Adam Shatz

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Adam Shatz

Barthes: A Bi­og­ra­phy by Tiphaine Samoy­ault The Friend­ship of Roland Barthes by Philippe Sollers Al­bum: Un­pub­lished Cor­re­spon­dence and Texts by Roland Barthes

Barthes: A Bi­og­ra­phy by Tiphaine Samoy­ault, trans­lated from the French by An­drew Brown. Polity, 586 pp., $39.95

The Friend­ship of Roland Barthes by Philippe Sollers, trans­lated from the French by An­drew Brown.

Polity, 166 pp., $64.95; $19.95 (pa­per)

Al­bum:

Un­pub­lished Cor­re­spon­dence and Texts by Roland Barthes, trans­lated from the French by Jody Gladding. Columbia Univer­sity Press,

357 pp., $35.00

In 1978, Roland Barthes em­barked on a se­ries of lec­tures en­ti­tled “Prepa­ra­tion of the Novel” at the Col­lège de France. The novel? Which novel? The one that Barthes had long planned to write, of course. But he didn’t know quite how to be­gin, and he kept get­ting dis­tracted. As Lau­rent Binet writes in his re­cent novel, The Sev­enth Func­tion of Lan­guage, “All year, he has talked to his stu­dents about Ja­panese haikus, pho­tog­ra­phy, the sig­ni­fier and the sig­ni­fied, Pas­calian di­ver­sions, café wait­ers, dress­ing gowns, and lec­ture-hall seat­ing—about ev­ery­thing but the novel.” The novel never got writ­ten. On Fe­bru­ary 25, 1980, Barthes was run over by a laun­dry van while cross­ing the street af­ter a lunch with François Mit­ter­rand. He died a month later.

There was al­ways some­thing in­con­gru­ous about Barthes’s am­bi­tion to write a novel. He made no se­cret of be­ing bored by the great nov­els of the nine­teenth cen­tury: “Has any­one ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word?” Al­though he had been a cham­pion of the ex­per­i­men­tal “new novel” of Alain Robbe-Gril­let and Michel Bu­tor in the 1950s, his best writ­ing was in­spired by pho­tog­ra­phy, theater, paint­ing, mu­sic, and, not least, con­sumer cul­ture. Still, he re­mained haunted by the un­writ­ten novel, as if it were proof of his il­le­git­i­macy as a mere critic. Ac­cord­ing to Tiphaine Samoy­ault in her su­perb bi­og­ra­phy, Barthes of­ten felt like an im­pos­tor, which might ex­plain the en­dear­ing notes of self­dep­re­ca­tion that punc­tu­ate his writ­ing. As the nov­el­ist Philippe Sollers writes in his en­joy­ably grouchy homage, The Friend­ship of Roland Barthes, “he didn’t re­al­ize that what he had done was con­sid­er­able.”

Nor did he re­al­ize that, by fail­ing to write the novel, he had in­stead in­vented a new, apho­ris­tic genre, a brico­lage of aes­thetic re­flec­tion, mem­oir, phi­los­o­phy, and cul­tural crit­i­cism: a “New New New novel,” as Robbe-Gril­let called it. Barthes’s in­flu­ence left its mark on the nov­els of his friend Italo Calvino and his former stu­dent Ge­orges Perec. Writ­ers like Ge­off Dyer, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, Sheila Heti, and Mag­gie Nel­son are al­most unimag­in­able with­out Barthes, not to men­tion the school of con­tem­po­rary French writ­ing known as “aut­ofic­tion,” associated with writ­ers such as An­nie Er­naux.

Barthes claimed that he was in­ca­pable of writ­ing an old-fash­ioned novel be­cause he could not in­vent “proper names.” Yet he did cre­ate one un­for­get­table char­ac­ter: Roland Barthes, or “R.B.,” as he called him­self in his 1975 mem­oir Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Al­though he never en­tirely aban­doned the rar­i­fied lan­guage of the­ory, most of his work can be read as a self-por­trait, a dis­creet yet im­pas­sioned record of his tastes, his moods, his loves, and his vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. As Su­san Son­tag put it, he was a “de­vout, in­ge­nious stu­dent of him­self.”

