BY Sylvère Lotringer in Frieze | 01 JAN 11
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Issue 136

Barthes after Barthes

Mourning, fiction and love: the final thoughts of a great writer

BY Sylvère Lotringer in Frieze | 01 JAN 11


We thought we knew everything about Roland Barthes – the way he managed to glide effortlessly across the entire French intellectual landscape, in turn embracing semiotics and dismissing it, dissolving the author in the text and then bringing out the secret of its pleasure, all the while keeping his distance and the singularity of his style. Closely associated with the avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel, but unabashedly classical in his tastes, Barthes never wavered from his obsession with writing, even after philosophy in France superseded literature and, in turn, the new media culture dismissed them both by imposing its own language and reality. Right to the very end Barthes remained the quintessential French homme de lettres and literary oracle. As he himself liked to say, he was the ‘rear guard’ of the avant-garde, and yet he always remained one step ahead of himself. As for the self-styled avant-garde, it died on its own, just a few years before Barthes’ accidental death in 1980 at the age of 64. (He was run over by a van in front of the Collège de France in Paris.)

Barthes was spared ‘familialism’ from the very start. His father, a merchant navy captain, was killed at sea during World War i, when Barthes was still an infant. Later on, after the publication of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in 1972, he declared (somewhat flippantly) that he had ‘no father to kill, no family to hate, no milieu to reject: great Oedipal frustration!’1 His mother occupied all the parental space, and he remained extremely devoted to her all his life. She was the only woman he ever loved. Her death in the autumn of 1978, a year after Barthes was elected to the prestigious Collège de France, tipped the balance. He wrote that it ‘profoundly and obscurely altered my desire for the world’.2 (A compilation of the notes Barthes made in response to his mother’s death were recently published as Mourning Diary, 2010.) Sensuality had always been paramount in his life and it didn’t help that by the time his mother died the garçons no longer found him desirable. For months afterwards he felt deeply disengaged, a kind of ‘listlessness which bears upon everything I do’. He envisaged making a radical break with his past. He would renounce everything – his courses and academic duties, Collège included – and settle into a life of writing. Dante had done it ‘nel mezzo del cammin’ (in the middle of life’s journey). Marcel Proust hesitated for a few years after his mother’s death, remaining ‘without will or clarity’, drawn between two contrary directions: essay or novel. Barthes was divided as well, between affect and intellect. Would he be, like them, capable of going over to the other side? The Preparation of the Novel, Barthes’ last book, provides a direct account of what he experienced during that period. It gathers posthumously the lecture courses he gave at the Collège between December 1978 and February 1980, and his protracted attempt to turn his mourning into a new departure. Something happened that forced his decision. On 15 April 1978, while resting in a room in Casablanca at the end of a sluggish afternoon, he had a sudden illumination. He would remain at the Collège and write a novel. He would use his teaching to unlearn what he knew, to get rid of any critical language. Like Proust, he would look for a ‘third form’ to ‘treasure his suffering’, and transcend it. He would write about his desire to write, but in the language of writing. It was a pure moment of joy, the kind of bedazzlement that Proust’s narrator experiences at the end of Time Regained (1927). It was, Barthes wrote, the ‘beginning of an idea’, something like a literary conversion. It made everything possible. He was to invoke that date repeatedly in the outline of a novel, just a few pages long, that he worked on the following year, entitled La Vita Nova (The New Life), after Dante. But his intellect wasn’t entirely taken in. ‘All the same,’ he wrote in Preparation, ‘I don’t want to make too much of that April 15! And so will repeat certain elements of that “decision” in a more detached, theoretical, critical manner.’ Barthes was beginning to fictionalize his own biography.

Roland Barthes in his appartment in Paris, 1978. Courtesy: Sophie Bassouls / Sygma / Corbis 

Six months later, in November 1978, he gave an overview of his current work at New York University, in front of a crowd of admirers. The title of his talk, ‘Proust et Moi’ (Proust and I),3 was deliberately provocative, especially from the man who had written the celebrated essay ‘Death of the Author’ (1967).4 Was Barthes advocating the return of the author with a vengeance or was fame going to his head? Barthes quickly reassured his audience: he wasn’t comparing himself to Proust, only identifying with him. But the distinction wasn’t clear at first. Growing out of existentialism and Marxism, his generation had succumbed to the lure of a science of literature. They had repressed subjectivity for too long, he admitted, and it took him some time to erase all the traces of his previous involvement. Writing Le Plaisir du texte (The Pleasure of the Text, 1975) and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, 1977), more subjective and fragmented, had made this turn explicit. He wanted to reclaim ‘the intimate which seeks utterance in me’.

