I am not contradictory; I am dispersed.

Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes

To write on oneself may seem a pretentious idea;
but it is also a simple idea: simple as the idea of suicide.
Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes

Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning.
Roland Barthes, January 1977, Inaugural Lecture

In 1975 Roland Barthes published a book designed to sabotage the long tradition of autobiography running from Augustine to Montaigne, from Montaigne to Rousseau, from Rousseau to Herbert Read and Edwin Muir. Not without a pinch of irony, he named his experimental work of deconstruction Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Any reader expecting to follow the story of the author, moving cumulatively through the phases of his life from infancy to maturity, would be left baffled. The work subverts the expectation of a single continuous narrative in which the author recreates and reflects on his evolving experience. There is no beginning, middle or end. There is little chronology. Often there does not even seem to be any essential core of selfhood.

One sentence at the front of the book sends out a stark warning: It must be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel. A character in a novel is no Augustine, a distressed sinner on his knees, whispering fervently into the ear of God, or a divided man, like Rousseau, astounded by the turbulent nature of his experience, calling on the compassionate understanding and gentle judgement of the reader. It is as if, at the historical moment in which Barthes was writing, the traditional quest for self-knowledge had come to an abrupt end; as if the confessional language of the inner self – and the autobiographical genre it had created – had lost both coherence and conviction; as if after a few decades of modernism, after the influence of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Saussure, the self could no longer be conceived as a unity, let alone a destiny. Such phrases, deriving from psychoanalysis, as self-realization or self-actualisation now required, or so it seemed, the mandatory postmodern quotation marks to hedge them in. They had become problematic concepts with dubious application to be employed, if at all, with a light Barthean irony.

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes is an early experiment in forging a different literary genre for a deconstructed self. A self-consciously avant-garde work, often presented as a kind of anti-autobiography, it is pitted not only against the Christian idea of an immortal soul, the Romantic theatre of the feeling self. There is no Dantesque pilgrimage to Paradise; no Ancient Mariner journey to a definitive life-wisdom. There are no pangs of subjectivity and very little space for the probing categories of psychoanalysis. The purchase of the pronoun ‘I’ had never been analysed with such mordant rigour. As Nietzsche had predicted, the reflexive preoccupation with the nature of language at the end of the nineteenth century had brought the very notion of a single coherent subject into supreme doubt. The first-person pronoun had become, in the language of Saussure’s linguistics, a ‘signifier’ without the security of the signified, an arbitrary sound in the pattern of language perpetrating all manner of misconceptions. The question, it seemed, was no longer who am I?, but who am I when I begin to speak or write? and even, more fundamentally, am I?

From the beginning, Barthes made it clear that whenever he picked up a pen to write he himself was more lost than found. For language took him over; it deflected and usurped, rather than revealed and disclosed. Barthes had always been attracted to Kierkegaard’s penetrating insight: Once I speak, I express generality. Paradoxically, in speaking or writing, the person does not ‘naturally’ express him or herself, but tends to formulate whatever lies dormant in the collective language. The sense of a subjective revelation may be an illusion conjured up by patterns of grammar. For Barthes the existential concept of authenticity had become as untenable as the earlier Renaissance notion of sincerity. In a sceptical note on the emergence of diaries in the sixteenth century, he wittily associated the genre with ‘diarrhoea’. Perhaps they were little more than unpleasant evacuations. In A Lover’s Discourse, the book that followed his anti-autobiography, Barthes phrased his opposition to autobiography like this: I cannot write myself. What after all is this ’I’ who would write himself? Even as he would enter into the writing, the writing would take the wind out of his sails, would render him null and void – futile. To write in the manner of the traditional diary or confession was a form of suicide. Such intimate genres invited subtle acts of self-deception; they gave birth to the poseur and the inflated persona and generated narratives of a deceptive cogency.

This perception (whatever its final value) runs like a scarlet thread through most of Barthes’s writing, though as we shall see it changes dramatically a few years before his death in 1980. It is expressed poignantly and poetically in his speculations about what it might mean to speak in another language with an entirely different syntax and vocabulary. What, he wonders, if all his life he had chosen the wrong language? What is verbally absent haunts him with the utopian dream of unrealised possibilities, of other selves, of uncharted ground. Much of the mature Barthes, free from the prescriptive constraints of theory, is about what cannot be said, what eludes the established structures of language. But, even here it is language, and especially the art of writing, which obsesses him. One could even say that Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes tells us more about writing than the author. Tellingly, the short neutral word ‘text’ is often given a capital letter, as if it alone had replaced the strutting capitals of God, Truth and Beauty. After metaphysics, linguistics: after ontology, the labyrinthine invitations and digressions of language; after the pilgrimage of the soul, the Text – and with it a heightened awareness of style, allusion and reference.

