Artistic self-reflexivity in Strindberg and Bergman

Abstract

In an essay first published in 1959, Roland Barthes declared that modern literature had become “a mask pointing to itself ”.1 Barthes described this self-reflexivity as an anxious, even tragic condition, a tortured process in which literature divides itself into the two logically distinct, yet inter-related levels of object-language and meta-language. Asking itself continually the single, self-absorbing question of its own identity, literature becomes a meta-language and thereby ceases to be an object-language capable of depicting or describing anything other than itself. “It follows”, Barthes proclaims, that “for over one hundred years our literature has played a dangerous game with its own death, or in other words, with a manner of living through its own death”. Barthes conjectures in passing that this perpetual self-questioning began with the bourgeoisie’s loss of its bonne conscience. Literature’s self-reflexive turn has resulted in a variety of fascinating writerly strategies, but has also had the global effect of precluding the emergence of a literature of action and engagement. Ceasing to ask: ‘What is to be done?’, the artist can only utter the words: ‘Who am I?’

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Paisley Livingston
Lingnan University

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