By Stan Persky | October 12, 2001

The book by Roland Barthes that changed my idea of writing is titled Roland Barthes. Here’s how I became interested in it and him.

In the early 1980s, I frequently spent my weekend evenings in a Vancouver gay bar called Buddy’s. I quickly recognized that Buddy’s was, for me and other of its patrons, a potent site–puns intended–that regularly generated not only adventures in cruising and sex, but also all sorts of scenes, stories, glimpses, thoughts, aphorisms, "moments" and meditative arias as I watched and sometimes participated in the passing parade.

If you’re a writer, your life tends to bifurcate. On the one hand, there are your personal problems, and how you do or don’t solve them is pretty much your private affair. On the other hand, there are your problems as a writer, which may or may not include as subject matter your personal problems and how you solve them. But how you solve your writing problems isn’t a private affair because it affects not only you, but your readers and the world in which you and they live. My problem as a writer was how to get at least some of the stuff that was happening in Buddy’s, and in my mind and life at the time–I’d recently turned 40–into my writing.

Up until then, I had the idea that there were two ways to do it. Either you could write poems or else you could write conventional, sustained narrative. Poems have the advantage of dispensing with narrative continuity to more accurately reflect the imagistic, intermittent quality of phenomena, but poems also have the disadvantage of sacrificing narrative. In any case, I didn’t want to write poems about Buddy’s. Narrative has the advantage of recognizing that life often presents us with experience in story-form. Even dreams come in narrative form, though they don’t in principle have to, thus attesting to the depth of the notion of story in the human psyche. But narrative also has the drawback that it distorts the fragmented character of reality, and often dispenses with discursive or theoretical modes–ways of thinking that are at times more important than the unfolding of a story. And anyway, whatever was happening in Buddy’s was not happening in the form of a story, or at least not simply in story-form.

That’s when I encountered the oddly-titled Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. I’d heard of Barthes, of course, since he was a famous French intellectual who had died a couple of years earlier, but I hadn’t read him. I’ll presently say something about Barthes and the contents of his book, but first here’s the short version of what I got from Barthes’ book: 1. There are no predefined rules for what goes into a work of art, or how it is constructed. 2. Forget genre. It is okay, in a single book, to mix narrative, discourse, prose poems, theory (with or without a capital T), and what-have-you, as long as the accumulating whole amounts to more than the sum of its disparate parts. 3. "Theorising" yourself–or, as Barthes puts it in the epigraph to Roland Barthes, "Everything here must be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel"–is a way of getting some distance on your experiences and thus is one more tool in avoiding the traps and tropes of subjectivity, or mere self-expressiveness. Or, to put it in the jargon of post-modernity, the "I" should always be a contested site. In retrospect, those insights, some of which I already knew but had forgotten, all seem pretty obvious, if not outright simplistic, but at the time, as far as I knew, nobody had said exactly those things or shown that such a book could be written. Roland Barthes’ self-titled book did, and reading it was an indelibly liberating experience. Here, I mean "indelible" in the same way that a tattoo permanently stains the skin.

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes is, by any standard, a pretty curious work of art. There had been a series of books published in France since the 1950s in which autobiographical writings by prominent writers and intellectuals were strung together, usually by an editor, to produce a brief photo-illustrated volume titled, even though the book was in a sense "unauthored," with the name of the author and the phrase, "by himself"–for instance Jean-Paul Sartre par lui-meme. Roland Barthes’ book was a take-off on this model.

Even before I began reading it, I was seduced by the very idea of a book whose title was its author’s own name, since it implied that any writer could do it. I could imagine a book called Stan Persky by Stan Persky.