In his mem­oir, Barthes por­trays him­self as a self-ef­fac­ing aes­thete cap­ti­vated by mod­ernist in­no­va­tion but se­cretly, a bit guiltily, a clas­si­cist, “in the rear guard of the avant-garde”; a plump sen­su­al­ist who dis­likes the con­ven­tions of bour­geois so­ci­ety but not so much that he wants to sac­ri­fice its plea­sures on the al­tar of a pu­ri­tan­i­cal revo­lu­tion; a gay man who lives with his mother, de­voted si­mul­ta­ne­ously to the fleet­ing thrills of cruis­ing and the de­pend­able com­forts of do­mes­tic­ity. He is a flirt, eas­ily bored, in­vari­ably dis­sat­is­fied. If he is com­mit­ted to any­thing, it is to the in­fin­itely para­dox­i­cal na­ture of the self, and to the re­fusal of any at­tempt to deny it in the name of a sin­gu­lar mean­ing. He wrote of him­self, “He dreams of a world which would be ex­empt from mean­ing (as one is from mil­i­tary service).”

Barthes wasn’t the most orig­i­nal of post­war French thinkers; he did not trans­form the way we think about kin­ship re­la­tions, pris­ons, or lin­guis­tics, much less (as Samoy­ault un­con­vinc­ingly claims) open “a path for think­ing about a new or­der of the world and our knowl­edge of it.” Nor did he as­pire to lead an in­tel­lec­tual revo­lu­tion: more than any of his peers, Barthes dis­carded the heroic model of the “univer­sal in­tel­lec­tual” that Sartre had pi­o­neered. But he was the only French the­o­rist who can be said to in­spire gen­uine love—a sub­ject on which he wrote some of his most mem­o­rable pages. The joy of read­ing him is that you al­ways feel you’re in the pres­ence of a friend who ac­cepts your moods and im­per­fec­tions, and sym­pa­thizes with your de­sire not to be pi­geon­holed.

Barthes was born in 1915 in Cher­bourg. When he was eleven months old, his fa­ther, an of­fi­cer in the mer­chant navy, was killed at sea by the Ger­mans; the body was never re­cov­ered. The state stepped in to pay for Roland’s liv­ing ex­penses and his ed­u­ca­tion. His mother, Hen­ri­ette, a book­binder, had lit­tle money of her own but came from a highly cul­tured Protes­tant fam­ily. Her fa­ther had been a well-known sci­en­tist and colo­nial of­fi­cer in West Africa; her mother ran a lit­er­ary salon where Paul Valéry was a fre­quent guest. Hen­ri­ette moved with her son to Bay­onne, a small port town in the south­west where they were among the few Protes­tants, a sta­tus that, along with his early aware­ness of his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, left him with an acute sense of be­long­ing to a mi­nor­ity. He grew up in Bay­onne and Paris, where his mother found an apart­ment in 1924. His ge­og­ra­phy scarcely changed as an adult: he di­vided his time be­ween his apart­ment in Paris and his house in Urt, hardly ten miles from Bay­onne, where he set up an of­fice iden­ti­cal to his home of­fice on the rue Ser­vanondi, next to Saint-Sulpice. Barthes needed such rou­tines or, as he put it, “struc­tures,” to write. The foun­da­tional struc­ture was his bond with Hen­ri­ette, with whom he lived un­til her death. Noth­ing would threaten it: not her tem­pes­tu­ous love af­fair with An­dré Salzedo, a Jewish in­dus­trial ce­ramist and a mar­ried man, with whom she had a son, Barthes’s half-brother Michel, in 1927; or his own noc­tur­nal ad­ven­tures (he al­ways re­turned home af­ter cruis­ing). As he wrote in his mem­oir, “No fa­ther to kill, no fam­ily to hate, no mi­lieu to re­ject: great Oedi­pal frus­tra­tion!”

