“Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar”

Sigmund Freud, the most intriguing name in psychology, especially psychoanalysis had given forth his memorable and controversial concepts of the unconscious, which are based on the mind, sexuality, and instincts. He suggested a three-tier personality theory according to which there are the id, ego and superego where id is the part which constantly aims at satisfying primal instincts immediately. he also gave theories of infantile sex based on Oedipal and Electra Complexes, according to which a child, at around 3-5 years of age develops a sexual attraction towards the parent of the opposite sex. Another key idea by Freud was libido, which is the energy drive associate with sexual desire, or more generalised Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death instinct). Freud called certain techniques defence mechanisms, which are used by individuals for repressing or forgetting their sexual drives which are conflicting or disapproved of.

Sometimes however, even Freud reminded that, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” this means that we, as readers or critics do not have to associate sexual symbols or images unnecessary to anything that is mentioned in the text. Some images can be taken literally or interpreted using any other school of criticism. this can be explained using the following example-

‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’ by Emily Dickinson is read by most people as a poetry about the relationship between humans and animals, or the kindly disposition of the narrator towards animals is seen by some as her reclusive nature and indifference towards social intimacy. However, some critics do read it with a Freudian approach, where the snake is compared to man’s primary sexual organ and metaphors like ‘zero at the bone’ is compared to the feeling of tightness or breathlessness in a person because of an ecstasy which he or she feels during a sexual activity.

This interpretation of the poem is one of the least accurate and an unnecessary interpretation of the poem. This way, one forces the reading of the poem into a very small, limited, and perverse scope. The other two interpretations are accurate and well established and better enjoyed by readers and critics alike.

Link to the poetry ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’: www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/49909

(courtesy: Poetry Foundation)


Comprehending Barthes- From Work to Text (1971)

This essay, written by famous littérateur, French-born Roland Barthes, is one of his most commendable works, and makes a distinction between a ‘work’ and a ‘text’. This essay seemed to me as a reader, to be having similarities in parts with his previous one, ‘The Death of the Author’. Roland Barthes seemed to uphold the ‘text’ by declaring it as an ultimate literary concept, as against the more popular notion of ‘work’.

The author here, claimed that the perception of language and the literature produced in the same, has changed over the years, the reason being the increasing deliberate interrelation of disciplines that otherwise are not related to each other. But again, he felt that we are in need of a new object called ‘text’, which could be obtained by twisting and turning old concepts of Marxism, Freudianism, etc which are in use for several decades. There are a few propositions of a text, and these are enunciations instead of argumentations. The author marked a few of those, and used them in bringing out distinctions between a ‘work’ and a ‘text’.

They are-

 Method– one should refrain from saying that a work is classic and the text is avant-garde. It is not surprising to find ‘text’ in many ancient works, whereas many modern literary works are devoid of any text. The distinction between the two is similar to Lacan’s distinction between ‘real’ and ‘reality’. One is demonstrated, and the other displayed, respectively. A work can be displayed in libraries, bookstores, catalogues, etc. But a text is demonstrated, and only held in language. Genre– a text cannot be contained in a hierarchy. On the contrary, it disrupts any classification or categorization. (Barthes himself was a dynamic personality in terms of ideas. He was a Marxist, a structuralist, and a post structuralist all at the same time, making it impossible for readers to confine him within one category). As Saussure had said a sign consists of two parts- the signifier (sound-image) and the signified (meaning or concept). The author said that a work is the signified and the text is the signifier. The signifier shouldn’t be considered as the ‘first stage of meaning’, but its deferred action. Under the signified, there are two modes of signification- either it is evident and the work becomes an object of philology, or it is secret, and the work falls under hermeneutics. Work is moderately symbolic, but a text is radically so. This is because; the text is metonymic, which requires a considerable amount of symbolic energy. A text is plural. A work is singular, on the other hand, and in congruence with the monistic philosophy. This difference certainly affects the readability, and especially in places where monologism is the law. For example, the Marxist interpretation could make itself more material by pluralizing itself, but it is resolutely monistic. The plurality of texts makes them half-identifiable, like quotes without commas- anonymous, yet already read. A work is a product of Filiation. The determination of the work by the world, consecution of works among themselves, and conformity of the work to the author. The author is the guardian of his work, and can protect it using intellectual property rights. However, a text is independent of such things. Here, Barthes’ essay ‘Death of the Author’ can be referred to. The author claimed that a text can be read without the guarantee or inscription of its father. In this case, the author becomes a ‘paper-author’. In that essay, Barthes claimed that once a work is published, it ceases to remain the property of the author. The reader takes over, and gives a new identity and meaning to it. Related to this are the propositions of reading and pleasure. A work is just consumed when read. However, a text separates a work from consumption, and performs it as a play, activity, practice etc. Thus, text reduces the gap between reading and writing. Therefore, a text is not just read, but interpreted and performed, in which case the reader becomes a co-author. Just reading would also affect readership, since most people get bored easily if they are unable to reproduce a work. That there is a pleasure of a work cannot be denied. One can read the works of Proust, Balzac and other canonical writers several times and delight in it. But this pleasure again remains in part a pleasure of consumption. This is because, the works of such eminent writers can be read, but not reproduced. However, a text is solely aimed at providing pleasure, or jouissance.

