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The Medley Is the Message

Roland Barthes died in a street accident in Paris in 1980, at the age of sixty-four. The books named above collect, in English translation, articles and reviews written between 1961 and 1980—work produced, that is, during the second half of Barthes’s publishing life (his first essay, on the Journal of André Gide, was published in 1942). These two collections can perhaps provide the pre-text (as Barthes would have said) for a posthumous consideration of this remarkable man, a writer at home neither as a novelist (though he aspired to fiction) nor as a university professor (though he taught university students) nor as an intellectual (though that is the title by which he was known).

Those of us who have felt sympathetic to Barthes over the years have on occasion received a portion of the ridicule directed toward him. “How can you like that silly homosexual?” I was asked by an eminent literary critic in tones of impatience and revulsion, when I ventured to praise Barthes’s hymn to reading, The Pleasure of the Text (1973). The remark manifested, besides homophobia, a suspicion that Barthes was “not serious.” Barthes knew that les gens sérieux excluded him from the inner circle of their company, perhaps for the same reason that they excluded his beloved Michelet, the historian (about whom he had written a short book in 1954):

Our languages are coded, we must not forget: society is forbidden, by a thousand means, to mingle them, to transgress their separation and their hierarchy; the discourse of History, that of moral ideology (or that of philosophy) are to be kept pure of desire: by not reading Michelet, it is his desire we censure. Thus, because he blurs the discriminatory law of “genres,” Michelet fails first of all to be given his place: serious people—conformists—exclude him from their reading.

As usual, Barthes’s language here has oblique sexual and class references; generic miscegenation, linguistic morganatic marriages, are feared by the gens sérieux, whose defenses are those of their race, class, and religion. Any wall breached threatens the breaching of all. And yet it is not only the mingling of codes in Michelet that Barthes claims as his own; it is also the opulence of Michelet’s sensual language, always ready to “indulge itself” (as the detractors would say). Barthes quotes Michelet on insects, a “purple passage” almost unthinkable in a present-day historian; the insects are

charming creatures, bizarre creatures, admirable monsters, with wings of fire, encased in emerald, dressed in enamel of a hundred varieties, armed with strange devices, as brilliant as they are threatening, some in burnished steel frosted with gold, others with silky tassels, lined with black velvet; some with delicate pincers of russet silk against a deep mahogany ground; this one in garnet velvet dotted with gold; then certain rare metallic blues, heightened with velvety spots; elsewhere metallic stripes, alternating with matte velvet.

Yes, in Michelet the signifier is sumptuous,” Barthes concludes, praising that excess in expression visible when the author’s pen loses itself in the athletic joy of writing. Because the intermingling of codes, and the insertion of vertical metaphor into the horizontal argument, are sins against those virtues of “logic” and “clarity” so highly valued by the French, we can see Barthes’s career as a long rebellion against the intellectual and institutional practices in which he was raised—and which, even in his late years, he could never entirely escape.

The intellectual formation of a French child attracted to literature is hardly imaginable to Americans. We are unfamiliar with those sacred French institutions the cahier (the notebook in which never a blot can appear), the dictée (the oral dictation in which faults of spelling and punctuation are subsequently mercilessly reproved), the manuel littéraire (a potted version of literary history)—all the furniture of the school and the lycée. Barthes himself knew very well how little he could escape from this training. He amused himself in his late “autobiography,” Roland Barthes (1975), by setting himself compositional subjects of the sort set for French students: “Arrogance,” “Ease,” “Money,” “Coincidence,” “Friends.” The characteristic Barthesian fragment—a paragraph complete in itself, unlinked to a longer discourse—arises in part from the dictée, in part from the pensée (the most French of all literary forms).

The instruction in composition received by the French child derived still, in Barthes’s day, from Renaissance methods, with their base in the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of the trivium. The first systematic act in treating any subject was to divide it into manageable parts along some logical axis—temporal, hierarchical, structural. Whence the inevitable beginning of almost any Barthesian essay—“X may be divided into two [or three—rarely four] parts [or divisions, or motives, or effects].” This factitious divisibility-of-everything is counteracted by Barthes in his purposeful use of mélange, often directed by a purely arbitrary principle (he will, for instance, consider together homosexuality and hashish because they both begin with h). Because logic—the system of divisibility—voiced itself as the Law in school, it became for Barthes the symbol of patriarchy, violence, the father, while intermixture became the symbol of the mother and of the aesthetic.

