In The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Roland Barthes famously celebrated the embodiment of the reader. We not only interpret what we read, we also experience what we read in emotional and even visceral ways. As in the psychoanalytic consulting room, so too in the literature classroom, it is often the affect that accompanies interpretation that leads to insight. As teachers of literature, we have the opportunity to invite our students to recognize and reflect upon their affective and physiological responses, as well as their intellectual and contemplative experiences of reading.
I recently sought to test this proposition with a dozen or so exceptionally thoughtful and curious undergraduate students in my upper-level French literature class (conducted entirely in French) at Kenyon College. We were reading J. M. G. Le Clézio’s short story, “La Ronde” (1982), in which two adolescent girls respond to a dare. The girls, Martine and Titi, set off on mopeds through an unspecified French city. For the most part, the narrator sticks close to Martine’s point of view, describing her thoughts, emotions, and sensations as she trails behind her friend. Yet, as the girls race through the streets, the narrative focus occasionally shifts away from Martine to a sunburnt woman with a black handbag waiting for a bus and also to a blue moving van that speeds along menacingly. In the end, these three focal points converge: Martine races past the lady at the bus stop, snatching her handbag, and, as Titi escapes on her moped, the blue moving van collides with Martine as she flees the scene of the crime.