Presence of Mind

Michael Wood

  • Carnets du voyage en Chine by Roland Barthes
    Christian Bourgois, 252 pp, €23.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 2 267 02019 9
  • Journal de deuil by Roland Barthes
    Seuil/Imec, 271 pp, €18.90, February 2009, ISBN 978 2 02 098951 0

Roland Barthes died almost 30 years ago, on 26 March 1980, but his works continue to engage new and old readers with remarkable consistency. Books about him keep appearing: literary and philosophical essays by Jean-Claude Milner (2003), Jean-Pierre Richard (2006) and Eric Marty (2006), a gossipy biography of his last years by Hervé Algalarrondo (2006), a chapter about his piano-playing by François Noudelmann (2008). And now we have two new/old texts by Barthes himself, transcriptions of his notes on the trip he made to China in spring 1974 with his friends from the Seuil publishing house and the magazine Tel Quel (François Wahl, Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet), and of his so-called diary of mourning, a set of jottings made in the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death in the autumn of 1977.

The persistence of Barthes’s reputation might seem surprising, since his writing is so varied, topical, at times wilfully ephemeral. He was suspicious of monuments – ‘tombs die too,’ he says in a fine phrase in his mourning notes – and didn’t want to be one. He wrote with amusement, and without false modesty, about his own passing ‘notoriety’. But then the surprise lasts only as long as we are not thinking very hard. Monuments may or may not endure, but they are not looked at very closely; and fragile-seeming gestures, songs, jokes, metaphors, teasing sentences, often have long lives in the intimacy of many minds. It’s easy, and usually rash, to use the word ‘unforgettable’, or even ‘memorable’, since we can forget anything. But then what we hang on to becomes all the more remarkable, and Barthes, like Cole Porter, was the author of phrases and rhythms that for some of us will not go away until we do.

‘To write,’ Barthes suggested in Criticism and Truth (1966), ‘is to engage in a difficult relationship with our own language.’ This is not exactly Cole Porter’s tone, but Barthes liked difficulty, talked about the work and the pleasure of writing in the same breath. Of course, our relationships with language change over time, and it has often seemed as if there were two Roland Barthes, early and late, with not much in between. One was theoretical, analytic, systematic and everyone’s favourite structuralist. The other was impressionistic, allusive and anecdotal, a writer rather than a thinker. The first was the author of Elements of Semiology (1965), The Fashion System (1967) and many essays; the second the author of all the later, more discursive, more autobiographical works, like A Lover’s Discourse (1977) and Camera Lucida (1980). Fans of the first, theoretical Barthes tend not to be too keen on the later, looser model; and they often think the decline set in soon after S/Z (1970), and was especially noticeable in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975).

This last work was a kind of critical and publishing joke. Barthes’s second book (after Writing Degree Zero, 1953) was a study of the historian Michelet in a series called Ecrivains de toujours, timeless writers. Because the books contained large selections from the authors’ own texts, they were called Michelet (for example) par lui-même, or in his own words. Barthes was the first living writer to appear in the series (the others weren’t so timeless after all), and his book was the first one to be literally by himself – he wrote it, composed a sort of autobiography in photographs and epigrams, rather than making a selection from his earlier published writing. He even reviewed the book in the Quinzaine littéraire.

I don’t think the early and late classification works in any satisfactory way. The late Barthes is pretty analytical by most standards; the early Barthes was always working from personal impressions; and most of his books show both of his avatars at work all the time: Degree Zero, for example, or Mythologies (1957), or indeed Camera Lucida. But he was two people, and thought of himself in that way. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, speaking therefore as someone at the recognisable apex of an academic career in his country, he describes himself as ‘un sujet incertain’: in Richard Howard’s translation, ‘a fellow of doubtful nature, whose every attribute is somehow challenged by its opposite’. He goes on to say he has had a university career without the degrees that would normally be required for such a trajectory; that he wanted to work within the fields of literary, lexicological and sociological science but only ever wrote essays, ‘an ambiguous genre in which analysis vies with writing’. And although he was involved from the early days in the development of semiotics, he has little right to represent that discipline, he says, because he was so much inclined to ‘shift its definition’, and to work in the ambit of Tel Quel rather than more academic journals. An impure subject, he finally calls himself, ‘a patently impure fellow’. And then he says something that instantly reveals why it is such a pleasure to read him, and why all these reservations and ambiguities are such unmistakable virtues. For all these reasons, he says, he is not going to linger over the honour of being made a professor at the Collège de France and will concentrate on his joy at the occasion, ‘for an honour can be undeserved, joy never is’. You have only to read a sentence like that to know you have found a friend. And you understand the notion of joy better than you did a moment ago.