In Roland Barthes, he wrote about himself, under the heading “Aesthetic Discourse”:

He attempts to compose a discourse which is not uttered in the name of the Law and/or of Violence: whose instance might be neither political nor religious nor scientific; which might be in a sense the remainder and the supplement of all such utterances. What shall we call such discourse? erotic no doubt, for it has to do with pleasure; or even perhaps: aesthetic, if we foresee subjecting this old category to a gradual torsion which will alienate it from its regressive, idealist background and bring it closer to the body, to the drift.

But this is a late utterance. Before Barthes could write in such a way, he had to come under the sway of a succession of “Laws”—among them Marxism, semiology, anthropology, psychoanalysis—each of which he would (as he had with logic) in turn appropriate and repudiate, thereby alienating himself from the “true believers” in each camp. Accepting various discourses first of all as “solutions” or “truths,” Barthes came to see them, later, as competing languages in a world made up of those very languages of culture. Other people seemed able to locate themselves within one or the other of these group discourses or “sociolects”; for himself, he was, as it were, “traversed” by them (he was their traversal, as he said), but they exited as they had entered. Of what, then, was he himself constituted, if not by one or another of these grids through which to see the world? He realizes (in Roland Barthes) that he is formed by the mother tongue, by French itself—with all its infinite lexical and discursive variety. “This is not,” he points out, “a national love” in the patriotic sense; rather “the French language is nothing more or less for him than the umbilical language.”

Now a writer who loves words—all words, single words—for their materiality and for their image-inspiring power is at the furthest remove from someone who loves “ideas.” If Barthes became attached to various ideologies, it was perhaps because these intellectual comets bore as their train a cloud of new words, new apparel for the world. The full lexicons of Marxist, anthropological, Freudian, and semiological discourse were at least as much an occasion for the reveling play of his imagination as the systematic ideas of Marx, Freud, or Saussure. Yet if the anarchy of the lexicon appealed to Barthes, so did, paradoxically, the logical austerity of syntax. (He once defined himself as “the dream of a pure syntax and the pleasure of an impure, heterological lexicon.”) The logical and “syntactic” side of Barthes made him eager to engage in intellectual debate; the dispersive, “lexical” side made him “spoil” the logic of debate with “digressions” into various discourses, “indulgences” of language, what he called the “skids” and “drifts” of argument. The authors for whom he felt the most intense sympathy reflected one or the other of his two sides: Racine for austerity of syntax, Michelet for sensuality of language, Robbe-Grillet for a prose freed from connotation, Brecht for a superb materiality of staging.

Received opinion”—what Barthes called the Doxa (“Medusa: who petrifies those who look at her”)—was his enemy. It is hard to say which Barthes hated more as a young man, the concepts of the manuals of literary history in use in the lycées, or the language in which those concepts were expressed. In an excoriating lecture called “Reflections on a Manual” (1969), Barthes sets out the poverty of the all-purpose concepts by which the irrepressible verbal energies of literature are academically codified: “the authors, the schools, the movements, the genres, and the centuries.” There is, he begins, “the archetypal paradigm of our whole literature, romanticism-classicism…occasionally amplified into romanticism-realism-symbolism.” He continues, ironically, with the absurd characterizations of the centuries: “The sixteenth is overflowing life; the seventeenth is unity; the eighteenth is movement; and the nineteenth is complexity.” The fatuity of these nouns is matched by that of the blanket descriptions offered by the manual: “There is ‘exuberant’ opposed to ‘restrained’; there is ‘lofty art’ or ‘deliberate obscurity’ opposed to ‘expansiveness’; ‘rhetorical coldness’ to ‘sensibility.’ ” These stereotypes enraged Barthes by their falsity, as they pretended to encompass all authors equally in their facile “understanding.” How adequate is it to say of François Villon that he manifests “a witty nature concealing a tragic sense?”

But what Barthes (in his quasi-Marxist phase during the 1960s) addresses more savagely than the vapid crudity of the ideas animating French literary history is the censorship visible in the literary manual—a censorship of questions about class, sexuality, the functions (social, symbolic, or anthropological) of literature, and competing literary languages (including the spoken language). He criticizes as well the nationalism that pervades French literary consciousness (“We are presented with a kind of shiny image in which king and literature reflect each other”), and the naive psychology that is presupposed in literary evaluations (“For instance, du Bellay will be praised for having produced certain sincere and personal cries; Ronsard had a sincere and profound Catholic faith; Villon, a cry from the heart, etc.”).

