An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Whether in a seminar or at the pub, often the first thing that gets asked about a book is: Did you enjoy it? This is not just a way of making conversation, but also suggests the fundamental importance of pleasure when it comes to reading. In fact, the question ’Did you enjoy it?’, far from breaking the ice and starting a passionate discussion, is generally followed by a terse ’Yes’ or ’No’ and then forgotten. We may talk about things we enjoy in a work of literature — the gripping narrative, the appealing characters, the power of the language, the comedy and pathos — but we do not very often talk about the enjoyment itself, about what enjoyment or pleasure is. There are at least two reasons for this. In the first place, pleasure, enjoyment, emotional and indeed erotic excitement can be surprisingly difficult to talk about. Second, and no doubt related to this, such pleasures tend to border on the transgressive, censored or taboo. But as we hope to show in the course of this chapter, pleasure is crucial to, and even synonymous with, literature itself. This is perhaps why Sir Philip Sidney declares that the purpose of poetry is ’to teach and delight’ (Sidney 2002, 86) and why, in his 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth uses the word ’pleasure’ (and its cognates) more than 50 times, proposing that the ’end of poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an overabundance of pleasure’ (Wordsworth 1984, 609). This is not to construe the literary as ’mere’ play, as simply hedonistic or self-indulgent. Instead we will seek to describe a sense of pleasure and of literature that may also be disconcerting or subversive.

Take a text that might seem relatively innocuous, a story called ’Bliss’ (1920) by the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. ’Bliss’ concerns a 30-year-old woman called Bertha Young and her feelings of extreme pleasure before and during a dinner party at her home. She and her husband Harry entertain an erotically powerful blonde called Pearl Fulton, a ludicrous poet called Eddie Warren and a more or less equally risible couple, Mr and Mrs Norman Knight. Bertha is consistently described as feeling a ’fire of bliss’ (311) inside her: ’Everything was good — was right. All that happened seemed to fill again her brimming cup of bliss’ (311). She is ’as much in love as ever’ (308) with her husband, but she has also fallen in love with the beautiful Pearl Fulton, ’she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them’ (307). Whether it is the lovely appearance of the dinner table or the blossoming pear tree which Bertha takes Pearl to look at from the drawing-room balcony, everything helps to give Bertha the feeling of being (like Keats in ’Ode to a Nightingale’) ’too happy’ (308). The story ends with an excruciating moment of revelation, however, as Bertha inadvertently discovers that her husband and Pearl Fulton are lovers: unaware that Bertha can see them, the couple exchange intimacies in the hall. Bertha’s feelings of bliss are finally, brutally effaced.

This is how ’Bliss’ begins:

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at — nothing — at nothing, simply.

What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss — absolute bliss! — as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe? (305)

Bertha can scarcely contain herself, she is overcome by such a feeling of bliss that she does not know what to do. The passage suggests a number of significant things about the nature of pleasure. First, there is an evocation of laughter which may complement some of the remarks we make about laughter in Chapter 13 Bertha wants ’to stand still and laugh at — nothing — at nothing, simply’. Laughter, the desire to laugh, is one manifestation of Bertha’s feelings of extreme pleasure or ’bliss’. But more precisely laughter is identified with a sense of ’nothing, simply’. We may recall here Georges Bataille’s remark: ’[When I laugh,] I am in fact nothing other than the laughter which takes hold of me’ (Bataille 1973, 364). There is, for Bertha, the desire to laugh but a desire for laughter that would be ’at nothing’, a sense of laughter as pointless, as itself nothing.

