Monday, June 23, 2014


In 1975 Roland Barthes wrote a short essay called Le bruissement de la langue, later translated by Richard Howard as The Rustle of Language. This also became the title of a posthumous collection of essays published in the original French in 1984 and in English in 1986. I have just been rereading the title essay, after stumbling across an accidental reference to it. Which has resurrected for me the particular intimate pleasure that always arrives during any encounter with the inward struggles and satisfactions reported by this endearing author  who has now been dead for 35 years but who was still quite alive when I began to admire the spiraling originality of his sentences.

"Speech is irreversible: that is its fatality. What has been said cannot be unsaid, except by adding to it: to correct, here, is, oddly enough, to continue. In speaking, I can never erase, annul; all I can do is say "I am erasing, annulling, correcting," in short, speak some more. This very singular annulation-by-addition I shall call "stammering." Stammering is a message spoiled twice over: it is difficult to understand, but with an effort it can be understood all the same; it is really neither in language nor outside it: it is a noise of language comparable to the knocks by which a motor lets it be known that it is not working properly; such is precisely the meaning of the misfire, the auditory sign of a failure which appears in the functioning of the object. Stammering (of the motor or of the subject) is, in short, a fear: I am afraid the motor is going to stop."

"The death of the machine: it can be distressing to man, if he describes it like that of a beast (see Zola's novel). In short, however unsympathetic the machine may be (because it constitutes, in the figure of the robot, the most serious of threats: the loss of the body), it still contains the possibility of a euphoric theme: its good functioning; we dread the machine when it works by itself, we delight in it when it works well. Now, just as the dysfunctions of language are in a sense summarized in an auditory sign, stammering, similarly the good functioning of the machine is displayed in a musical being: the rustle."

"The rustle is the noise of what is working well. From which follows this paradox: the rustle denotes a limit-noise, an impossible noise, the noise of what, functioning to perfection, has no noise; to rustle is to make audible the very evaporation of noise: the tenuous, the blurred, the tremulous are received as the signs of an auditory annulation."

"Moreover, we ourselves can undertake this research around the rustle, and in life, in the adventures of life; in what life affords us in an utterly impromptu manner. The other evening, watching Antonioni's film on China, I suddenly experienced, at the end of a sequence, the rustle of language: in a village street, some children, leaning against a wall, reading aloud, each one a different book to himself but all together; that  that rustled in the right way, like a machine that works well; the meaning was doubly impenetrable to me, by me not knowing Chinese and by the blurring of these simultaneous readings; but I was hearing, in a kind of hallucinated perception (so intensely was it receiving all the subtlety of the scene), I was hearing the music, the breath, the tension, the application, in short something like a goal. Is that all it takes  just speak all at the same time in order to make language rustle, in the rare fashion, stamped with delectation, that I have been trying to describe? No, of course not; the auditory scene requires an erotics (in the broadest sense of the term), the élan, or the discovery, or the simple accompaniment of an emotion: precisely what was contributed by the countenances of the Chinese children."

"I imagine myself today something like the ancient Greek as Hegel describes him: he interrogated, Hegel says, passionately, uninterruptedly, the rustle of branches, of springs, of winds, in short, the shudder of Nature, in order to perceive in it the design of an intelligence. And I  it is the shudder of meaning I interrogate, listening to the rustle of language, that language which for me, modern man, is my Nature."