As a student, Barthes had been exposed not only to the puerility of the literary history found in school manuals, but also to the prescribed form for writing about literature—the explication de texte. When I was myself obliged to practice it, in the late Fifties, the form it took (as I recall) was as follows: one was obliged to detach from the poem its main animating idea (called, significantly enough, the idéemère), then to list the idées secondaires deriving from the “mother”; then to give the fond (or general content) followed by the forme (or prosodic structure).

This improbable recreation of the text as a logical structure of ideas, separated into form and content, would of course eventually be repudiated by anyone of sensibility who had perceived, in literature, the essential inextricability of ideas, content, and form. Barthes’s own commentaries on books or paintings combat the explication de texte in various ways. In S/Z for instance (his commentary on a tale by Balzac), he fragments the text into short phrases, and reads serially, piece by piece—a process that seemed nothing short of deranged to various readers who did not realize that to emphasize the temporal and incremental quality of reading was one way to rebel against the spatial quality of the “structure of ideas” required by conventional French explication. Elsewhere, as in his essays on painting, a delighted discourse glances over the field of vision in a wayward, musing, and irregular way: nothing could be further from systematic exposition.

Though a parallel has often been drawn between Barthes’s writing and that of the American “New Critics” (since both were attacking the manuals of an inert and genteel literary pedagogy), in fact Barthes—politically radical, psychoanalytic in his approach, and informed by linguistics and anthropology—resembled very little the New Critics, who were politically conservative, and philological rather than psychoanalytic in their approach to a text. Had he been born in America (futile hypothesis), Barthes would have been protected from the two wars that, in Europe, made life inescapably political. Barthes’s father, after all, had died in World War I; and Barthes himself was of draft age (though exempt because of his tuberculosis) during World War II; he had seen the defeat of France by Germany, and the division of France between supporters of Pétain and supporters of De Gaulle. Barthes came to intellectual maturity in the shadow of Sartre; and Susan Sontag has suggested that Barthes’s first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953) was in fact a riposte to Sartre’s “What is Literature?” (1947), rejecting Sartre’s notion of style as the servant of content.

Barthes had to find, against Sartre, a way to describe the engagement or free ethical commitment of the writer, one that addressed the full exercise of the act of writing, not simply political content. To this end, Barthes argued that the writer encounters two necessities and one freedom. He inherits, as given, both the entire historical past as it is embodied in language and his own personal past as it has issued in the style of his temperament and his personality.

A language is therefore a horizon, and style a vertical dimension, which together map out for the writer a Nature, since he does not choose either…. In the former, he finds a familiar History, in the latter, a familiar personal past.

But beyond history, both past and biographical, the author, according to Barthes, makes a personal choice in the form taken by his writing. He chooses the mode through which he will enter history; his form is committed to certain techniques and conventions, certain ideas of the relation between style and content, depending on “the social use which he has chosen for his form, and his commitment to this choice.” Barthes concludes, in Writing Degree Zero, that “writing is thus essentially the morality of form, the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature [i.e., the historical givens] of his language.”

Though this argument from Writing Degree Zero can be attacked on several fronts (not least in its separation of “style” from “form,” and its singling out of choice as exempt from destiny), it represents Barthes’s will to locate writing—the activity of the writer—in the mobile act of signifying rather than, with Sartre, in the immobile content of what is signified. At this point, Barthes is still conceiving of writing as an authorial production; later, he came to link it far more strongly with the reader, as his interest shifted from the author (that monument conscrated by past literary history) to the Text, for him a shimmering force-field of signifying, into which the reader enters and by which the reader is “traversed.”

Through the Text the reader becomes a writer, producing meaning; the reader produces writing of his own only as a response to a previous experience of a Text. Critics are perhaps to be defined, Barthes suggests, in the same way as other writers—as “those who read in order to write.” The circulating of writing from author to reader, from Text to Text, came to seem to Barthes like the circulation of money, on the one hand, and of desire, on the other, leading him to use about literature various metaphors (of expenditure, of erotic combination, of “cruising”) that offended readers more accustomed to the decorum of conventional literary language.