Second, and related to this, there is the sense of bliss (like the force of uncontrollable laughter) as something by which a subject — Bertha Young — is ’overcome’. The subject is no longer in control, but rather is in danger of shattering, as if into a ’shower of sparks’. Third, the passage suggests a striking correlation between ’bliss’ and the inexpressible. The language of the extract resorts to the metaphorical, figurative and paradoxical (it was ’as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun’) precisely because it would appear that there is no other way of describing this ’feeling of bliss’. This feeling of bliss is like having a foreign body inside you (as if you’d suddenly swallowed a piece of the sun): it’s alien to yourself but burning inside you. Fourth, and leading on from this, there is the suggestion that pleasure can be painful at the same time: the burning bosom here might be compared with the ’aching Pleasure’ evoked in Keats’s ’Ode on Melancholy’.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the passage draws the reader into the experience that is being described. It intimates a subtle kind of performative (see Chapter 33), that is to say we can think about the passage as not only describing something but also doing something. Pleasure, up to and perhaps even beyond the extreme form of pleasure to which the narrator gives the name ’bliss’, is not just a topic or theme in the text: it also is the text, it is the title of the text and it is a potential effect of reading. The text draws us into a sense of what Wordsworth refers to when he declares, of his experience of the first days of the French Revolution, in The Prelude: ’Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ (Book 11: 108). Through its evocations of the loveliness of the world (a blue dish, a pear tree in blossom), Mansfield’s story affirms and calls on us to affirm the inexpressible pleasures of being alive: it evokes a revolution in sensibility. It also gives us the pleasure of reading as romance, reading about romance, about the subtleties of erotic feelings between people. It gives us the pleasures of identification, irony, suspense and social satire. And ’Bliss’ gives us all of these things in language: the experience of pleasure is an experience of words, a pleasure in words, even as it points towards a sense of pleasure that is inexpressible, beyond words.

The pleasure of reading ’Bliss’ starts with the deceptive simplicity of its narrative perspective. We are confronted here with an apparently omniscient or telepathic narrator who is capable of inhabiting the mind, body and feelings of the protagonist. This is what narrative theorists call ’free indirect discourse’, in which we are presented with a voice practising impersonation or ventriloquism, a voice that is undecidably both the narrator’s and the character’s. Bertha Young’s thoughts and feelings are conveyed not only through a third-person narration (’she still had moments’, ’she wanted to run’) but also, in the second paragraph of the extract, in the second-person (’you are overcome’). This is unusual — though an important characteristic of Mansfield’s work generally — and strangely insidious: the ’you’, after all, may not finally stop short of you, the reader. The subtle, almost imperceptible way in which the text draws us into the experience of what is being described can be illustrated in the very opening words of the story: ’Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this.’ The word ’this’ seems to call on the reader to acknowledge or accept something already evident, already presented to her or him. Discreetly, deftly, it draws the reader into the immediate here and now of the experience of bliss.

Another aspect of the pleasure of Mansfield’s story has to do with its creation of irony and suspense. The text works through suspense, through the pleasure of suspension and an ominous suspension of pleasure. For while the narrative perspective invites us to identify with Bertha and her feelings of bliss, the text also generates other, more specifically readerly kinds of pleasure. Bertha’s feelings of ’bliss’, for example, are at various moments represented in ironic terms. The reader is given a strong sense that — despite the repeated evocations of the ’fire of bliss’, the incredible beauty of the table, the pear tree and so on — Bertha Young may have a rather limited experience of bliss, especially in sexual terms. Near the end of the story we are told that, as people are about to start leaving the party, ’For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband’ (314). Bliss in this case seems to have been postponed. The reader takes pleasure, then, in being able to identify with the protagonist but to experience at the same time a sense of ironic detachment. Above all, the reader’s pleasure is generated by the pervasive sense that something is going to happen, that the narrator knows something (and soon perhaps the reader will know something too) that fundamentally complicates Bertha’s feelings of ’bliss’. Bliss, then, seems to involve a state of suspension — for Bertha, for the reader and, differently, for the very structure of narration.

