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…

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