His frequent use of metaphor is in fact the first characteristic suggesting that Barthes was more a “writer” than an “intellectual.” In “Outcomes of the Text” (1973) in The Rustle of Language, he repudiates the denatured, falsely impersonal language of intellectuals as an inauthentic form of writing, to which he gives the pejorative name of écrivance:

Ecrivance, which is not writing (écriture), but its inauthentic form, ordinarily censures [censors] the work of what, in language, is both its center and its excess; have you ever seen a metaphor in a sociological study or in an article of Le Monde?

One might not see metaphors in the writing of intellectuals, but one would see them, often at a crucial moment of argument, in Barthes, as in this essay on Brecht:

Have you ever seen a Japanese pin? It is a dressmaker’s pin whose head is a tiny bell, so that you cannot forget it once the garment has been finished. Brecht remakes the logosphere by leaving the bell-headed pins in it, the signs furbished with their tiny jingle.

Finding the sequentially argued essay as limiting as denatured écrivance, Barthes increasingly turned to the fragment, allying himself thereby with Pascal and Nietzsche—writers, not (degraded species) intellectuals. The arbitrary alphabetical arrangement of topics in both Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse (1977) satisfied Barthes’s wish for a combination in which topics would succeed each other in the fixed order A, B, C (so that Art would come before Conscience, e.g.); but the order would be arbitrary, not logical or narrative, thus breaking with the usual laws of expository writing.

To enumerate all of Barthes’s rebellions against the literary training of his youth would be to retell the story of his life. His gadfly instincts precipitated him into controversy, as in the bitter dispute over philological and historical constraints on interpretation that followed his book on Racine and led to his impassioned Critique et vérité (a book inexplicably still untranslated into English), in which he argued the right of every century to interpret the classics anew through the vivifying lenses of new intellectual systems (as he had reinterpreted Racine in the light of anthropological and psychoanalytic speculation).

But though Barthes rose sharply to conflict, it was not conflict that interested him most. Rather, he wished to find a nonideological form of discourse (a utopian desire, perhaps). If ideology (as he defines it in Roland Barthes) is “what is repeated and consistent,” it is by its very consistency, as he continues, “excluded from the order of the signifier,” that is, of language-in-process, with its continued search for synonyms and its ambiguity. Counterideology, or ideological analysis (by which one shows the hidden ideological underpinnings of phrases such as “law and order”), is therefore also an ideology. “How escape this? One solution is possible: the aesthetic one”: and Barthes finds his exemplar in Brecht:

In Brecht…counter-ideology creeps in by means of a fiction—not realistic but accurate. This is perhaps the role of the aesthetic in our society: to provide the rules of an indirect and transitive discourse (it can transform language, but does not display its domination, its good conscience).

We know this solution already from Sir Philip Sidney: “The poet nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.” But the “indirect and transitive” discourse of fiction was not available to Barthes (who seems not to have possessed the interest in others’ lives inseparable from the fictional imagination). We consequently see him, in all these essays, combating the inherently assertive nature of the sentence itself (which he fully recognized), and trying for a lightness or urbanity of tone, a historical skepticism, and a figurative language that would remove his essays from the earnest assertiveness, uninvaded by irony or figure, inseparable from the systematic intellectuality of ideological writing.

Barthes is a figure of great contemporary interest in his recognition both of the human necessity of belief systems (“mythologies”—what we think with) and of the mortality of such systems (they are what succeed each other). He made lists of his own such belief systems—“He had always, up to now, worked successively under the aegis of a great system (Marx, Sartre, Brecht, semiology, the Text)”—and of his own phases and influences, situating himself within that “intertext” which echoed in his mind. He often quoted, with approval, Brecht’s words about the intertext: “He thought in other heads; and in his own, others besides himself thought. This is true thinking.” Barthes comments:

True thinking is more important than the (idealist) thought of truth. In other words, in the Marxist field, Brecht’s discourse is never a priestly discourse.

In addressing the form of discourse, Barthes argues that any urging of a truth as the truth is only theological discourse by another name. He attacked the medieval notion of signification as a signified kernel of meaning inside a husk of signifier chaff. To that notion, or the notion of meaning as the pit of a fruit, Barthes opposes his metaphor of the onion, which consists of its successive peelings. Or he compares the braidings of various “codes” in a text to the interweavings of polyphonic music, where no single strand is definitively “the” music. In either case, Barthes argues against the separation of essence from surface—always an aesthetic argument.