On this basis we can perhaps formulate one or two more general propositions about pleasure and literature. Literature is about the possibilities of pleasure. It is about the idea that readerly pleasure is erotic. Literature is erotic (even if it is not literally concerned with erotic or sexual topics or themes) because it is always concerned with seducing the reader. Literary texts can seduce us, or, put more strongly, they need to seduce us. In a sense there is no reason to read a literary text, it serves no purpose, has no function. And this is why, as Ross Chambers has argued in his book Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (1984), the essential ’power’ of a literary text is its power of seduction. In particular, literary seduction has to do with identification (the reader’s identification with a character, narrator, author or situation), with a sense of intrigue, mystery or secrecy (What is this text about? Is it, in fact, about something different from what it appears to be about? What designs does it have on me?), and with the beauty of language (elegance of expression, lyricism, wit, poignant or provoking metaphors, and so on). Finally, a literary text can seduce us through a logic of what Freud calls ’disavowal’. Disavowal involves the situation in which someone knows that such and such is not true but nevertheless thinks, speaks or acts as if it is true. Disavowal involves thinking: ’I know, but still…’ The process of disavowal whereby we can be seduced into the world of literature, into fictional worlds, has been neatly phrased by Roland Barthes in his book The Pleasure of the Text (1973): the reader disavows, in other words he or she keeps thinking, ’I know these are only words, but all the same…’ (Barthes 1990a, 47). The logic of disavowal perhaps offers a more precise way of thinking about how we read works of literature than Coleridge’s famous idea of a ’willing suspension of disbelief’ (Coleridge 1975, 169): the notion of disavowal more dramatically highlights the contradictoriness of what is going on in the act of reading. The work of the text, its task of seduction, is to ensure this disavowal, to put the reader into this state of what is at once ’truth’ and ’fiction’.

This principle of disavowal — of reading a work of fiction as though it were not only words — permits us to suggest a way of distinguishing between literature and pornography. Both have a capacity for erotic and sexual stimulation but the difference between them could be said to consist in the fact that a literary work does not allow the reader to forget the process by which he or she is being seduced, whereas pornography calls for the abolition of the ’as though’ altogether. In other words, pornography entails what John Forrester (following Jean Baudrillard) describes as ’a fantasy of a real in which representation does not exist, i.e. a real without seduction’ (Forrester 1990, 332). Katherine Mansfield’s ’Bliss’ is not likely to be classified as pornography; but it is certainly about erotic and sexual feelings — both in what it tells and in its telling. More particularly, the story explores some of the limits of pleasure: it dramatizes the ways in which pleasure is concerned with strangeness (the nothingness of laughter), paradox (the inarticulable) and contradiction (disavowal). Fundamental to this is what Mansfield’s text suggests about the curious temporality of pleasure. To recall the opening words once more: ’Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at — nothing — at nothing, simply.’ This sentence is set in the past tense, but the ’this’ (’moments like this’) suggests something immediate, here and now. In fact, the time of ’this’ is uncertain and strange: it is as if the present of ’moments like this’ is already gone. ’Moments like this’ are presented in the past tense in such a way as to suggest that they are already ’moments like that’ or ’moments like those’. The ambiguity of the this-ness of ’this’ is compounded by multiplicity: Bertha wanted to run, to dance, to bowl a hoop, to throw and catch something, to stand still and laugh. Are these all different moments or are they different ways of figuring one single moment (’moments like this [one]’)? The sense of time, in the context of extreme pleasure or ’bliss’, seems to involve an undecidable, uncontainable multiplicity. Time cannot contain itself when it comes to bliss.

Katherine Mansfield’s special focus on moments of intense feeling belongs to a specific historical context and in particular to the literary and cultural aftermath of late nineteenth-century aestheticism. This is to suggest that pleasure and bliss can be thought about in historical terms: they are experienced and represented differently at different times. A full-scale account of the aestheticism associated with such figures as Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, Aubrey Beardsley and others need not detain us here. Its principal concerns were with the idea of art for art’s sake, beauty as truth, and the appeal of the moment for the moment’s sake (there is no past, no future, only the present moment). In the late nineteenth century the aesthetes made of pleasure a philosophy, a moral creed, a way of being. At the heart of aestheticism is a focus on the beauty and power of the moment. It is concerned with the experience and expression of the intense pleasure of the present. The most succinct and eloquent text for an understanding of aestheticism is Walter Pater’s Conclusion to his book The Renaissance (1873). This Conclusion, only a few pages in length, offers us a way of understanding the work of many modernist writers, including Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Mansfield herself. All of these writers are singularly concerned with the power of particular moments. On the one hand, they are concerned with exploring a sense that the only time of any feeling or experience (painful or pleasurable) is right now, this very moment now. On the other hand, however, these writers are concerned with showing that even the present moment is already a ghost of itself. In the Conclusion to The Renaissance, Pater puts this concisely when he describes the present moment as ’gone while we try to apprehend it’. The present moment is that ’of which it may ever be more truly said that it has ceased to be than that it is’ (196). Pater’s Conclusion urges us to make the most of the ecstatic and passionate possibilities of experience, given the ’awful brevity’ of our lives: life is defined as ’this short day of frost and sun’ (197) and (one of the things that made Pater’s text quite scandalous at the time of its first publication) there is no sense of any afterlife or consolations beyond the grave. Here is the conclusion to Pater’s Conclusion:

