Barthes: A Biography 
by Tiphaine Samoyault, translated by Andrew Brown.
Polity, 586 pp., £25, December 2016, 978 1 5095 0565 4
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On​ 2 December 1978 Roland Barthes reported to an audience at the Collège de France on his desire to change as a writer, and told them about a specific moment when the thought of a ‘conversion’ hit him: 15 April that year.

Casablanca. The sluggishness of the afternoon. The sky clouds over, a slight chill in the air … a kind of listlessness … bears upon everything I do … The beginnings of an idea … to enter into literature, into writing, to write, as if I had never written before: to do only that.

‘All the same’, he said a moment later, ‘I don’t want to make too much of that 15 April.’ Conversion was an idea, a dream, and his new plan, the object of his new fidelity and excitement, was above all to do with wanting to write differently rather than a project for a specific act of writing. He had ‘heard it said’, he reported in his next lecture, that he was writing a novel, ‘which isn’t true; if it were I clearly wouldn’t be in a position to propose a lecture course on its preparation.’ And then: ‘But I’ve decided to push that fantasy as far as it will go, to the point where: either the desire will fade away or it will encounter the reality of writing and what gets written won’t be the Fantasised Novel.’

Barthes died just over a year later, in March 1980, so he didn’t get to push the fantasy for very long. Many of his readers have regretted the loss of what might have been easily recognisable as a novel, although the sentence I have just quoted seems to exclude its possibility. Other critics (and friends) like Antoine Compagnon have thought Barthes’s last book, Camera Lucida, was his novel; and still others see the notes for what Barthes called his Vita Nova as a conceptual framework for the novel we are all invited to write. It’s striking that in those notes Barthes includes the novel (along with the essay, the fragment, the diary) as illustrating only disappointment and impotence, so we should take seriously his idea of the new, of writing that is no longer what writing used to be. The work to come (if it came) wouldn’t look or feel like a novel even if it was one.

Other intriguing aspects of the notes are the repetition of the (after all significant) date of 15 April 1978, the recurrence of the idea of the mother as guide (Henriette Barthes died on 25 October 1977), the possibility of taking Tolstoy as one’s master instead of Proust, and the notion that the story of the conversion, the entry into writing, itself will provide the plot of the new work. I should add, though, that another note makes fun of just this idea: ‘All this would mean that one gives up the childishness of the Vita Nova Narrative: these attempts of the frog who wants to be as big as …’

Barthes evokes Novalis, whom he quotes in his lectures: ‘The art of the novel excludes all continuity.’ He also alludes to a distinction Heidegger makes between an acceptance of ‘the assigned circle of the possible’ and the desire to leave this circle and enter the realm of ‘what is no longer the possible’. For Barthes writing represents the impossible and idleness (oisiveté) the possible: you can’t have one even if you try, and you can have the other without trying. We may speculate that what he wanted was not to achieve the impossible, and still less to arrive at some comfortable middle space of possibility, but to manage something like an occasional, dazzling infraction of the logic of opposites: to find in effort some of the virtues of pleasure.

This is just what he argues for in his last piece of writing, still in his typewriter at the time of the accident that brought him to his death. The title is a little misleading, but this move also helps us to understand the claims in play: ‘One always fails in speaking of what one loves.’ This is what we are tempted to assert, Barthes suggests, of Stendhal’s evocations of Italy in his journals, and by extension of almost anything that matters to us, once we try to put it into words. It is the phrase ‘we are entitled to repeat mournfully (or tragically)’. But now we’re showing off in our pessimism, too pleased to fail, and Barthes is moving on. There is another Stendhal, the one who wrote the opening pages of La Chartreuse de Parme, where his love of Italy comes fully alive, irradiates the prose, in Barthes’s image. Stendhal was writing there, Barthes says, as distinct from (presumably) merely writing down, or putting into writing, what was in the journals. This is the new practice that Barthes wanted to enter. He associated it with the novel, because he often found it in novels. But the novel here is only a name for the achievement of an effect: that of what Barthes calls ‘festivity’.

