Barthes is the only critic to whom my most consistent response is Oh, I see, it’s like that!, rather than That’s right, I agree. He tells me things I didn’t know, rather than things I agree or disagree with. He is always totally original both in what he says and how he goes about saying it. He comes at things from an angle, sliding up to them and carefully caressing them until they unfold their inner meanings. He has the remarkable gift of being able to suggest complex thought structures, baroque edifices of theory, in the mind of the reader; and then, when you return to the passage that sparked off such an idea, for a closer reading of it, the passage seems to have disappeared from the text, leaving something oblique, and often quite banal behind in its place. In Barthes it’s the interstices in his writing that are often the most fecund. Steeped in the classics and the classical study of rhetoric, which was his first field as a young man, he is enamoured of the paradox. Like Oscar Wilde, he knows the dizzy depths hidden inside the paradoxical utterance, its method; he gazes into them with a kind of critical vertigo. Like scent, his paradoxes have an elusive subtle character to them.
In his writing, the potential coldness and abstraction of his ideas is always warmed and wonderfully humanized by a highly sensuous and physical vocabulary. He writes on the body.
Here he is for example, on a Dutch still life:
What need have I of the lemon’s principal form? What my quite empirical humanity needs is a lemon ready for use, half-peeled, half-sliced, half-lemon, half- juice, caught at the precious moment it exchanges the scandal of its perfect and useless ellipse for the first of its economic qualities: astringency.
Auden is in many ways quite similar to Barthes (Auden was a staunch admirer of the earlier French school of poetic theory, especially Vallery and Mallarme,) in the way he carefully delineates his terms, establishing a dialectic early in an essay to let the reader know where he is going to go. His structures are always very clear. His insights, when he stays to the humanist side of the road and doesn’t go (drunkenly) swerving off into the thick woods of his Epispcopalianism, are often rich with originality. He is often exceptionally wise, but sadly, not as as often as he thinks he is. His potential pomposity is always undone by a mischievous sense of humour, and of the absurdity inherent in the whole project of criticism, especially of Shakespeare. My favourite Auden anecdote, is the one about the lecture of The Merry Wives of Windsor. 1946, New York, Auden was delivering a series of public lectures on Shakespeare’s plays. When it came to the lecture on TMWofW, the audience were startled to see a gramophone player and a stack of records on the stage and a chair instead of the usual podium. Auden stated bluntly as an introduction that this was the worst of Shakespeare’s plays, and that its only virtue was to have given rise to the greatest of Verdi’s operas, Falstaff. Which he then played in its entirety to the audience, operating the machine himself.