Roland Barthes’ intellectual course did not follow the traditional university path, due, among other things, to his recurrent health problems. Numerous relapses with tuberculosis prevented him from carrying out his doctoral research: this explains why he published more essays than substantial scientific studies. And because he was not attached to a particular university faculty, he was able to diversify his interests. To begin with, Barthes wanted to be a semiologist and analyze different systems of signification as they are revealed in language (Le Degré zero de l’écriture [1953; Writing Degree Zero]), everyday life (Mythologies, 1957), or clothes (Système de la mode [1967; The Fashion System]). The introduction to Writing Degree Zero specifies that we are reading an essay, in both meanings of the term. It consists of an attempt, “an introduction to what could be a History of Writing,” but also of a marked commitment to an ideological concept of literature perceived as value and as institution. Writing has always functioned as a sign, so much so that the act of writing was claimed by the bourgeoisie as early as the 17th century. The utopia of denotation must therefore be denounced and semiology, among other things, embraced; hence the later editions of this first essay are completed by the Éléments de sémiologie (1965; Elements of Semiology). These two volumes supply the reader with the necessary tools to decode, with the linguistic apparatus, the different discourses that make up the social field.
All signs are full of connotations; that is, they consist of systems of second senses that are well marked ideologically, allowing many signs to reach mythic status. These myths must be exposed, insofar as social objects tend to portray the cultural for the natural, to found common opinion in absolute truth. In Mythologies, then, Barthes points out the mythical dimension of “the face of Garbo,” “steak and chips,” “the Tour de France,” or “the new Citroën,” based on the two-level connotative system analyzed in “Le Mythe, aujourd’hui” (“The Myth Today”), the closing essay of the collection. In the same way, he studies the clothing code in a structuralist manner in The Fashion System by looking for the way this particular type of sign possesses its rhetoric and its poetry. With this semiological approach, it is not surprising that Barthes is fascinated by Japan and that the essay he dedicates to that country is entitled L’Empire des signes (1970; Empire of Signs). He considers Japan as another system, and discovers the symbolic in calligraphy, clothes, food, and urban geography.
But Barthes cannot be reduced simply to a systematic semiologist. On the one hand, he quickly takes issue with those who denounce the common opinion as a new totalitarian system (“Changer l’objet lui-même” [1971; Changing the object itself]); on the other hand, he continues to be fascinated by the classic literary texts of Michelet, Chateaubriand, or Proust. For a time he attempted to unite semiology and literature in an article that has become a classic, “Introduction a Panalyse structurale des récits” (1966; “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”), where he again talks about the heritage of Russian formalists to try to extract the elementary functions that make up any narrative. But he quickly perceives that literary work cannot be reduced to a system. Already, in his first literary essay, Michelet par lui-même (1954; Michelet), he is more interested in reconstituting Michelet’s “organized network of obsessions” in a “pre-critique” that clearly illustrates Barthes’ own vocation as an essayist, than in attempting to formalize Michelet’s writing style. In Essais critiques (1964; Critical Essays) and Nouveaux essais critiques (1972; New Critical Essays), Barthes multiplies the “plural” readings of authors as different as Brecht, La Fontaine, RobbeGrillet, Voltaire, and Kafka.
This freedom in analysis, which is hardly as concerned with critical machinery and philological designs as that practiced in the Sorbonne, was strongly reproached by the university circle when Barthes wrote Sur Racine (1963; On Racine). Raymond Picard wrote a pamphlet about him, Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture (1965; New Criticism or New Fraud?), which reveals the tension between those who believe in traditional biographical criticism and those who take part in a renewed approach to literary criticism, open to the contributions of both semiology and psychoanalysis.
Barthes answers these reproaches in Critique et vérité (1966; Criticism and Truth), denouncing the institution of a criticism which would be based on objectivity, good taste, and clarity, without grounding these self-proclaimed values scientifically. He continues his task of tearing down literary work, either by analyzing authors who prefer extremes (Sade, Fourier, Loyola, 1971) or by microanalyzing brief texts such as Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine,” dissected in 561 sequences in S/Z (1970).