[O]ur one chance lies in expanding that interval [i.e. life], in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion — that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake. (198—9)

Pater’s unprecedented emphasis on the present moment played a crucial role in the development of aestheticism in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. It haunts modernist writing in turn — whether in the form of epiphanies (in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), for example), or of what Virginia Woolf famously refers to as ’moments of being’, or of what Mansfield, at the start of ’Bliss’, refers to as ’moments like this’. All of these writers in their different ways are concerned with the uncontainable, delirious, ecstatic, inexpressible quality of individual moments, of time as (only) now. It is not simply a question of a ’carpe diem’ (’seize the day’) motif in modern literature. Rather, it is a matter of how the present moment resists any attempt to appropriate or ’seize’ it. It is a matter of how moments of extreme pleasure (including orgasm) are at the same time moments of loss: such moments involve, indeed, a kind of dissolution and more generally suggest a sense of experience in terms of what Pater calls ’that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves’ (196).

In other words, as Mansfield’s story suggests, pleasure can be thought about in terms of a subversion of identity. It is for this reason, among others, that it is not possible to say that the kinds of pleasures with which this chapter is concerned are simply hedonistic. Nor can one say that the kind of thinking and experience valued by Pater constitutes mere self-indulgence or a contemptible neglect of political and social realities. As a way of illustrating this we will focus on what is perhaps the most important and most pleasurable work on the topic of pleasure and literature in recent years, Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes stresses that ’hedonism has been repressed by nearly every philosophy’ (Barthes 1990a, 57) and he is at pleasurable pains to argue against such repression. The value and originality of his study consists not in the politically suspect project of advocating hedonism in a traditional sense but rather in the critical delineation of the paradoxes of pleasure, specifically in the experience of reading. Barthes offers a sort of critical anatomy of pleasure in reading. In particular, he distinguishes between two sorts of pleasure: pleasure of the ’comfortable’ sort and pleasure of a more disturbing and subversive kind. Barthes writes:

Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language. (14)

Barthes’s book suggests, then, that there are two ways in which we could think about pleasure. One is basically recuperative: it does not break with culture but rather reinforces traditional or comfortable notions of meaning, society, ideology, etc. The other sense of pleasure (’bliss’) is more unsettling and strange. No doubt all literary and other cultural texts are susceptible to being read in both of these ways. Barthes’s own emphasis, however, falls on ’bliss’ (’jouissance’ in French). ’Bliss’ has to do with the inexpressible: ’pleasure can be expressed in words, bliss cannot’ (21). Bliss has to do with a deconstruction of the political: it is thus engaged in ’de-politicizing what is apparently political, and in politicizing what apparently is not’ (44). Or as Barthes puts it: ’The text is (should be) that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father’ (53). Above all, bliss has to do with the subversion of identity itself. As with the uncontrollable force of laughter or the moment of orgasm, the extreme pleasure of bliss involves a collapse of self, a (momentary) dissolution of identity. The subject is thus ’never anything but a “living contradiction”: a split subject, who simultaneously enjoys, through the text, the consistency of his selfhood and its collapse, its fall’ (21).

