Sunday, July 13, 2008

Roland Barthes on His "Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments"

In an interview, entitled "An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments" and published in The Grain of the Voice, pp. 177-182 (originally in Le Monde, September 27, 1974), Roland Barthes admitted that he was more or less obsessive about his writing instruments. "I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it. I try out new ones. I have far too many pens ... and yet, as soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them."

"When felt-tipped pens first appeared in the stores, I bought a lot of them. (The fact that they were originally from Japan was not, I admit, displeasing to me.) Since then I've gotten tired of them, because the point flattens out too quickly. I've also used pen nibs -- not the 'Serjeant-Major,' which is too dry, but softer nibs, like the 'J.' In short, I've tried everything except Bics, with which I feel absolutely no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy, writing that merely transcribes thought."

"In the end I always return to fine fountain pens. The essential thing is that they can produce that soft, smooth writing I absolutely require."

Barthes also noted that his own writing went through two stages: “First comes the moment when desire is invested in a graphic impulse.” This seems to have been the stage of copying “certain passages, moments, even words which have the power to move me,” and of working out “the rhythm of a sentence.” The second had to do with the preparation of his text “for the anonymous and collective consumption of others through transformation of into a typographical object” – he thought that at this point his writing was “already beginning its commercialization” (p. 178).

These two stages, "handwriting, typewriting," he said, were "sacred" for him during most of his life. But, after having made himself the present of an electric typewriter and having practiced for half an hour every day on it, he "found the hope of acquiring more 'typewriterly' writing. (See also the other entries on handwriting and typewriting in this blog.)

He took notes on index cards: "I have my index-card system, and the slips have an equally strict format: one quarter of the size of my usual sheet of paper. At least that that's how they were until the day standards were readjusted within the framework of European unification ... Luckily, I am not completely obsessive. Otherwise, I would have had to redo all my cards from the time I first started writing, twenty-five years ago. His Zettelkasten contained about 15,000 cards when he died.

Handwriting, while not just a nuisance, has no special aura for me. Nor do think that there is such a thing as "Bic style," but then I am neither French nor Roland Barthes.

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