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Remembering Barthes

Roland Barthes was sixty-four when he died on March 26, but the career was younger than that age suggests, for he was thirty-seven when he published his first book. After the tardy start there were many books, many subjects. One felt that he could generate ideas about anything. Put him in front of a cigar box and he would have one, two, many ideas—a little essay. It was not a question of knowledge (he couldn’t have known much about some of the subjects he wrote about) but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention. There was always some fine net of classification into which the phenomenon could be tipped.

In his youth he acted a bit in a provincial avant-garde theater company, reviewed plays. And something of the theater, a profound love of appearances, colors his work when he began to exercise, at full strength, his vocation as a writer. His sense of ideas was dramaturgical: an idea was always in competition with another idea. Launching himself onto the inbred French intellectual stage, he took up arms against the traditional enemy: what Flaubert called “received ideas,” and came to be known as the “bourgeois” mentality; what Marxists excoriated with the notion of false consciousness and Sartreians with bad faith; what Barthes, who had a degree in classics, was to label doxa (current opinion).

He started off in the postwar years, in the shadow of Sartre’s moralistic questions, with manifestoes about what literature is (Writing Degree Zero) and witty portraits of the idols of the bourgeois tribe (the articles collected in Mythologies). All his writings are polemical. But the deepest impulse of his temperament was not combative. It was celebratory. His debunking forays, which presumed the readiness to be made indignant by inanity, obtuseness, hypocrisy—these gradually subsided. He was more interested in bestowing praise, sharing his passions. He was a taxonomist of jubilation, and of the mind’s earnest play.

What fascinated him were mental classifications. Hence, his outrageous book Sade, Fourier, Loyola, which, juxtaposing the three as intrepid champions of fantasy, obsessed classifiers of their own obsessions, obliterates all the issues of substance which make them not comparable. He was not a modernist in his tastes (despite his tendentious sponsorship of such avatars of literary modernism in Paris as Robbe-Grillet and Philippe Sollers); but he was a modernist as a critic. That is, he was irresponsible, playful, formalist—making literature in the act of talking about it. What stimulated him in a work was what it defended, and its systems of outrage. He was conscientiously interested in the perverse (he held the old-fashioned view that it was liberating).

Everything he wrote was interesting—vivacious, rapid, dense, pointed. Most of his books are collections of essays. (Among the exceptions is an early polemical book on Racine. A book of uncharacteristic length and explicitness on the semiology of fashion advertising, which he wrote to pay his academic dues, had the stuff of several virtuoso essays.) He produced nothing that could be called juvenilia; the elegant, exacting voice was there from the beginning. But the rhythm accelerated in the last decade, with a new book appearing every year or two. The thought had greater velocity. In his recent books, the essay form itself had splintered—perforating the essayist’s reticence about the “I.” The writing took on the freedoms and risks of the notebook. In S/Z, he reinvented a Balzac novella in the form of a doggedly ingenious textual gloss. There were the dazzling Borgesian appendices to Sade, Fourier, Loyola; the para-fictional pyrotechnics of the exchanges between text and photographs, between text and semi-obscured references in his autobiographical writings; the celebrations of illusion in his last book, on photography, published two months ago.

He was especially sensitive to the fascination exerted by that poignant notation, the photograph. Of the photographs he chose for Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, perhaps the most moving shows an oversized child, Barthes at ten, being carried by, clinging to, his young mother (he titled it “asking for love”). He had an amorous relation to reality—and to writing, which for him were the same. He wrote about everything; besieged with requests to write occasional pieces, he accepted as many as he could; he wanted to be, and was often, seduced by a subject. (His subject became, more and more, seduction.) Like all writers, he complained of being overworked, of acceding to too many requests, of falling behind—but he was in fact one of the most disciplined, surrest, most appetitive writers I’ve known. He found the time to give many eloquent, intellectually inventive interviews.

As a reader he was meticulous but not voracious. On the contrary. Almost everything he read he wrote about, so one could surmise that if he didn’t write about it, he probably hadn’t read it. He was as uncosmopolitan as most French intellectuals have been (an exception was his beloved Gide). He knew no foreign language well and had read little foreign literature, even in translation. The only foreign literature that seems to have touched him was German: Brecht was an early, potent enthusiasm; recently the sorrow discreetly recounted in A Lover’s Discourse had led him to The Sorrows of Young Werther and to lieder. He was not curious enough to let his reading interfere with his writing.

He enjoyed being famous, with an ingenuous ever-renewed pleasure: in France one saw him often on television in recent years, and A Lover’s Discourse was a best seller. And yet he spoke of how eerie it was to find his name every time he leafed through a magazine or newspaper. His sense of privacy was expressed exhibitionistically. Writing about himself, he often used the third person, as if he treated himself as a fiction. The later work contains much fastidious self-revelation, but always in a speculative form (no anecdote about the self which does not come bearing an idea between its teeth), and dainty meditation on the personal; the last article he published was about keeping a journal. All his work is an immensely complex enterprise of self-description.

Nothing escaped the attention of this devout, ingenious student of himself: the food, colors, odors he fancied; how he read. Studious readers, he once observed in a lecture in Paris, fall into two groups: those who underline their books and those who don’t. He said that he belonged to the second group: he never made a mark in the book about which he planned to write but transcribed key excerpts onto cards. I have forgotten the theory he then confected about this preference, so I shall improvise my own. I connect his aversion to marking up books with the fact that he drew, and that this drawing, which he pursued seriously, was a kind of writing. The visual art that attracted him came from language, was indeed a variant of writing; he wrote essays on Erté’s alphabet formed with human figures, on the calligraphic painting of Réquichot, of Twombly. His preference recalls that dead metaphor, a “body” of work—one does not usually write on a body one loves.