Throughout his anti-autobiography Barthes uses a number of devices to shake any single concept of identity. He shuffles self-consciously between personal pronouns. The book starts with the third person singular ‘he’ – then on the second page continues with the first person singular ‘I’ – and then moves erratically between them, adding such formulations as RB or the more inclusive ‘we’ or, quite often, the impersonal ‘one’ and, occasionally, the intimate singular ‘you’. The shifting register of self-reference italicizes an acute discomfort with how to nominate himself. It destabilises. Along with the constant changing of tense, it is a deliberate ploy to create a different kind of genre. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes does not fit any traditional category: it is not memoir, not apologia, not a journal, not a diary, not a confession, not an autobiography, not a series of essays. It flows without any conventional demarcations: no chapter headings, no sections according to periods of time, no prologues and no epilogues. In some ways it can be compared to stream of consciousness writing; a polyphonic text designed to capture a dispersed reflexivity. Barthes wrote: I agree to pluralize myself.

Another device used the alphabet. As a writer, Barthes tended to scrawl his thoughts down on small white cards. Generally, a card covered one particular emerging thought. At a later point, the cards were collated and slowly shaped into a final text – or anti-text. In truth, Barthes is pre-eminently a writer of terse epigrammatic fragments. He loved aphorisms, haikus, pithy impromptu remarks, jokes, brilliantly condensed formulations (surrounded by ample white spaces). He loathed the stuffed owl, perched on a plastic branch in a glass cage in a museum, as much as he loved the nocturnal bird in full flight. Even Barthes’s 1942 essay, On Gide and His Journal, is constructed from short paragraphs, diving from one theme to another, often without connectives or logical links.

This early essay prefigured all the fractured work that was to follow after The Fashion System in 1967, the book which marked the end of Barthes’s attachment to systematic theory and the emergence of a more open-ended speculative thinking; one could almost say the demise of modernism and the rise of postmodernism. In the composition of his anti-autobiography, Barthes took the various fragmentary pieces of reflection and ordered them alphabetically according to their theme or their first letter. The alphabet was a means of thwarting the controlling intentions of the ego, while inviting all kind of promiscuous and unexpected collisions and conjunctions, a method to keep the writer’s self dispersed. It was, he said, a euphoric method of organisation, a new structural principle for a new kind of reflexive writing.

So the anti-autobiography starts with the ‘A’ headings Active/reactive and The Adjective and concludes with ‘T’ reflections on theme, theory and totality – though with Barthes there always had to be exceptions to any self-imposed rule. He defined his method: The alphabetical order erases everything, banishes every origin. Perhaps in places certain fragments seem to follow one another by some affinity; but the important thing is that these little networks not be connected, that they not slide into a single enormous network which would be the structure of the book, its meaning. The alphabetical order undermined any notion of essence, intentionality or narrative contiguity. The declared enemy was the destiny of the subject. This was manifestly not curriculum vitae writing, not the linear progress of traditional biography and autobiography – and then and then and then – but the writing of a much more radical diffusion – now and not now and now and not now. In spirit, it was close to Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose experimental novels Barthes had defended: a fragmentary polysemic text about everything and nothing, a mercurial record of the perpetual unfolding and passing of unruly thought.

Under an ‘L’ reflection (Lucidité/ Lucidity), Barthes claimed that it was no longer possible to write in the confessional manner. Before the splintering categories of History, Ideology and the Unconscious (they are formulated with capitals), we find ourselves open and disjointed. So in his anti-autobiography one entry follows another like a succession of waves breaking on the shore, text upon text, which never definitively illuminate anything. Later, under an ‘N’ reflection – nouveau sujet, nouvelle science: new subject, new science – Barthes makes his position almost dogmatic: he wants to side with any writing whose principle is that the subject is merely an effect of language. Yet the polemical Barthes is not to be trusted, for what is proposed in one wave of thought may well be negated in the next. As we will see, the very late Barthes would certainly have disowned any materialist notion of a comprehensive science of life, and was ready to delight in a theological language – of ‘grace’, ‘miracle’ and ‘surplus’ – to evoke the spiritual, the unique and ineffable, qualities so absent from his anti-autobiography.

