5 | 2020
Unmoored Languages

This volume explores the complex relations developing between a literary text and the world beyond the representational function. Not content to capture, narrate or describe the existing world, writers keep creating autonomous worlds and inventing new languages to account for yet unmapped territories and experiences. As the materiality of language and its poetic quality come out, the sounds, rhythms and visual effects of the text become living milieu rather than material or simple instruments subordinated to thought. Though the effect first produced upon the reader may well be of strangeness or obscurity, such unmooring of language warrants a valuable extension of language likely to bring back to the reader buried, unsuspected emotions and aesthetic experiences, should she be willing to adopt an open type of reading, more fluid than the automatic system of conventional associations on which reading largely relies.

In this collection, writers and literary scholars from the U.S. and France focused on the nature of the mutations to which unmoored language is submitted, as well as on the various ways in which the text makes sense in spite of all. How to describe that which exceeds language rather than avoid the confrontation by relegating it into the vague category of the ineffable? Throughout, literary, linguistic or philosophical analyses have as their horizon the vision of language reflected by the unmoored text, as well as of the relations between language and the world.

5 | 2020

Weighing Anchors: The Pleasures of Readers

Thomas Byers


By allowing the linguistic, philological and even sensorial implications of the topic of “Unmoored Languages” to unfold, this paper launches on a poetic meditation on the sometimes unfathomable motivations for reading while drawing a map of reading pleasures. Weighing the pros and cons of unmoored literary texts, the paper sketches a fluctuating graph of the reader’s rational relations to the text in their close correspondence to his or her desire and imaginative involvement in the reading act.

Texte intégral

“The wings of an open book are the wings of desire.”
Susan Howe, np., writing about Wallace Stevens

1Footnotes are among those “neglected corners” of a text where, as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy reminds us, Jacques Derrida suggested we look for “alternative meanings” [http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/, part 2]). The first footnote to the rich call for papers for the conference that was this paper’s original occasion notes “a serendipitous closeness in sounds” between the French “délie” (“it loosens,” as for instance, “it loosens a tongue”) and “lit” (he reads). Given the negating function of the “dé” prefix, the implicit pun suggests that the loosening kind of reading invoked in the call for papers is a kind of anti-reading, a negation at least of what we might call tight reading. Tight reading, I will suggest, is something like hermeneutic reading, reading that turns the screw of interpretation so that it fits the text as snugly as possible. Pursuing the French pun farther, we can imagine a sort of portmanteau verb, combining “délier” with “lire” while adding the negative meaning of the prefix “dé” to the infinitive “to read”: délire — to negate reading by loosening it. Délire further puns on the noun for delirium, le délire, and on the verb délirer, to rave, or to be raving — as in raving mad. The third person singular of the verb délire would be, of course, délit, which puns on the noun for an offence, a breaking or transgression of the law.

2There’s more: “Flagrant délit” is translated into English as “flagrante delicto,” a term for being caught in the act, particularly in the sex act. “Delicto,” in its turn, sounds as though it should be (though sadly it is not) cognate to the French “délice,” and the English “delight.” “Délit” is also very close to “de lit,” meaning “of the bed.” The (un)reading, the loosening, the transgression, the offense, the delirium, the raving are all, somehow, related by sound to the pleasures of the bed, the délices du lit. Perhaps the “loose” in “loose reading” has something to do with the “loose” in “loose women,” or “loosening her stays.” Of course the bed is also where we read for pleasure; and as academics age, the pleasure of the bed may, not always but increasingly often, take the form of reading rather than sleeping or other more flagrant delights. Still more: there is a visual, though not a sound, pun between “lit” as in “il lit” and the past tense of the verb “to light” in English: “lit”: he reads, therefore he has been enlightened. And in English “lit” is also short for literature. Now, just to push it all too far, “il lit” also puns on the English “illy,” formed from the adjective “ill.” Il lit, illy. He reads badly. On the other hand, “elle lit” avoids this negative connotation, and indeed somewhere floating around it are words like “élite” and “élu.” When the reading subject is feminine, the reading is excellent, the reader one of the elect. In short, women — especially loose women? — read well, men badly, fallaciously, phallicly, moored to a pole.