His temperamental dislike for the moralistic became more overt in recent years. After several decades’ worth of dutiful adherence to right-minded (that is, left-wing) stands, the aesthete came out of the closet in 1974 when with some close friends and literary allies, all Maoists of the moment, he went to China; in the scant three pages he wrote on his return, he said that he had been unimpressed by the moralizing and bored by the asexuality and the cultural uniformity. Barthes’s work, along with that of Wilde and Valéry, gives being an aesthete a good name. Much of his recent writing is a celebration of the intelligence of the senses, and of the texts of sensation. Defending the senses, he never betrayed the mind. Barthes did not entertain any Romantic clichés about the opposition between sensual and mental alertness.

Barthes’s work is about sadness overcome or denied. He had decided that everything could be treated as a system—a discourse, a set of classifications. Since everything was a system, everything could be overcome. But eventually he wearied of systems. His mind was too nimble, too ambitious, too drawn to risk. He seemed more anxious and vulnerable in recent years, as he became more productive than ever. He had always, as he observed about himself, “worked successively under the aegis of a great system (Marx, Sartre, Brecht, semiology, the Text). Today, it seems to him that he writes more openly, more unprotectedly….” He purged himself of the masters and master-ideas from which he drew sustenance (“in order to speak one must seek support from other texts,” he explained), only to stand in the shadow of himself. He became his own Great Writer. He was in assiduous attendance at the sessions of a seven-day conference devoted to his work in 1977—commenting, mildly interjecting, enjoying himself. He published a review of his speculative book on himself (“Barthes on Barthes on Barthes”). He became the shepherd of the flock of himself.

Vague torments, a feeling of insecurity, were acknowledged—with the consoling implication that he was on the edge of a great adventure. When he was in New York last year he avowed in public, with almost tremulous bravery, his intention to write a novel. Not the novel one might expect from the critic who made Robbe-Grillet seem for a while a central figure in contemporary letters; from the writer whose most wonderful books—Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse—are themselves triumphs of modernist fiction in that tradition inaugurated by Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography, in a linear-notebook rather than a linear-narrative form. No, not a modernist novel but a “real” one, he said. Like Proust.

Privately he spoke of his longing to climb down from the academic summit—he’d held a chair at the Collège de France since 1977—in order to devote himself to this novel, and of his anxiety (on the face of it, unwarranted) about material security should he resign his teaching position. The death of his mother two years ago was a great blow. He recalled that it was only after Proust’s mother died that Proust was able to begin A la Recherche du temps perdu. It was characteristic that he hoped to find a source of strength in his devastating grief.

As sometimes he wrote about himself in the third person he usually spoke of himself as without age, and alluded to his future as if he were a much younger man, which in a way he was. He yearned for greatness, yet felt himself to be (as he says in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes) always in danger of “recession toward the minor thing, the old thing he is when ‘left to himself.”’ There was something reminiscent of Henry James about his temperament and the indefatigable subtlety of his mind. The dramaturgy of ideas yielded to the dramaturgy of feeling; his deepest interests were in things almost ineffable. His ambition had something of the Jamesian pathos, as did his self-doubts. If he could have written a great novel, one imagines it more like late James than like Proust.

It was hard to tell his age. Rather, he seemed to have no age—appropriately, his life’s chronology being askew. Though he spent much time with young people, he never affected anything of youth or its contemporary informalities. But he didn’t seem to be old, though his movements were slow, his dress professorial. It was a body that knew how to rest: as Garcia Marquez has observed, a writer must know how to rest. He was very industrious, yet also sybaritic. He had an intense but businesslike concern that he receive a regular ration of pleasure. He had been ill (tubercular) for many years when he was young, and one had the impression that he came into his body relatively late—as he did his mind, his productivity. He had sensual revelations abroad (Morocco, Japan); gradually, somewhat tardily he assumed the considerable sexual privileges that a man of his sexual tastes and great celebrity can command. There was something childlike about him, in the wistfulness, in the mild look and plump body and soft voice and beautiful skin, in the self-absorption. He liked to linger in cafés with students; he wanted to be taken to bars and discos—but, sexual transactions aside, his interest in you tended to be your interest in him. (“Ah, Susan. Toujours fidèle,” were the words with which he greeted me, affectionately, when we last saw each other. I was, I am.)

He affirmed something childlike in his insistence, which he shared with Borges, that reading is a form of happiness, a form of joy. There was also something less than innocent about the claim, the hard edge of adult sexual clamorousness. With his boundless capacity for self-referring, he enrolled the invention of sense in the search for pleasure. The two were identified, reading as jouissance (the French word for joy that also means coming); the pleasure of the text. This too was typical. He was, as a voluptuary of the mind, a great reconciler. He had little feeling for the tragic. He was always finding the advantage of a disadvantage. Though he sounds many of the perennial themes of the modern culture critic, he was anything but catastrophe-minded. His work offers no visions of last judgments, civilization’s doom, the inevitability of barbarism. It is not even elegiac. Old-fashioned in many of his tastes, he felt nostalgic for the decorum and the literacy of an older bourgeois order. But he found much that reconciled him to the modern.

He was extremely courteous, a bit unworldly, resilient—he detested violence. He had beautiful eyes, which are always sad eyes. There was something sad in all this talk about pleasure; A Lover’s Discourse is a very sad book. But he had known ecstasy and wanted to celebrate it. He was a great lover of life (and denier of death); the purpose of his unwritten novel, he said, was to praise life, to express gratitude for being alive. In the serious business of pleasure, in the splendid play of his mind, there was always that undercurrent of pathos—now made more acute by his premature, mortifying death.

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