Sade, Fourier, Loyola
The Pleasure of the Text
L’Empire des signes
The writer is someone for whom language is problematic, who experiences its depth, not its usefulness or its beauty.
—Barthes, Critique et Vérité
“Language is never innocent,” Roland Barthes wrote in Writing Degree Zero (1953), the book that began his career as the most provocative critic to emerge in France since the war. In Sade, Fourier, Loyola (published in 1971 and now translated into English), he tells us that a belief in the innocence of language is not innocent either: “This myth is not innocent.” The phrases make Barthes sound like a latter-day Robespierre, and in his more theoretical moments he does affect this stance: severe scrutineer of society’s self-deceptions, demystifier general, the man against the masks.
In practice, though, Barthes is a good deal more amiable, offers agile and tolerant commentaries on all kinds of cultural occasions, from Racine to Garbo, and from Robbe-Grillet to wrestling and steak and chips. In Mythologies (1957), for example, he notices that all the characters in Mankiewicz’s film Julius Caesar have fringes—curly, straggly, tufted, oily, but all well combed, and clearly visible. Why? Because the fringe is the sign of Romanness; it reminds us, in case the faces of Marlon Brando and James Mason should create any confusion, that we are in ancient Rome. In the same book Barthes reflects on the “old Alpine myth,” “this bourgeois promoting of mountains,” which haunts the Guide bleu, and which provokes suggestions of the picturesque “any time the ground is uneven.” He remarks, with casual sarcasm, on the antifeminism of the magazine Elle (“a real mythological treasure”), which insists on the fertility and domesticity of women novelists, who seem to beget books and children in parallel sequence:
Women, be therefore courageous, free; play at being men, write like them; but never get far from them; live under their gaze, compensate for your books by your children; enjoy a free rein for a while, but quickly come back to your condition. One novel, one child, a little feminism, a little connubiality….
As this last example shows, Barthes is not amiable to the point of weakness or indifference. But he is not a public prosecutor. His task, in some thirteen books published since 1953, has been to display myths rather than to accuse them. Sometimes the display is an accusation, of course; but sometimes it is just a dazzling display.
Barthes is at his best with authors and objects and scenes and aspects that serious people usually neglect (Fourier, the Eiffel Tower, the Tour de France, the delicacy of the Marquis de Sade), and he is good on writers who are his own contemporaries, like Queneau and Butor. He is interesting on Racine and Balzac (in On Racine, 1963, and S/Z, 1970), because the lively practice of anachronism, the intelligent reading of older texts with eagerly modern eyes, is always interesting. But anachronism has its price, and Barthes too often condescends to the past simply because it is the past, as if living earlier …