3Being a man, I might like to think that by this point I am adrift in nonsense, beyond the horizon of reading, falling off the edge of sense. But perhaps in this punning tour de farce I have simply passed over from tight or anchored to loose or unmoored reading. Perhaps my interpretive practice has merely slipped the restraint of its (metonymic) chains and set out to see the sea. To put it in other terms, somewhere I may have passed over from what Roland Barthes would have called a “readerly” reading to a “writerly” one. It might be impossible to say exactly where. Writing that last sentence I was reminded of a comment by the narrator in Melville’s Billy Budd, in the scene when the ship’s surgeon is wondering about whether Captain Vere has slipped his moorings: “Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins. Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blindingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity” (Melville, Billy Budd, 379). And so with moored and unmoored reading — and probably writing as well. Pushing the analogy to Melville, we might suggest, then, that moored reading and writing are sane, while unmoored types have slipped — like poor Pip adrift at sea for too many hours in Moby Dick (319-22) — into the unbounded space and incoherent language of schizophrenia.

4To suggest this, however, might be to make precisely the kind of distinction, and perform precisely the kind of act based on it, that Michel Foucault warned us against: to cast out the insane so as to define and limit and discipline the supposedly sane, and moreover to allow us to repress the madness within “moored” reading and writing. Indeed, in The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes suggests a whole “typology of the pleasures of reading — or of the readers of pleasure,” based on “linking the reading neurosis to the hallucinated form of the text”:

The fetishist would be matched with the divided-up text, the singling out of quotations, formulae, turns of phrase, with the pleasure of the word. The obsessive would experience the voluptuous release of the letter, of secondary, disconnected languages, of metalanguages (this class would include all the logophiles, linguists, semioticians, philologists: all those for whom language returns). A paranoiac would consume or produce complicated texts, stories developed like arguments, constructions posited like games, like secret constraints. As for the hysteric (so contrary to the obsessive), he would be the one who takes the text for ready money, who joins in the bottomless, truthless comedy of language, who is no longer the subject of any critical scrutiny and throws himself across the text (which is quite different from projecting himself into it). (63)

5In Barthes’ typology of reading neuroses: the fetishist, the obsessive, and most of all the hysteric seem to be devotees of loosened reading and unmoored texts. It is only the paranoiac who would take his pleasure from “stories developed like arguments, constructions posited like games, like secret constraints.” In my reading of this description, I see the reader of the traditional novel, the lover of stories, the one who plays the author’s game and takes pleasure in decoding the secrets and operating within the constraints. In short, the paranoiac reader is the hermeneutic reader, the readerly reader, there both to enjoy narrative as such and to decode its secrets. As Robert Scholes has said,

Narrativity is a form of licensed and benign paranoia. […] The spectator or reader of a narrative assumes that he is in the grip of a process controlled outside himself, designed to do things to him that he will be powerless to resist. […]
A feature of narrativity is our desire to abandon certain dimensions of existence, certain quotidian responsibilities, and place ourselves under the illusionary guidance of a maker of narratives, upon whom we rely because we respect his powers. […] This element of narrativity, which is perhaps its most fundamental and most primitive dimension, is a source of dissatisfaction to many contemporary writers and filmmakers. This quality of submission and abandon […] has led some creators of narrative artifacts to try forcing the reader out of his familiar patterns […] and into some more dynamic and tendentious attitude toward the text […] in which the writer simply provides materials out of which a reader constructs a text. (Scholes 64-65)

6Hence the readerly text, or the moored, unloosened reading, offers a complex set of perverse pleasures — and a perversely pleasurable set of complexes — of its own. They include paranoia on the one hand and submission and abandon on the other. And at this point this discourse is going to come as close to a thesis as it is going to get. The difference between loosed and tight reading, between moored and unmoored texts, is a difference in pleasures, in perversities, in complexes. To understand this difference is to come to understand, perhaps, why I tend to prefer somewhat more moored texts than do, for instance, Judith Roof and Anne-Laure Tissut. In the remainder of this essay, I want to try more specifically to anatomize these pleasures and their differences.

