The philosopher, semiotician, literary theorist—the writer—Roland Barthes died 35 years ago today.
Reading him (well, a good translation, usually by Annette Lavers or Richard Howard) as a teenager was one of my formative experiences; it was my first conscious experience of my brain expanding with the simple idea that everything is worth notice and consideration. Everything produced by a culture is a signifier of at least that culture itself. His most popular book, “Mythologies,” is about common aspects of civilization, the items and ideas that make up our modern mythology of ourselves: plastic, toys, striptease, cruises, soap and detergents. Other writers and cultural critics have followed Barthes; perhaps the fact that the job title “cultural critic” exists is attributable to Barthes’ work. Almost every television, music, and film reviewer owes Barthes a debt, but his studies went far deeper than the popular everyday items.
The act of writing itself fell under his steady gaze, as did photography. He studied the act of falling in love, as well as the act of mourning. All of these are public acts, even in their private aspects, when we publicly separate ourselves from the public into a private space. The culture in which we live dictates certain rituals, routines, and a particular rhetoric, even in how we fall in love. These he studied, without attempting to explain them from an historical perspective, but to find their deeper significance. When we fall in love, for instance, we “know” we are in love in part because society gives us something of an unofficial checklist of feelings that it thinks we ought to have and in part because we know we are in love with or without that checklist.
In his memoir, “Roland Barthes,” he studied himself and aspects of his life as if regarding a text; he then wrote a review of the book, perhaps merely to amuse himself in writing a review with the title, “‘ “Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes’ by Roland Barthes.”
Barthes searches item after item for the precise moment at which and in which the item, an expression of the culture that produced it, becomes a “text.” Often, as with photography, it is not the point of focus that earns a viewer’s (his) focus; it is something off to the side.
In the photo below, I found myself looking again and again at Barthes’ scarf. That scarf directed where I placed the text. (I promptly screwed up the placement of the copyright statements; there that paragraph sits, jammed rudely on his lapel as if I am trying to get his posthumous attention.)
(In one of those coincidences that may not really be a coincidence but instead something spookier, the Daily Prompt‘s “assignment” is to take the third sentence from the third post from someone else’s WordPress web site and incorporate it. I do not usually comment on the Daily Prompt in my pieces here, even in the ones that are direct responses to the Prompt, because I am not in school and these are not assignments and I work on writing columns that are a bit wider ranging than a specific response to a specific question. But this was spooky, or not. Barthes on photography comes up as a topic and at that point I look at my WordPress feed and there is a web site by a photographer. “I’m a photographer not a botanist!” writes a photographer whose work I enjoy on WordPress underneath one nature photo, of palm fruit. This is his third sentence. I’m a reader, not a photographer or a botanist, and as per Barthes, I keep finding myself looking at the tree parts, the palm leaves, in the photo and not at the fruit that he featured. The palm leaves then make me think about certain religious ceremonies …)
In February 1980, Barthes attended a luncheon with future French President François Mitterrand and other intellectuals. Out on the street, he was struck by a laundry van and injured; he died in hospital a month later. In his posthumously published “Mourning Diary,” written while mourning the death of his mother, he wrote, “To whom can I put this question (with any hopes of an answer)? Does being able to live without someone you loved mean you loved her less than you thought … ?”
* * * *
The Gad About Town is on Facebook! Subscribe today. Daily facts (well, trivia) about literature and history plus links to other writers.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for March 25 asks, “Head to ‘Blogs I Follow’ in the Reader. Scroll down to the third post in the list. Take the third sentence in the post, and work it into your own.”