In a way S/Z bids farewell to the structural utopia and to Barthes’ pursuit of generalized systematization. The notion of text appears here (and this is Barthes’ central point) as an opposition between “readable,” i.e. classical texts that are no longer likely to be rewritten by the reader, and “writable”—texts that we can desire, write, and rewrite while reading. The text is also seen as a shattered, broken structure which allows itself to be analyzed from many angles.
This idea of the personal dimension in the relationship with the text flourishes in Le Plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text), where 46 entries, classified in alphabetical order, demonstrate the pleasurable relationship Barthes maintains with literary narratives, in the form of an autobiography of him as a reader. The plural form of the text, the enjoyment of reading, the game of intertextuality, the importance of reading aloud, the texture of the voice and the dialogue—all important ideas in the theoretical debates of the moment—were developed here by Barthes, not in the form of theoretical postulates, but in subjective aphorisms.
The subjectivity of style asserts itself with more and more power and independence in relation to the intellectual styles of the moment. The distinction between the critical part of the work and its “literary” dimension decreases to the point that the critic who talks about the writer Barthes is none other than Barthes himself. Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes) thus stages this passage to a writing that is no longer separate from critical and autobiographical activity. The essay plays unceasingly on ambiguity, since it begins with his handwritten words—“It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”—but is full of the author’s photographs and souvenirs.
Life, literature, and criticism intermix, with enjoyment as the only rule, as confirmed in these last, also handwritten words: “One writes with one’s desire, and I am not through desiring.”
It is therefore not surprising that Barthes’ next essay is entitled Fragments d’un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). The first fragment, entitled “Comment est fait ce livre” (“How This Book Is Made”), insists on the importance of speech in the first person, “in order to portray an enunciation, not an analysis.” Then Barthes evokes the listed “figures” of the feeling of love, the repertory of which is supposed to be systematic, but with variable contents. Their order is randomly set and their place in the book “absolutely insignificant” since it is based on the arbitrary nature of the alphabet. Without saying so, Barthes is setting the stage for an essay in these introductory directions.
He returns to literature in his study on Sollers, écrivain (1979; Sollers, Writer) and his Leçon inaugurale (1978; “Inaugural Lecture”) to the Collège de France. Here he asks questions about intellectual power, language, literature, and semiology in a masterly synthesis of his great topics of reflection, but concludes by evoking the wisdom he has attained and defines as “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible.” He looks for this flavor again in a last semiological investigation of photography. But La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie (1980; Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography) is less a phenomenology of the image than an analysis of the emotional relationship Barthes maintains with the photographs, portraits, and landscapes he has encountered in his life. The time for remembering and admitting to intimate passions has arrived, as shown in the posthumous texts in Incidents (1987), which reveal the author’s homosexuality and secret passions.
Since his death, Barthes’ work has been constantly re-edited and commented upon. A three-volume complete edition of his works and articles has recently been published, a rarity for an essayist who appealed to the intellectual class more than to the public at large. Barthes’ popularity in France and in the world, the pertinence and the originality of his analyses, their diversity and lively actuality, all explain his exceptional posthumous survival.
Roland Gérard Barthes. Born 12 November 1915 in Cherbourg. Studied at the Lycée Montaigne, Paris, 1924–30; Lycée Louis-leGrand, Paris, 1930–34, baccalauréat, 1934; the Sorbonne, Paris, from 1936, licence in classical letters, 1939, diploma in Greek tragedy, 1941, licence in grammar and philology, 1943. Contracted tuberculosis, 1934, and relapsed periodically, staying in sanatoria, 1934–35 and 1942–46. Taught at lycées in Biarritz, 1939, Bayonne, 1939–40, and Paris, 1940–41, and at the French Institute, Bucharest, 1948–49, University of Alexandria, 1949–50, and the Direction Générale des Affaires Culturelles, Paris, 1950–52; research appointments with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1952–59; chair, 1960–62, and director of studies, 1960–76, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris; taught at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1967–68; chair of literary semiology, Collège de France, Paris, 1976–80. Cofounder, Théâtre Populaire (Popular theater), 1953, and Arguments, 1956; contributor to various periodicals, including Communications, La Quinzaine Littéraire (The literary fortnightly), Les Lettres Nouvelles (New letters), and Tel Quel (As is). Chevalier des Palmes Académiques. Died (as the result of a street accident) in Paris, 26 March 1980.
