Artistic self-reflexivity in Strindberg and Bergman


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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