The essays collected in these two volumes, then, are the work of someone who believes in the activity of signifying as one of the fields of human freedom, and as one of the processes by which the “human subject,” the thinking and feeling mind, is created. The irreducible plurality of signifying is set against ideological consistency. And the Barthesian “pleasure of the text” is above all the joy of the exercise of creative freedom, as the reader cooperates with the printed text to render it alive once more within a human mind. Since any system, no matter how revolutionary to begin with, passes with time into received opinion, the mind (he writes in The Rustle of Language) which is committed to freedom and to freshness must forever seek a new way of writing. This prescription will not be unfamiliar to readers of Emerson, Whitman, or Stevens: it is a utopian prescription, as Barthes often remarks, but it is preferable to its opposite, the hobgoblin of theological or ideological consistency, which both creates and maintains ideological interest groups.

Barthes’s own consistency lies in his praise of “the great theme proper to the signifier, sole predicate of essence it can actually support, metamorphosis.” It has also been called difference. In this, Barthes is loyal to his own experience: as his commentators have often pointed out, his place in French society was always that of an outsider. He was fatherless, poor in youth, a Protestant, a non-combatant, an inhabitant of a tuberculosis sanitarium, a homosexual, unmarried. (Later, in academic settings, he was a non-agrégé, i.e., he never took the examination required to teach in secondary schools.) One of the most revealing passages in Roland Barthes places him at a Catholic wedding:

Walking through the Church of Saint-Sulpice and happening to witness the end of a wedding, he has a feeling of exclusion. Now, why this faltering, produced under the effect of the silliest of spectacles: ceremonial, religious, conjugal, and petit bourgeois (it was not a large wedding)? Chance had produced that rare moment in which the whole symbolic accumulates and forces the body to yield. He had received in a single gust all the divisions of which he is the object, as if, suddenly, it was the very being of exclusion with which he had been bludgeoned: dense and hard.

Though the exclusion from the social and sexual practice of the French majority was painful to Barthes, yet more painful to him was the linguistic alienation caused in part by his social difference but more intensely by his habitual irony and detachment:

To the simple exclusions which this episode represented for him was added a final alienation: that of his language: he could not assume his distress in the very code of distress, i.e., express it: he felt more than excluded: detached: forever assigned the place of the witness, whose discourse can only be, of course, subject to codes of detachment: either narrative, or explicative, or challenging, or ironic: never lyrical, never homogeneous with the pathos outside of which he must seek his place.

Barthes frequently emphasized his later marginality and that of the institutions—not degree-granting ones—at which he lectured. Of course, there was a triumph for him in his very eccentricity’s becoming central to modern criticism. But not everyone could follow him into his final skepticism, in which all systematic argument seemed to him finally to follow the same underlying grammar of system, with only the lexicon changed. Human freedom is, within each system, reduced to a poor copy of itself (Barthes called it the human head reduced to the shrunken head preserved by cannibals). Only with each new reopening of the signified to the signifier, i.e., to the free activity of signifying, can conscience once again be served. According to Barthes it is, in the end, an ethical impulse that sets the writer to writing; all writing worth the name is the revolutionary effort toward freedom, away from the stereotypes of thought and language inherent in every belief system.

The Responsibility of Forms—the very title suggesting the ethical impulses pressing the artist toward representation—collects twenty-three essays (five of which were previously published in 1977 in Image–Music–Text) on photography, cinema, painting, and music. (Barthes played the piano and was an amateur of the visual arts; his last book, Camera Lucida, was a meditation on photography.) Though several of these essays are slight book reviews, even they contribute to the underlying subject of Barthes’s investigation, which is always what one might call “inventiveness of manner.” This quality is brought under scrutiny as it appears in the fanciful alphabet of the fashion designer Erté, in the grotesque seasonal portraits by Arcimboldo (such as a portrait head of Autumn composed out of fruits), in the encrusted paintings of Bernard Réquichot. It is also investigated in Barthes’s concern with gesture: so much does gesture seem to Barthes the characteristic act of the graphic arts, that the two long meditations on the art of Cy Twombly included here can stand for Barthes at one theoretical extreme, represented by his interest in the doodle, which he calls “the signifier without the signified.”

