Episteme, My Arse

Christopher Tayler

  • The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor
    Harvill Secker, 390 pp, £16.99, May, 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.’

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