7Both loosened and tight, writerly and readerly reading include elements of submission and abandon — of masochism. When the loosened reader submits to and takes pleasure in the chaotic, proliferative, disseminative aspect of language itself, and endures the frustrations of the indecipherable, according to the Call for Papers (s)he does so for three things in particular. 1) “Though the effect first produced upon the reader may be of strangeness or obscurity, if not hermetism, such unmooring of language actually warrants the valuable extension of language.” This is not, as we say in the States, small beer. It is how language stretches and grows and changes and renews itself. 2) (Again quoting from the Call): “Every once in a while, rather than staying apart from the reader, unmoored writing is better able to develop deep links with her, thanks to its capacity to bring up, bring back and bring out buried, unsuspected emotions and aesthetic experiences, all of a sudden turned oddly familiar, like a (false) déjà-vu.” In other words, unmoored writing may make available deep links of relationship, depths of emotion and experience not so accessible in language that is safely moored. 3) The last line of the Call “wonder[s] whether the unmoored text is able to multiply the possible relational modalities, thus increasing the reader’s strength.” The masochism here may be that of the workout — no pain, no gain. One must break down one’s reading muscles in order to expand and strengthen them. Beyond these three, I would add a fourth reward of the unmoored: as Barthes suggests, the unmoored text is the text more likely to provide something like the soul-shattering, self-deconstitutive experience of jouissance.

8What are the nature and ends and pleasures of the submission and masochism I seek in more moored texts? First, I seek a relationship, not just to or with language as a whole (a hole), but to another — to a (fictionalized version of) the author. To reiterate a line from Scholes, we “place ourselves under the illusionary guidance of a maker of narratives, upon whom we rely because we respect his powers.” One submits not to language itself, but to a specific master. One submits, for instance, to a certain notion of and lesson from Henry James, “the master” himself. One puts oneself in hands one believes to be stronger and more capable than one’s own. One submits both to the manipulations and the pains of these hands (which one certainly hopes are larger than Donald Trump’s). One becomes a kind of apprentice, devoted to learning from, being taught by, a subject presumed to know. As one may love one’s teachers, so I love, transferentially, the textual figures I know as James and Melville and Faulkner and Wallace Stevens and Toni Morrison and Karen Tei Yamashita. As a reader I do not want my pleasure, as a student I do not want my teacher, as a lover I do not want my partner, to be too easy or shallow. The text must require my engagement, my work — both waking labor and dreamwork. But it must also eventually yield something of its knowledge; it must offer me the chance to get a high mark; it must grant to me that I have learned. In sum, I seek a relation to texts, and to the authors I posit behind them, like the relationship Emerson tells us to have to men and women: “Let us … treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are” (Emerson 262).

9Third, the tight reader submits to story; to the love of stories. One of the biggest differences I find between moored and unmoored fictions is that the former tend to be anchored to a narrative — and I, for one, got into this whole business because I love stories. I love giving myself over to them. I often tire of reading, which I find difficult and slow — but I almost never tire of stories. This love is for me one of the major determinants of my different reactions to the two categories of writers in the Call for Papers. There are “[t]hose who invent new languages to account for unheard of situations and experiences: Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, Rob Stephenson, Blake Butler, Guy Davenport, Laird Hunt or Percival Everett.” Then there are those who do so “less ostensibly”: Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Karen Tei Yamashita […] Steve Tomasula.” Given my love of Pynchon, DeLillo, and Yamashita, I seem to prefer the less ostensible category. A great deal of the reason for my preference — and, I would argue, a great deal of the reason why their invention of new languages seems “less ostensible” — is their penchant, whatever else they are up to, for story.