Published in 1975, five years before his death, and arranged in alphabetically-ordered passages, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes begins with a "reward": a series of photographs chosen by Barthes, images from his life, which he presents as "the author’s treat to himself, for finishing his book." The first time I read Roland Barthes, I didn’t pay much attention to this series of more than 40 photos and Barthes’ accompanying captions and notations, assuming they were simply the conventional "signature" of photographs one usually finds in the middle of any biographical or autobiographical volume. I flipped through them quickly, impatient to get to the text itself. It was only upon subsequent re-readings that it occurred to me that the photographs and their captions contained not only more autobiography than almost anything else in the book, but that this sheaf of images was Barthes’ first move in disrupting the genre of conventional autobiography by interrogating the conventions themselves.

The series of photos (which Barthes admits to including for his private pleasure) plunges us into the streets of Bayonne, the small riverine city in the southwestern corner of France, just above the Basque Coast on the Atlantic, where Barthes, born in 1915, was raised by his widowed mother during and just after World War I, his father having perished early in the war. The first photo is of a cobbled, narrow, curving street in Bayonne, circa 1920, hemmed in on both sides by four- and five-storey apartment buildings with louvred shutters on the windows and wrought-iron balconies. The buildings lean over the narrow ancient lane, lurching toward each other like old people walking. As well, there are a few barely discernible figures and objects in the picture: a woman in a long white hooped dress on the sidewalk, holding the hand of a small child standing in the street (is it Barthes and his mother?), a horse and carriage parked just beyond them, a shopkeeper or clerk standing in a doorway under a sun-washed awning, a couple of empty tables edging onto the sidewalk from the open front of a neighbourhood cafe. The cobblestone street slowly ascends in the direction of the twin spires of a cathedral in the distance. Here, in a single image, is an entire bygone world.

The intense feeling of loss that I experience upon gazing at such pictures derives, I think, from my own weird sense of the past. Though I’m immersed in the permanent project of imagining the world, including places and people now dead, as a way of simultaneously creating myself and engaging the world, I’m also assailed by an irrational feeling that the past never existed, simply because its people and ways of life are no longer around. I half-believe that everything has come into being only insofar as I can see, imagine, or remember it. This is no doubt reflective of the fear that I don’t exist, an anticipation of the moment when I in fact won’t exist. Even though my thought is irrational, I have the illusion that time itself is a violation of the rational, that it’s impossible that someone could have once existed and now no longer does, that only buildings or books from that time remain as traces of their existence. Looking at the photo of a street in Bayonne, France, circa 1920, its placid stability is contradicted by my fearful uncertainty about existence.

Mostly, the pictures in Roland Barthes are of childhood scenes and urbanscapes, for "these images alone, upon inspection, fail to make me regret the time which has vanished," Barthes says, because childhood is the time of timelessness, when you have no idea that human fate is destined for mortality. "So it is not a nostalgia for happy times which rivets me to these photographs, but something more complicated." Elsewhere in his work, Barthes declares, "I have no biography. Or, rather, since the time of the first line I wrote, I no longer see myself." As one commentator on Barthes puts it, "He can and does recall his childhood and recounts his adolescence, but since then, ‘everything happens through writing.’" Barthes’ self, after the narrative of youth, is simply the series of his texts. (See Jonathan Culler, Barthes, Fontana, 1983.) The reader isn’t required to agree with this idiosyncratic theory, merely to consider it as an interesting possibility for constructing one’s subjectivity.

In addition to the photos of parents and grandparents, and sites in Bayonne during the 1920s–a world of temps perdu for us as viewers–there are also snapshots of the adult Barthes, appearing among his students and friends, or at the lectern, or looking bored during a panel discussion. The last photo in the series shows Barthes in his early sixties, white-haired, rather handsome even with his long nose, in a light-coloured raincoat, holding a lighter to his cigarette. The caption, provided by the author, tersely says, "Left-handed," drawing our attention to a heretofore unnoticed "sign" that he unexpectedly points to as central to that portrait of himself. Later, in the text itself, Barthes has a passage titled "Left-handed," in which he asks, "To be left-handed–what does it mean?" After noting the minor inconveniences of dealing with table settings, telephone grips, and scissors, he says, "In school, years ago, you had to struggle to be like the others, you had to normalize your body, sacrifice your good hand to the little society of the lycee (I was constrained to draw with my right hand…)." In short, left-handedness was "a modest, inconsequential exclusion, socially tolerated, that marked adolescence with a tenuous and persistent crease: you got used to it, adapted to it, and went on."