Barthes was a restless, dialectical thinker who loved practising the elenchus. A Socratic gadfly, he loved to goad, to defy, to unpick the status quo; he was, also, a Socratic squid, able to conceal the various movements of his mind with a dark and obscuring ink. He quickly turned on any settled proposition to wrench out other latent possibilities of meaning, including the repressed but defining antithesis. If language is built on binaries, as Saussure contended, then the opposite word (night/day, good/evil, man/woman) is always potentially in play. Certainly, Barthes was drawn to the magnetic attraction of antinomies. He would have endorsed Oscar Wilde’s dictum: A truth in art is that whose contradiction is also true – but would have extended its application to all forms of linguistic expression. This explains why his middle work around 1970 countered much of his early modernist writing, and why his last poignant reflections (around 1977) on his mother’s death and the nature of photography upturned almost everything that had gone before. His work does not so much evolve as, under the mounting pressure of dialectical thought, undergo a series of mutations. The question is not what Barthes thought but, rather, at what moment he thought it. An atemporal proposition beginning RB thought that … hovers on the edge of imbecility. For which RB was it? At what time? In what context? With what dialectical reservations? And in what manner of expression? Polemical? Ironic? Tentative? Humorous?

It is in the middle of his anti-autobiography that Barthes puts forward his seminal Socratic method: Reactive formations: a Doxa (Opinion) … is posited, intolerable: to free myself I postulate a paradox; then this paradox turns bad, becomes a new concretion, itself becomes a new Doxa, and I must seek further for a new paradox. The life of consciousness is a perpetual reflexive revolution against the formation of opinion. Doxa is the Medusa petrifying all who come under her gaze, who threatens to contract the multifarious world to one breeze-block platitude: obvious, literal, inescapable. An important part of the Socratic dialectic against intellectual petrification was not only locating the antithesis (though as we have seen, Barthes was adept at that), it was also catching what he called the ‘encroachments’ – overflows, leaks, skids, shifts, slips. This was the art of reading slant: a poetic linguistics with a Nietzschean slyness. In this playful spirit Barthes unpicked the complacent classifications of the academy, the settled protocols of committees, the canonic judgements collectively parroted by academics rather than individually acquired. Of course, he did interpret some of the established literary works (he wrote on Racine, Stendhal, Proust, Flaubert) but, equally, he liked to adopt orphan texts (like Balzac’s Sarrasine) and give them a more capacious home.

Something of his chameleon complexity is beautifully captured in the photograph he chose for the cover of the 1977 American edition of his anti-autobiography. One detects in the striking image of his face a profound melancholy in the eyes, a sensuality in the gentle curve of the lips, a sharp intelligence in the large fore-brow, and an emphatic diffidence in the way the fingers of his right hand hover just below the mouth. He seems about to speak but, at the same time, hesitates, as if somewhere within he preferred to be silent, to escape the ambiguities and distortions of language. He once said to his life-long friend, Philippe Rebeyrol: Intellectually I feel strong, but existentially I feel completely vulnerable. One of his recurring nightmares was that he was an impostor pretending to play the part of a bishop. The photograph portrays and betrays an errant and ambivalent thinker.

Like Albert Camus, Barthes was an outsider, an analytical observer perpetually on the edge, unsure as how to participate, and what register to use. Under an L reflection, L’exclusion, he wrote: he felt more than excluded: detached: forever assigned the place of the witness whose discourse can only be, of course, subject to codes of detachment. The loss of his father when he was an infant, his experience of isolation as a young man suffering from tuberculosis, and his homosexuality (which he never made public) all added to an acute social unease. His closest friends described him in three words: reticent, secretive and ambiguous. Barthes would have hated the adjectives; he hated all ‘describing words’ that fixed and misrepresented the fluid nature of life. Nevertheless, the photograph testifies to their truth.