10I realize that I am talking about myself and my own desire more, perhaps, than is seemly. But then, after all, I am an American. If this paper is sounding too much like a Tinder file, you need only swipe left, of course. I do not, in using myself as an example, mean to suggest that I am exemplary. It’s just that I am the only person for whose experiences and preferences as a reader I have any warrant to speak at any length. Bear with me for just a few more pages while I try to triangulate my mooring a little more specifically, by turning my Reader Positioning System on to four texts by the same author, Percival Everett, so as more precisely to locate myself in contrast to the looser or more unmoored among you. The texts are, in order from most unmoored to most tightly tied up: The Water Cure, Glyph, Erasure, and his recent volume of stories, Half an Inch of Water. The one I can deal with most quickly, though also by far most abashedly, is The Water Cure which, so far, I have not been able to get through. I tried it once and did not get very far, because it was simply too incoherent at the beginning. It is a book I would very much like to have read — I’ve heard enough about it to know that — but it’s far enough out on the unmoored spectrum that I am not sure I’ll ever force myself through it. Let it stand here, provisionally, for a whole category of books that I may go to my grave without reading. Perhaps if and when that happens, my copy will fall into the hands of a looser reader who is more able and who finds these books more pleasure-able.

11At the other end of the spectrum we have Half an Inch of Water, a collection of stories about the west and families living there. They feel like realist stories, yet contain some mysteries to which realism does not answer. I found them quite an enjoyable read and I certainly recommend them on that basis, but by and large I do not remember them (this happens a lot lately, I confess). I did not find them quite dense enough to capture me, and I rather doubt that I’ll go back to them unless, for instance, I am in the landscape where they are set. I am not sure in what syllabus they would find a place, given the incredibly wide range of possibilities from which we may choose. But I would certainly recommend them to fans of Everett’s work.

12Tilting back in the other direction, to the more unmoored sort of writing, I read Glyph in preparation for writing this essay. For those who don’t know this book: the narrator of the story is a baby who, though mute by choice, is a remarkable genius, capable by the age of two of reading pretty much anything — indeed he has read pretty much everything. The somewhat farcical plot emphasizes a number of attempts to kidnap him for scientific study and/or weaponizing, and thus it satirizes both science and the military. The sections that advance the plot also include the baby’s speculations on his own situation and on the adults around him — many of which are quite funny. Interspersed with these sections are more abstract passages: theoretical, philosophical, metafictional, and even mathematical. Some of these are clearly narrated by the baby, but many of them are from an indeterminate point of view. It might be the baby’s, or the author’s, or that of some other fictional figure. Often it is very hard to place these sections: are they the author’s positions, or someone else’s? Or are they not held positions at all, but speculations, or simply provocations? Is their frequent disdain of Barthes and Derrida to be taken seriously or not? Who produces interludes like the letters between Bertrand (Russell, we presume) and Ludwig (presumably Wittgenstein) on p. 58, or the long and somewhat labored footnote about French art history on p. 134-137. Why? What are we to make of a passage like the following?

writing poisons truth
sophistry knows no station

13The geometry of this text is more than metaphorical. This I say so that the reader will understand the direct spatial implications of the work. I want the reader to trouble herself over structural analysis. I want there to be questions about orientation and location, dispositio and locus, praeceptum and datum. The shortest distance between two meanings is a straight ambiguity. There are prime signs that are divisible by only themselves and one.

a plant emits a visual message
there is only one bodily posture
no gesture stands alone (Everett, Glyph 106-107)

14I have read Glyph only once. I have the idea that a good deal of what puzzles me about it might yield to analysis, if not to the extent of allowing me to get it right, then at least to the extent of allowing me to say something interesting about it. I believe there are others here who already have. It’s the kind of text I can imagine writing about, or perhaps teaching in a graduate class. However, the narrative is finally rather lightweight, and I suspect my investment would be primarily intellectual and theoretical. I do not think it is a book that would develop deep emotional links with me. Whether, indeed, the proper mode for reading it would be unbound, rather than hermeneutic, I confess I am not sure.

