Episteme, My Arse

Christopher Tayler

  • The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor
    Harvill Secker, 390 pp, £16.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 1 910701 58 4

Roland Barthes met Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on 9 December 1976 at a lunch hosted by Edgar Faure, the president of the National Assembly, at the Hôtel de Lassay. Michel Foucault had turned down Faure’s invitation as a protest against Giscard’s failure to put an end to the death penalty, and the left-wing figures who went anyway were later subjected, Barthes’s biographer Louis-Jean Calvet reports, to sarcastic inquiries such as ‘So, how was the soup?’ Barthes didn’t like being sneered at for consorting with a patrician representative of the centre-right, and his friends made it known that he had, over coffee, made pointedly Marxisant small talk: he’s said to have asked Giscard if he favoured the withering away of the state, and Giscard is said to have replied: ‘Why not?’ The sneers continued all the same, and when, a little over three years later, Jack Lang invited Barthes to lunch with François Mitterrand, Barthes worried that accepting would be viewed as a craven attempt to make amends. Mitterrand enjoyed chatting with people like Barthes, but the lunch also appeared to be aimed at brushing some intellectual stardust over the following year’s socialist candidate for the presidency. Still, as Barthes said of his meal with Giscard, ‘a myth hunter … must hunt everywhere.’

That lunch, which took place in a flat in the Marais on 25 February 1980, with Lang doing the cooking, apparently went quite well. But then Barthes, en route back to his office, walked into the path of a laundry van, which left him unconscious and bleeding from the nose. He wasn’t carrying ID, so several hours went by before anyone worked out who he was, after which his editor François Wahl tried to keep first the press and then crowds of anxious admirers away from Barthes’s room at the Salpêtrière hospital, where he would die a month later from complications caused by his weak lungs. The first reports of the accident were slow to appear and hazy about the extent of Barthes’s injuries, a circumstance that struck – and still strikes – his friend Philippe Sollers as suspicious. Sollers and his wife, Julia Kristeva, swept into the hospital and made, by all accounts, a bit of a scene. Had news of Barthes’s condition been held up by a conspiracy to stop people getting the idea that Mitterrand had put the evil eye on him? Did the staff even know what a prestigious patient they had on their hands? ‘It’s a shame there is no photographer in the room,’ Laurent Binet writes in his dramatisation of the visit, ‘to immortalise this great moment in the history of French intellectuals.’

In his first novel, HHhH (2010), which tells the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Binet says that inventing a character in order to illuminate historical material is like ‘planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence’. That’s pretty much what he does in The Seventh Function of Language, in which Jacques Bayard, a tough, right-wing cop, shows up at the hospital with secret orders from his bosses to find out if Barthes’s accident contains the seeds of a scandal they can use to discredit Mitterrand. Bayard is fine with that, but he’s an honest cop too, and his investigation isn’t perfunctory. Does the victim have any enemies? Sollers and Kristeva – flanked by Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has also showed up, as he does throughout the novel – indicate that he does. Who? ‘The Stalinists! The fascists! Alain Badiou! Gilles Deleuze! Pierre Bourdieu! Cornelius Castoriadis! … Um, Hélène Cixous!’ Bayard writes these names down in his notebook, but they’re no more help than what he’s told by Foucault, to whom he pays a visit at the Collège de France. ‘The big baldy’, who seems unaccountably ill-disposed towards agents of the state, speaks darkly of ‘the system’ when Bayard asks who might have wished to harm his friend Roland.

Episteme, my arse,’ Bayard thinks as he tries to decipher a lecture by Foucault, who, he suspects, gets paid more than he does for spouting ‘woolly nonsense’ at an institution where no one learns how to do a job. Similar logic makes him feel a mild repulsion when he takes a look at Roland Barthes Made Easy, a parodic Barthes-speak phrasebook published in 1978. The historical Barthes was upset by this gentle lampoon, and Bayard instinctively dislikes both its ‘verbal intimidation’ and its air of a smug joke designed to exclude people like him. (‘Bayard is no idiot,’ the narrator remarks. ‘He’s already doing a bit of Bourdieu without even realising it.’) He decides to seek out an interpreter, and a sniffy person at the Sorbonne directs him to the University of Paris VIII at Vincennes. There he finds a young lecturer, Simon Herzog, teaching an introductory semiology course with examples from the James Bond films – material, at last, that Bayard is at home with, as well as a nod to Umberto Eco’s analysis of Ian Fleming’s narrative structures. True to his initials, Simon uses his training to perform a Sherlock Holmes-like cold reading on Bayard, who responds by requisitioning him in the name of police intelligence.

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