Reading Faster, or Speeding up the Striptease

On Roland Barthes’s analogy between reading and striptease in “The Pleasure of the Text”
A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1776)


Most communions are licit between mind and body, though only some are enshrined in language. 

Within standard usage, the mind can handle, sit on, kick about, or push through difficult problems, while the body remembers what it’s like to be out in the open, the legs are happy to run for miles, and the lungs don’t mind the effort. More creative metaphors would have the mind swimming through a sea of problems or the body navigating a complex ontological issue by mutating. (Here navigating, the physical action of driving a ship, was first abstracted for application in matters of intellect and Internet, before being returned to serve in the physical realm, metaphorically.)

While metaphors can sidle up, similes are signposted either with like or as, or with phrases such as the colour/sound/feeling of or the way that. Also, similes tend to focus on partial comparisons: in the context of gymnastics, a girl could be as nimble as a fawn, without the reader worrying that she might fall prey to the wolves in the hills. Because there are no wolves and no hills; the fawn is, with few exceptions, confined to the initial phrase. That said, extended, unintended meanings are effortlessly available (predatory males as wolves, for example). The imagination obliges, whenever the simile resonates.

Indeed, resonant similes, artfully deployed, can enliven otherwise dry literary disquisitions. In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes projects his views on the reading process through most appropriate, risqué-tinted lenses. Appropriate, within the thrust of his arguments; risqué only if said thrust is unaligned with personal experience.

Barthes suggests that the act of reading is like the act of striptease.

Paragraph after paragraph, shirt after shoes, we strip away layers, anticipating the big reveal. If the story is going too slowly for our liking we speed up, skimming rather than dwelling. The equivalent in striptease?

Barthes takes the simile to its vivid conclusion.

…we do not read everything with the same intensity of reading; a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text; our very avidity for knowledge impels us the skim or to skip certain passages (anticipated as “boring”) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote (which are always its articulations: whatever furthers the solution of the riddle, the revelation of fate): we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual…

(Translated by Richard Miller.)

Barthes implicitly assumes that the onus is on the readers to seek out fulfilment in every text as best they can—using any method they choose (for no one is watching). In fact, he assumes his readers are active. They have rhythm, avidity, and the gumption, if need be, to take part in the very play they set out to watch.

Are all readers that active? Shouldn’t they be?

Barthes’s reading-to-stripping analogy bears hypothetical extension in the form of advice:

Slow down the act if it’s too interesting to miss anything when you blink. Slow down, speed up, slow down. More boldly still, alter the order, skip and rewind, dip and mix. And for the finale, defy the sanctity of the act by taking the striptease artist home to love and cherish. The artist does not have to be a her, or even have to remain in the singular. In the postmodern twist, you yourself are that said-same artist.

Texts serve, after all, at the pleasure of the inventive reader.

(Overextended analogies are like dangling modifiers: Shakespeare is excused, the rest of us pray for grace.)
The Musical Contest by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1755)

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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