Bit by Bit

John Sturrock

  • Roland Barthes: A Biography by Louis-Jean Calvet, translated by Sarah Wykes
    Polity, 291 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 7456 1017 X

What should a man famous for having wished the Author dead wish for himself once he becomes a dead author? To leave no trace behind would seem right. But if Roland Barthes was hostile to the neighbourly image of the Author as an extra-textual being, he took pleasure in the thought of himself returning as a biographical subject (i.e. object) once he was dead. In the Preface to Sade, Fourier, Loyola, he laid down the quite meetable conditions under which he would agree to pass into the hands of futurity: ‘Were I a writer, and dead, how I would like my life to be reduced, by the attentions of a friendly, carefree biographer, to a few details, a few tastes, a few inflections, let’s say “biographemes”.’ At the end of the same book, by way of illustrating the kind of casual memorial he had in mind, he included ‘lives’ of two of its three subjects, Sade and Fourier: a few numbered ‘biographemes’, strewn through space ‘like the atoms of Epicurus’. Epicurus’ atoms were hooked and Barthes’s typically sensuous fancy was that these errant particles might link up with hospitable fellow atoms in the living, so ensuring a small measure of – fragmentary – survival.

There was to be no coming back after death as an entity; the posthumous condition that Barthes imagined for himself was a sociable version of the one he had sought to inflict most unsociably on the humanist notion of the integral Author. In S/Z, the integral or notional Balzac is separated out without detectable remainder into his constituent parts or generic ‘codes’: meticulously degraded from the role of essential soloist in the literary performance to that of visiting choirmaster. This was Barthes at his most insolent, and cleverest; and unfair though S/Z was, for some of us the concept of authorship has never been the same since. But there was another, milder, almost sentimental side to Barthes, which came more into view in the last few years of his life, when he admitted that he cringed at a lot of what was said and written by adepts of his own work and admitted, too, to the deep, pre-theoretical satisfaction he got from reading ‘bourgeois’ fiction. The most engaging of the biographemes to be found in Louis-Jean Calvet’s Life is an occasion in the late Seventies when Barthes played (badly, by all accounts, and on location in Leeds) the role of Thackeray in a French film about the Brontës; by that late stage this wasn’t the comical piece of literary miscasting it would once have seemed.

Even in his laboratory phase, when he was jubilantly dissolving Balzac in an acid bath, Barthes didn’t in fact insist that the Author-figure be banished altogether from the scene. The Author might be denied existence in the familiar guise of a phantasmal unity, or Great Originator of what we read, but he could remain as a vaguely cordial presence in the form of – this is Sade, Fourier, Loyola again, a book published nine years before Barthes’s death – a ‘simple plurality of “charms”, the site of a few tenuous details, the source still of quick novel-like gleams, a discontinuous song of amiabilities’. That is exquisitely worded, but a shade suspect ideologically. For whoever or whatever is permitted to be both ‘site’ and ‘source’ looks to be on the way to reconstitution as an ontological item, and Barthes to be straying into contradictoriness. His remarkable animus against anything that is normally conceived of as being undivided or continuous sometimes sounds puritanical, as if unity were a state so desirable it was his duty to assure us it was an illusion.

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