As a stu­dent in Paris at the Ly­cée Mon­taigne and later at Louis-le-Grand, Barthes im­mersed him­self in all that was new: the mu­sic of De­bussy, the po­etry of Mal­larmé, the writ­ings of Ni­et­zsche and Gide. He flirted with writ­ing a novel, but com­plained to his friend Philippe Re­bey­rol (later a distin­guished diplo­mat) that the novel was “by def­i­ni­tion an anti-artis­tic genre,” too bur­dened by psy­chol­ogy: he wanted to write some­thing in “the ‘tonal­ity’ of Art.” (In any case, his life was “just too pleas­ant” to write a novel.) In­stead he prac­ticed the pi­ano, wrote sonati­nas, and took singing lessons with Charles Panzéra, whom he would later use to il­lus­trate his con­cept of the “grain of the voice,” the trace of “the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it per­forms.” Theater was his other pas­sion: at the Sor­bonne, he helped found the Groupe de théâtre an­tique and per­formed in its pro­duc­tions. His ex­pe­ri­ences on­stage left him with what Son­tag called a “pro­found love of ap­pear­ances.”

In the era of the Pop­u­lar Front, Barthes was an in­stinc­tive an­tifas­cist, an ad­mirer of the mod­er­ate So­cial­ist leader Jean Jau­rès: “Ev­ery­thing he says is wise, noble, hu­man and above all kindly.” In a 1939 let­ter he wrote elo­quently of his “ha­tred against the stench of this coun­try,” but he steered clear of rev­o­lu­tion­ary rhetoric. (“I am lib­eral in or­der not to be a killer,” he wrote in his mem­oir.) He was, in any case, fight­ing a more per­sonal war with pul­monary tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. In 1942, Barthes was con­fined at the sana­to­rium of Saint-Hi­laire-du-Tou­vet. He spent the last year of the war ly­ing for eigh­teen hours a day in a re­clined po­si­tion, with his head low­ered, in si­lence. At Saint-Hi­laire Barthes fell in love with a fel­low pa­tient, Robert David. His let­ters to David, which are reprinted in Al­bum (a newly trans­lated se­lec­tion of his cor­re­spon­dence), pre­fig­ure the themes he would ex­plore in his 1977 book A Lover’s Dis­course:

Love il­lu­mi­nates for us our im­per­fec­tion. It is noth­ing other than the un­canny move­ment of our con­scious­ness com­par­ing two un­equal terms—on the one hand, all the per­fec­tion and plen­i­tude of the beloved; on the other hand, all the mis­ery, thirst, and des­ti­tu­tion of our­selves—and the fierce de­sire to unite these two such dis­parate terms.

Re­mark­ably, Barthes seems never to have suf­fered the tor­ments of the closet;

he ac­cepted his de­sires with­out guilt or am­biva­lence. “I’m al­ready re­ally quite self-af­firmed,” he wrote a het­ero­sex­ual friend in 1942, though, dis­creet as ever, he added that “self-af­fir­ma­tion mustn’t be­come os­ten­ta­tion.”

By the time Barthes left the sana­to­rium in 1946, he was, in his own words, “a Sar­trian and a Marx­ist.” He had fallen un­der the in­flu­ence of an­other pa­tient, a Trot­sky­ist sur­vivor of Buchen­wald who had im­pressed him as much for his per­sonal qual­i­ties—“the moral free­dom, the seren­ity, the el­e­gant dis­tance,” as Samoy­ault puts it— as for his anal­y­sis of the class strug­gle. Barthes’s Marx­ism was het­ero­dox and deeply anti-Stal­in­ist. “Com­mu­nism can­not be a hope,” he wrote to Robert David. “Marx­ism yes, per­haps, but nei­ther Rus­sia nor the French Com­mu­nist Party are re­ally Marx­ist.”

