The Meaninglessness of Meaning

Michael Wood

A diary, Roland Barthes suggested, provokes in its writer not the tragic question, ‘Who am I?’ but the comic question: ‘Am I?’ This elegant and amused remark goes some way towards explaining why Barthes, who reflected much on his life and published a book called Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, should not have kept a diary. The comic question can’t be confronted, it can only be circumvented, played with, smiled at. Of course, if you didn’t think it was funny, or if you were sure of the answer, you could keep a diary: but you wouldn’t be Barthes.

A novel might be an attractive alternative, and later in his career Barthes flirted with the notion of what he called the novelistic, le romanesque. Camera Lucida, the last of his works to be published in his lifetime (he died in 1980, at the age of 65), is described by Annette Lavers as ‘his only novel, and a love story’. Opening Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes we read, inside the front cover, white on black in Barthes’s handwriting: Tout ceci doit être considéré comme dit par un personnage de roman. What follows is text and pictures, a fractured autobiography, a dictionary of personal themes, arranged alphabetically. A fiction? Not exactly. Barthes on the page is a character in the novel of his life, not because he is an invented or rearranged figure, but because the writer, caught in the act, is always someone else, a creature whose home is words. Interviewers like to plot Barthes’s career by means of labels, and the labels are useful enough as long as we don’t fall in love with them. First, there was the critic (Writing Degree Zero, On Racine, Critical Essays), then the mythologist (Mythologies, La Tour Eiffel), then the semiologist (Elements of Semiology, The Fashion System), then the literary theorist (S/Z, The Pleasure of the Text), then the writer (Empire of Signs, A Lover’s Discourse, Camera Lucida). The writer? Didn’t the other avatars write? Does writer here mean, in the grovelling Anglo-Saxon phrase, ‘creative writer’? Barthes never produced anything we would readily regard as creative writing, or what he or we would really call a novel, except in some stretch of metaphor. He was too keen on fragments, too suspicious of character, and of big stories. But he was always a writer in one sense – ‘someone’, as he said in Critique et Vérité, not yet translated, ‘for whom language is problematic, who experiences its depth, not its usefulness or its beauty’. ‘I have an illness,’ he wrote elsewhere, ‘I can see language.’ And he became a writer in another sense, converted writing –‘his one great subject’, as Susan Sontag says – into his central practice, an embodiment or evocation of his concerns rather than a description of them. He stopped, as he said, writing on subjects – ‘It is that “on” which bothers me’ – even on the subject of writing. His prose then became fluid and imaginative like the best criticism, un-paraphraseable, not detachable from its topic. The writer: not necessarily a novelist but someone who knows he is a character in a novel, that the way out of words is made of words.

There is a special difficulty in interviewing such a figure, a prescription for a misfire, and the printed record of such an interview must seem sorry and belated: the translated trace of a man who wasn’t there, All the more reason for not being too much of a purist about this line of thought, since the 39 interviews with Barthes collected in The Grain of the Voice, if they cannot deliver Barthes the writer, do conjure up a very engaging person: courteous, quick-witted, unemphatic, willing to keep talking until he is understood. Annette Lavers sneers justifiably at those who had to wait for Barthes’s later work to realise he was human, but there may be some stragglers still, and this book should help them. Barthes discusses his debts to Sartre and Brecht, and the linguist Benveniste, remembers his early bouts of tuberculosis as hints of what might have been a vocation. The sanatorium, he says, was ‘a form of culture, surely’, intensifying all friendships and producing in him ‘the strange feeling of being always five or six years younger than I really am’. His first published piece of writing was on Gide’s Journal, and, asked if he knew Gide, Barthes replies that he saw him only once, from a distance, at the Lutétia: ‘he was eating a pear and reading a book.’ What interested him about Gide? Barthes’s answer might be taken as a swift epitaph on himself, four brief sentences wonderfully afloat on all they don’t say: ‘He was a Protestant. He played the piano. He talked about desire. He wrote.’

An earlier, more militant remark is worth pondering too: ‘between jargon and platitudes, I prefer jargon.’ Of course we fervently hope that is not the choice, but if it were? ‘It’s shameful to judge someone on his vocabulary,’ Barthes adds. The dream of clarity (say) is itself an ideological dream, an issue confronted with notable honesty by Philip Thody in his book on Barthes, now reissued with an afterword. Having struggled throughout the earlier edition to translate Barthes into an English critical idiom, helped by much good will and intelligence, hampered by a bewildered sense of how much he was losing in the process, Thody now memorably says that Barthes has taught him to be ‘more suspicious of the idea of tolerance’ and less insistent on the idea that all philosophers ought to write like Gilbert Ryle. It’s not that tolerance is not a virtue, only that all kinds of things which are not virtues can hide in its skirts, and that tolerance itself may be indistinguishable from condescension.

Thody’s problem is Barthes’s Frenchness, or rather the Frenchness of his rhetoric. Thody’s very description of what he calls ‘a well-established French rhetorical tradition’ shows how far he is from its mood: ‘ideas are stated in what is sometimes rather an exaggerated form in order to produce more of an effect.’ ‘Sometimes’, ‘rather’ – the words mime a caution and a reasonableness the tradition wouldn’t give the time of day to. In much of Barthes’s writing, as in much of Foucault and Derrida, the effect is the idea, and the idea is extreme, exorbitant: it has no prior, sensible, ‘English’ form which could be worked up into an exaggeration. This is not to say that the writing doesn’t mean anything, or that form and content are identical in it, only that the rhetorical high wire has its own airy relation to the ground.

Annette Lavers, on the other hand, takes Barthes’s Frenchness, his location in what she calls ‘the Darwinian struggle’ for literary survival, as her point of departure for a substantial piece of intellectual history. ‘This is meant to be a book, not a textbook,’ she says sternly: but I don’t see why it can’t be both. It does helpfully identify a number of stars in the recent Paris sky, so that Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Blanchot, Greimas and others are all placed in a kind of orbit around Barthes. Lavers is not much taken with what she sees as the temporary mindlessness of Barthes’s next-to-last works, and she is more persuasive than anyone has ever been about the interest of The Fashion System. She argues that Barthes was more loyal to his early views than most accounts of his career suggest, although she also says that he ‘connived’ at his later, popular ‘humanisation’, because to be ‘human’ – as Brecht’s Mother Courage, say, is taken to be ‘human’ – is no longer to be political or troubling. So those who miss Barthes’s humanity are wrong, and those who insist on it are wrong too. It’s not easy to win in such a competition.

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