Roland Barthes, “Camera Lucida”

1980

Notes on Roland Barthes with some ruminations ca. 2010 on how the text might relate to Nabokov’s Pale Fire…

In Camera Lucida, Barthes tries to find the noeme, the essence of photography. What he notices first is the distinction between the studium – the ostensible subject or meaning of the photograph – and the punctum – the small detail that pricks through the surface of certain photographs to wound one, and, as he eventually argues, evince pity. This is often an individually chosen detail. The noeme of photography is actually its haunting quality of “that-has-been” – not language, not a story or a described history with a mediator, but the knowledge that the object has been there, and is there no longer – thus, it is a kind of theater of death for Barthes, as it presents as living something that is nonetheless static and dead, even an instant after its capture.

Something of this is captured in the famous Stieglitz photograph that Barthes includes – the steam rising off the horses, ghostlike, is as static and as weighty and as permanent – or, in fact, impermanent – as the horses themselves – there is the certainty that this has been, and also the certainty that it is no more, that it cannot be recreated. This becomes still more haunting for Barthes in the photo of the boy sentenced to die – though I don’t totally understand how that is the punctum and not the studium of the photograph.

The photograph doesn’t recall, like memory, it attests, and the most wounding photograph is ultimately personal for Barthes – the Winter Garden photograph of his mother. It is in spite or perhaps because he did not know her when the photo was taken that he can find her true essence in that photo and his true wound of mourning for her as he cannot in photos where he “remembers” the circumstances in which they were taken.

“Black Mo’nin” picks up on this idea of mourning, echoing the Wittgensteinian idea that “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent,” but expanding it. The photograph, and particularly the photograph of atrocity, for Moten, must be seen and listened to – it rehearses a silent scream, it speaks publicly for private grief, it performs – like the theater of death, a reenactment of a living moment, a this has been,

Pale Fire employs a notably photographic language – There is also a spylike/voyeuristic quality, examination of all through crystal, glass, lenses, etc. Also,There are a few aspects of these texts I want to hold especially close as we move forward:  First, Barthes’ Kafka quote: “ ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’ ” (53)

If we can consider Pale Fire a highly visual novel, which I think we can, we might also consider it a novel that attempts to employ an almost photographic language. Shade looks out through the ‘picture’ window of his house, and the prisms of his interpretations are filtered through the media of crystal and glass throughout his poem.

Photographs are all over Pale Fire. Shade’s poem is a series of snapshots of the ordinary shot through his picture window of ordinary objects and their hauntings by his dead daughter Hazel. In his poem, he says, line 30, “My eyes were such that literally they/ Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit, /Or, with a silent shiver, order it…” – these trophies and stillicides then appear on his “eyelid’s nether side.” The “pert pictures” of the Goldsworth daughters irritate Kinbote (as so many photos irritate Barthes, and he throws them in a drawer.

On 101, Kinbote shares with Shade that the King (probably Kinbote) was also, like Shade, unable to recall his father’s face, though he could remember the candy in his hand in that last photograph taken on King Alfin’s lap, a phenomenological oddity that provides what seems to be the punctum of the photo and the passage. It is through “ghastly photographs” that the young King Charles sees the gruesome plane accident that killed his father – this evidence makes particular and visceral that which was only alluded to delicately and elliptically before. He looks at Fleur, his ex-wife, in a photo, and says that “one involuntarily lingers over that picture, as one does when standing at a vantage point of time and knowing in retrospect that in a moment one’s life would undergo a complete change.” 105.

The pictures of the king are reproduced and hung all over the kingdom as he tries to escape, and his friends all dress like him to help him escape. They attempt to replicate him in reality as the photo does with technology. It is also through a photograph that Kinbote mourns Shade in the Foreword, before we have even read the poem or the commentary or the index. In the photo, “Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his Aunt Maud (see line 86.) which then leads you to another note in a paper chase. My left hand is half raised – not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses, which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture.” This is the punctum – the realization of the incomplete gesture that inspires tenderness.