Two years after Barthes’s death, Chantal Thomas wrote very well of ‘the persistence of a theoretical desire progressively liberated from a concern with seriousness or consequence’. Does that sound frivolous? The concept of theoretical desire suggests a project that might be urgent, as well as fun. Barthes himself has a wonderful phrase about theory. ‘To some extent, theory is also a fiction’ – the context is a 1977 discussion of Sartre’s philosophical novels – ‘and it was always in this guise that it tempted me: theory is, as it were, the novel that people enjoyed writing over the last ten years.’ Theory was the novel Barthes enjoyed writing – many critics were busy thinking they were philosophers – and perhaps the only novel he needed to write.

Tiphaine Samoyault is a little uncertain about Barthes’s status, sure only about his fame and his deserving protracted attention. She says he is a ‘great thinker’ – well, actually that he is ‘like all great thinkers’ – but didn’t produce ‘any system, any “strong thought”’. She is not wrong, but the near contradiction leaves us up in the air. She departs from the largely chronological line of her story to devote whole chapters to Barthes’s relations with quite different figures (Gide, Sartre, Sollers, Foucault), and she has some extended lucid comments on the connections and disconnections between Barthes and Blanchot, Derrida and Lévi-Strauss. None of this quite situates him as anything other than some sort of French intellectual, and indeed it is hard to situate him more precisely. Samoyault’s idea of ‘a politically committed solitude’ doesn’t help much, but the project of seeking ‘to be of one’s time in spite of everything’ gets us somewhere, and some of her remarks about Barthes’s personality – ‘assertive and elusive’ and ‘distanced proximity’ – work quite well as propositions about his prose style.

It’s clear that – just to stick with the names Samoyault invokes – Gide, Sartre, Sollers and Blanchot are writers in a sense that Barthes is not, and that Sartre (again), Lévi-Strauss and Derrida are thinkers in a sense that he is not, if only because we don’t automatically regard critics as writers or thinkers. And then we feel the differences for more complicated reasons, ones that have to do with Barthes rather than his notional job.

Two thoughts that recur in appreciations of Barthes are useful: he is a teacher who doesn’t teach, a commentator who has nothing to say. When Compagnon looks for a formula he says Barthes was not a maître à penser – the French phrase for guru – ‘but something like the master of a workshop, a master worker, a master artisan’. Italo Calvino said Barthes’s field was the science of the single object, the art of generalising where only the particular was in play. This was ‘the great thing that he – I do not say taught us, because one can neither teach nor learn this – but showed us is possible’. Louis-Jean Calvet, Barthes’s first biographer, said in 1990 that the loss of his voice, the absence of a ‘word’ from him, produced a ‘silence that leaves us prey to mere noise’. And Foucault, cited by Samoyault, said Barthes was the person ‘who most helped us to shake up a certain form of academic knowledge that was non-knowledge’.

Perhaps these notions begin to add up. An artisan, the proponent of an impossible science, a man who had words for us (which is not the same thing as putting words in our mouth or telling us what to think), a man who claimed no perfect knowledge but could spot non-knowledge wherever it held sway, and especially where it was disguised as its opposite: this is someone, and it could hardly be anyone other than Barthes. Such a person would be ‘of his time’ even when he seemed to have opted out of it, as Barthes did at certain points. The time would just not be the same without him. Barthes cultivated a careful irony in relation to this idea. He said, for example, that he didn’t like the year of his birth: 1915. ‘An anodyne year: lost in wartime, undistinguished by any event; nobody well-known was born or died that year.’ Until quite late in life he played the unknown hero, the man whose obscurity – sometimes replaced by rapid mobility – was part of his fame.

‘Were I a writer, and dead, how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections.’ Samoyault bravely quotes these lines from Barthes’s book Sade, Fourier, Loyola, and just as bravely ignores them: in part because Barthes had already played that friendly and detached role himself by writing a mock-critical study of a writer bearing his own name, and in part because she is the first biographer to have access to so many of Barthes’s friends and to the full Barthes archive of notes, letters, index cards and the rest. She takes her time and space – 715 pages in French – and is not afraid of the obvious and repetitive remark. Barthes’s childhood ‘to the age of nine’ is described in the next sentence as ‘his earliest years’. He ‘could not bring himself to keep a diary on a regular basis’; would we have guessed that ‘he did so only on an irregular … basis’? I was especially taken by the ‘isolated village, where he enjoyed a certain solitude’ – it’s good to get away from it all.