Barthes ends his thought-provoking article by saying that a text creates social utopia in its own ways. However, these propositions are not enough to comprise the ‘Theory of the Text’. Discourse on the text should be nothing but the text itself. The author declared that only a practice of writing, which is a process of production, can bring the text alive, and harmonize with the Theory of Text.

The (Post)Structuralist of all times- Roland Gérard Barthes


Roland Gérard Barthes was born on 12th November, in 1915, and celebrated a productive and inspiring life until he died in March 1980, followed by a car accident. When Barthes was an infant, his father was killed in a naval battle. Shortly thereafter, his mother, Henriette Barthes, moved the family to Bayonne, where Roland spent most of his early childhood. Although Barthes’ grandparents were well off, they reused to help his mother after she bore an illegitimate child. Hence, she had to work as a bookbinder to run the household. Born in France, he studied at the University of Paris, where he took consecutive degrees in classical letters and in grammar and philology. During this time, he fell ill to tuberculosis, spending time in sanatoriums during the occupation. His realization of being a homosexual also affected his self-esteem to a large extent. However, he managed to remain close to a few friends, like the renowned psychologist Julia Kristeva. Barthes taught in many schools in and outside France. After working at the ‘Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique’, he was appointed to the École Pratique des Hautes Études. He became the first person to hold the chair of literary semiology at the college of France. He also wrote several highly accredited books, including Writing Degree Zero (1953), S/Z (1970), etc. Devastated by his mother’s death, Barthes wrote his last book, Camera Lucida (1980), discussing photography as a mean of communication.


In the domain of literature, Barthes cannot be categorized within one concrete group, like his concept of ‘text’. He was a Marxist, a structuralist and also a post-structuralist. The difference in Barthes’ works can also be examined by comparing ‘The Structural Analysis of narrative’ and ‘The Pleasure of the Text’. The former is detailed, methodological, and extremely technical, whereas the latter is a series of random comments on narrative, arranged alphabetically. One of his most crucial works is the ‘Death of the Author’ (1968), where Barthes turned from structuralism to post structuralism. In that essay, Barthes claimed that a literary text is independent, and it cannot be confined to the author’s notions or intentions completely. Barthes in another important work ‘Mythologies’ has discussed the contradictory surface and latent meanings in cultural incidences. Through his works he has criticized the ideologies that underlie popular culture, such as colonialism, sexism etc. his other popular works include ‘Criticism and Truth’ (1966), ‘Image Music Text’ (1978) and so on.


Roland Barthes, in yet another commendable essay ‘From Work to Text’, depicted what according to him was a clear distinction between a literary ‘work’, and the ‘text’, a new object, created by twisting and turning existing principles and propositions. Barthes pointed out seven propositions, like method, genre, signs, reading, pleasure, filiation, etc. and described the differences between the work and the text with regard to these categories. Barthes’ idea of independence in seen in this essay too. He claimed that a work could be regarded as an intellectual property of the author and therefore solely considered in terms of his notions and intentions. However, a text is independent of such ideas. This work also says that the work is the signified and the text is the signifier. The essay ends with an idea that the text is solely designed to give its readers pleasure, or jouissance.

