Meeting Roland Barthes



Originally posted April 30, 2009 on PEN American Center's blog


And so I dive head first into the PEN World Voices Festival with a lecture on Roland Barthes, a French "literary theorist, philosopher, and critic" and influencer of many -isms (modernism, existentialism, Marxism, post-structuralism, and surely a few more). Critic Bernard Comment delivered the lecture on Barthes to an attentive standing-room only crowd at NYU's La Maison Française. Who doesn't need a good jolt of literary or other theory now and then? I chose to attend this event precisely because I knew nothing of the life, times, and influence of Barthes, a man known primarily for his work in semiology (the study of the signification of communication). Let's just say I picked up enough of a spark from Comment's presentation to compel me to learn more about Barthes, although I am not sure if I am most interested in the his work in semiotics, literature, fantasy, modernism, or love. Could one have an interest in Barthes and not dabble in all of the above (and more)? Perhaps not-an intimidating prospect. As is often the case with introductions to the influences of stimulating thinkers, I came out of Comment's lecture with more questions than answers.


Here's what I gather about Roland Barthes: Marginalization is a recurring theme throughout his life. Comment hit on this refrain hard for the first half of the talk, noting that Barthes' ill health caused him to physically separate from the society and culture in which his healthier peers thrived. Yet, because of this separation, Barthes was able to devote time and energy to reading Gide, Marx, Trotsky, and Michelet, among others. And because Barthes is physically separated he becomes academically disparate as well, leading him into a life of journalism, which in turn (after numerous publications) leads him to the intellectual heights he might not have otherwise attained had he pursued a career via more "regular" tracts. Big works followed, starting with the seminal Writing Degree Zero, an engagement with Marxism and existentialism. Later, Barthes took on Racine (Sur Racine), a giant whom Comment calls France's national, literary treasure. A polemical exchange between Raymond Picard and Barthes ensued (monitored on the front pages of France's papers) and again Barthes finds himself marginalized and irreparably wounded. Then Barthes gets rolling in literature, an escape mechanism where other meanings and "realities" and models can be explored. Literature represents new ways of seeing, saying, hearing he writes. And each and everyday experiences become epiphanies for Barthes, a concept I can get down with. "It is an experience of the presence, taken as an epiphany, without any repercussions or prolongations," Comment notes. But fantasies are a different animal: a fantasy, says Barthes, is like setting up the perfect picture, but forgetting to put the film in the camera. Click! Nothing happens. Ultimately, Barthes claims, fantasies are and must remain unattainable moments (experiences). Then comes Barthes' autofiction, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), a self-portrait of self-reflection (or something like that). Comment calls the work bold, theoretically mad, and iconoclastic (how could it not be great!?!).


Following this cutting-edge autobiography is a Byzantine reflection on amour (A Lover's Discourse: Fragments), a story of suspended, undecided love (sounds great!). And then...? Sadly, I had to duck out before Comment finished his lecture in order to make it to another event. I can't adequately wrap up the session, which may be just as well; I am not so sure I did an inkling of justice to what Comment actually discussed anyway. I admit I had difficulty sometimes following his accented English.


Not knowing a single thing about Barthes before heading in was a severe handicap as well. But time spent at La Maison Française was not lost-Comment's comments were sufficient to pique my interest; I plan on dipping my spoon into the Barthes well soon. Had I not attended I might have continued on oblivious to a thinker whose contributions to major philosophical, literary, and critical movements are certainly worth closer inspection. I wouldn't mind hearing from (and being corrected by) those of you more familiar with Barthes and/or from someone who attended Comment's lecture.