Still, there are worse interpretative faults, and once she has got over the fact that Barthes’s father died at sea before the child was a year old, her excitement that la mer and la mère are homophones (‘Barthes would find it impossible to break the first, primitive attachment every child has with its mother, and the reason for this lies in the depths of the sea’), and the temptation to psychologise the act of writing (‘One has written only in order to suspend the body, to lessen its pressure, to lighten its weight, to mute the unease that it arouses’), Samoyault settles down to a patient, intelligent exploration of the details of a life that was all about details.

She follows Barthes on all his many travels, she tracks his friendships, she quotes him amply, and has some subtle and attentive things to say about his painting and about his love of music. We see his childhood in Bayonne, his schooldays in Paris, the war years in a series of sanatoria – ‘tuberculosis was incontestably the major event of his life.’ We join him in administrative and teaching posts in Bucharest and Alexandria after the war, and watch him putting his literary career together. He was always ready to learn – about structuralism from Greimas in Egypt, about Bakhtin and polyphony from Julia Kristeva in Paris – and always happy to recognise his debts: ‘I was surrounded by “formulators”, writers like Derrida, Sollers, Kristeva (always the same names, of course) who taught me things, persuaded me, opened my eyes.’ Brecht was also a revelation – he ‘wrote about every appearance made by the Berliner Ensemble on French soil’ – and even when his interest in live theatre faded, he still thought of ‘theatricality’ as an indispensable Brechtian move, ‘the main figure whereby signs are kept at a distance’, in Samoyault’s phrase. It’s not quite that signs are always intelligible for Barthes, as she suggests: ‘Against naturalness, against common sense, against the way History is forgotten, he sets the intelligibility of signs.’ But signs are always signs, waiting for the delayed arrival of their meanings or referents, and we are chronically eager to see this meeting as simple and inevitable, as if a smile could only mean kindness, and ‘I’ could only refer to me. Too long a delay or an entirely failed meeting can be a mess, but there is a form of intellectual freedom in the chance of these slippages.

Maurice Nadeau, introducing Barthes as a new contributor to the magazine Combat, said he was ‘fanatical about language’, and as Samoyault shows, this zeal took many forms. He was sometimes afraid of language, especially in its spoken versions, and he didn’t always believe in the freedom I have just described: ‘Words are not free; there is a spatial death of words.’ Late in life he notoriously said language was fascist – ‘because fascism is not the prevention of speech but the forced obligation to speak’. But for Barthes language was all about signs. Over time, he gave the liberated Brechtian marker – the object or image that could be shown as not colluding in the lies it was asked to tell – a great deal of attention, and his response to the saturated stereotype, the sign we can’t see because we so thoroughly take it for granted, was almost physical. In this sense early works like Mythologies, mid-career works like S/Z and late works like Camera Lucida, so different in other ways, reveal a remarkable consistency. Not all surprises are ‘festive’, but there is nothing worse, for Barthes, than the sickening, confident pile-up of everything we are entirely sure we know. He has a name for it: literally the discourse of other people, more idiomatically, the way people talk, and in S/Z he shows a character dying of it: ‘c’est du discours d’autrui, de son trop-plein de raisons qu’il meurt.’

