Centre for the History of the Book

Evelyne Ender

Barthes’s Way: When Hermeneutics Lost Its Aura

For a long time, though with some hiatuses no doubt, literary scholars have practiced the art of hermeneutics. However, our profession may be past this moment, intent as we are on tracing histories of the book, or historiographies and material aspects of reading. Why this paradigm shift? A two-step change in French twentieth-century reading practices, discernable in early Proust and culminating in the so-called turn to ‘French theory,’ with its reception abroad, offers some answers.

In promoting the cultivation of texts for creative, experimental appropriation and for the development of a critical stance, Marcel Proust not only charts his way towards the Recherche. He also instigates a form of ‘unreading’  (in Adam Watt’s apt formulation) that finds its most powerful echoes in Roland Barthes’s conception of écriture and of pleasure-driven reading. Both authors articulate a decisive move beyond mimetic and absorptive reading, a move whose horizon is writing.

With Proust serving as a point of origin, this presentation thus traces a bifurcated genealogy that offers suggestive elements towards a broader narrative. Indeed, as Barthes’s concept of écriture begins to morph into a creative imperative, writing as a theoretical concept is turned into a praxis. Echoing Proust, Barthes transforms the book from a notional entity (as a set of ideas) into an object born from practical material, physical, and emotional labor. ‘Preparation of the novel’ will serve here as a case-study for a subtle, yet powerful repositioning of the Book, which announces the demise (or minorization) of reading as a hermeneutic gesture. In doing so, Barthes sows the seeds of a dismantling, or perhaps only of a dispersal of reading practices that has had palpable effects on both sides of the Atlantic, as can be shown in the context of Proustian studies.


Evelyn Ender is Visiting Professor in the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at John Hopkins University.

View her profile at John Hopkins University