The best instance here of Barthes’s subtlety is the (already famous) essay “The Third Meaning,” in which he touches on stray elements in representation: those “left over,” those not directly participating in the meaning, “a luxury, an expenditure without exchange,” the “truly filmic” (that which is not, strictly speaking, required either by the story or the theme). In the illustrations he takes from Eisenstein, the film maker’s eye is shown to include various symmetries and moments of visual delight that are not, in any conceivable way, required by the narrative or ideological interests of the film. There, if anywhere, for Barthes, is where the signifier is free, and creativity of the purest sort is possible.

Both in The Responsibility of Forms and in The Rustle of Language, the typically Barthesian texture of the writing makes itself felt. That texture—delightful to many of us—is composed of the mutual jostling of many (often mutually incompatible) registers of discourse. Linguistics, literature, philosophy, anthropology, mythology, art history, economics, politics, information theory, psychoanalysis, rhetoric, sociology, history, semantics, Marxism—these are only the commonest of the many categories that organize Barthes’s thinking. Insofar as Barthes’s medley is his message, one can say he exemplifies his own definition of the human person—a consciousness constituted by the available languages of its social and historical era.

The play of differences is for Barthes the definition of linguistic utopia: where all is difference, nothing can be marked off as “different” and therefore to be hated. He takes up this theme at greatest length in his essay on Fourier (Sade/Fourier/Loyola, 1981—Barthes’s most provocative title), but it is most intensely displayed in his remarks (in Roland Barthes) on homosexuality:

Virile/non-virile: this famous pair, which rules over the entire Doxa, sums up all the ploys of alternation: the paradigmatic play of meaning and the sexual game of ostentation….

As he said in an article of 1971, “What is difficult is not to liberate sexuality according to a more or less libertarian project but to release it from meaning, including from transgression as meaning.”

…Once the paradigm is blurred, utopia begins: meaning and sex become the object of a free play, at the heart of which the (polysemant) forms and the (sensual) practices, liberated from the binary prison, will achieve a state of infinite expansion.

Liberation from “the binary prison,” the prison of male/female, majority/minority, right/wrong—is it possible? Can there be what Barthes called the Neutral—“a back-and-forth, an amoral oscillation, in short, one might say, the converse of an antinomy.” To anyone who does not fit into the binary categories of ordinary social reference (male/female, virile/nonvirile), the Neutral is the only nonimprisoning hope. Barthes stands, then, for the blurring of models, for many-sided meanings, for the oscillation of value, for metamorphosis. But this “drifting,” this back and forth, this freedom, must always take place within the social relation (“What other relation is there?” Barthes once asked).

The smallest compass of the social relation is the erotic relation (of which one subclass, for Barthes, was the relation of the reader to the text). In A Lover’s Discourse and The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes assumes this restricted compass of social relation as his own favorite territory. In the same vein, he prefers the lied (in “The Romantic Song”) because it is not coded by sex:

The classification of human voices—like any classification elaborated by a society—is never innocent. In the peasant choirs…the men’s voices answered to the women’s voices: by this simple division of the sexes, the group mimed the preliminaries of exchange, of the matrimonial market. In our Western society, through the four vocal registers of the opera, it is Oedipus who triumphs: the whole family is there, father, mother, daughter, and son, symbolically projected…into bass, mezzo, soprano, and tenor. It is precisely these four family voices which the romantic lied, in a sense, forgets: it does not take into account the sexual marks of the voice, for the same lied can be sung by a man or by a woman; no vocal “family,” nothing but a human subject—unisexual, one might say.

Such a passage suggests how Barthes longed for occasions when one could be considered “nothing but a human subject”—unmarked by the family romance into which he could not insert himself.

Other passages in The Responsibility of Forms reveal Barthes at his most self-effacing, when he becomes the critic so sympathetic to his subject—the music of Schumann, for instance—that he finds words for the most difficult of all art forms:

Schumann’s music involves something radical, which makes it into an existential, rather than a social or moral experience. This radicality has some relation to madness, even if Schumann’s music is continuously “well-behaved” insofar as it submits to the code of tonality and to the formal regularity of melismata [grace or melodic embellishments]. Madness here is incipient in the vision, the economy of the world with which the subject, Schumann, entertains a relation which gradually destroys him, while the music itself seeks to construct itself….

