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From Conceptual Revolutions to the Privacy of Mourning – Barthes, Proust, and the “désir d’écrire”
The profoundly anti-Hegelian or Nietzschean gesture of twentieth-century French thought has been emphasized numerous times. Not only does this gesture signify a critique of the idea of a system, of the concept of totality, and of the conceptual instrument of dialectics (or sublation), but it also calls attention to the desire for the establishment of an antifoundationalist and antiessentialist culture which leaves the individual room for postmetaphysical and genuinely idiosyncratic forms of self-creation. This kind of culture, bringing the histrionic and the idiosyncratic together, highly values the constant change of, or play with, (final) vocabularies and the invention of new ways of speaking or new sets of metaphors. Not presenting itself as frivolously irresponsible and insisting on the complexity of certain moral and ethical imperatives, a postmetaphysical and antifoundationalist culture urges us to recognize the crucial nature of the attempt to creatively redescribe our predecessors and it moreover strives to make us see the importance of innovative conceptual revolutions. As we shall see below, Richard Rorty calls this kind of postmetaphysical culture, which no longer needs the reliability and certainty of what is more than another human invention, a literary or poeticized culture (see Schulenberg 2006).
Concerning the aforementioned idea of conceptual revolutions in the fields of literary and cultural theory, Roland Barthes was undoubtedly one of the main innovators. Genuinely protean, unpredictable, creative, and playful, he always put a premium on the importance of a plurality of vocabularies and (aesthetic) truths. In an almost pragmatist manner, Barthes pluralized and rhetoricized the notion of truth. In contrast to Sartre, Barthes was less a political author, but rather someone who vehemently argued for the necessity of aesthetic revolutions. There is a certain irony to the fact that Barthes’s almost Adornian reticence as far as public political engagement is concerned makes the Sartrean idea of commitment and his notion of a “littérature engagée” appear somewhat anemic. However, at the same time one ought to realize that, like for most mid-twentieth-century French intellectuals, Sartre’s thought had a profound impact on Barthes’s thinking (even if only as a negative foil as in his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture). Both men practiced what they preached. Sartre presented himself as a public intellectual, and Barthes as a protean and innovative Nietzschean aesthete redescribing his predecessors, creatively using their vocabularies or terminologies, mixing various codes, and drawing attention to the signifier’s play on the surface – an antifoundation-alist, countertheological, and “paradoxical” (i.e., directed against the doxa) gesture which underlined the plurality of meaning and writing styles (and thus of writing the self).
It is difficult to pin Barthes down because of the perpetual changes of his conceptual framework. While his early texts such as Le Degré zéro de l’écriture (1953), Michelet par lui-même (1954), Mythologies (1957), or Sur Racine (1963) were influenced, to varying degrees, by existentialism, Marxism (ideology critique), and structuralism, books such as Eléments de sémiologie (1965) and Système de la mode (1967) are clearly governed by a structuralist or semiological approach. Later texts like L’Empire des signes (1970), S/Z (1970), Le Plaisir du texte (1973), and Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975) are usually interpreted as having contributed to the predominance of poststructuralism in literary studies in the 1970s and early 1980s. In this article, I wish to focus mainly on Barthes’s texts after Le Plaisir du texte. It is his last change or redescription, his last revolution, as it were, which is one of the most stimulating. I shall especially concentrate on Barthes’s lecture on Proust at the Collège de France in 1978 (“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure…”) in which it becomes obvious that he, the radical modern innovator, no longer accepts the validity of Rimbaud’s dictum “Il faut être absolument moderne” (Une Saison en enfer). On August 13, 1977, Barthes writes in his journal: “All of a sudden, it has become a matter of indifference to me whether or not I’m modern” (1979: 367). In other words, his last conceptual revolution is to declare that aesthetic or conceptual revolutions are no longer desirable or tempting. Barthes seems to be tired of the repetition of conceptual innovations. In his lecture on Proust and in his last book, La Chambre claire (1980), the modern, and postmodern, theorist expresses his wish to become a novelist, he underscores his desire to write a novel. To a certain degree, this novelistic desire had been present in his writings from the beginning of his career, but in his last pieces it is expressed openly and unequivocally. In this article, I shall seek to elucidate the importance and the complexity of this final change in Barthes’s career.
