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Publication Detail
"An inert and neutral state of form": zero-degree writing, photography, and early prose narrative in French
Appearing in Exemplaria, special issue: ‘The Case for a Medieval Barthes’, and forming part of my project on literary form in translation, this article stages a dialogue between, on the one hand, the formal and stylistic qualities of medieval literary French prose in the first half-century of its practice, and, on the other, Roland Barthes’s essays on zero-degree writing on photography. French literary prose, which came to the fore suddenly around 1200 BCE, presents itself as an impoverished form of writing lacking the vividness and drama of the well-established verse narration. Why, then, did it enjoy international success? Barthes’s essays help us to see how a deliberate loss of “colour” helps to generate a new vision of the world – intimately linked, in the medieval context, to the idealism and violence of crusading. Conversely, reading the utopian Degré zero de l’écriture and, especially, the melancholic La Chambre claire alongside Grail romances helps us to see how the quest for an (envisaged or lost) ideal inspires both, and to understand the impetus for renewal in Barthes’s final published essay.
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