blades of flag on the perimeter of the swamp stick into the air, glistening “in the emerging sun.” These blades are beautiful in the sunlight, but then Bathsheba becomes aware that “essences of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under the earth” come up from this swamp. The swamp symbolizes the character of her husband, Sergeant Troy. The blades of flag symbolize his pleasant outer appearance. (The use of the world “blade” is intentional. The reader is reminded of Troy’s sword that he uses to bewitch Bathsheba with earlier in the book, which is quite a memorable and strange scene). While the blades of flag may be beautiful, Bathsheba realizes that the swamp is not as it seems. It is not until Bathsheba retreats into nature that it clears her mind and her situation becomes clear. Hardy thus uses a natural setting (i.e. a swamp) to educate his protagonist and even spark an important shift in the book’s plot.
After looking at the swamp for some time, “Bathsheba arose with a tremor at the thought of having passed the night on the brink of so dismal a place.” Hardy ironically contrasts Bathsheba’s reactions to the swamp and to Sergeant Troy: Bathsheba notices the unpleasant and even dangerous aspects of the swamp while she earlier looked past the evil qualities apparent in her husband and foolishly married him. Hardy uses pastoral symbolism to reflect his characters’ traits in the natural setting and even uses nature as a force of change in this passage and throughout the novel.