Even when I was growing up, a generation after Barthes, left-handedness was still something to be remarked upon, a mild worry for my parents. Reading Barthes, I now saw my left-handedness as my first perversion in what would be an escalating series of social dissents: atheism, homosexuality, bookishness, political radicalism, even my ultimate refusal to be "left" or "right."

The notions of pleasures, gifts, rewards, and the diminutive "treat" within a literary text, as well as life, are characteristic of Barthes who, after all, made the phrase "the pleasure of the text" (it’s also the title of one of his brief, fragmented books) a catch-phrase among post-modernist intellectuals. What I like about Barthes is his contrarian intelligence. Roland Barthes is the precise opposite of a self-indulgent, nostalgic, anecdotal autobiography. Yet, in it Barthes takes the stance that characteristics that are roundly disapproved of by his peers, such as self-indulgence, an interest in everyday trivialities, passivity in the face of political struggle–traits that were sneeringly, and not a little self-righteously, denounced in the 1970s by one’s Marxist colleagues as "petit-bourgeois" sins–ought to be occasionally embraced, and heretically investigated for their virtues. What did the prohibition on self-indulgence conceal? And what could be more self-indulgent than giving yourself the "treat" of some photos to accompany the text as a reward for finishing your book? Or admitting that you wanted a treat? Did the insistent disapproval of lazing about, ease, "irresponsibility," or writing-as-pleasure, mask the social face of industrious efficiency, even among the self-declared opponents of capitalism? If French intellectuals were applauded for their brilliance, Barthes was interested in his stupidity. The intellectually forbidden, as far as Barthes is concerned, is not a sealed gate but an entrance.

Barthes sees his intellectual life as a succession of "reactive formations." In a key passage of Roland Barthes, he says, "A Doxa (a popular opinion) is posited," such as the taken-for-granted denunciation of petit-bourgeois traits. "Intolerable," Barthes declares. "To free myself from it, 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." Barthes traces the trajectory of his entire writing life through this formulation, from his first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), a reaction to Sartre’s What Is Literature? (1948), to his later inventions of "semiology" and The Pleasure of the Text (1973).

"At the work’s source," he says, "the opacity of social relations, a false Nature; the first thrust, then, is to demystify." Mythologies (1957) began as a series of newspaper columns about popular culture. Barthes wrote about the underlying meaning of such familiar things as wrestling matches, the Eiffel Tower, soap powders, the Tour de France bicycle race, pop songs, that year’s model of the Citroen, always undercutting the assumption that such things simply were themselves and nothing more. "Then, when the demystification is immobilized in repetition, it must be displaced: semiological science tries to stir, to vivify, to arm the mythological gesture, or pose, by endowing it with a method." But the whole project of semiotics–the systematic, structuralist reading of cultural signs–which Barthes introduced into cultural criticism in the 1960s, "is replaced by the (often very grim) science of the semiologists; hence, one must sever oneself from that, must introduce into this rational image-repertoire the texture of desire, the claims of the body: this, then, is the Text, the theory of the Text. But again the Text risks paralysis: it repeats itself, counterfeits itself in lustreless texts, testimonies to a demand for readers, not for a desire to please: the Text tends to degenerate into prattle (Babil)." Barthes asks himself in Roland Barthes, "Where to go next? That is where I am now."

