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May 21, 2013

Image Music TextAs the eagle-eyed cognoscenti have noted, the title of this blog – Image-Music-Text – references a collection of essays by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes. The selection and translations were by Stephen Heath who, incidentally, was at one time to have been the external examiner for my MA thesis (that’s another story).  Published in the UK in 1977, in the 1980s it was pretty much a standard text for anyone interested in literature, film, photography and music. I still have my copy, heavily underlined and annotated, the pages beyond yellow now, a sort of dirty brown like a medieval manuscript.

If you want to understand it completely, then it’s a tough read unless you’re well-versed in post structuralist theory. That was certainly the way it struck me as an undergraduate back in 1979, but I fought my way through it, dimly perceiving its importance. At times, the titles were enough: ‘The Death of the Author’, ‘The Grain of the Voice’, ‘Rhetoric of the Image’.

These days, I count Barthes as one of my favourite writers, not just for his looping prose, but because the impact of his ideas. His foregrounding of the processes of reading, performing and listening were a brilliantly corrective counter to the obviously static forms of traditional criticism (‘From Work to Text’), and he had a way of being political without you quite realising it.

His influence is beyond doubt even if he didn’t so much invent many of his central concerns as synthesise them. The Russian Formalist and the Czech Structuralists had challenged the centrality of the author and made the links between semiotics and narrative before he did, but no-one had done it quite so elegantly and engagingly. He also extended the debate into photography, film, music and even fashion, and effectively opened up the field of cultural studies.

They resonated particularly personally for me in other ways. ‘The Grain of the Voice’ was critical of the brand of smooth, seamless singing exemplified by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of my heroes), which also describes the English choral tradition in which I was brought up. And, when I began to switch my interest from film studies to musicology, I came across this essay again and again, worn like a badge by the New Musicologists.

It was his book A Lover’s Discourse which sealed the deal for me . When I first read it I was suffering from a particularly bad bout of unrequited love, the ideal state in which to approach its harrowing analysis of the lover’s psyche. It’s certainly a book best read when in that particular anguished state, but it’s well worth reading in any event. Prompted by reading Goethe’s Werther, a book written under the full influence of sturm and drang, A Lover’s Discourse makes ludic reference to other writers, particularly Freud and Lacan. The great thing, though, is that you can dip into it. And in this respect, at least, it’s probably the classiest book you can have in your toilet.

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