The Medley Is the Message

Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes; drawing by David Levine

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.

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.