On His Trapeze

Michael Wood

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’.

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