By way of conclusion, we would like to suggest that — while Barthes refers to the reader as ’he’ — the ’living contradiction’ he describes may be thought about as, in the final analysis, undecidably gendered. Partly what makes Barthes’s work unusual and challenging is that it explicitly centres on the importance of ’emotion’, defining this as ’a disturbance, a bordering on collapse’ (25). For Barthes, we could say, the pleasure of reading inevitably involves ’getting hysterical’. But the collapse of selfhood, the shattering force of bliss which he talks about, is a collapse in which it is no longer clear whether there is a subject, or what gender it might belong to. Mansfield’s story can also be considered in these terms. Insofar as it is a text about ’women and hysteria’, it suggests that ’getting hysterical’ (306) is just as much a male as a female tendency. ’Bliss’, that is to say, is as much about male hysteria as it is about female hysteria. This is evident, in particular, in Mansfield’s characterization of Eddie Warren, the poet who is ’(as usual) in a state of acute distress’, and whose first words, frenetically peppered with italics, provide a hysterical account of his journey to the Youngs’:

I have had such a dreadful experience with a taxi-man; he was most sinister. I couldn’t get him to stop. The more I knocked and called the faster he went. And in the moonlight this bizarre figure with the flattened head crouching over the lit-tle wheel… (309)

But it is also evident in Mansfield’s characterization of Bertha’s husband Harry, who is one moment ’rush[ing] into battle where no battle was’ (310) and at others ’extravagantly [i.e. hysterically] cool and collected’ (310, 315). More radically, however, ’Bliss’ is a story about the condition of ’living contradiction’ which Barthes evokes. It suggests that that extreme of pleasure called ’bliss’ is our undoing, including the undoing of gender identity.

The story concludes with Harry locking up and Bertha recalling Pearl Fulton’s final words to her (’Your lovely pear tree!’):

And then she was gone, with Eddie following, like the black cat following the grey cat.

’I’ll shut up shop,’ said Harry, extravagantly cool and collected.

’Your lovely pear tree—pear tree—pear tree!’

Bertha simply ran over to the long windows.

’Oh, what is going to happen now?’ she cried.

But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still. (315)

’Bliss’ ends with this ’still’. It leaves the question of bliss itself in suspense, inexpressible, unbearable. As Barthes remarks: ’Pleasure’s force of suspension can never be overstated’ (Barthes 1990a, 65). Pleasure remains resistant and enigmatic, like ’literature’. The pleasure of literature is perhaps less to do with the fact that it ’holds a mirror up to nature’, offering a reflection of ’life’, and more to do with an experience of ’living contradiction’ — with what suspends or momentarily shatters our sense of ourselves. It is subversive, finally, in suggesting that nothing is obvious, that, as Stephen Melville puts it, ’nothing is obvious either in advance or after the fact’ (Melville 1986, xxvi).

Further reading

For a contemporary classic account, see Michel Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure (The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, 1985). On pleasure and reading in general, see Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text (1990a). For reading and seduction, Ross Chambers’s Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (1984) is a fascinating and quite accessible work. Jean Baudrillard’s Seduction (1990) is an important study but difficult. On hedonism, see Kurt Lampe (2015). On the power of the moment in modern literature a good place to start is Morris Beja’s clear and very readable Epiphany in the Modern Novel (1971). For an advanced study of pleasure and self, see Carolyn J. Dean’s The Self and Its Pleasures (1992). On literature and the gendering of hysteria, see Elaine Showalter’s fine essay ’On Hysterical Narrative’ (1993). For a useful collection of essays on pleasure in relation to cultural studies, see Stephen Regan, ed., The Politics of Pleasure (1992). On the politics of enjoyment, in particular regarding enjoyment as something ordered, imposed or ’superegotistical’, see Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (1991). Interesting discussions of literature and pleasure in the context of different historical periods include Glending Olson’s ’The Profits of Pleasure’ (2005), on pleasure and entertainment in Medieval literature; Rowan Boyson’s Wordsworth and the Enlightenment Idea of Pleasure (2012), on the significance of pleasure in literary and philosophical thinking in the eighteenth century; and Laura Frost’s The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents (2013), on the question of pleasure in modernist writing and culture.