15This leads me to the Everett book that hits the target for me as a reader, as it does for many others: Erasure. It tells the first-person story of an African American experimental novelist who, in a fit of pique, writes (under a nom de plume,) a parody of the “ghetto novel” genre. The problem is that, while his agent recognizes the book for what it is, the publishing and movie industries do not. They take it seriously, think it’s great, and pay huge prices for it. In fact, it wins a major, prestigious literary prize. The actual author, Monk Ellison, casts the only vote against it on the final jury for the prize. Erasure is a hilarious send-up of the publishing industry and of academe. It also includes the parody novel, which is a bit more convincing and less bad than Monk perhaps intended. Meanwhile, it also tells a melodramatic/realist story of Monk, his mother who suffers from dementia, and a long-lost sister whom he tracks down.

16Erasure raises issues as complex, if not quite as abstract, as those in Glyph, I think, particularly through its salad of fictional genres and modes, and its questioning the notion of authenticity in each of its different tales. I also find it more successfully funny than Glyph, though others might disagree. It is not a text that provides certainty or allows for a definitive reading. Nonetheless, it is anchored, both because it is powerfully concerned with literary and political issues outside itself (a form of anchoring about which I should have said more here), and because, at almost every turn, it engages us in one or another interesting and pleasurable narrative. I have lots of friends who like Erasure for lots of reasons, and not all of them would agree with mine. But to me it hits the sweet spot between loose and tight, moored and unmoored, intellectual and emotional engagement. It is quite complex without being impossibly abstruse. It both invites and rewards attention and rereading. It is not easy to teach, but is certainly teachable. It is a compelling read.

17Obviously I have not done much to further the interpretation of Everett’s individual works here. I have tried instead simply to use them to construct a sort of scale of moored and unmoored texts, loose and tight reads. I’ve placed myself on that scale and tried to figure out why I am where I am. I suspect that some of it has to do with when, as an apprentice seaman, I learned how to tie my knots: I was initially trained by modernist New Critics, and indeed had to spend much of the late seventies and eighties trying to cast (them) off, at least for longer cruises around the bay.

18Let me conclude simply by saying that I don’t think we should underrate any of the various kinds of perverse pleasures offered by different texts and different reading styles. As an author whose books I have never read once said:

There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story […] don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words--the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book. (Stephen King 25)

19To which, my response comes from the end of a story by an author whom I have read, to whom I have submitted myself, and whom I have loved: “And yes I said yes I will Yes” (Joyce 783).


Barthes Roland, The Pleasure of the Text [1973], trans. Richard Miller, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Emerson Ralph Waldo, “Experience” [1844], in Stephen Whicher (ed.), Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1960, p. 254-274.

Everett Percival, Erasure. A novel, Hanover, NH, University Press of New England, 2001.

Everett Percival, Glyph, Minneapolis, Graywolf, 1999.

Everett Percival, Half an Inch of Water, Minneapolis, Graywolf, 2015.

Everett Percival, The Water Cure, Minneapolis, Graywolf, 2007.

Foucault Michel, Madness and Civilization. A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason [1961], trans. Richard Howard, New York, Vintage, 1973.

Howe, Susan, “Vagrancy in the Park”, The Nation, 15 October 2015, np, web, 9 May 2019.

Joyce, James, Ulysses [1922], New York, Vintage, 1961.

King Stephen, Hearts in Atlantis, New York, Scribner, 1999.

Melville, Herman, “Billy Budd, Sailor (An inside narrative)” [1924], in Harold Beaver (ed.), Billy Budd, Sailor & Other Melville, New York, Viking Penguin, 1985, p. 317-409.

Melville Herman, Moby Dick; or, The Whale [1851], ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, 2002.

Scholes Robert, Semiotics and Interpretation, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1982.

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Thomas Byers, « Weighing Anchors: The Pleasures of Readers » dans « Unmoored Languages », « Lectures du monde anglophone », 2020 Licence Creative Commons
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The University of Louisville
Thomas B. Byers is Professor Emeritus at the University of Louisville, USA, and Profesor Honorifico at the Complutense University of Madrid. He has been a visiting Professor in Brazil, Ukraine, Denmark, and Peru, and at l’Université Paris IV. His publications include a book with the University of Illinois Press; articles in such journals as Transatlantica, Contemporary Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Modern Language Quarterly, and Cultural Critique; and essay in collections published by Oxford, Verso, and others.