Through The Looking Glass of Liberal Humanism: ‘The Oval Portriat’ by Poe

Liberal humanism refers to a literary theory, which insists on using techniques like ‘practical criticism’, as given by I. A. Richards. It is a method, which focuses on close study of the text by isolating it from history and context. The words on the page should be the only available resources for analysis. William Empson, Richards’ pupil designed a far stricter version of this ‘close verbal analysis’. Thus, liberal humanists believe that isolated study of literature should be carried out to enjoy and appreciate the essence of a literary work exclusive of any extra knowledge.

Principles of liberal humanism compile the spirit of this school of thought. Literature is considered to transcend over the nuances of the age it was written in, and become canonical. It contains its own meaning within itself. Literature should not require a socio-political, literary-historical or autobiographical approach, for the reader to understand it. According to this idea, just by reading ‘The Oval Portrait’ by Edgar Allan Poe, one should grasp the eerie, uncanny air of the story, instead of having any prior knowledge that Poe was a nineteenth century American writer of the Gothic genre. Liberal humanists feel that, since human nature is essentially unchanging, and a repetitive pattern can be observed in human emotions, conflicts, passions- literature, which depicts the same, will remain unchanged or consistent. Similarly, Poe has shown that whatever the genre and whichever the era he had written it in; he had successfully depicted universal timeless feelings of curiosity, fear, discomfort and attraction through the wounded soldier and the lady in the portrait.

Peter Barry, in his opinion, says that a liberal humanist, or Leavisite approach to this story might focus on the explicit conflict of values between ‘art’ and ‘life’. A critic could take up the moralist argument that life is truly valued when lived, and that the artist had committed a crime in upholding art at the cost of life. Peter Barry even refers to the artist as a ‘Faustian superhero’, after the legendary German character of Faust, who had sold his soul to the devil. The artist in the story managed to transcend above taboo, social practices, taste, conduct and even assumed an omnipotent role of taking away life. Therefore, the artist is considered an isolated parasitic being, who choked life out of his subject. In this story, liberal humanists would consider ‘art for art’s sake’, which ­negates any didactic purpose that art serves. Leavisite scholars would study the role of art in ‘The Oval Portrait’ as only an enhancer of aesthetics and not contributing in a broader personal and psychic health. A Leavisite approach also seems to ignore the form and structure of the tale, and the genre as already mentioned. Also, a moralistic attitude to review this story also identifies with the liberal humanist school of thought, according to Peter Barry.

The way ‘life’ has been portrayed as an absolute concern, is similar to the liberal humanist principle that, “the purpose of literature is enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values, but not in a programmatic way”. Moreover, there is no seeming analysis of the form and structure, since form and content should fuse organically and complement each other, and not used for mere ornamentation. F.R. Leavis, in his work, enthusiastically stated how words in a text should enact the idea the author wants to portray rather than just presenting abstract ideas. In ‘The Oval Portrait’, a close reading offers a pretty clear picture of the incidents, the words are also placed in a manner that they successfully keep the curiosity and fear looming, thus demonstrating the theme rather than preventing readers from grasping it.

Liberal humanism is one of the approaches that is applied on literary works, like structuralism and other theories. It is hard, even unjust, to decide its worth and importance, as different theories take different stances for analysing. Thus, like its tenets, the theory should also be studied in its own right, excluding external references and relations.

One of the many ways to identify Literature

Terry Eagleton, in the ‘Introduction: What is Literature?’ has acknowledged the presence of something known as literature, since scholars had been studying something called the ‘literary theory’ for generations. He has taken different approaches to describe literature. From the content to its language, every aspect of a creative work is examined to determine whether it would be accepted as literature, and Literature, or not. Eagleton also touches upon most of these aspects, and this essay discusses one of them.

The author brings in the example of the Russian Formalists, like, Viktor Shlovsky, Roman Jakobson, Osip Brik, and others, in an attempt to categorize a piece of work as literature. These Formalists rejected the quasi-mystical symbolist doctrines, which had influenced literary criticism before them, and instead, focused on the reality of the text itself. Their method of analysis was pragmatic and scientific. Literature, according to them, was not a part of any other discipline, but a domain in itself. A literary work was not even a vehicle for imagination, nor a mirror of sociological reality of the time. Almost similar, as Peter Barry points out, in the ten tenets of liberal humanism, which say that literature transcends above the age specific confines and continues to prevail canonically. These Formalists believed that literature should be studied in its own right, and they added that it should be studied as a material fact.