That con­vic­tion was re­in­forced in Bucharest, where he taught at the French In­sti­tute in the late 1940s. Ro­ma­nian cul­ture was then be­ing purged of “Western” in­flu­ences, in­clud­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Barthes, who shared an apart­ment with his mother above the French li­brary, did his best to pro­tect its col­lec­tion from the lo­cal cen­sors, and was soon ap­pointed France’s cul­tural at­taché, be­fore be­ing ex­pelled. In a bril­liant pa­per on the semi­otics of the new “Ro­ma­nian science,” he showed how “na­tion­al­ism” and “cos­mopoli­tanism,” ep­i­thets for “Western” feel­ings, were trans­formed into the virtues of “pa­tri­o­tism” and “in­ter­na­tion­al­ism” when ap­plied to com­mu­nism.

Barthes deep­ened his cri­tique of Stal­in­ist writ­ing, in which the “sole con­tent” of lan­guage is “the sep­a­ra­tion be­tween Good and Evil,” in his first book, Writ­ing De­gree Zero (1953). Al­though he still con­sid­ered him­self a Marx­ist, he had seen in Bucharest how eas­ily Marx­ism could lend it­self to “po­lice-state writ­ing”—and to aes­thetic ba­nal­ity. French Com­mu­nist writ­ers were “keep­ing alive a bour­geois writ­ing which bour­geois writ­ers have them­selves con­demned long ago.” He also im­plic­itly dis­tanced him­self from his hero Sartre, who had de­fined rev­o­lu­tion­ary prose as an ex­pres­sion of po­lit­i­cal com­mit­ment.

For Barthes, writ­ing was rev­o­lu­tion­ary only in­so­far as it was rev­o­lu­tion­ary in form, and the qual­i­ties he ad­mired in rad­i­cal lit­er­a­ture were opac­ity, com­plex­ity, and elu­sive­ness, a de­fi­ance of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion that Sartre had seen as its goal: “Rooted in some­thing be­yond lan­guage, it de­vel­ops like a seed, not like a line.” He ad­vo­cated a “neu­tral writ­ing,” cleansed of sym­bol­ism, psy­chol­ogy, and self-con­scious lit­er­ari­ness, like the flat, in­ex­pres­sive style of Meur­sault, Ca­mus’s nar­ra­tor in The Stranger. “Lit­er­a­ture is like phos­pho­rous,” he wrote. “It shines with its max­i­mum bril­liance at the mo­ment when it at­tempts to die.” As Samoy­ault as­tutely ob­serves, rather than de­nounce Sartre, Barthes “in­cor­po­rated”—and tran­scended—him.

The writer Barthes cham­pi­oned most pas­sion­ately in the 1950s was Brecht, who had cre­ated a theater “pu­ri­fied of bour­geois struc­tures” that at the same time avoided the pieties of left­wing di­dac­ti­cism. Brecht’s Marx­ism, Samoy­ault writes, supplied Barthes with “a method of read­ing, a prin­ci­ple of de­mys­ti­fi­ca­tion.” Barthes used this method, along with the tools of struc­tural­ist lin­guis­tics, in his 1957 col­lec­tion of news­pa­per col­umns, Mytholo­gies. In sly, pithy es­says on wrestling matches, steak-frites, cruises, strip­tease, Greta Garbo’s face, Ein­stein’s brain, and the new Citroën, he un­veiled the process of “mys­ti­fi­ca­tion which trans­forms pe­tit bour­geois cul­ture into a univer­sal na­ture.” The book soon be­came nearly as myth­i­cal as its sub­jects, for its sharp cri­tique of French con­sumer cul­ture at the height of the trente glo­rieuses. But what distin­guished Barthes from the dour an­a­lysts of the Frank­furt School was, as Samoy­ault writes, his play­ful abil­ity to “con­nect de­sire with cri­tique”: the es­says in Mytholo­gies have “a cer­tain the­atri­cal­ity...both mag­nif­i­cently comic and at the same time ped­a­gogic.” Pub­lished against the back­drop of the war in Al­ge­ria, Mytholo­gies was also Barthes’s most rad­i­cal book, an evis­cer­a­tion of the self-con­grat­u­la­tory myths that un­der­pinned France’s mis­sion civil­isatrice in the colonies. “Wine’s mythol­ogy,” for ex­am­ple, did not go un­ap­pre­ci­ated by “the big Al­ge­rian set­tlers who im­pose on the Mus­lims, on the very land of which they have been dis­pos­sessed, a crop from which they have no use, while they ac­tu­ally lack bread.” In his con­clud­ing the­o­ret­i­cal chap­ter, Barthes ex­am­ined a Paris Match cover show­ing a black sol­dier salut­ing the tri­color—a “good Ne­gro who salutes us like one of our own boys,” he acidly ob­served—to show that “myth hides noth­ing: its func­tion is to dis­tort, not to make dis­ap­pear.”