But expressing the intimate publicly requires another kind of science, no less difficult to acquire for skirting generality. In any case, it was at the opposite pole from the narcissistic Moi that he put forward in his title. ‘Better the illusions of subjectivity than the impostures of objectivity’, he recognized in Preparation. Fair enough. But was his identification with Proust part of that illusion? And was this illusion deliberate? Barthes’ intention wasn’t to write ‘about’ Proust, only to identify what it was in him that desired to write. The project was challenging: he was probing at the roots of writing (‘intransitive’) at the same time that it was making explicit his desire to write a novel. Every literary critic wishes to make the jump, but everyone, himself included, knows that going public may bring bad luck, or provoke the Gods. ‘Writing requires secrecy’, Barthes admitted. So this ‘preparation’ couldn’t be the writing that he aspired to. Yet he kept that possibility floating, maybe hoping that it would make his decision irrevocable. Writers don’t ‘prepare’ for a novel by writing about what makes novelists write – they just write it.


Barthes was exploring the biographical element in the novel in other ways. The Preparation of the Novel includes notes on a seminar that he never had a chance to give, based on Paul Nadar’s photographs of Proust’s circle from the late 19th century. The project remains full of gaps and ellipses, but it makes it all the more suggestive. According to his own rule, Barthes kept his interventions to a minimum, simply providing brief biographical details on each individual character in alphabetical order. He was obviously enthralled by the project, but unsure that his fascination could be shared. Just in case, he warned that the seminar would not be on the world of Proust or on photography, but on Marcel and the ‘Marcelians’ who populated the Paris salons at the time. Marcelism, he wrote, was the way ‘the Proustian myth is moving toward the apotheosis of the biographical subject’. So biography and myth were very much on his mind. Barthes was trying to participate in that myth in order to become one unto himself. He didn’t seem to mind that the rumour was already circulating among the Paris intelligentsia that he was writing a novel. What he wanted was to locate himself at the point where biography and writing met. In order to prepare for his courses he also read notes, diaries and memoirs by Proust, Dante, Tolstoy, Chateaubriand and Kafka, and focused on episodes in their novels (the death of Tolstoy’s old Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace, or of Marcel’s grandmother in The Guermantes Way) that he perceived as ‘moments of truth’. It was only at these moments that pathos (suffering) broke through the work.

'Better the illusions of subjectivity than the impostures of objectivity' Barthes declared.

Barthes elaborated on these high points – he called them the ‘punctum’ – in Camera Lucida (1980), his essay on photography. The punctum is the poignant detail that pricks the ‘studium’ (codified knowledge) like a stroke of lightning, blinding everything else. Like Sigmund Freud, Barthes kept focusing the viewer’s attention on an unobtrusive detail, dismissing the rest as mere filling. And yet he denied that this disruptive element had any meaning. It was ‘the truth of affects, not of ideas’. Les Cahiers du cinéma had commissioned the essay three years earlier, and it was his mother’s death that put it back on the front burner. Barthes started writing it on 15 March 1979, one year to the day after his epiphany, and he finished it quickly, in two months, between his two series of lectures on ‘preparation’. The two books – the one on the novel and the one on photography – therefore overlap. Camera Lucida was published in Paris in February 1980, just days before his fatal accident. The reception was lukewarm, something Barthes attributed to the emphasis he placed on the ‘referent’, instead of on photography. Contrary to the reference, which belongs to the code (it is the capacity of signs to ‘represent’ something), the referent is the thing in itself, independent of its medium. Barthes couldn’t be further away here from the semiotic analysis he himself introduced in France in the early 1960s. Paradoxically, he had chosen to deny photography any specificity at the very moment when it was being recognized as an art form in its own right in the art world. He was bringing out instead its anthropological status: photography as a direct emanation of the referent, testifying that the event or the person had been there. It was this presence at a second remove that mattered to Barthes, its sudden return from the dead, death claiming its due from the living. A photograph was ‘what excludes me’. In the absence of religion, where else could death have taken refuge if not in these fragile images, which ‘keep producing death while attempting to preserve life’?

Photographs have a definite hold over us: ‘We dream,’ Barthes wrote in Preparation, ‘therefore we enter into a transference.’ Photographs fascinate, they intoxicate the viewer. But ‘to be fascinated = to have nothing to say.’ The seminar expected the audience to share in that fascination and to participate in the total ‘Marcelist’ environment, the way the young Marcel fell in love with the entire ‘budding grove’ and not just with one young girl, Gilberte. ‘No one falls in love with a physical appearance (with a “type”), you fall in love with an image in a setting.’ Barthes wanted his audience to investigate Marcel’s setting through Nadar’s photographs ‘as an ethnographer might’, intoxicated by their sight, as Proust himself had been. ‘The compactness, the powerful existence, the nature of that world couldn’t have been more tense, more intense, drawing closer to this world (in life, in the work) like an adventure, a frenzy: a wild desire.’ It was this wild desire for that world that exposed Marcel to the ruthless rituals of the Paris salons. It was ‘exhausting, like a veritable profession. More than a professional, a virtuoso of high society: a militant’. Barthes wanted to identify with Proust in the way that natives identify with their totem: by ‘magic participation’ (Lucien Lévy-Bruhl). The seminar might have turned into a séance, with everyone entering in a transference: ‘Intoxicated with what? With the accumulation of these faces, these gazes, these figures, these clothes; with a feeling of falling in love with some of them; with nostalgia (they were alive, all of them are dead).’ This is what Barthes was trying to achieve with Dante, or with Proust: to become them, to identify ‘magically’ with their circumstances in order to immortalize his own ‘referent’ in an exemplary way. The Preparation of the Novel was his training to become a militant of the novel.