They felt that literature was not a part of psychology or sociology, but a meaningful arrangement of language and other linguistic devices like meter, syntax, diction etc. The formalists considered that the linguistic elements had a commonality in them, in their effect of de-familiarisation of language. The Formalists, then, saw literary language as a set of deviations from a norm, a kind of linguistic violence. By virtue of its characteristics, literature was supposed to be different from the everyday, colloquial and ordinary words that people use.

This theory had a few shortcomings though. For example, to determine the deviance of literary language from ‘ordinary language’ one needed a standardized language structure. But there is no common ‘ordinary language’ even within a country, let alone the world. Moreover, this ordinary language pattern also changes with every passing era. Thus, the notion of a single ‘normal’ language, like a common currency shared equally by all members of society, is an illusion (author). Another problem pointed out is that there isn’t any work, literary or not, that cannot be read as estranging, or de-familiarising. The construction of the sentence/ passage etc, the emotional/cognitive state of the reader, and the context can make even a piece of instruction seem strange and unusual.

Nevertheless, the Formalists still presumed that ‘making strange’ was the essence of the literary. The author also feels that one can think of literature less as some inherent quality or set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing all the way from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing. As a reader, I personally resonate with Eagleton when he says that the peculiarity in language with regard to context, time, era etc. should be discerned instinctively and differentiated from the ‘ordinary speech’. As an example, he said that we would certainly know that a person is using literary words when someone says, “Thou still unravished bride of quietness”, and not when he or she says, “The drivers are on strike today.”

English Literature as an Academic Discipline- a short note

Peter Barry, in his book, states that education, from the middle ages upto the 1820s, was strictly a monopoly of the Church of England. Only men could attend them, the teachers were ordained ministers, they had to be unmarried and only classics like Latin, Greek, mathematics and divinity were taught. There were only two universities, the Oxford and the Cambridge and only Anglican communicants could attend the colleges.

Many attempts were made to reform this system, and include English, in the education structure. The first professor of English was appointed in 1829. However, it was not the study of literature, but language instead, and literature was merely used as a source of linguistic examples. English literature as such was first taught at King’s College, London, beginning in 1831. F.D Maurice, in 1840, regarded literature as a subject to be studied by the middle classes only, so that they have a means of articulation.   The aristocrats were the international elites, and the poor were too helpless to think about anything but their survival. However, this had a political dimension too. the middle classes would feel a sense of belonging to their country. The study of English was also seen as a substitute for religion since attendance at the church below middle class was very poor. So those people needed to be taught moral restraints. However, the Author also feels that English was introduced as a subject for the collective betterment of others, to spread culture and enlightenment, and a self-interested desire to maintain social stability.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, there were several attempts to establish a chair in English at Oxford, but those were a failure because of a speech  by the History professor Edward Freeman. He argued that literature had to be studied along with language, otherwise it couldn’t be studied. He also said that literature involves everything subjective and that only objective aspects were suitable for examination. He won the argument. However, Cambridge english was more recently founded, in 1911, and therefore bringing a change in that was relatively easy. The change was mainly brought about by I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis.

Richards founded a method to study literature, the Practical Criticism, also the title of his book (1929). This made a close study of literature possible by isolating the text from history and context. Empson, a pupil of Richards, published a book in 1930. It was called the ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’. This book took the method of close verbal analysis to what many felt to be an extreme. This system was seen as disturbing by Leavis, as he felt that literature, especially poetry, was being treated as seriously as if it were mathematics. Even Eliot called it the ‘lemon-squeezer’ school of criticism. Leavis, and his wife however, took on more revolutionary themes and conducted research, like on popular fiction, and the relationship between journalism and literature. They also published a journal called ‘Scrutiny’, which extended the close reading from poetry to other forms of literature.