Barthes was not, how­ever, a man of the bar­ri­cades. When the writer and philoso­pher Mau­rice Blan­chot asked him to sign the 1960 “Man­i­festo of the 121,” a dec­la­ra­tion in sup­port of in­sub­or­di­na­tion against the Al­ge­rian war, Barthes de­clined, ex­plain­ing that he felt “re­pug­nance to­ward any­thing that could re­sem­ble a ges­ture in the life of a writer.” The hero­ics of in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ment, and the cal­ci­fied “doxa” he felt they en­cour­aged, were anath­ema to him. He re­coiled from pub­lic de­bate, and har­bored a pro­found bias against the spo­ken word. (Fas­cism, he said, is “any regime that not only pre­vents one from speak­ing but above all obliges one to speak.”) He did not con­ceal his erotic lean­ings—he ded­i­cated the first vol­ume of his Crit­i­cal Es­says, pub­lished in 1964, to his lover François Braun­schweig, an eigh­teenyear-old law stu­dent—but the “po­lit­i­cal lib­er­a­tion of sex­u­al­ity” struck him as “a dou­ble trans­gres­sion, of politics by the sex­ual, and con­versely.” His own moral­ity, he wrote, was “the courage of dis­cre­tion”: “It is coura­geous not to be coura­geous.”

When the stu­dent demon­stra­tions of May 1968 broke out, Barthes was hurt by the graf­fiti that said “Struc­tures do not take to the streets,” but, with his hor­ror of the spo­ken word, he had lit­tle sym­pa­thy for the move­ment’s speechi­fy­ing, and he was now a mid­dle-aged mem­ber of the es­tab­lish­ment, chair­man of the sixth sec­tion of the École pra­tique des hautes études. Nor could he deny hav­ing been in­fat­u­ated with struc­tural­ism’s “dream of sci­en­tificity.” From the mid-1950s un­til nearly the end of the 1960s, he had been a dili­gent stu­dent of Fer­di­nand de Saus­sure, Ro­man Jakob­son, and other lin­guis­tic the­o­rists, ap­ply­ing their in­sights to ev­ery­thing from Michelet and Racine to the lan­guage of fash­ion and the Eif­fel Tower. But Barthes even­tu­ally chafed against the rigid­ity of struc­tural­ism, and aban­doned it much as he had Marx­ism: “qui­etly and with­out fuss, on tip­toe as al­ways,” as Robbe-Gril­let re­marked.