Contrary to rumour, Barthes didn’t start writing his novel straight away, but he behaved as though he had, hoping that it would occur magically. For magic is a practice, a ‘preparation’ (to quote Marcel Mauss), not a belief. ‘Will I really write a Novel? I’ll answer this and only this. I’ll proceed as if I were going to write one I’ll install myself within this as if: this lecture course could have been called “As if”.’ It was a propriatory ritual, a deliberate exercise in simulation. Simulating a reality to make it appear. He was well aware, of course, that what he desired was ‘fantasized and probably impossible’, but he would act as if it was possible, and might even learn something about writing in the process. At the start of his career Barthes was deconstructing bourgeois myths. The time had now come to make up his own, a ‘crude fiction’ that would serve as ‘an energy, a motor’ and facilitate his writing. Unlike Claude Lévi-Strauss’ savages, who aspired to immobilize history, he would use this myth to set his own biography in motion. The fantasy would be to him what Virgil was to Dante, his ‘initiatory guide’. Dante started writing his Divine Comedy (1321) after he lost his Beatrice. Barthes would similarly turn his life into a Vita Nova, a new life dedicated to writing, mobilizing all his tutelary gods, all the writers who had inspired him and who had experienced in their lives a similar predicament. Writing as if he were them would help him unravel the knot that held together emotions and creation, death and writing. His idea was ‘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 Fantasized Novel.’

Roland Barthes with his mother, c.1925, Black and white photograph. His mother occupied all the parental space, and he remained extremely devoted to her all his life.

On the day of his death, Barthes left on his typewriter an unfinished text entitled ‘One Always Fails to Speak of What One Loves’. This realization made it all the more urgent for him to delegate ‘the discourse of affect’ to characters, as his illustrious predecessors had done. They would allow him to express his devotion openly, make sure that those he loved wouldn’t disappear, that they would not have lived and suffered ‘for nothing’. But first he had to tear himself away from his ‘acedia’. There were illustrious precedents, writers who identified with their own pantheon in order to regain their creative impulse. Antonin Artaud identified with Paolo Uccello, Peter Abelard, Vincent van Gogh, Comte de Lautréamont, Edgar Allan Poe, ‘all the names of history’ (as Nietzsche said) in the same way. Affects are like the plague, they come from the outside. Artaud urged his actors to become infected by them in order to build themselves a double, a ‘spectral effigy’. They required a special training, an ‘affective athletism’, using affects as a wrestler makes use of his muscles. (Peter Sloterdijk calls it a ‘bank of affects’.) Artaud drew from them while ‘preparing’ for his fatal journey to Ireland. Barthes used this bank of affects in his last lectures to embark on his own journey, deliberately propping in front of him a spectral fantasy – the ‘Utopian Novel’. He kept wearing it like a mask – as if – while pointing at it.

Four years after his mother’s death, Proust took the articles and short stories that he had written and miraculously transmuted them into a literary masterpiece. Barthes decided that he would also start from bits of texts, haikus, fragments, short forms that he had practised all his life, working from notations on index cards. He developed this rhapsodic kind of writing in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975) and A Lover’s Discourse. He was hoping to bring these fragments to the point where they would gel into a longer and more fluid narrative form. In practical terms, Barthes spent the entire first part of Preparation brilliantly unravelling his version of the haiku, but this didn’t seem to get him much closer to his goal. Often, in order to fill the gaps, he fell on technical or sociological commentaries about the novel, a biographical form that had become all the more desirable in his eyes at a time when it was rapidly becoming extinct – can one still use a novelistic form in an era that doesn’t allow for an individual life? His personal quest merged into something far bigger, an attempt to resurrect, maybe for the last time, a great narrative form that had sustained writers’ vocations for centuries and expressed the essence of life.

In The Theory of the Novel (1916) György Lukács wrote that ‘the journey is beginning, the novel is finished’. Barthes’ preparation was the beginning of the journey, but his novel never quite began, and its end was cut short before he could ever get there. He was hoping that, eventually, it would all add up, that the short and the long would mesh into a continuous narrative, a single thread that he could hold on to. But he never had a chance fully to confront the Minotaur, even beneath the mask. Many suspected – it was unavoidable – that his untimely death had in fact been all too timely. What he wrote about Proust in the Preparation may be more to the point: ‘Proust could do nothing but die; if he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have written anything new, only kept adding to the work …’

The Preparation of The Novel by Roland Barthes is published by Columbia University Press, New York, January 2011.

1 Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1977, p.45
2 Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel, trans. Kate Briggs, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011; unless indicated, all quotes are from this book
3 Barthes delivered a similar lecture at the Collège de France on 19 October 1978, entitled ‘Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure’ (‘For a long time, I went to bed early’)
4 Roland Barthes, ‘Death of the Author’, Aspen, 5–6, 1967 (original French version of the text published as ‘La mort de l’auteur’, in Manteia, 5, 1968)