For the most part, Barthes does not look back in his anti-autobiography, does not describe, does not recreate. Rather than narrate, he nominates; rather than tell a story he asks questions. In nearly all traditional autobiographical writing there is, in Shakespeare’s phrase, a ‘remembrance of things past’, a nostalgic glancing back to Origins, together with a forward movement propelled by the prospect of a new unity, if only glimpsed or partially experienced. The dominant metaphor is that of a journey through a number of stages, a slow uncertain pilgrimage from a lost Paradise to the possibility of a further Paradise, shimmering on the horizon or vibrant in the prophecy of parousia. The drive of the narrative is to reclaim the lost innocence at a higher level of consciousness. The metaphor is of a circular or spiral journey in which the self is revealed as part of a larger pattern of redemption or cosmic realization, where the self/soul/psyche returns to where it began yet, as a result of the hazardous and testing journey, recognizes the place as if for the first time. This image of a dramatic personal journey, a pilgrim’s progress, informs the whole of the western tradition of autobiographical reflection, both classical and Christian. It lies at the centre of Plato and Plotinus, of Augustine and Dante, of Coleridge and Wordsworth, of Edwin Muir and T. S. Eliot. The journey constitutes what Jung named the archetypal story of individuation. Although, as we shall see, at the very end of Barthes’s life there were intimations of something numinous and mysterious, there is no over-arching sense of a divine or natural pattern. There is no justifying narrative in his work.

In a moment of serendipity, Barthes stumbled on the metaphor he needed to capture the new spatio-temporal configuration he was looking for. He is not making a journey; as he stitches together different pieces of material, from a thousand different sources, he is making a patchwork, and it forms a flat surface: Far from reaching the core of the matter, I remain on the surface, for this time it is a matter of ‘myself’ (of the Ego); reaching the core, depth, profundity, belongs to others. Then with the eye of a Socratic lover, the eccentric individual who cherishes and affirms, he names his patchwork a rhapsodic quilt. It is a stroke of genius. Here, at last, a new form of postmodern writing has found its most telling image: a patchwork text for a patchwork self. The quilt links writing to artefact and artifice, to eclectic material and aesthetic impulse, to democratic surface and polysemic interpretation. It suggests that art can operate outside of any patriarchical canonic tradition and be a simple thing constructed for ordinary living, giving pleasure, keeping one warm in the most bitter weather.

Significantly, his anti-autobiography does not reach a culmination. Breaking the principle of alphabetical ordering, it simply stops with a ‘D’ reflection entitled different discourse. The final entry is dated August 6th, the very day on which the project commenced. The chronology returns to the beginning, yes; but there is no resolution, just an impish dialectical shift to another way of looking: a different language, a different hermeneutics. The book ends with a philosophical reversal and a question. The entry reads: this August 6, the countryside, the morning of a splendid day; sun, warmth, flowers, silence, calm, radiance. Nothing stirs, neither desire nor aggression; only the task is there, the work before me, like a kind of universal being: everything is full. Then that would be Nature? Absence … of the rest? Totality? It is true that the entry is so abbreviated it is difficult to fully grasp, but two elements stand out dramatically: the most unexpected Romantic view of Nature (spelt with a capital letter and without postmodern quotation marks) and the fact that the reflection ends with a series of questions. Then there is that concept of a universal being. But here just as our analysis was settling down to define a distinct postmodern style and philosophy (an emerging doxa?) our complacency is shaken … We are being taken into the unknown. This is the dialectical process in action, and it undercuts everything. It is the ultimate unsettling of all foundations. Yet, uncannily, the references to ‘radiance’ and ‘universal being’ do point forward to Barthes’s last autobiographical speculations in his last work before the fatal street accident in early 1980 which took his life.

The opposite may always be true. In some ways, then, Barthes’s anti-autobiography can be read as an autobiography in the long tradition of western confessional writing; not so much an act of demolition, but more a fierce act of cultural renewal. Following the scattered hints and conscious (and unconscious) undercurrents of the work, it is time to deconstruct
the deconstruction.

A different discourse, indeed.

