31.12.11

Roland Barthes, Travels in China

Barthes' travel diary translated into English with 'meticulous' annotations
Roland Barthes, Travels in China
In a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement (22 December 2011), Neil Badmington reviews Roland Barthes' Travels in China, edited by Anne Herschberg Pierrot and translated by Andrew Brown:
Barthes planned to write about the trip, and Travels in China reproduces notes that he made during the visit. But while his earlier expedition to Japan produced an enthusiastic book, Empire of Signs, the China visit only yielded a muted newspaper article and a presentation to his students in Paris. The abandoned notebooks remained unpublished until 2009, when they were edited by Anne Herschberg Pierrot, whose meticulous annotations clarify context and allusions.

It is easy to see why Barthes didn't develop his journals at length: Travels in China is a record of boredom and disappointment. Wherever Barthes looks, he sees an '[E]ndlessly repeated Doxa', scapegoating 'a sort of monstrous ventriloquism', dogmatic predictability, an 'abolition of eroticism', and "bricks" - rigid, clich├ęd units of meaning. One late entry concludes: 'So it would be necessary to pay for the Revolution with everything I love: "free" discourse exempt from all repetition, and immorality'. He withdraws gradually from the delegation and its political activities, seeking sanctuary in the aesthetic: tea, food, calligraphy, scents, landscapes, flirting, shopping, bodies. (Those bodies remain enigmatic, however: 'I won't have seen the willy of a single Chinese man', he sighs.) The result is a listless text dense with lists.
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