Nevertheless, Leavis’ system wasn’t free of criticism. it had been criticised of having an overwhelmingly moral approach towards literature, an improper explanation of critical terms, being more of a summary than an analysis, and use of lengthy quotations by Leavis on which there was surprisingly little comment. Peter Barry says, “The ‘project’ of ‘theory’ from the 1960s onwards is in the essence to re-establish connections between literary study and these three academic fields from which it had so resolutely separated itself.”

“Does I look white?”

Emperor Jones, by Eugene O’Neill, is considered to be one of the most powerful plays, written around 1920. A one-act play, consisting of eight scenes, this play explores racial discrimination and the incessant attempt of the victim to rise above his prescribed status. It revolves around the irony, hypocrisy, pain and threat related to such a pursuit. This play is also known to be the playwright’s first attempt into expressionist writing. Eugene had theatre imbibed in his veins, and spent his days on the backstage from a very early age. After having a reckless youth, he had a ‘rebirth’, when he immersed himself in plays. Emperor Jones has inspired several scholars and literature lovers for generations, and as a reader, I tried to analyse Michèle Mendelssohn’s article ‘Reconsidering Race, Language and Identity in The Emperor Jones’.

The article pinpoints the above mentioned crisis of a black man, when he wants to shrug off his ethnic identity because he is ashamed, and hopelessly tries to be accepted in the capitalist white community. Brutus Jones, the Emperor, started his life as a pull-man porter who moved to West Indies after serving in the prison. He exploited the beliefs of the simple and ignorant inhabitants of the island and assumed the position of the emperor of the place. Jones never reconciled to his origin and identity, rather exploited members of his own race to gain superiority. Jones’s desire to raise his status is due to his hateful disposition towards the colonial rulers as well as a strong desire to be like them, due to their charisma. As the author has said in his article, Jones’s desire to associate himself with white culture stems from his conflicting feelings of being both coloniser and colonised.

Eugene O’ Neill has brought out the theme using cultural aspects like language, clothing and stereotypes. Jones’ had learned the language of the natives- apparently only to exploit them, but Mendelssohn subtly comments that Smithers, the white trader, never cared to learn the natives’ language. This probably shows how badly Jones wanted to shrug off his identity, but failed to do so. Therefore, Jones was not only literally bilingual but also culturally bilingual.  Jones’s bilingualism had severe consequences: it forced him to bear a double cultural burden under which his sense of self crumbled.The author calls this identity crisis a characteristic of the post-colonial individual, based on Bhabha and Fanon’s arguments- the racist world is developed on the basis of man’s self alienated images. The author also wonders why does Jones call himself a ‘nigger’ when he is alone but not when he is with Smithers. He quotes Fanon who argued that a black man has two dimensions. He behaves differently with a white man and with another from the same community.This self-division is a direct result of colonialist subjugation.

Next, he moves on to point out the stereotype in Eugene’s description of Jones. He was powerfully built, full bodied, hardy, typically ‘negroid’ features. This shows how the blacks were seen as physically remarkable people with negligible intelligence. This stereotype continues even today, when African college students are considered to be less productive than their American counterparts. Culture biased intelligence tests, designed by some psychologists, back such prejudices and notions. These lead to lower self confidence and self efficacy- as explained by humanistic psychology theories.  Jones, according to the author, was desperate to prove his intellect to Smithers and thus said that he had done almost all the brain-work for him. Also, that the black man has no acceptance outside his community is very evident in this play. Jones had no concrete idea where to escape even though he boasted about his wealth and that he would be safe and happy. The perpetual hurt of seeking acceptance and not finding it refers to Carl Rogers’ unconditional positive regard- which inhibit development.The author of the article however feels that Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious doesn’t play a huge role in Jones’ case, because, he had the collective unconscious of the black man through his birth, which made him experience few of his hallucinations; but he had also assimilated the collective unconscious of the white man’s fear and hatred of blackness, or rather, the black community.

Mendelssohn focuses a lot more on the theme of racial exploitation and hatred instead. He alludes to a beautiful instance from ‘All God’s Chillun Got Wings’, where Jim claimed to have been drinking lots of chalk water to whiten his skin colour. The story explicit in his innocent question “Does I look white?” is no less painful than skin gashed open by a sword. Rather, as a reader, I would like to wave Jim’s question at the society like a mighty sword. Do we really need to look white?