First, there is the matter of ‘biographemes’. This word, one of many of Barthes’s fertile neologisms, refers to the distinctive rhythm or characteristic of a person or a special object associated with a person: Montaigne’s tower, Van Gogh’s chair, Freud’s cigar. In his book Sade, Fourier, Loyola, published in 1971, four years before his ‘anti-autobiography’, Barthes wrote: Were I a writer, and dead, how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say to: biographemes whose distinction and mobility might go beyond any fate. It would seem the biographeme encapsulates a person, displaying his or her distinct embodiment and peculiar way of being. In his own autobiographical experiment, Barthes uses a number of biographemes to express his own bodily existence. Some of these are elementary, relating to handwriting, signatures, non-referential marks. The penultimate page, for example, consists of two doodles. The first is simply labelled doodling; the second is labelled or the signifier without the signified. The intention is to show the unique physical imprint of the author’s body, its kinetic flow. The doodles are like initials carved into the trunk of a tree or the ochre imprint of a hand on a paleolithic cave wall; they say (and do not say): this was me; I was here. They are the indelible marks of an existence.

In describing his notion of biographemes, Barthes evoked a phrase of Baudelaire which affirmed the emphatic truth of gestures in the great circumstances of life. This is exactly the way handwriting works. It is gestural and possesses the spontaneous authenticity of immediate movement in space and time. Of course, applied to Barthes’s work, the last part of Baudelaire’s description would have to be revised to the small circumstances of life: signing one’s name, scribbling, doodling. Barthes loved the ecstasy of the ordinary; the charm of the impersonal.

As we have seen, the first disconcerting sentence of his anti-autobiography reads: it must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel. But that sentence is written in Barthes’s own idiosyncratic hand, as unique and identifiable as a thumbprint. Why? Is it that the intimate gestural manner of presentation makes ironic the manifest content of the utterance? Is this the sly humour of a Nietzsche? Indisputably, this is the handwriting of the individual author, adding a dimension to the text which is not fictional, and more than textual. The meaning of the sentence is undermined by the mode of expression. Surely a deliberate paradox is at work here inside the subtle double coding? Can we say under the semiotic lies the existential?

Closely related to the various biographemes are a number of precise personal memories which Barthes called anamneses: remembrances. Fifteen are placed near the centre of the book in an italics which isolates them from the main reflexive text. They have no title, possess an extraordinary directness and are entirely free of the strained rhetoric which often marks Barthes’s writing. The anamneses work like photographic stills. One evokes an early memory: On the long summer evenings, the mothers strolled along the lanes, the children fluttering around them; holidays. Another relates to adolescence: In the rue Mazarine, you bought your magazines from a stationer who came from Toulouse; the shop smelled of frying potatoes; the woman came out of the back still chewing a last mouthful. How does Barthes see these miniature sketches? As always, he is quick to offer an explanation: I call anamnesis the action – a mixture of pleasure and effort – performed by the subject in order to recover, without magnifying or sentimentalizing it, a tenuity of memory; it is the haiku itself. It is a succinct definition and the comparison with haiku is illuminating, but what Barthes does not make explicit is the connection of the word ‘anamnesis’ to a long tradition of autobiographical recall, from Proust to Wordsworth to Rousseau and, further back, to Plotinus and Plato. As he would have known, his very choice of word reverberates with the echoes of classical concepts of memory and the soul. There is nothing avant-garde here; the long tradition of western identity and literature is in full intertextual play.

A further paradox ruffles the postmodern feel of the work. The book also contains photographs, but unlike the textual fragments the images have not been randomly shuffled. They are placed, for the most part, in precise chronological order (from his grandparents forward) and reveal personal elements of exposure and continuity from the child to the youth to the adult: and then and then and then. The images offer more than a curriculum vitae, they provide a coherent psychological narrative. In one photograph we see a large anxious boy hugging his mother as he stares apprehensively at the photographer. Alongside the image the author has written: The demand for love. This huge love for his mother, which will release after her death some of his most poignant utterances, is expressed in the very first photograph and is given the entire page. It is of Henriette Barthes strolling leisurely across a sandy beach in the warm haze of summer. Her face, somewhat blurred, carries a certain numinosity, an intangible sense of infinite presence, merging mysteriously with the vastness of the sea and sand and sky. There is no caption. Like an icon in a temple the figure stands free of language; a mother, a female goddess, hinting at Origins, both biological and sacred.