Where Barthes goes next is to A Lover’s Discourse (1977), a book that comes out of the language, complaints, and reflections of lovers. This language, critic Jonathan Culler observes, is now unfashionable. "Though it is spoken by millions of people, diffused in our popular romances and television programs as well as in serious literature, there is no institution that explores, maintains, modifies, judges, repeats and otherwise assumes responsibility for this discourse," Culler says, adding that Barthes, taking on this role of monitor of amorous discourse, "finds in it a way of producing ‘the novelistic’: the novel minus plot and characters." I don’t mean to suggest disingenuously that Barthes’ writing is anything less than complex, dense, and of enormous velocity, but however hermetic his prose was, A Lover’s Discourse found an audience, becoming the surprise best-seller of the season, with a hundred thousand copies snapped up in short order. Readers saw themselves in the "figures of love" that Barthes delineated: "waiting" for the telephone to ring or the tardy beloved to show up; the physical delight of the slightest bodily contact–"a knee which doesn’t move away, an arm extended, as if quite naturally, along the back of a sofa and against which the other’s head gradually comes to rest–this is the paradisiac realm of subtle and clandestine signs"; the multiple meanings of the "gift," a mere "little something," but nonetheless something, for nothing involving the beloved is without meaning for the lover. Here, Barthes reclaims from everyday life things normally dismissed with a gesture, insisting that the meanings of love’s "discourse" is what gives love its texture.

The photos collected in Roland Barthes presage his final book, Camera Lucida (1980), which is about photography and death. Barthes was one of those writers, like E.M. Forster, who spent much of his life living with his mother. Four or five photos of her appear sporadically in the series in Roland Barthes. There’s a frontispiece photo in the English edition (translated by the poet Richard Howard) of this all-important personage in Barthes’ life. She’s in her 30s, wearing a sleeveless white dress, walking along what appears to be a beach or sandy field–there’s a blurry horse and dray-wagon in the background. The resemblance between mother and son is striking. In Camera Lucida, written shortly after his mother’s death, the 65-year-old Barthes, representing himself as no more than an amateur viewer of this ambiguous documentary art, seeks to "derive all photography" from one photograph of his mother that he stumbles upon while rummaging through her effects, a photo that represents her "changed into herself," that eclipses all those images that "don’t really look like you." In photography’s connections with love and what-has-been, Barthes sees that "what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being, and not a being but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable. I could live without the Mother (as we all do, sooner or later); but what life remained would be absolutely and entirely unqualifiable."

Like Barthes in Camera Lucida, I, too, have frequently noticed the pleasure of writing descriptions of photos, or about photographic images. I find myself trying to see into the photograph, as if my looking will animate a tale about to begin: "One morning, on a narrow street in Bayonne in 1920, a mother and her small son…" There’s also something attractively easy about writing about photographs, like the one of the street in Bayonne, compared to essayistic or narrative writings that one has to "make up." Does my attraction to easy writing advertise laziness on my part? But why shouldn’t this alleged vice also have its place in the utopian act that writing is? Isn’t laziness akin to the playfulness of composition that grim-visaged censors forbid?

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes is an intentionally strange kind of autobiography, at once impersonal, and yet personally theoretical. If Barthes provides only minimal snippets of conventional autobiography–mostly glancing or casual remarks, or an expression of some trivial taste, offered variously in the third or first person–his theorising about how the subject of an autobiography might be constituted undermines the potential solipsism that endangers the autobiographical project. It would be a mistake, I think, to see Barthes’ strategy as a failed attempt to make what is personal and idiosyncratic theoretical and objective. Barthes’ stance is always provisional: what would it be like to see it this way? he recurrently asks, without clinging to the provisionally inverted perspective. What if our personal idiosyncrasies were momentarily thought of as objects about which one could construct a theory? There are those who think such procedures inevitably end up with the would-be theorist’s head buried in his own navel, or stuck up some other portion of his anatomy, but the way I see it is that Barthes’ method–a preoccupation of French writing since Montaigne and Descartes–puts him into the world, one object among many, no more, no less.