Essays and Related Prose
Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, 1953; as Writing Degree Zero, with Elements of Semiology, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, 1967
Michelet par lui-même, 1954; as Michelet, translated by Richard Howard, 1987
Mythologies, 1957; part as Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers, 1972
Sur Racine, 1963; as On Racine, translated by Richard Howard, 1964
La Tour Eiffel, 1964; as The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, translated by Richard Howard, 1979
Essais critiques, 1964; as Critical Essays, translated by Richard Howard, 1972
Elements de sémiologie, 1965; as Elements of Semiology, with Writing Degree Zero, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, 1967
Critique et vérité, 1966; as Criticism and Truth, edited and translated by Katrine Pilcher Keuneman, 1987
Système de la mode, 1967; as The Fashion System, translated by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard, 1985
S/Z, 1970; as S/Z, translated by Richard Miller, 1974
L’Empire des signes, 1970; as Empire of Signs, translated by Richard Howard, 1983
Sade, Fourier, Loyola, 1971; as Sade, Fourier, Loyola, translated by Richard Miller, 1976
Nouveaux essais critiques, 1972; as New Critical Essays, translated by Richard Howard, 1980
Le Plaisir du texte, 1973; as The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller, 1975
Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 1975; as Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard, 1977
Fragments d’un discours amoureux, 1977; as A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, translated by Richard Howard, 1978
Image, Music, Text (selections), edited and translated by Stephen Heath, 1977
Leçon inaugurale au Collège de France, 1978; as “Inaugural Lecture, Collège de France,” translated by Richard Howard, in A Barthes Reader, 1982.
Sollers, écrivain, 1979; as Sollers, Writer, translated by Philip Thody, 1987
La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie, 1980; as Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard, 1981
A Barthes Reader (various translators), edited by Susan Sontag, 1982; as Selected Writings, 1983
L’Obvie et l’obtus, 1982; as The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, translated by Richard Howard, 1985
Le Bruissement de la langue, 1984; as The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard, 1986
L’Aventure sémiologique, 1985; as The Semiotic Challenge, translated by Richard Howard, 1988
Incidents, 1987; as Incidents, translated by Richard Howard, 1992
Other writings: works on semiology, literary theory, and culture.
Collected works edition: OEuvres completes, edited by Eric Marty, 3 vols., 1993–95
Freedman, Sanford, and Carole Anne Taylor, Roland Barthes: A Bibliographical Reader’s Guide, New York and London: Garland, 1983
Nordquist, Joan, Roland Barthes: A Bibliography, Santa Cruz, California: Reference and Research Services, 1994
Bensmaïa, Réda, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 (original French edition, 1986)
Calvet, Louis-Jean, Roland Barthes, un regard politique sur le signe, Paris: Payot, 1973
Calvet, Louis-Jean, Roland Barthes, Oxford: Polity Press, 1994; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995 (original French edition, 1990)
Communications issue on Barthes, 36 (1982)
Culler, Jonathan, Roland Barthes, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983
Heath, Stephen, Vertige du déplacement: Lecture de Barthes, Paris: Fayard, 1974
Jouve, Vincent, La Littérature selon Barthes, Paris: Minuit, 1986
Lavers, Annette, Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982
Magazine Littéraire issue on Barthes, 314 (October 1993)
Poétique issue on Barthes, 47 (September 1981)
Sontag, Susan, Under the Sign of Saturn, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980;
London: Writers and Readers, 1983
Thody, Philip, Roland Barthes: A Conseruative Estimate, London: Macmillan, and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1977
Ungar, Steven, Roland Barthes, the Professor of Desire, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983
Wasserman, George R., Roland Barthes, Boston: Twayne, 1981
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