Another photograph shows the author as a child. He has an absurdly large straw hat on his head. In the caption alongside is written: For it is not the irreversible I discover in my childhood, it is the irreducible: everything which is still in me, by fits and starts; in the child I read quite openly the dark underside of myself – boredom, vulnerability, disposition to despairs … inward excitement, cut off (unfortunately) from all expression. In the light of much of the deconstructive theory which follows, this confession is extraordinary. For here we find a number of consistent traits, a strong sense of an individual personality with a past that runs into the present and shapes the future – ourselves, always ourselves, as Barthes puts in another caption. We locate an ‘irreducible’ narrative self. Here, once again, is an unapologetic return to the old autobiographical idiom: the life of inner feeling; the chronological movement through time; the child in the man, and the man in the child.

The photographic sequence belies much of the analytical theory. Both consciously and unconsciously the images (working in subterranean way with the biographemes and the anamneses) re-establish vital links with a long reflexive tradition with the conception of an essential self to be discovered and worked on. This is the ‘different discourse’ with which the main text closes. The ‘anti-autobiography’ has to be read in relationship with this ‘autobiography’. They are the two sides of the one dialectical coin. Perhaps, in the end, it is impossible to have an anti-autobiography which does not relay and betray aspects of the self, or an autobiography which does not get refracted and somehow distorted in the language of its expression. Yet it would seem impossible to consider human life without the notion of a continuing subject – everything which is still in me – an agent who acts, who writes, who reflects, who edits, who develops and changes through time; who, whatever he does or thinks or desires, has his own special idiom, a particular way of telling and spelling and signing himself, an embodied way of being in the world which is, however elusive and multiple, unique.

There can be no doubt that the very last works of Barthes affirm the autobiographical and existential side of the coin and move to the hazy borders of a further spiritual dimension. In a lecture given at the Collège de France in 1978, just two years before his death from a road accident in Paris, Barthes claimed: It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science. It sounds just like the confessional voice of Rousseau. Certainly, it is the vulnerable autobiographical voice of an ageing man who longer saw himself as a theorist, but as a witness, opening himself to intimate life and reeling from the impact. Behind the uneasy transformation lay a catastrophic experience: the long illness and death of his mother in 1977. The existential cry of Barthes breaks out in his last short book on photography, Camera Lucida, and darts like a mountain stream through the whole of Mourning Journal, his intimate diary running from the autumn of 1977 to the summer of 1978 (but not published until 2009). Both are moving tributes to his mother and acute expressions of a searing grief. With echoes of Dante’s La Vita Nuova, the stricken lover proclaims the bewildering loss and eternal beauty of the Beloved.

Camera Lucida is the most subjective and lapidary book ever written on the theory of photography. It rests on a typically Barthean distinction between the studium and the punctum. What he terms the studium photograph depends on knowledge and cultural acquisition; it refers to collective information, and is of a general interest; while the punctum photograph, in contrast, has a powerful individual effect piercing the onlooker with the experience of a recognition, overwhelming and inexpressible. The punctum, literally, punctures, pricks, tears open. It wounds. Barthes uses the image of an arrow flying out from the picture piercing the viewer. He finds the quintessential example of such an image in a photograph of his mother when she was five years old. The discovery of the Winter Garden Photograph (deliberately not reproduced in the volume) was a revelation to Barthes, a moment of metanoia. It brought a dramatic insight not only into the nature of photography, but also into the nature of life itself: Something like an essence of the photograph floated in this particular picture. I therefore decided to ‘derive’ all Photography from the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation …. Henceforth, I must interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we call romantically love and death. The directness of the writing is as new as the urgency of the engagement. And what lies behind these changes is the death of his mother. At the very end of his life – for Barthes was to die less than three years after his mother – the semiologist had become a haunted poet of death, open to the spirit, a Dante aspiring to praise the lost Beloved, but without the consolations of inherited religion.

In Mourning Diary Barthes has become a man of involuntary tears. He is forever weeping or feeling the tears blocked behind his eyes. The diary is designed to catch each changing mood. As with his earlier book, his method is to jot down on small slips of paper his states of mind, his passing observations and thoughts. He knows it is an existential risk he is taking: In taking these notes I am trusting myself to the banality that is in me. His aim is to allow grief to speak, to reveal itself. On a card dated November 11th he writes: Horrible day. More and more wretched. Crying. On the 30th of the same month he writes: Don’t say mourning. It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering. On August 3rd of the following year he writes: How to express that fleeting thought that maman is never again to be here; a sort of black wing (of the definitive) passes over me and chokes my breathing … He refers to ‘acedia’; the feeling of being alive and dead at the same moment. He lists dreams and nightmares, stray moments, ephemeral conversations. One of the dominant metaphors is of being dry, in the desert petrified. One haiku-like entry reads:

Suffering, like a stone…
(around my neck,
deep inside me).

