Proust gave modern writing its epic. By a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model; so that it is clear to us that Charlus does not imitate Montesquiou but that Montesquiou- in his anecdotal, historical reality – is no more than a secondary fragment, derived from Charlus.
~ Roland Barthes, “The Death of The Author” (1967)
Barthes’ statement, though ostensibly about Proust, harks back to the deep authorial sincerity of Rousseau, one of the founding figures of literary modernity and one of the great sources of the modern sense of self. And Barthes writes under the assumption that everyone reading him knows, from having read The Confessions, Rousseau’s two greatest sexual predilections: one was masturbation, and the other was an assisted version of the same vice. A somewhat recent NYTRB review of Solitary Sex (Thomas Lacquer’s study of a practice became a major concern, a veritable overnight sensation, during the Age of Rousseau) is astute enough (perhaps the reviewer has actually read Lacquer’s book!) to see what is really at issue here: Modernity’s anxiety over its own origins. Radically liberated from the past, Modern consciousness, beginning with Descartes, must somehow conceive of itself as self-begotten. How precisely that is to be achieved, or at least imagined, is, I would dare to venture, the implicit but deliberate subtext of Barthes’ “Death of The Author”.
More will come on this subject from Jacques Derrida, who has volumes to say not only about the self and the hand; amd the voice, auto-affection and creation; but also about the relation of self-conception to the space of fantasy.
plate from La Femme 100 Têtes
Published Éditions du Carrefour,