These others are in our own heads, of course, that’s where they do the damage. They are us in many respects, or we are them. There is no lonely existential insight that will save us permanently from prejudice and platitude. But we can try thinking, and keep at it. In his later years Barthes was less keen on demythologising. The old myths remained as blatant and largely unquestioned as ever, but he realised more and more that myths can only be replaced by other myths. In his essay on Stendhal, Barthes even welcomes myth because it is alive, a ‘great mediating form’, but I don’t think this was because he had changed his mind significantly: he never thought myth was anything other than alive. The trick was to distinguish appealing and enabling myths from noxious ones. Frank Kermode, in The Sense of an Ending, written before Kermode came across Barthes, I think, but nevertheless a book that seems to have Barthes in mind, to be waiting for him, thought an attention to the difference between myth and fiction might do some of this work. Barthes thought the same and in a 1979 interview, speaking of Sartre, offered a sort of definition of his own method between the lines. He also suggested that while the idea of fiction can help us to see what is happening, it can’t do anything about the myth waiting in the shadows:

If it’s true that Sartre, with a philosophical puissance that I do not possess, tried to produce a complete system of thought, I would not say that he failed. In any case, no grand philosophical system succeeds on the scale of history: at some point it becomes a vast fiction, which it always was originally, moreover. I would say that Sartre produced a great philosophical fiction that was incarnated in different writings and that managed to take the form of a system.

History turns systems into the fictions they always were. This is not a matter of failure but of incarnation and writing. The difference between Sartre and Barthes is that the former sought a system and found one, while the latter was looking for something else: endless exact notations perhaps. Both men have a myth behind the fiction, and both myths, in this case, are worth having: they negotiate the impossible in different ways.

Samoyault’s​ loyalty to Barthes’s sense of signs means she is always ready to listen to different opinions. Generally this tendency just helps us to think for ourselves, but at times it makes her seem a little wobbly. About Barthes’s death, for example. On 25 February 1980, he stepped off the pavement of the rue des Ecoles in Paris – either carelessly or looking around quite carefully, depending on the testimony of different friends – and was hit by a van. He was taken to La Pitié-Salpêtrière, where he was found to have several fractures but not to be in a grave condition. He never left the hospital, though; he died on 26 March. Did he lose the will to live? Did his grieving for his mother, which was constant, interfere with his recovery? How serious was the flare-up of the old lung condition? There is also the idea of an ‘iatrogenic infection of the kind that is regularly contracted in hospitals’. The official verdict was that ‘the accident is not the immediate cause of death, but favoured the development of pulmonary complications.’ Samoyault is sure that Barthes ‘was not … deliberately allowing himself to die’ because of his mother’s death; but not sure that he didn’t ‘lose the will to live’ because his book Camera Lucida was ‘not yet taken seriously’. The balance seems odd, and I don’t see why all these possibilities couldn’t have played a part. It is certainly true, as Foucault is quoted as saying, that ‘people do not realise how much effort is necessary to survive in a hospital.’ Samoyault leaves the question open – ‘what did Barthes die of?’ – but there are perhaps too many half-answers in the air.

This is certainly the case with the more difficult question of Barthes’s response to the Paris events of 1968. He was ‘bored’ and ‘wearied’ by many meetings, Samoyault says, and did not sign a crucial manifesto drawn up by his friends at the magazine Tel Quel. Does this mean that he ‘did not really feel concerned by May ’68’? He had a recurrence of his old illness, fainted in the street in April, was bleeding from the larynx in May, had bad ECG reports. This would surely be enough to keep him from taking part in a whole lot of demonstrations, but Samoyault is still on the defensive: ‘This … is not an attempt to let Barthes off the hook for taking only a small part in the events.’ Not an attempt to inspect the hook either. When she says Barthes was engaged in ‘a painful re-examination of his place in the world’, she seems to reiterate rather than stave off the accusation of quietism. Structures don’t take to the streets; neither do painful re-examinations. What’s missing here, or is visible only across the blur of Samoyault’s analysis, is Barthes’s clear sense that the demonstrations and manifestos were too violent and too simple, too close to being mere mirrors of what they attacked, and the principle that people have a right to quietism even if we want them to behave differently, and even if we think they are wrong about the events. In one of the notes in the archive Barthes writes of being ‘on the trapeze without any safety net, ever since I’ve no longer had the nets of structuralism, semiology or Marxism.’ But he still has friends, he says, who hold the rope of the trapeze. It is dangerous to be ‘of one’s time’, whatever the time.

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