Kinbote, too, is haunted by the what has been. In one scene, Kinbote tells us that a visiting professor strains to make Shade see the similarity between the Zemblan king and Kinbote, and Shade refuses, saying ‘Resemblances are the shadows of difference. Different people see different similarities and similar differences.” 265 In this discussion, an “eerie note throbbed by” – the haunting of Kinbote on the photograph. “What a pity I cannot prove my point,” says the German. “If only there was a picture here. Couldn’t there be somewhere” – 267. They find him in an encyclopedia and a comparison ensues, problematic because he is young in the photo – the photo has preserved him as a what has been. This is also paradoxical, however, because the king has been missing, and no one knows what he looks like now, or whether he is alive or dead, as he has been in hiding. Thus the photograph in Pale Fire points to the issue of deictic thinking. However, because it is a novel, or a poem, or neither, but in any case fiction, the photograph in Pale Fire cannot function as it does for Barthes. For the reader, the photograph is evidence, but only within a fictional world, rather than clearly evidential.

As Barthes says, “Language, by nature, is fictional.” We also find out on the same page (quite near the novel’s end) that Zembla is not just like zemlya – which means land – severnaya zemlya – but of “Semblerland – a land of reflections, of “resemblers”.” 265. Thus the image created by language or the image described in created language is never exactly duplicable like the photograph, but then it is never quite proof, either. Its deictic gesture says something, but proves nothing.

Barthes said in an interview that the reader should consider Camera Lucida as being spoken by a character in a novel, and indeed, in the Winter Garden photograph, he provides us not with the photograph that wounds, but with a description of it. To say, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden photograph. It exists only for me” is to say, “I am acceding this photograph as evidence and allowing it to become imaginary, even fictional, for my reader.” What Barthes does is leave this as language, rather than as photograph, and therefore open to be filled by the reader’s photograph and feeling.

The photo within the novel shows not the wound but the ellipsis of the wound. Interestingly, Shade, whose poem absolutely turns on the mourning of his daughter Hazel, does not invoke photographs, but his memories of her, though Kinbote describes this descriptions as “his picture of Hazel is quite clear and complete” – maybe too much so, says Kinbote, maybe embellished by memory and loss. It is through Hazel’s toys, through sensations of her ghost, through her handwriting, through their shared memories, indeed, through Shade’s poem, that John and Sybil remember and love their daughter, and not through photos of her. It is a verbal, rather than a photographic memory – it becomes the property of photography to particularize grief, it is the property of poetry to give all its readers access, to allow us all to project onto it. In this way, perhaps Barthes’ exclusion of the Winter Garden photograph creates a hole where we can all fill in the image that we think is TRUE of a beloved, so that we can understand the meaning of his words.

Ultimately, photographs fill us, but it is language that can be filled by us. They both, however, allow for the observance of particular punctum that enlivens and involves. The changing meaning of a photo over time, like a lynching postcard, which was once victory and is now evidence of atrocity and an ironic rehearsal of mourning, or the Winter Garden photograph, which preserves for Barthes something the photographer could never have anticipated. In this way, reading the photograph over time is not so different from reading the details of a text as you finish it – different things stick out.

Ultimately, Nabokov is also more filmic than photographic – even Barthes says on 88 that film is protensive, recalling the Iser-Jauss language of the novel. Pale Fire’s dramatic, moving moments are always given with the language of scenery and theater, and Shade exclaims, “Retake! Retake!” thinking of his daughter’s death, and in Kinbote’s last lines of Commentary, he contrasts his real life with his fantasy one, in which he will make a motion picture with his (the King’s) gay lover, Odon, from his Zemblan childhood – Shade, he says, has only been caught in “the clash between the two figments.”

However, the particularizing quality of the photograph is lauded in art in general – the great sin in Nabokov is to generalize, to confuse individuality, to make an individual the same as another. Indeed, Gradus kills himself for “killing the wrong person when the right one stood before him” – it is a novel about the problem of not seeing carefully enough, and, as I want to argue, in a more political way, about moving to action because of paranoia which is disguised as evidence. This imagination as evidence is delusion, or paranoia in the novel. To imagine evidence, to point to the nonexistent photograph, the elliptical wound as proof, to overread every clue as evidence, is to assemble the fictive evidence of a paranoid.

Kinbote says, “we are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new wolrds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing.” 289. There is also the narrative quality of the “unintentional” details included by delusional narrator? Kinbote, like a bad photographer, cannot edie, cannot “frame” his subject, cannot see the image he is “developing” for us? This actually results in a kind of punctum, as well as an invitation to overread his narrative and become paranoid.

 

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2 thoughts on “Roland Barthes, “Camera Lucida”

    • That’s exactly the strange thing! For Barthes, the studium is the topical orientation of the photo – which in this case is of a boy who will die, so how can that also be the punctum? It is the goal to document the boy before death, so the fact of death, it seems to me, should be different here than in other photos where the subject is not sentenced to die.

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