Wearing a Mask

By Bruce Serafin | April 14, 2004

I was 22, living in Vancouver, and trying to write an essay on Robinson Crusoe when I started reading Roland Barthes.

Right away I learned something interesting. Barthes sounded just like Defoe’s hero. Wherever I turned in either Crusoe or Barthes I saw that the sentences ran to enormous lengths, held together by colons, semi-colons, and other signs of equivalence. I’d open Defoe at random, and here was Crusoe beginning his conquest of the island, discovering that the goats on the island were “so subtile, and so swift of foot, that it was the difficultest thing in the world to come at them”:

But I was not discouraged at this, not doubting but I might now and then shoot one; as it soon happened, for after I had found their haunts a little, I laid wait in this manner for them: I observed if they saw me in the valleyes, tho’ they were upon the rocks, they would run away as in a terrible fright; but if they were feeding in the valleys, and I was upon the rocks, they took no notice of me; from whence I concluded that by the position of their opticks, their sight was so directed downward, that they did not readily see objects that were above them; so afterward I took this method, I always climbed the rocks first to get above them, and then had frequently a fair mark.

As a boy of ten or eleven, I’d devoured Crusoe’s efforts to domesticate his island. Now, reading Robinson Crusoe again, I immediately recognized in Defoe’s huge sentences the almost religious faith in effort that had so won me over when I was small.

Like Barthes, I saw, Crusoe gave the reader a powerful image of work. Crusoe’s sentences were a sort of unending activity of analysis that exactly corresponded to his original unending activity on the island. The lengths they ran to were possessive lengths: they demonstrated the great effort of the narrator to represent or recapture the initial physical and mental effort of which they spoke. Each of the sentences was like a job done, a piece of work finished; no facet of a sentence’s original intention was left untouched, and both Crusoe and I seemed to arrive at the period with the same slightly exhausted satisfaction.

I loved that. And I felt the same love reading Barthes. In Critical Essays (a book I took out over and over again from the Simon Fraser University library and eventually stole), I placed a tiny pencilled check beside the following sentence, which was typical of his work:

According to the third type of relation, the sign is no longer situated with regard to its (virtual) “brothers,” but with regard to its (actual) “neighbours”: in homo homini lupus, lupus maintains certain connections with homo and with homini; in garment systems, the elements of an outfit are associated according to certain rules: to wear a sweater and a leather jacket is to create, between these two garments, a temporary but signifying association, analogous to the one uniting the words of a sentence; this level of association is the level of the syntagm, and we shall call the third relation the syntagmatic relation.

The interlocking syntax of this writing, combined with the tenacious way it moved over the most minute phenomena, enthralled me. Barthes sounded more academic than Crusoe, more impersonal, but in his writing I found the same continual sense of work being done and that same surge of triumph at the sentence’s end.

And another great thing reminded me of Crusoe: neither Barthes’s writing nor Defoe’s disturbed me, in the way that so much modern writing did. Because someone had recommended it I’d take a book out of the library; but when I discovered it contained stories about “real life,” or dealt naturalistically with family pain, I’d snap it shut. I hated that. I didn’t want it. I couldn’t read it. And part of what I liked about the books of Barthes and Defoe was that they didn’t contain it.

In Robinson Crusoe, for instance, even though the hero lived in solitude on his island he didn’t dramatize his loneliness or try to make you feel its ache (an ache I knew all too well). Instead Crusoe addressed the reader with a sincerity bounded by a scrupulous formality that I deeply admired. Whenever the story seemed to demand a passionate or emotional use of words, he’d develop a kind of aphasia. “I cannot describe,” he’d say; “it is impossible to describe”; “it is not easy to describe or conceive”. This trick of speech – which was actually a sort of exactitude, a way of appearing precise – evoked a temperament that was responsible and public somehow, not interested in blurting out intimate details to the reader.

Similarly, moments of heightened personal involvement on Crusoe’s part were treated not as melodramatic spikes in the narrative, but as the location of a difficult complexity of detail: “I walked about on the shore, lifting up my hands and my whole being as I may say, wrapt up in the contemplation of my deliverance, making a thousand gestures and motions which I cannot describe.”

Nowhere, in short, did Crusoe attempt to make his story dramatic. And so the great novel calmed me. Lying on my bed in my dark little room I could read Defoe’s book and feel immersed in a daylit atmosphere suffused with clarity and faith in human effort.