Or take a sentence like this one, from Barthes’s first book. He is not talking about a writer or a text or a style or an image or a story, but about … a tense. This is the preterite, the past historic, which in French exists only in written texts. It is, Barthes says,

the ideal instrument for every construction of a world; it is the unreal tense of cosmogonies, myths, history and novels. It presupposes a world which is constructed, elaborated, self-sufficient, reduced to significant lines, and not one which has been sent sprawling before us, for us to take or leave (jeté, étalé, offert). Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter. The world is not unexplained since it is told like a story; each one of its accidents is merely a circumstance, and the preterite is precisely this operative sign whereby the narrator reduces the exploded reality to a slim and pure verb without density, without volume, without spread.

We can find passages of this kind of brilliance in William Empson; but they are linked to dramatic and psychological occasions, and irreducibly thematic compared with Barthes’s performances. Barthes is theorising language and narrative, theorising a certain linguistic form as narrative, and yet he is writing as if an intense drama is taking place. We feel we have been missing the drama, and we have. And we wonder, reading this kind of prose, if we can learn to look in the places Barthes looks, and in the way he looks.

In a late interview (1978) he said that if he had to define himself it would be as a ‘philosopher’, adding ‘which does not refer to a degree of competence, because I have had no philosophical training. What I do is philosophise, reflect on my experience. This reflection is a joy and a benefit to me, and when I’m unable to pursue this activity, I become unhappy.’ This sounds a little feeble, and perhaps only a writer with a strong anti-bourgeois career behind him could afford to be so bourgeois. But the claim is interesting if we take it seriously rather than feebly, and of course by ‘reflection’ he doesn’t just mean musing on the meaning of life. A stronger version of the same proposition appears in Camera Lucida, where Barthes says he has always wanted to argue for or argue with his moods (‘J’ai toujours eu envie d’argumenter mes humeurs’), not in order to justify them, and still less to fill the text with his own individuality but to use this individuality as part of a formal study of the subject (‘une science du sujet’). Barthes is saying, I take it, that he has always wanted to convert his moods into arguments, or find the arguments underlying them or stemming from them. It’s a classic theoretical, intellectual enterprise; but it starts in the subjectivity that most theories just don’t know what to do with. It’s the place where the two Roland Barthes meet: the objective social scientist who was always a bit subjective turns out to be the same person as the subjective writer who likes to think theoretically about things.

Barthes loves etymologies because they make words look like palimpsests. It seems, he says, as if he is having ‘ideas at the level of language itself – which is quite simply: writing’. He likes double meanings for a similar reason: ‘the dream is not to understand everything (anything), it is to understand something else.’ Not multiple meanings, just the one that’s not there. ‘In this I am more classical than the theory of the text which I defend.’ ‘He is not very good at going deeper,’ he says of himself. ‘Il ne sait pas bien approfondir.’

A word, a figure of speech, a metaphor, a form of some kind gets hold of him for years, he repeats it, he uses it everywhere, but he doesn’t really try to reflect any further on what he means by these words or these figures (and if he did, he would find new metaphors by way of explanation); you can’t go deeper into a refrain.

Emboldened by these lines, we could rephrase his own definition: to write is to have ideas in and through language, to look for what is missing from the words you have, and to learn to live with old tunes rather than dig into them. At least, this is what writing is for Barthes; and for the readers of such a writer the very idea of access to his notes, if a little intrusive, is like a belated and unexpected gift.

The two sets of notes are quite different. The Carnets du voyage en Chine record what is essentially a three-week-long disappointment or exclusion. Barthes had loved Japan and in Empire of Signs (1970) had written a wonderful book about his sense of the place. But China – or Mao’s China, which was the only one on view to Westerners in 1974 – was entirely opaque to him, a string of stereotypes, or bricks, as he called them, borrowing a term from cybernetics. The one thing he loved was what he had already seen in Japan: calligraphy, ‘their only work of art’, he said of the Chinese, ‘absolute counter-vulgarity’. ‘The rest: Soviet realism.’

He dutifully toured the factories and schools and museums with his friends; he listened to the same sermons again and again; he had migraines; enjoyed the food; made an effort every now and again to get a bit of semiotic mileage out of the repeating signs. One result of this was an essay he published in Le Monde: ‘Alors, la Chine?’ Alors, nothing much, was the answer. Barthes had seen Antonioni’s 1972 film about China – he told the director that it was the reason he took the trip – and kept returning to the sense that he had nothing to add to that portrait. On one of his last days there he drew up a kind of balance sheet. He couldn’t write favourably of the place or coherently criticise it. ‘Impossible,’ he said of both options. He didn’t want merely to describe his experiences: that would be ‘phenomenology’, meaning, I take it, just phenomenology. All that was left was ‘Antonioni’, an approach that had been excoriated in China and in the West as a betrayal of the Revolution.