By

May 1968 he had al­ready em­braced the next trend, later known as “post­struc­tural­ism,” which cel­e­brated the end­less play, the rest­less and fugi­tive na­ture of signs. In­ter­pre­ta­tive sys­tems, he de­cided, were a kind of tyranny im­posed on the reader, and struc­tural­ism was no less guilty of this than Marx­ism and Freudi­an­ism—a con­clu­sion he reached around the same time as his friend the “tou­jours fidèle” Su­san Son­tag did in Against In­ter­pre­ta­tion. In his 1968 es­say “The Death of the Au­thor,” he ar­gued that read­ing it­self had to be lib­er­ated from the re­pres­sive “func­tion of the au­thor.” He showed what the lib­er­a­tion of the reader might look like in two books pub­lished in 1970: S/Z, a vir­tu­osic, para­graph-by-para­graph read­ing of a lit­tle-known Balzac short story about a cas­trato singer dis­guised as a wo­man, and Em­pire of Signs, his ex­quis­ite trav­el­ogue about Ja­pan. Barthes had fallen in love with Ja­pan af­ter his first visit in 1966. But he was the first to ac­knowl­edge that the “coun­try I am call­ing Ja­pan” was an imag­i­nary coun­try, and he was happy for the ac­tual place to re­main elu­sive. (As he con­fessed in a let­ter writ­ten in 1942, “I have no cu­rios­ity about facts, I am only cu­ri­ous—but fa­nat­i­cally so— about hu­mans.”) Noth­ing pleased him more than the “rus­tle” of a lan­guage he did not un­der­stand: at last, lan­guage was freed from mean­ing, from the ref­er­en­tial prop­erty that he called “stick­i­ness,” and con­verted into pure sound. Not sur­pris­ingly, Barthes’s fa­vorite con­tem­po­rary artist was Cy Twombly, whose paint­ings re­sem­bled il­leg­i­ble scrib­bles—a style that Barthes, an am­a­teur artist, em­u­lated in his own draw­ings.

While Barthes learned a bit of Ja­panese, he had lit­tle in­ter­est in lit­er­a­tures other than French, and vir­tu­ally none in French fic­tion writ­ten in former colonies such as Morocco, where he taught in the early 1970s and of­ten spent his hol­i­days, mostly in search of boys. (His loathing of colo­nial­ism did not ex­tend to sex­ual tourism.) His taste in con­tem­po­rary French lit­er­a­ture ran to fad­dish prac­ti­tion­ers of “neu­tral writ­ing,” since his aver­sion to mean­ing left him in­dif­fer­ent to nov­els with psy­cho­log­i­cal, much less his­tor­i­cal, themes. He never wrote about Perec, the most in­no­va­tive French nov­el­ist to emerge in the 1960s, who shared his fas­ci­na­tion with lan­guage, writ­ing, and the mytholo­gies of con­sumer so­ci­ety. Perec was crushed by the “si­lence” of his “mas­ter,” in­sist­ing that his nov­els had “no other ex­is­tence than those which your read­ing of them may pro­vide.” But Perec was a Jew who had lost his par­ents in the war, and the void that lies at the cen­ter of his work is their dis­ap­pear­ance in the Holo­caust, not the satori, the empti­ness of the haikus that Barthes adored. Perec’s nov­els were too “sticky,” too heavy with mean­ing for Barthes, who, as Son­tag ob­served, “had lit­tle feel­ing for the tragic.”

Still, post­struc­tural­ism en­cour­aged Barthes’s most ap­peal­ing qual­ity, the grain of his voice, and his writ­ing in­creas­ingly as­sumed its own pe­tite musique, lib­eral in its use of quo­ta­tion marks, ital­ics, and paren­the­ses. At the time of Barthes’s de­fec­tion from the struc­tural­ist camp, Claude LéviS­trauss wrote him, “There is an eclec­ti­cism that comes across in the ex­ces­sive lik­ing you show for sub­jec­tiv­ity, for feel­ings.” If Barthes was no longer ca­pa­ble of mak­ing dis­tinc­tions be­tween “sym­bolic forms” and “the in­signif­i­cant con­tents that men and the cen­turies can pour into them,” per­haps, Lévi-Strauss spec­u­lated, struc­tural­ism had al­ways been “far from his true na­ture.” Was the em­peror of struc­tural­ist an­thro­pol­ogy tak­ing a jab at Barthes’s ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, im­ply­ing that he was too soft and fem­i­nine for the rig­ors of science? Per­haps, but he was not alone in ex­press­ing dis­dain for Barthes, whose au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ings pro­voked fre­quent ac­cu­sa­tions of frivolous­ness or pan­der­ing among aca­demics. Barthes won elec­tion to the Col­lège de France by only a slen­der mar­gin in 1975. Even Fou­cault, who had sup­ported his can­di­dacy, raised his eye­brows when, two years later, Barthes