And it was the same with Barthes. Because his “I,” so completely turned outward, never marked the inner anxiety of an individual, it didn’t awaken my own anxiety. Instead I turned to Barthes for the same reason I turned to Scientific American and The New Yorker (and Crusoe, too, of course) – for a powerful feeling of order, a domestication of the world, a kind of cosiness. The very assertiveness of Defoe’s and Barthes’s prose – the way it worked, explained, categorized, summed up – made it comforting to read. It made the world “small,” or at least not mysterious and unknowable. It told me that the world could be ordered, that a person, using his intelligence, could walk the length and breadth of his island and bring it under control.

And then it happened. Like one of those cartoon light bulbs going off, one day while I was reading the final long essay in Barthes’ Mythologies, the idea of an urban Robinson Crusoe popped into my head. I thought: I can be that. From that day on, everywhere I turned in Barthes I found traces of this idea. As early as 1954, in an essay on Robbe-Grillet, Barthes had talked about what he called “terrestrial” writing – writing that “teaches us to look at the world no longer with the eyes of a confessor, a physician, or of God – all significant hypostases of the classical novelist – but with the gaze of a man walking in his city with no other horizon but the spectacle before him, no other power than that of his own eyes.” And more abstractly, in a 1962 piece, Barthes had written about the “paradigmatic” or structuralist “consciousness,” which

no longer sees the sign in its depth, it sees it in its perspective; thus the dynamics attached to this vision is that of a summons: the sign is chosen from a finite organized reservoir, and this summons is the sovereign act of signification: imagination of the surveyor, the geometrician, the owner of the world who finds himself at his ease on his property, [choosing from] the material finitude of forms.

Everywhere it was the same. In all his books now – Mythologies, Critical Essays, Elements of Semiology, The Fashion System – Barthes seemed to me to function as a sort of surveyor or mapmaker, brilliantly constructing his universe from the material finitude of forms. Everywhere in these books I found a Crusoe-like confidence and energy turned on the twentieth-century urban world: its buildings, texts, advertisements, photographs, movies, myths.

All this hugely appealed to me. But the appeal would have been less if Barthes hadn’t been able to add something new, to find a modern equivalent for that strenuous, concrete prose that had gripped me since childhood in Defoe’s book. The mapmaker or surveyor mentality was important; but what immediately infatuated me in Barthes was his verbal brilliance, the amazing contemporaneity of his language. To read him was to hear the modern world (or at least one aspect of it). It was to get a feeling of “the now” that was due more than anything else to Barthes’ quasi-scientific yet somehow poetic vocabulary.

Ever since I’d been a kid drawing rocket ships on the brown kraft paper covers of my textbooks, I’d known that part of the language I used was a heap of words that was like nothing that had come before it. Computer, analogue, transistor, liquid fuel, atomic, cellular, switch on – you just had to list a few of these words to get their flavour. They shared attributes: they had a scientific or technological feel, they lacked any sense of moral evaluation, they implied complex functions or activities, and they sounded new.

New. When I looked at Barthes’ characteristic vocabulary, that was exactly the quality I found there as well. Words like paradigm, syntagm, diachronic, and polysemous plenitude all irresistably suggested a kind of hyper-contemporary, even science-fiction-like take on the world. When I read Barthes on the grammar of movies, say, or on metonymy in Balzac, I stepped five minutes into the future.

But why did this matter so much? Why did such an allure attach to vocabulary? I can only say that for me his vocabulary made Barthes popular, in a strict sense of the word. His writing thrilled me, that is, in exactly the way I’d been thrilled all my life by other products of popular culture, with its constant upwelling of new things.

As a boy I’d read fairy tales, then gone straight to science fiction; and in each case what had sent me burrowing greedily through the books was the powerful sense of the strange and unprecedented that the stories evoked. I responded so strongly, in other words, because these stories were so in synch with the culture that produced them. Enchanted rings, castles beyond the north pole, robots, interstellar travel, positron drives, that crystal ball (what novel was it in?) that contained a simulacrum of the universe – fictional objects like this were in harmony with the unending stream of wonderful new things that the culture I lived in made available to me.

Even in Hinton Alberta, where I’d lived as a boy, each season brought something new. I was ravished in turn by slides of Cinderella in my Viewmaster, by the school scribblers that showed up in the stores one year with their shiny purple and green covers in which moire patterns appeared, and by the thrill – almost the shock – of seeing the ordinary comic book panel I’d grown up with transformed in the sixties into a galaxy-spanning two-page spread in the middle of one of the first issues of Doctor Strange.