Barthes became famous in the 1960s and 70s for introducing semiology, linguistics and psychoanalytical theory into literary and cultural studies, and he was, along with Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, among the most prominent French intellectuals in the generation following Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He was an indefatigable inventor of neologisms and founder of disciplines in the humanities. Yet, as Culler notes, this characterization, too, "proves somewhat awkward. Each time Barthes urged the merits of some new ambitious project–a science of literature, a semiology, a science of contemporary myths, a narratology, a history of literary signification… a typology of textual pleasure–he swiftly passed on to something else. Abandoning what he had set in motion, he often wrote wryly or disparagingly about his prior preoccupations. Barthes is a seminal thinker, but… when his projects flourish, they do so without him and despite him." If accused of dilettantism, Barthes would invent a defensible theory of the dilettante. It is more accurate to say that Barthes displaced his successive world-views without abandoning them. He left behind Marxism at the moment when it was a heresy to do so, yet he continued to utilize a decentred Marxism to make sense of economic reality. Although French structuralist thought of the period was fixated on the analysis of binary pairs, Barthes’ dialectics–inherited from Hegel–was ultimately not an arbitrary settling on two poles, but an attention to the dynamic relationship of the multiple alternatives for meaning and action that the world contains. The dialectics of language itself is attention to the inter-relationship of a hundred thousand lexical and referential items in a vocabulary that resembles a cosmos. Nor is Barthes merely a mechanical and abstract practitioner who excludes half the real world for the sake of a theory: he talked about soap powder and soap-operas as easily as he ventured into the laboratory of a "pure science" of language, even as he recognized that much of what he wrote would appear arcane and disarticulate to many.

One thing that distinguished Barthes from his contemporaries, increasingly so as he got older, is that he was passionate about the relation between the content of his intelligence and its form. However interesting Michel Foucault’s ideas about the interplay of power/knowledge are, no one would suppose that he was trying to create a work of art in writing any of his books, from Madness and Civilization to The Use of Pleasure. Whereas, when Barthes reflects on his work in Roland Barthes, he sees himself not only as a critic or semiologist, but also as a writer. Perhaps he was a failed writer, given that he never achieved the uninterrupted narrative he occasionally longed for, even as he penned another preface to support someone else’s book, but he was a writer nonetheless. His fondness for beginnings, and hence for fragments, puts him in the company of Borges, Pessoa, and Italo Calvino, other writers who inspire misplaced rage among some readers who don’t like "that sort of thing." Barthes not only weighs, and usually finds wanting, the validity of his past concepts, but also sees their use as tactics of writing, to "make the text go," or to "permit him to say something." Barthes’ vocation is not simply analyzing particular phenomena, but also writing. In Roland Barthes, he says, "I do not say: ‘I am going to describe myself’ but: ‘I am writing a text and I call it R.B.’" I read him, as do others, not just for a dazzling mind that illuminates the world, but also for his beautiful sentences, for the pleasure of his text.

Barthes traces his propensity to write in fragments–highly condensed firecrackers of thought–to the dictation exercises of the French lycee he attended in Paris as an adolescent, where "Monsieur B., on Saturday afternoons, by way of amusement, would ask a student to suggest a subject for reflection, anything at all, and no matter how preposterous, he would always manage to turn it into a little dictation exercise, which he improvised as he strolled around the classroom." Those recited paragraphs, spontaneous or not, which schoolboys were required to take down as a test of their command of the written language, left Barthes with a wry sense of the "parodic affinity" of the fragment and the obligatory school composition.

The fragmentary form goes back to Barthes’ earliest published writings, an article about Andre Gide’s Journals. "His first, or nearly first text (1942) consists of fragments," Barthes writes about himself. "This choice is then justified in the Gidean manner ‘because incoherence is preferable to a distorting order.’ Since then, as a matter of fact, he has never stopped writing in brief bursts."

I don’t know if Barthes’ theory that the initial writing provides an ur-text for the author one becomes is true, but his remark has a personal resonance for me. My first writing, at about age 16, titled How the Night Comes to Me, was a manuscript of bits and pieces–prose poems, passages, little narrative essays. Though I’ve since written many other books, often in the form of a sustained narrative or discourse, I inevitably circle back to that original experimental work. As Culler says of Barthes, "Against the ‘readable’–works that conform to traditional codes and models of intelligibility–he set the ‘writable’–experimental works that we don’t yet know how to read but can only write and must in effect write as we read them."