pub­lished A Lover’s Dis­course. That book grew out of his ob­ses­sive love for a young Ro­ma­nian man, an or­deal that led him to un­der­take an ill-fated anal­y­sis with Jac­ques La­can (“an old fool with an old fo­gey,” as Barthes de­scribed their ses­sions). A del­i­cate, of­ten rap­tur­ous se­quence of frag­ments about the many states of ar­dor, long­ing, and in­fat­u­a­tion, it bathed un­apolo­get­i­cally in the sort of rhetoric that Fou­cault had dis­man­tled in the first vol­ume of his His­tory of Sex­u­al­ity, pub­lished a year ear­lier.

But Barthes’s orig­i­nal­ity lay pre­cisely in his riffs on or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences, which were met with glacial in­dif­fer­ence, or smug dis­sec­tion, from his peers. He de­moc­ra­tized semi­ol­ogy by show­ing that we are all am­a­teur semi­ol­o­gists when we are in love, ob­ses­sively read­ing the be­hav­ior of the beloved for signs of af­fec­tion re­turned or de­nied. In his 1973 man­i­festo The Plea­sure of the Text he de­fended an­other value held in dis­dain by “the po­lit­i­cal po­lice­man and the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal po­lice­man.” He aligned him­self with read­ers, with “the mod­est prac­tices of a Sun­day painter and an am­a­teur pi­anist,” as Samoy­ault puts it, not with ped­a­gogues, and winked at them know­ingly, ad­mit­ting that he, too, had a ten­dency to “boldly skip (no one is watch­ing).”

The writ­ers in Paris who best un­der­stood the anti-elit­ist thrust of Barthes’s late work were the nov­el­ist Philippe Sollers and his part­ner, the Bul­gar­ian lit­er­ary the­o­rist Ju­lia Kris­teva, who edited the post­struc­tural­ist lit­er­ary jour­nal Tel Quel. They formed a strange tri­an­gle, as even Sollers—in his self­flat­ter­ing words, “the only het­ero­sex­ual man to have had the ben­e­fit of rep­re­sent­ing some­thing for Barthes”—con­cedes. While Barthes was rhap­sodiz­ing about plea­sure and de­sire, Sollers and Kris­teva were cheer­lead­ing the Chi­nese Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, plas­ter­ing the Tel Quel of­fices with the say­ings of Chair­man Mao. Barthes did not share their en­thu­si­asm, but he was grate­ful for their friend­ship, and Kris­teva’s con­vo­luted the­o­ries about ab­jec­tion made him feel “so in­fe­rior...so re­duced to non-ex­is­tence.”

In 1974, he joined them on an ex­pe­di­tion to China. Barthes passed his time read­ing Bou­vard and Pécuchet while Sollers played ping-pong with pro­fes­sors of Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy. The pu­ri­tanism of Mao’s China (a “Desert of Flir­ta­tion”) re­pulsed Barthes. “What can you know about a peo­ple, if you don’t know their sex?” he asked Sollers. He wor­ried that he would have “to pay for the Revo­lu­tion with ev­ery­thing I love: ‘free’ dis­course ex­empt from all rep­e­ti­tion, and im­moral­ity.” His diary of the trip, how­ever, con­tained lit­tle crit­i­cism of Maoist China (Si­mon Leys called it “a tiny trickle of luke­warm wa­ter”). Barthes in­sisted that he was not “choos­ing” China, but “what the in­tel­lec­tual pub­lic wants is a choice: one was to come out of China like a bull crash­ing out of the to­ril in the crowded arena: fu­ri­ous or tri­umphant.” He had gone to China for the same rea­son that (in the face of con­sid­er­able Parisian crit­i­cism) he had gone to lunch with Pres­i­dent Valéry Gis­card D’Es­taing: “out of cu­rios­ity, a taste for hear­ing things, a bit like a myth-hunter on the prowl.” By the early 1970s, Barthes was writ­ing on what he called a “trapeze with­out any safety net, ever since I’ve no longer had the nets of struc­tural­ism, semi­ol­ogy or Marx­ism.” But be­ing Barthes was more than enough, and for all his protests against mean­ing, he ended up pro­duc­ing some of French lit­er­a­ture’s most mov­ing writ­ing on de­sire, love, and loss. The loss that af­fected him more deeply than any was that of his mother, who died in 1977, at eighty-four.

