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.

We can be fairly sure that no biography will ever be written in the elementary form of ‘biographemes’, however charming, for even if there are biographers austere enough to attempt it, there will never be publishers suicidal enough to indulge them. The point of biography is to gather its subjects together into the semblance of unity, not to help in scattering them. When Barthes himself drew – as no one doubts that he did – on his own experience as a lover in order to write his Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse, he did so both discreetly and discretely, his first-person je left teasingly intermediate between self-reference and a merely grammatical subjectivity, so that we have only intuition to go on in deciding how many autobiographemes there might be in that book. Given how extraordinarily well it sold – 80,000 copies in the first year is the figure Calvet gives – the consensus has clearly been, right from the start, that it contains a great many, that the mainly unhappy amorous tropisms of which it consists were experienced before they were written, by Roland Barthes.

He had had his chance before that to write confessionally about himself, in the book solipsistically entitled Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. That opens in a surprisingly homely way, with a series of family snapshots, though any hint of poignancy these might have had is neutralised by the elaborately generalising captions they are given. The text that follows reveals rather little about its author as the word ‘reveal’ is normally understood: he writes on the very first page (using the third person) that ‘he finds any image of himself hard to endure,’ and thereafter skirts systematically the definite characterisations which might have risked turning him into a fixture on the page. This writing subject is brilliantly good at refusing to pre-empt his own objectification.

Halfway through a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t book, however, there is a small clutch of autobiographemes, in a section marked ‘Pause: anamneses’ (an idiosyncratic plural, no doubt meant to indicate that each of the entries under this heading has been the product of a separate act of remembering). The anamneses in question are a dozen or more suitably tenuous memories, nearly all of them going back to his childhood in Bayonne. They end in an ironic ‘etc’; and, in the possibilities they contain for expansion, they are Proustian: indeed, the second of them is a memory of coming home to have broth and toast by the fireside, as if Barthes might be led at any moment to dunk his toast and find Bayonne-Combray coming flooding back. He wants us to know perhaps that when he was writing RB by RB he was tempted by an ordinary nostalgia, and wants us to know that he was man enough to resist it. For the rest, the book concentrates on the defining of his Imaginaire, in the Lacanian sense of that term. (Pause for anamnesis: Barthes across the table at the Terrazza in Soho, wryly complaining that though he read everything ‘le père’ Lacan wrote, Lacan would never read anything of his.)

Lacan’s Imaginary is not where any straightforward autobiographer would choose to remain when writing. It is the region of that sustained but delusory effort that Lacan supposes we all make at affirming an identity for ourselves out of our exchanges with the world and with our unconscious. It is Barthes’s little joke in RB by RB to take up residence there: reasonable for him no doubt, but frustrating for the rest of us, as we watch him trying and failing to establish an identity for himself. Thankfully, the Imaginary is not a space open to the biographer, least of all one of Calvet’s brutally pragmatic stamp. His Life of Barthes has no truck with the hidden manoeuverings of the inner man, but sets us down without ceremony in something closer to the Lacanian order of the ‘Real’, of unprocessed fact. This is a banal Life of Barthes and all the more effective for being so. It re-inserts him with fair success into a social, professional and psychological setting that we mainly did without while he was alive. It is a demystification.

Like Camus, and like Sartre, Barthes grew up fatherless – ‘Oedipally frustrated’, as he mockingly put it. He was one year old when his naval officer father was killed in the North Sea in October 1916, a death which meant that from then on the boy and his mother would be hard up. His mother’s was much the grander of the two families, her father having risen to be a colonial governor in French West Africa. On that side there was money, but it didn’t come to her, or not until too late. Barthes went on living with his mother right the way through, until her death in 1977, three years before his own. They stayed effortlessly close, though to begin with their life was pinched, visibly so, and the embarrassment of this Barthes marked down as one source of the ‘marginality’ he said that he had felt throughout his life. He at no time quite fitted in: even in the Sixties, by when he was teaching charismatically in Paris, his reputation was that of an academic misfit whose students, too, were misfits. (Let it be said that the sidelines are just where the practising semiologist should feel most at home.)

The feeling, or the fact, of his marginality was seriously over-determined, however; it had other, more formative sources. The family’s Protestantism counted for something, in a strongly Catholic part of France; on top of which there was a family scandal that led to a certain ostracism: when Barthes was 12, his mother had another child by a local painter. Then there was his homosexuality, of which, according to Calvet, he seems to have become finally sure only in his late twenties. Barthes thereafter was promiscuous, but without ever wanting it to be known, even in the late Seventies, when, thanks largely to Foucault, ‘outing’ was in. Finally, there was his tuberculosis, which forced him to spend eight years on and off in sanatoria, including during the war, and effectively ended his hopes of having an orthodox academic career. Not until 1947, when he was 31 and just about free from the disease, did Barthes get his first regular job: as a librarian at the French Institute in Bucharest, a few months before the regime there closed it down.

That was the year, too, that he began publishing, when part of Writing Degree Zero, which is hardly easy reading, was actually serialised by the enlightened Maurice Nadeau in Combat. A few years later, Nadeau started commissioning the extraordinary, epochal pieces of journalism that were collected into a book in 1957 as Mythologies. Barthes was 41 and, once Mythologies had appeared, famous, launched on his tortuous way through various research and teaching jobs to his final elevation to the Collège de France. For Calvet it is the semiological Barthes, the inspired decoder of contemporary culture and its masked ideologies, who continues to matter the most. He was ‘intuitive’, admittedly, in the way he went about things but all the more influential for that reason in conveying the pleasure and the usefulness to be had from interpreting the social world around us – in which, Calvet might have noted, Barthes was being true to the missionary tradition in semiotics of Charles Morris in Chicago, who had valued the study of signs as having the power to form more alert and less easily manipulated citizens.