But there’s something deeper than the origin of fragments, namely the origin of one’s imagination of oneself as a writer. "Can one," asks Barthes, "begin to write without taking oneself for another? For the history of sources, we should substitute the history of figures: the origin of the work is not the first influence, it is the first posture: one copies a role, then, by metonymy, an art."

Of all the things in Roland Barthes, the passages that most fascinate and delight me are Barthes’ recurrent reflections on the strangely active operations of language itself. In a passage called "Amphibologies," Barthes writes, "The word ‘intelligence’ can designate a faculty of intellection, or a complicity (to have intelligence that…); in general, the context forces us to choose one of the two meanings and to forget the other."

But each time Barthes encounters one of these double words, he "insists on keeping both meanings, as if one were winking at the other and as if the word’s meaning were in that wink, so that one and the same word, in one and the same sentence, means at one and the same time two different things, and so one delights, semantically, in the one by the other. That is why such words are said to be ‘preciously ambiguous’: …because… I can actualize their amphibology, can say ‘intelligence’ and appear to be referring chiefly to the intellective meaning, but letting the meaning of ‘complicity’ be understood." I suppose some people read Barthes’ fantasy of words "winking" at each other as merely another instance of intellectual insiderdom, exclusionary obscurantism. But such resentment is misplaced. Rather, Barthes is saying that the world reveals its portentousness even in the minuscule workings of language, the medium which is inseparable from our understanding of reality, which in turn suggests the permanent mystery of the larger dimension. It’s the constant reminder of that interplay that strikes me every time I open one of Barthes’ books and read a few sentences of his writing.

Recently, an acquaintance complained that a writer who I liked–Edmund White–was too "precious"–a criticism that could no doubt also be made of Barthes–but instead, I heard the amphibology, the other sense in which "precious" means "of great value, beloved." More than most writers, Barthes is supremely sensitive to philosopher Hilary Putnam’s notion that "elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality’ that the very project of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers’ of something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start." (See Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face, Harvard, 1990.)

I’m puzzled by the hostility of otherwise sensible people to writers like Barthes, Borges, even Proust. The best explanation I’ve encountered for this misunderstanding is offered by philosopher Richard Rorty who divides writers–pardon the dualism–into two groups. In one group, "the desire for self-creation, for private autonomy, dominates"; in the other group, "the desire for a more just and free human community dominates." Rorty urges that "we not try to choose between them but, rather, give them equal weight and then use them for different purposes." As Rorty says, "We shall only think of these two kinds of writers as opposed if we think that a more comprehensive philosophical outlook would let us hold self-creation and justice, private perfection and human solidarity, in a single vision." (See Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, Cambridge, 1989.) Like Rorty, once I sought absolutism. Now, I think pluralism will do.

Sitting in Buddy’s, occasionally scribbling a note on a scrap of paper, I was becoming, although I wasn’t fully conscious of what was happening, a writer, something I now see that despite much writing I hadn’t really been. In playfully imagining what it might be like to be Barthes and yet write something more sexually "out" than he had, while employing his aesthetic, I began to write a book inspired by my reading of Roland Barthes. Of course, I wasn’t Barthes and what I eventually had to say was different from what he would’ve said, but in the five years or so that it took to write that brief book, Barthes was the ghostly companion who, as Jack Spicer put it in another context, "occasionally looked through my eyes and whispered to me." The work that began as an effort to find "correspondences" in Barthes was published as Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire (New Star, 1989)–my homage to Barthes’ memory.

At the end of Roland Barthes, Barthes asks, "And afterwards?

The terse dialogue that ensues goes, "What to write now? Can you still write anything?" Those are every writer’s questions, every day.

To which Barthes replies, "One writes with one’s desire, and I am not through desiring."

October 12, 2001 4879 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in:

More from Stan Persky: