S/Z is an essay by Roland Barthes published in 1970 and dedicated entirely to the analysis of a short story by Balzac , Sarrasine.
In his study, Barthes enumerates five "codes", the appearances of which he carefully notes. He briefly paraphrased the content of each of the “ lexies ”. Long digressions interrupt this exegesis; they place Balzac's text in a web of references: linguistics , psychoanalysis , philosophy , sociology ... This way of proceeding does not elude three of the major gestures of criticism: quoting, showing significant elements, interpreting . Yet an ambiguous impression emerges: in S/Z , knowledge and critical ambition seem to be “played out”. The five "codes" are supposed to form a network through which the Balzacian narrative takes shape, but the very term "code" is here a metaphor and designates fuzzy organizations. These "codes" are called: " hermeneutics " (organizing the story by riddles and unveiling); " Semic " (controlling the characters attributed to the characters); " Symbolic " (the most vague, including language, economic exchanges, the body, desire); “ Proairetic ” (unfolding the action sequences); " Cultural " (bringing together period stereotypes in a sort of romantic encyclopedia). Passed through the five "codes", the text ofBalzac takes the form of Barthes' knowledge : under the name of "cultural code" reappears the ideological criticism dear to the author of Mythologies ; the action sequences respond to the structural and narratological approach; the "semic" code recalls a semiotics of connotation; the "symbolic", for its part, brings into play notions from ( Lacanian ) psychoanalysis and a vague sociology. The humanities of the 1970s were given the attributes and prestige of a serious game. But what matters is that through them, the news of Balzac acquires intensity and incomparable presence.
The commentary makes one feel the tension between the modern “realistic” esthetics, which appears conventional, and the human stakes of the Balzacian narrative: the drama of castration and of the deceived love, the bond which knots, through the intermediary of the narrative. , the narrator and his readers.
The "old melodrama" draws a redoubled fascination from it. The title alone shows this art of commentary. S and Z are the initials of the protagonists: Sarrasine, the sculptor in love, and Zambinella, the castrato under his feminized name. The bar symbolizes their opposition: it highlights the contrast of the two consonants, one deaf (s) , the other voiced ( z , for the castrato whose song fascinates), and it offers the surface of a mirror to the inverted arabesques of the two letters, as if Sarrasine had to recognize himself in the mutilated image of Zambinella, to which his passion would swallow him.