Michael Wood on Roland Barthes

New translated editions of the French theorist's work
Roland Barthes

Happy birthday, Roland Barthes! To celebrate, The London Review of Books takes a look at two recently published works by the late cultural theorist. Michael Wood discusses Carnets du voyage en Chine and Journal de deuil, and reflects on the French writer's legacy:
The persistence of Barthes’s reputation might seem surprising, since his writing is so varied, topical, at times wilfully ephemeral. He was suspicious of monuments – ‘tombs die too,’ he says in a fine phrase in his mourning notes – and didn’t want to be one. He wrote with amusement, and without false modesty, about his own passing ‘notoriety’. But then the surprise lasts only as long as we are not thinking very hard. Monuments may or may not endure, but they are not looked at very closely; and fragile-seeming gestures, songs, jokes, metaphors, teasing sentences, often have long lives in the intimacy of many minds. It’s easy, and usually rash, to use the word ‘unforgettable’, or even ‘memorable’, since we can forget anything. But then what we hang on to becomes all the more remarkable, and Barthes, like Cole Porter, was the author of phrases and rhythms that for some of us will not go away until we do.

‘To write,’ Barthes suggested in Criticism and Truth (1966), ‘is to engage in a difficult relationship with our own language.’ This is not exactly Cole Porter’s tone, but Barthes liked difficulty, talked about the work and the pleasure of writing in the same breath. Of course, our relationships with language change over time, and it has often seemed as if there were two Roland Barthes, early and late, with not much in between. One was theoretical, analytic, systematic and everyone’s favourite structuralist. The other was impressionistic, allusive and anecdotal, a writer rather than a thinker. The first was the author of Elements of Semiology (1965), The Fashion System (1967) and many essays; the second the author of all the later, more discursive, more autobiographical works, like A Lover’s Discourse (1977) and Camera Lucida (1980). [Read More]

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