It seems tempting to regard Barthes as an almost ideal member of a Rortyan literary culture. This must not be considered as the pointless attempt to turn Barthes into a kind of neopragmatist, but it rather allows one to see him as a Bloomian and Rortyan strong poet shaping, in a truly idiosyncratic and creative manner, a postmetaphysical culture. The radical antifoundationalist and anti-Platonist Rorty redescribes the notion of philosophy as a foundational discipline, and this redescription directs attention to the idea of a postmeta-physical literary culture. In one of his last pieces, “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre,” Rorty states a thesis which he has been repeating since the 1970s: “It is that the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature” (2004: 8). According to Rorty, we live in a (not yet fully realized) literary culture. In this kind of culture philosophy and religion have become marginal, they appear as only optional literary genres. What this also means is that the search for God was replaced by the striving for Truth, and that the latter has finally been replaced by the search for novelty and by the recognition that redemption can only be found in human creations and artifacts and not in the escape from the temporal to the eternal or transcendental.
How does Rorty define the members of a literary culture, the literary intellectuals? His understanding of the function of the literary intellectual combines a Bloomian interpretation of the autonomy of the self with Emersonian self-reliance. A literary intellectual has constant doubts about the (final) vocabulary she is currently using, she does not want to get stuck in it. She longs to become acquainted with other ways of speaking, other ways of interpreting the purpose of life. For that reason she reads as many books as possible. By becoming acquainted with so many alternative vocabularies and ways of being human, the literary intellectual enlarges her self. Because of her reading she is introduced to a great number of alternative purposes, and ways of expressing those purposes, and she is thus given the possibility of radically questioning traditional vocabularies and explanations. To put it simply, the literary intellectual’s reading leads to her self-creation, it offers her the possibility of creating an autonomous self. It is crucial to understand that in a poeticized culture literary criticism is the presiding intellectual discipline. Liberal ironists think of literary critics as moral advisers because the latter have read many books and are therefore acquainted with many different vocabularies. Moreover, literary critics can offer new perspectives since they are often capable of bringing together books and authors which have hitherto been considered as incompatible. The critics’ syntheses of, for instance, Nietzsche and Mill or Marx and Baudelaire or Sartre and Proust are examples of the power of creative redescriptions. The strong poet, in the sense of someone who wants to make it new, who offers new vocabularies and creative redescriptions, and who surprises us with his perpetual Gestalt switches, is the hero of such a literary or poeticized culture. He desires to leave his impressions on others and to redescribe the idiosyncrasies of his individual self in a way that makes it attractive to others.
The strong poet, fearing to be regarded as a mere copy or replica, eventually finds out that by describing himself in his own terms he creates himself. Confronting his own con-tingency, acknowledging and appropriating it, is synonymous with the creative invention of a new language or a new set of metaphors. Following Rorty, the final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy might also be interpreted as the final victory of idiosyncratic metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery. Instead of the will to truth which governed a philosophical culture, a post-Philosophical or literary culture would be dominated by the Nietzschean will to self-overcoming and self-creation. It is precisely this will to self-overcoming and this desire for permanent self-creation which are typical of Barthes’s career. The antifoundationalist gesture governing Barthes’s texts can be seen as a refusal of the idea that a gradual progression toward truth is absolutely necessary. Barthes intends to remove his discourse from the authority of truth, that is, he seeks to make clear that the guiding principle of his discourse is not truth grounded in ahistorical and transcultural foundations, a firm and reliable knowledge, but writing. Writing shatters all foundationalist desires. It demonstrates the inadequacy of the notion of a correspondence theory of truth or of the ideal, typical of the realist novel, of an objective truth. Writing, to Barthes, is an ongoing process which engages multiple incommensurable codes and which radically critiques any kind of theological and essentialist metaphysics.