In the diary the semiologist has become suspicious of all concepts. The word ‘mourning’ is too removed from life and linked to the theory of psychoanalysis; with a writer’s precision he selects the more immediate word ‘suffering’. The experience is what he seeks to confront, to acknowledge, to work with – at whatever cost to his comfort. If there is any theoretical school at work, it is that of existentialism. The related work on photography is dedicated to Sartre, while in the entries we find references to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism. Words like ‘abandonment’, ‘terror’, ‘anxiety’, ‘abyss’ darken the pages. The world has become a wound that one must bear. No wonder the Latin word punctum and the image of the piercing arrow came to Barthes during these dark months.

At the same time, there is an objective desire to record the Beloved, to capture her way of being, to enunciate her qualities. As Augustine’s mother in the Confessions or Dante’s Beatrice in La Vita Nuova, Henrietta becomes all but sanctified. The evocation is ecstatic. She towers, a radiant figure; the summum bonum, the highest state of being, free from the burden of language. It seems fitting that the one image of her as a child that carried the revelatory experience of the punctum was the one Barthes wanted to withhold from his readers. It was not a piece of data for argument, not for academic inspection or empirical comparison. Like the sublime God of the ancient Jews, it was too sacred to put on show. That the daily remembrance of his mother brought an acute sense of devastation the diary reveals; but it also brought Barthes close to another order of experience which his analytical training had repressed. In the diary entries a spiritual dimension keeps breaking through. Occasionally he used the Zen word ‘satori’ to mark these enhanced states of being and insight. On June 9th 1978 he wrote: One day to sit in the same place, to close my eyes and ask for nothing … Nietzsche’s not to pray, to bless … Is it not this that mourning should lead to? In a similar mood of exaltation about a month later he scrawled: seeing the swallows flying through the summer evening air, I tell myself, thinking painfully of maman; how barbarous not to believe in souls! The idiotic truth of materialism! The brilliant ironic master of deconstruction had become all but a votary of new mysteries. But he also knew that the dialectic, like the stream of Heraclitus, was always in motion. Truth could not be fixed. The very last entry, dated September 19th 1979, read simply: There are mornings so sad …


The work of Barthes marks a mutation in the long introspective tradition of western culture. It reveals a postmodern awareness of the linguistic nature of reflexivity, an awareness of how language mediates and also of how historical epochs tend to shape our assumptions. His prolific writing suggested another way of shaping autobiography making it more nuanced, more self conscious of itself (as text), more sensitive to a world of infinite complexity, more ironic. It opened up the form to a wider range of materials, from various elementary biographemes to punctum images; a rich montage rather than a linear graph; a quantum field of energy rather than a geometrical block. Barthes’s rhapsodic quilt registered a transition from modernism to postmodernism and beyond. But, at the same time, the work progressively revealed fundamental continuities with the past. His assiduous commitment to the development of reflexive intelligence can be traced back, first, to French writers like Rousseau, Pascal and Montaigne, but then, even further back, into the classical world, from which Barthes had derived so many of his radical distinctions and fertile neologisms. In this he was close to his contemporary, Michel Foucault, who came to advocate le souci de soi: the care of the self, returning to Hellenic and Roman civilisation for inspiration and guidance and who, in his last year of his life, dying of AIDS in Paris, claimed the work of Seneca to be his greatest consolation. After the hubris of high modernism, the unlearning and re-learning of self.

Barthes came to see the cultivation of consciousness as the essential vocation of human life; an act of daily resistance necessary to check the degrading power of unexamined opinion and the questionable impulse in all of us that longs to belong, to conform to the tribal unit. He regarded the habits of a Socratic reflexivity, however painful at times, as the only means to an inner freedom and to the discovery of an individual life, however diffracted, however precarious. His work glides like an arrow through postmodernity into a further space. Most unexpectedly, his final trembling explorations disclose a soul open to the ineffable, and grounded in the pain and mystery of relationship.

The concept of eudaimonia was back.









In his next essay Peter Abbs will look back at the Romantic concept of self. For further details of the story of the self see: www.peterabbs.org



Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.