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Barthes’s centenary lesson

Roland Barthes: Album, edited by Éric Marty (Seuil: 2015)

Roland Barthes was one of a legendary generation of French post-war writers in the humanities and social sciences. The centenary of his birth will be marked this year and it has already prompted many fresh engagements with the work of a thinker for whom literature was to be the medium of a transformed life. Patrick O’Donovan was a student in Paris in the late 1970s and attended Barthes’s lectures in the Collège de France. Here, he ponders Barthes’s enduring place in the humanities today.

It seems improbable to think of Roland Barthes, who was born in November 1915, as the focus of centenary celebrations: he was the most unmonumental of writers. Yet such has been his influence in the sixty years since his first works appeared that a return to Barthes is nothing if not compelling.

At the moment of Barthes’s death in March 1980, Michel Foucault saw him as a precursor figure above all, unique among the writers of his time in that the impact of his critique of prevailing forms of knowledge in the humanities would only be fully felt in the future. Thirty-five years have passed since then. Are we now in a position to broach just how our understanding of the world we have come to inhabit in his wake has been shaped by the intimations he gave us — not only those of us born since the beginning of the Second World War and who followed Barthes’s work as it appeared, but also all those who have become his readers only since his death? 

Roland Barthes by Tiphane Samoyault (Seuil: 2015)

The centenary year will give us plenty of new resources on which one can draw in tackling this question. Tiphaine Samoyault, in an interview to mark the publication of her excellent new biography, identifies herself as one of Barthes’s latter-day readers. Her book is the first to make extensive use of his private papers and it is a decisive contribution in showing how at each stage of his work Barthes drew on new intellectual resources to redefine the task of criticism, often making sharp interventions on political and cultural issues of his day in the process. In May, an exhibition dedicated to Barthes as writer will open in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where his vast archive, made up of some 17,000 index cards, is now held. An anthology of uncollected writings will be published later this month by Éric Marty, the leading editor of Barthes’s writings since his death. In bringing projects which were to remain unrealized into open view, Marty’s gamble is precisely to restate Barthes’s present claims, be they timely or untimely.

What might Barthes’s centenary lesson be for us? It turns out that it is to Barthes himself, speaking on a grand occasion in his personal history, that we can look for answers.

Barthes did offer a relatively explicit formulation of his own historical position, in the inaugural lecture he gave as professor in the Collège de France in 1977 (published soon afterwards under the title: Leçon). He pointed to a shift that made it possible to formulate a new historical understanding of culture, one which prompted in turn a new statement of the task of the intellectual. In the aftermath of the Second World War (and, one might add, of decolonization), literature came to be desacralized as a culturally privileged statement of human aspirations. The conclusion which Barthes drew for himself was that it was now possible to engage with the imaginary sign in all of the risky force of its uncertain truth value. At the same time, he does point to the work of the critic as it is newly defined by this transformation: her object is language and her task is to inhabit this same medium in such a way that the practice of teaching or criticism ceases to be a pretext simply to reinstate the authority which the historical changes referred to by Barthes have annihilated. 

Barthes brought the lecture to a close by mentioning that he had just reread Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain — a novel with a particular meaning for him, as he had suffered from tuberculosis in the early 1940s. He reports his astonishment as he grasps that his own body is a historical object: because he lived through the same now superseded treatment as Mann’s protagonist, he finds himself projected back into the period before his own birth. Thirty-five years later, he feels that time to be very remote, just as he sees his own historical body to be rooted in a past that is even remoter. His sole option? To seek a kind of rebirth in the midst of the younger individuals who now surround him, in the wilful forgetting of what lies in the past and — even more provocatively on the occasion of an inaugural lecture in the Collège de France — an unlearning of what had already been formulated.

So Roland Barthes in what were to be the last years of his life. He gave the name ‘la vita nuova’ to the sense of rebirth which he experienced and this was to be his last great project. One of the many strengths of Samoyault’s biography is the credibility which she imparts to it in her closing chapters: she shows how Barthes derives a novel intellectual impetus from an attempted self-reinvention in which life and writing merge. Much of the enduring value of Barthes’s late works lies in this as a new expression of the compelling sense of latency which was at the root of each of his far-reaching critical adventures. In the centenary year, the revival continues apace, with major conferences on Barthes’s place in the humanities and social sciences today as well as aspects of his influence less acknowledged until now.

Barthes’s long century, extending from twenty or more years before his own birth to the present, is the one which we continue to inhabit. It defines our several histories, be they political, cultural or national, and the disasters and dislocations to which Barthes referred are those to which we too must find our own responses. In doing so, we might again take a cue from Barthes, and from Pier Paolo Pasolini, to whom he owed the formulation of the stance which he made his own in the 1970s — a ‘desperate vitality’. Even the despair we feel in the face of historical catastrophes is a sign of vitality, in that it is our means to distance ourselves from the forces which bring them about. To answer the questions which Barthes poses to us even with a tentative ‘yes’ is a way of perpetuating what was to be his salutary and ‘irreducible No’.

The following video is an interview with Tiphaine Samoyault at Librairie Mollat...

Published: 14 May 2015  Categories: French Literature, Literary Theory

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Patrick O’Donovan is Professor of French in University College Cork and was formerly a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. He works on modern and contemporary literature and thought in France, and is at present writing a book on Benjamin Constant. He was the chairperson of the Irish Humanities Alliance in its inaugural year.