…[Schumann’s] music, by its titles, sometimes by certain discreet effects of description, continuously refers to concrete things: seasons, times of the day, landscapes, festivals, métiers. But this reality is threatened with disarticulation, dissociation, with movements not violent (nothing harsh) but brief and, one might say, ceaselessly “mutant”: nothing lasts long, each movement interrupts the next: this is the realm of the intermezzo, a rather dizzying notion when it extends to all of music, and when the matrix is experienced only as an exhausting (if graceful) sequence of interstices.

And so Barthes launches himself into description, as he does with no less expansiveness and interest with any number of aesthetic objects—showing, in these appreciations, his truest and freest self.

The Rustle of Language collects forty-five of Barthes’s essays on literature and teaching written between 1967 and 1980. It includes hommages to various authors, from Brecht to Proust, and to various scholars, from Jakobson to Kristeva. There are central Barthesian statements about the future of semiological investigation, urging that it go beyond exploring the class interests underlying discourse, and question discourse making itself. In the opening manifesto, “From Science to Literature” (1967), Barthes makes the distinction, which he will repeat on many occasions, between a language that pretends to objectivity (the “impersonal” language of intellectuality) and a self-reflexive ironic language that puts itself, as well as its subject matter, in question. In all of these essays, the briskness and liveliness of Barthes’s style make the work interesting, even when it is repeating, in essence, conclusions from earlier writing.

To my mind, the most unexpected material in this collection comes in the essays on teaching, all written in the early Seventies. How will the master of all ideologies, servant to none (except to a utopian ideology of plurality) see the pedagogical function, the pedagogical atmosphere? Once again, Barthes enters into constatation (to use the word of the 1968 intellectual rebellion); this time, he attacks the cours magistral, the large lecture class. He decides, in a brilliant fiction, that the teacher before the audience is like the analysand before the psychiatrist, constantly babbling in front of a silent auditor. As we know, if one talks long enough into a void, one begins to hear what one’s tonality and import sound like, often to the point of embarrassment. This dédoublement (or doubling oneself) is one more form available to Barthesian irony; as he hears himself being an authority, he turns on himself, just as he had when he heard himself being an ideologue. The sound of the lecturer is not a sound he likes: it is the sound of the univocal, the Law, the priest. He recognizes fully the difficulty imposed not only by the professorial role but also by the oratorical sentence; and he comes to prefer the role of animateur—instigator—of a seminar, where the assumption of authority can be less imposing than in the auditorium, and where the discourse is a broken, collaborative, circulating one.

Even here, Barthes recognizes the anterior authority ascribed to him as the one among the group who has already written (while the others are those who desire to write). It will amuse an American teacher to hear Barthes cite, as the greatest of risks, the act of teaching a subject the teacher has not yet written on: the American professor, who does this all the time, is thereby made the more aware of how greatly the French teacher feels the obligation of magisterial authority, how little the French classroom has been a theater of tentative exploration.

In the utopian imagining of his essay “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers,” Barthes conjures up the ideal arena of learning: it would not negate the realities of university life (degrees, professional advancement, etc.), but it would diffuse what is too often a coercive and dogmatic teaching:

Within the very limits of the teaching space as given, the need is to attempt, quite patiently, to trace out a pure form, that of a floating (the very form of the signifier); such floating destroys nothing; it is content to disorient the Law: the necessities of promotion, professional obligations…, imperatives of knowledge, prestige of method, ideological criticism—everything is there, but floating.

Through the notions of a constant free signifying, of metamorphosis, of floating, Barthes embodies his last challenge to the premature and ahistorical assertiveness of the intellectual life. He would have agreed with Keats on the value of negative capability—the capacity to experience “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To dwell in reverie and responsiveness, to speak warmly and from within the object—this is the style of Barthes’s practical criticism. One feels his wish to linger, to savor, to dilate.

There is, however, a dark other side to this responsiveness; it is the restless intermission between responses, to which Barthes gives the Baudelairean name of Ennui. In a disquieting analogy, he repeatedly compares the quest for an aesthetic object to sexual “cruising”; “Le Nouveau” has a neurotic and sexual hysteria attached to it, perhaps as much learned as innate. If there is a flaw in the Barthesian aesthetic, it is the overvaluing of the hunger for innumerable new objects. There is something of this, of course, in all aesthetic experimentation; and yet there is another aspect to art, that “constancy to an ideal object” (Coleridge’s words) that keeps Cézanne obdurately attached to his mountain, Mondrian to his rectangles.