And Barthes’ space-age writing continued that. Reading him was like hearing Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” for the first time; it was like first seeing Honda’s great science fiction movie The Mysterians. That intoxicating, fairytale newness which is so central to popular culture trembled in Barthes’ 21st-century sentences the way it had trembled in some of the shots in Honda’s film. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it now seems to me no accident that his books were (and are) almost entirely read in the academy – an environment whose members are mostly young people. We were responsive.

And not just to Barthes. It thrilled me and my friends Paul and Rufus to first encounter those writers who were at the intellectual edge of the day – Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Foucault, Eco, Derrida and Levi-Strauss, to name just a few. Little in the world excited us as much as the new thing their books embodied; it was like a stunningly powerful machine you could use to discuss anything. And it was beautiful: the language of the texts (which was nearly always translated), with its exotic, on-rushing syntax and science-fiction lexicon seemed brilliantly contemporary, and instantly made more familiar forms of writing appear stale.

Best of all you could put on this writing like a mask. How much cooler these authors were than people like Hardy or Chekhov whose writing you couldn’t use because it depended on a knowledge of life! Just as we could wear dress shirts and pressed jeans to give ourselves a sharp, impassive appearance, so in our written texts we could use the syntax and vocabulary of these great intimidators to appear commanding and to demonstrate a decisive grasp of the issues.

And for me Barthes’ prose especially hit the spot. Mimicking its baroque lexicon I could bypass my limited experience (I could be a “scientist of language”). Mimicking its quarter-page-long sentences I could feel powerful, in charge of what I faced. Writing a la Barthes gave me control: it gave me a way to be masterful and tough – a way of fiercely engaging a complicated world that had so far shrugged me off. If Barthes could be a Crusoe of the urban world, well, so could I! And so throughout my early twenties I attempted to write (or thought about writing, or talked about writing) essays on The Buzzer (a little pamphlet put out by BC Hydro that you can still find on Vancouver’s buses), on the big wall murals in the Cecil Hotel where we used to go drinking, on love letters (my early twenties were a great time for love letters), on Alice in Wonderland and even on suburban homes and their furnishings.

As it turned out, none of these essays were finished. Experience got in the way – experience and other writers. I started to notice in Barthes a security, a distance from life. It became clear that that fantastic prose I’d loved had had the effect of masking Barthes, of placing him in a group and turning him into a kind of armoured warrior in the intellectual battlefields. And I realized that what had made him a star in the sixties wasn’t just the brilliance of his work. It was even more the fact that that brilliance fed a pose, a pose of modesty – the modesty of the hero who speaks in the name of a collective instead of in his own name. With his “scientism” and peer-group-oriented optimism, the structuralist Barthes was a colleague in the way that a tenured academic is a colleague, a man engaged in a project instead of a writer alone in his room.

I wanted to be a writer. I had no time for secure academics. But as I would discover, neither finally did Barthes. As the years passed, and the seventies ended and turned into the eighties, he became ever more openly “insecure,” increasingly eager to admit to a vision more personal than his work had so far allowed. He wanted to write a novel; he wanted to “speak his soul.”

Yet how could he? All his life he had been surrounded by authoritative voices and had felt their pressure; and for a long time he had himself been an authority. And finally the temptations of the public voice were overwhelming. In the end all he could do was subvert that voice. “The great problem,” he said in a late interview, “is to outplay the signified, to outplay law, to outplay the father, to outplay the repressed – I do not say to explode it, but to outplay it.” In fact, the great problem was to tell a story.

In Crusoe, you remember, Friday appears – terrified Friday, quaking before the white man – and with his appearance Crusoe becomes human (jealous of Friday, angry toward him, and finally tender and remorseful in one great scene), and the novel becomes immortal. For Barthes, though, as for all the Parisian maitres, there was no Friday, and so no story: he couldn’t cross over into the promised land of fiction. But his efforts to do so were great; he tried hard. And because he tried so hard, a lot of this remarkable person got into his last books.

I rarely read him now. But when I do, what grips me aren’t the texts themselves. What holds me is what I see on the other side of the texts – the image of what it was like to read him when I was young. Youth, they say, is unhappy because it has no voice of its own and so no way to express its experience. Certainly that was true for my friends and me in 1970s Vancouver. In that colonial town with its beer parlours and dirty sidewalks littered with smashed whiskey bottles, we needed desperately to come to grips with the ideas we had started to discover. Above all we needed a mask that we could speak through. For a short time Barthes gave me that mask – a voice, a style, a stance, a way to talk back to the world.

2854 w. April 14, 2004


  • Bruce Serafin

    Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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