Barthes of­ten spoke in his “Prepa­ra­tion for the Novel” lec­tures about Dante’s idea of the vita nuova, of start­ing out anew. But the thought of a new life with­out his mother was un­fath­omable to him. Al­though Barthes de­voted much of his spare time to cruis­ing, he was oth­er­wise a strict monogamist: he lived his en­tire life, af­ter all, with a sin­gle wo­man, who supplied him with an im­age of “the Sovereign Good.” Hen­ri­ette Barthes was the one per­son from whom he scrupu­lously con­cealed his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, and one sus­pects that his rea­son had less to do with a fear of re­proach than with a fear that she might mis­take his other de­sires for in­fi­delity. Her death left him al­most par­a­lyzed. When asked what he planned to teach the fol­low­ing se­mes­ter, he replied, “I’ll show some pho­tos of my mother, and re­main silent.” Over the next year he took notes about his loss on more than three hun­dred in­dex cards.

A num­ber of the ideas in those in­dex cards—pub­lished posthu­mously as Mourn­ing Diary—were re­worked in his last and great­est work, Cam­era Lu­cida, in which Barthes most fully re­al­ized his dream of “the nov­el­is­tic with­out the novel . . . a writ­ing of life.” Cam­era Lu­cida is a book about pho­tog­ra­phy and mourn­ing, and about how a sin­gle pho­to­graph al­lowed him to mourn Hen­ri­ette’s death. Pho­tog­ra­phy has usu­ally been un­der­stood in re­la­tion to paint­ing, but Barthes likened it, strik­ingly, to “a kind of prim­i­tive theater . . . a fig­u­ra­tion of the mo­tion­less and made-up face be­neath which we see the dead.” In a fa­mous distinc­tion, he ar­gued that each pho­to­graph at­tracted our in­ter­est by way of two ba­sic el­e­ments: the studium, “a kind of gen­eral, en­thu­si­as­tic com­mit­ment,” and the punc­tum,a de­tail that “pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”

On his desk as he wrote Cam­era Lu­cida was a pho­to­graph of five-yearold Hen­ri­ette, in the win­ter gar­den of the house where she was born. It is the only pho­to­graph he dis­cusses that is not re­pro­duced in the book. “At most it would in­ter­est your studium: pe­riod, clothes, pho­togeny,” he writes. “But in it, for you, no wound.” The punc­tum in the win­ter gar­den pho­to­graph, for Barthes, is the “un­ten­able para­dox” of her char­ac­ter, “the as­ser­tion of a gen­tle­ness,” and it leads him to re­mem­ber hav­ing “nursed her” while she lay dy­ing, when she “had be­come my lit­tle girl, unit­ing for me with that es­sen­tial child she was in her first pho­to­graph.” In one of the fi­nal images in Barthes’s work, Hen­ri­ette, whose kind­ness per­me­ated her son’s writ­ing, is briefly raised from the dead, and Barthes, who was un­able to go on af­ter her death, achieves in­stead the mir­a­cle of birth: “I who had not pro­cre­ated, I had, in her very ill­ness, en­gen­dered my mother.” That Barthes, the most ir­re­li­gious of French writ­ers, left us with a vi­sion of the im­mac­u­late con­cep­tion was a para­dox he might have sa­vored.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (right) with his mother, Hen­ri­ette Barthes, and brother, Michel Salzedo, south­west France, early 1930s

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