The poet Richard Howard is the translator of these volumes, as of so many others that have brought French criticism and literature across the ocean. Barthes is not easy to translate, and it is a mark of Howard’s longstanding comprehension of Barthes’s thought that the line of argument is always rendered clearly. Barthes’s vocabulary (he was a constant creator of neologisms) presents difficulties that are not always happily solved. Must we have aporrhoea, mathesis, sopitive, semelfactive, edulcorate, and so on, in English? Perhaps they are unavoidable; but they do mar the English page. The Rustle of Language gives a date and citation of the original appearance for each of its essays; its predecessor, The Responsibility of Forms, has no citations, though it does offer dates. One would have appreciated, in the case of Barthes’s book reviews and art criticism, a citation of the author’s or artist’s name, and of the book or exposition under review. As things now stand, an essay will refer to “Masson’s work” without otherwise identifying Masson, or will speak of “Jean-Louis Schefer’s discourse” without revealing the name of the book under discussion.

I have not treated here Barthes’s texts as Text—as an interweaving of significations and intertextual citations floating free from the authority of their author and creating a reponsive site in myself as reader. Instead I have seen them as stages of an autobiography in which we can view a French intellectual, made marginal by his own destiny, struggle through the generic life offered his generation, not submitting to a single prise de conscience, but instead suffering, restlessly, all the intellectual currents of his time, seeing not a single grid through which to orient himself, but rather finding, over time, a plurality of grids, each offering the advantage of a different “fix” on the world, each proffering a new discourse, a new lexicon, a new mentality. A profound and lifelong appetite for the plurality of language—by which I mean a plurality of apprehensions—distinguishes Barthes from most of his contemporaries. The compulsion to iconoclasm is always (as he saw) the compulsion toward a new style of writing. “New styles of architecture, a change of heart,” was what Auden asked for; “a lust to break the icon” was Lowell’s phrase. In his restlessness and desire for change of discourse, Barthes allied himself finally with artists.

Barthes’s last pronouncements, after the death of his mother in 1980, turn away from his former distanced view of the Text to an assertion of the commemorative and elegiac powers of literature. Were he to write a novel, he says, he would want it to fulfill three missions:

The first would permit me to say whom I love…. To say whom one loves is to testify that they have not lived (and frequently suffered) “for nothing.”…These lives, these sufferings, are gathered up, pondered, justified…. The second mission…would permit me, fully but indirectly, the representation of an affective order…. It is characteristic of a “modern” sensibility to “conceal its tenderness” (beneath the stratagems of writing); but why?…. Finally and perhaps especially, the Novel…exerts no pressure upon the other (the reader); its power is the truth of affects, not of ideas: hence, it is never arrogant, terrorist: according to Nietzsche’s typology, it aligns itself with Art, not with Priesthood.

To say whom one loves, to say that lives do not fall into nothingness, to represent an affective order—this is the discourse of imagination, the promised land toward which Barthes gazed, but which he could never enter. He is the votary of language, rather than of the imagination. His own best self-description closes the title essay of the most recent collection, as he represents himself surrounded by “the rustle of language”:

I imagine myself today something like the ancient Greek as Hegel describes him: he interrogated, Hegel says, passionately, uninterruptedly, the rustle of branches, of springs, of winds, in short, the shudder of Nature, in order to perceive in it the design of an intelligence. And I—it is the shudder of meaning I interrogate, listening to the rustle of language, that language which for me, modern man, is my Nature.

The type of thinker represented by Barthes will always stand in hostile opposition to “the man whose mind was made up and who, therefore, died” (Wallace Stevens). It has been fashionable in the past to oppose the amoral “aesthete” to the ethical “moralist,” the “dandy” to the “thinker.” But it is clear, as one reads Barthes entire, that his devotion to the aesthetic was not only a natural inclination but also a fully ethical commitment. The aesthetic, by having an inherent plurality of language, tone, and viewpoint, defends the mind against its own premature anxiety for closure. A mind like that of Barthes, attuned to the aesthetic, accepts its own transiency in the processional of historical belief and rejoices in its own capacity for incorporating, over its lifetime, more than a single truth.

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