What is most interesting, and touching, about the Carnets is the strong sense they give of a failing radical romance, the growing disillusionment of a group of friends who, however sceptical and intelligent they may be, have become so tired of the French Communist Party and all kinds of left-leaning liberal sell-outs that they are ready to believe the true left has risen in the East. Well, some were ready and others were almost ready. Alain Badiou speaks of the Maoism of the gauche prolétarienne as ‘a superficial crust’, an infatuation with an ‘aura of activism’, and suggests these short-term Maoists didn’t understand the requirements of the long haul. But the Carnets describe something like an over-exposure to an anti-aura. What the visitors keep meeting in China (and presumably had met in France on the road to Mao) is not a story of the true revolution but a recurring tale of imposture, of the monstrous allure of a flagrant and dangerous false left composed of liberals and conservatives in disguise. Lin Pao, who died in 1971, is resurrected constantly, along with Confucius, who died a little earlier, as the most vivid of villains, the man who wanted to revert to hierarchy and slavery, and whose misdeeds can be buried only by the continuing Cultural Revolution. He was the enemy who pretended to be a friend, the most insidious and dastardly of political fictions. ‘Lin Pao’, Barthes writes after only two days in China, ‘scapegoat for all tastes’, literally with all kinds of sauces, ‘every two minutes’.

But Barthes’s chief disappointment with China was in its way phenomenological after all. The country offered itself – it made no other offer – as a world without nuance. There was ‘nothing of the incident, the fold’, he said, ‘nothing of the haiku’. We recognise the writer who was always on the look-out for something else. ‘I don’t know how to look at – I resist looking at – what presents itself as watchable (regardable), what I cannot surprise.’ Not what cannot surprise him, but what he cannot come upon for himself, like a clue or a joke. It’s as if China put him out of work. ‘You have to take them literally,’ he says of his hosts. ‘They are not interpretable.’

Nathalie Léger, the editor of the Journal de deuil, says we are reading not a finished book but ‘the hypothesis of a desired book’. This formulation is elegant, and catches a good deal of the sense of the work. But the text is at least two other things as well: a sort of sketchpad for Camera Lucida, a trying out not of sentences but of an array of complicated perceptions and feelings; and a slim memorial in its own right.

In the Journal we see Barthes finding the photograph of his mother as a five-year-old child, which forms the basis of the whole of the second half of Camera Lucida. The time is June 1978 – she died in October 1977, and he starts writing the book in April 1979. He comes across the idea from Winnicott that emerges, in the finished work, as a fear of ‘a catastrophe which has already occurred’. ‘Whether or not the subject is dead,’ Barthes continues, ‘every photograph is this catastrophe.’ And when the subject is dead, and when she is your mother, you know your worst fears lie in the past, not the future. Or more precisely, in some sort of past still to come: the past you will meet again tomorrow. ‘I suffer from the fear of what has happened.’ Of what has happened and, an even stranger thing, Barthes says, ‘which cannot return’. It’s not that we keep meeting the dead. We keep meeting our failure ever to meet them again.

This is what photography is for Barthes, a ‘dead theatre of Death’, and the thought explains his otherwise rather odd insistence on the reality of whatever posed for any photo, ‘the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens’, as if there were no famous fakeries in the business. A photo records for him not space or bodily reality or a strong resemblance to what it captures, but the irrefutable fact of time itself: ‘reality in a past state: at once the past and the real’. Photography, he says, doesn’t have to show us what no longer exists, it must ‘only and for certain’ trace what has been. It is explicitly a form of magic for him, not an art. A trivial magic when the photos don’t matter to us (or are offered to us as art), and a desolate magic when we finally see, in a photo, the undeniably real absence of the person we felt was so close to us. Barthes is at his most Proustian here. He describes the snapshot of his mother as a little girl as ‘the only one which has given me the splendour of her truth’ (perhaps also its truth, the truth of the essence of photography), and yet this same picture is ‘a lost, remote photograph, one which does not look like her, the photograph of a child I never knew’.

But the Journal is also a haunting account of a man watching himself grieve – watching what doesn’t ‘present itself as watchable’. It’s not that he thinks the vigil is going to do him any emotional good, but he has to keep looking so that he can write, and writing, he believes, is a kind of haven: ‘harbour, salvation, project, in short love, joy’. When he begins to think of what will become Camera Lucida he talks of ‘integrating my grief into an act of writing’. ‘I transform “work” in the psychoanalytic sense (work of mourning, dreamwork) into the real work – of writing.’ And yet what is most striking in the end about this (hypothesis of a) book is its written tracking of states of mind that writing itself can’t enter, only register. ‘The astonishing thing in these notes is a devastated person who is prey to presence of mind.’ ‘One doesn’t forget, but something atonal installs itself in you.’ ‘Grief … is a sort of deposit, of rust, of mud … a bitterness of the heart.’ ‘I say to myself … how barbaric it is not to believe in souls – in the immortality of souls. What a stupid form of truth materialism is.’ Not many writers, even in their most finished works, are going to be as lucid as this. Terminal mortality is barbaric and stupid … and true. And we could scarcely wish the following eloquent (and untranslatable) fragment to be any more substantial or complete than it is: ‘(Comme) c’est long, sans elle.’ Long, I think, here means something closer to slow than to long; but life wasn’t all that slow or long for Barthes beyond this date. He died less than three years after his mother.