Mythologies remains a delight to read, both graceful and acerbic: a holy book, I trust, in departments of cultural studies, if one whose literary excellence should spare it from ever being imitated there. There was more to Barthes than culture-reading, however. Calvet is offhand when it comes to determining what his contribution may have been to literary theory (‘too early to say’ etc), and because Calvet is also sparing in analysing the great many ideas there are to be found in the critical books and essays, the literary as opposed to the semiological Barthes gets short measure. This is wrong. Barthes had a hugely liberating effect on the language and method of criticism, and not only in France. He it was who showed that criticism, too, could be written, could offer verbal and conceptual excitements of its own while still engaging with the chores of interpretation. Barthes was the academic outsider who made very good. His biographer teaches, by a nice irony, at the Sorbonne, a byword ever since the days of the feisty Abelard for all that is most crabbily narrow-minded in academic discourse. In the Sixties, Barthes took on, for the good of us all, the backwoodsmen of the Sorbonne in the shape of Professor Raymond Picard, who expressed himself disgusted by the arrogance and eccentricity of Barthes’s ‘anthropological’ reading of Racine. That was a skirmish between modes of criticism, the one stale and pedantic, the other erratic but alive, a skirmish won definitively by Barthes, with the result that the Sorbonne is today, I don’t doubt, a far brighter place in which to read literature than it was thirty years ago.

That Barthes should have been so robust and sardonic as a polemicist is interesting, in the light of what Calvet has to tell about the sort of man that he was. He was by temperament a keeper out of trouble, a sensualist who looked to gratify the body that had given him so much grief when he was young, not to expose it. He was assertive only when he wrote, political only in print. In the days of Mythologies people took him for some kind of Marxist, given the venom he expressed against the bourgeoisie and all its hegemonic works; and challenged by Camus to declare at one point where, politically, he was coming from, Barthes claimed to be a ‘historical materialist’. For the sake of argument, he might have added. He was no militant, looking on militancy indeed as one more form of ‘hysteria’, of the theatrical, over-emphatic behaviour to which he had a horror of succumbing. In 1968, when he might have been expected to come out in support of the students, he wrote their movement off as ‘petit-bourgeois narcissism’, which may not look out of order twenty-five years later but does him little honour as a conclusion reached in the heat of an exciting moment. Heat, however, wasn’t to Barthes’s liking. He was fearful of crowds and of demonstrations: ‘Structures don’t take to the streets’ was the sarcastic slogan that he coined to excuse his passivity.

He was a private, indoors man, where he could be safe with his cigars, his piano and his oil-paints. He never hid his domesticity, nor the passion for order that was a part of it. He worked to exactly the same time-table every day and the rooms that he worked in, whether in Paris or in his holiday home outside Bayonne, were identically – let’s say, isomorphically – arranged, a decor planned by and for a structuralisant to do his thinking in. To go with that there was the extreme orderliness with which he made notes when he was reading, filing them away on index-cards for use later, and prompting the question whether we shouldn’t take his cult of the fragmentary to be an unusually honest reflection of the way in which all who write criticism reduce what they read to a card-pack of disjointed responses, only to deal them out later disguised as continuous prose.

The only physical risks that he took were when he was sexually driven, and went out looking for young men, at successive stages of his working life, in Bucharest, Alexandria, Paris or Morocco. That was exceptional behaviour, a product of the ‘desire’ that he meant should be satisfied only covertly in his daily life but which, in compensation, was displayed flamboyantly enough as a concept in his writing. Right at the outset, in Writing Degree Zero and his essay on Michelet (the book of his Barthes said he liked the best, maybe because no one else ever much liked it), he asked that the writer’s ‘body’ and its ‘history’ be given their due, as being the true source of his ‘style’. Michelet’s obsessive industry, for example, he locates first in the migraines from which the historian suffered very acutely and which led him, by some never quite spelt out Barthesian logic, to ‘eat’ history as the one form of nutrition that would keep him alive. And having once found ways of locating a writer’s ‘body’ in his texts, Barthes was well on the way to constructing a ‘materialist’ theory of writing. Whatever is distinctive in a text is bodily, it is where the writer’s desire shows through; whatever is style-less is so because it is in some literal sense disembodied. The doxa or received opinion, that noirest of bêtes noires for Barthes, is contemptible because it has no desire behind it – though why he should have supposed we are incapable of investing our desire in the doxa is unclear; it frequently appears as the only outlet there is.

The Barthes who wrote was a creature of paradox because that is what he very much desired to be, and a peculiarly mobile thinker because he was ultra-sensitive to the need to move beyond his own paradoxes once they were taken up and in danger of becoming in their turn an orthodoxy. As a subject of biography he demands a biographer who will be more than usually attentive to the many ‘inflections’ by which he revealed his desires, in both the way he lived and the way he thought. Calvet has too little apparent sympathy with his subject to attempt anything so exacting. He has brought Barthes down to earth; it would be good now if the next biographer were to be intellectually ambitious enough to want to take to the air with him.