Cannibalizing various (theoretical) systems, Barthes shows that his own writing, his text, has no center, no core, and no bottom. The bottomless possibilities of writing, as irony in a not-quite-Rortyan sense, make talk of origins appear utterly obsolete. According to Barthes, “writing is the destruction of every voice, every origin” (1968: 49). Elaborating on the importance of a line of tradition which reaches from Mallarmé to Valéry and Proust, Barthes maintains: “We know now that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God), but of a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture” (1968: 52-3). In this context, it is crucial to remember the unique significance of French avant-garde literature. It reaches from the modernists Baudelaire, the late Flaubert, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and Mallarmé to Artaud, Bataille, the surrealists around Breton, Blanchot, and the Nouveau Roman. The modern writer, if we follow Barthes, by “mingl[ing] writings,” produces a “multiple writing” which has “no end [and] no bottom” (1968: 53, 54). Barthes’s famous essay “The Death of the Author” is not only important because of the proclaimed birth of the reader, but also because in this piece a radically antimimetic stance, the idea of intertextuality (think of Julia Kristeva’s Bachtinian influence on Barthes), and an obvious antifoundationalism and anti-essentialism come together. The following passage nicely illustrates that Barthes sees his antifoundationalist understanding of writing as calling attention to a revolutionary activity: “[L]iterature (it would be better, from now on, to say writing), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world-as-text) a ‘secret,’ i.e., an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity we may call countertheological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to halt meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law” (1968: 54). This refusal of “God and his hypostases,” as well as the refusal to discover “an ultimate meaning” in the text, are gestures that help prepare the establishment of a postmetaphysical literary culture. Writing can only produce further writing, text can only be covered with further text (there is no truth to be discovered) – this is an ongoing, an endless activity, a creative production.
To put this somewhat differently, the modern intransitive meaning of the verb “to write,” as Barthes suggests, indicates an epistemological shift. The writerly text (“le texte scriptible”), as introduced by Barthes in S/Z, urges and tempts us to become creative writers ourselves, redescribers and strong poets who “write on,” fall in love with the erotic play of the signifier, and who thereby forget about the signified, the logos, and the notion of a “clôture” of the text. Perfect examples of this kind of activity are Derrida’s Glas, his text on Hegel and Genet, and the “Envois” section of his La Carte postale. In such texts, the foundationalist desire for the signified has to remain unfulfilled.
Strictly differentiating between the work and the text, Barthes contends that “the work disturbs no monistic philosophy,” whereas “the plural or demonic texture which sets the Text in opposition to the work may involve profound modifications of reading, precisely where monologism seems to be the law” (1971a: 60, 61). A monistic philosophy ought to be regarded as a foundationalist thinking which anathematizes contingency and (radical) change. Since his early Mythologies, Barthes had criticized the attempt to turn culture into nature. His version of ideology critique or semiological critique warns against the attempt to turn the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical, in short: that which is made by us human beings, into the natural. One of the primary dangers of this process is that the contingent grounds of our statements, judgments, and opinions “become, under the effect of mythic inversion, Common Sense, Right Reason, the Norm, Public Opinion, in a word, the Endoxa (the secular figure of the Origin)” (1971b: 65). The broad approach of Barthes’s demystificatory semiotic criticism becomes clear in the following passage from “Mythology Today” where he describes the field of his “semioclasm” (as a new semiology): “The historical field is thereby extended: it is no longer French society, but far beyond it, historically and geographically, the whole of Western (Greco-Judeo-Islamo-Christian) civilization, unified in one and the same theology (essence, monotheism) and identified by the system of meaning it practices, from Plato to France-Dimanche” (1971b: 67).
Western civilization, and Barthes apparently agrees with Derrida here, fears contingency, a plurality of meaning, and the unreliability of the symbolic in general. Its foundationalist and essentialist “theology” abhors the play of the signifier, the infinite postponement of the signified, the circulation and expansion of the text, and the attempt to replace the idea of a center, a firm ground, an irreducible principle, or a hidden meaning with that of dissemination and intertextuality – the surface of writing. Foundationalist and metaphysical thinking, or what Barthes terms “the doxa,” claims that it is absolutely necessary to penetrate through the veil of appearances to the really real or through the surface to the depth (cf. Barthes 1977: 71). This notion of depth is of crucial importance to Western thought. In Japan, if one follows Barthes’s L’Empire des signes, this notion plays no role at all. Barthes’s imaginary Japan does not need metaphysical and theological foundations. It is a country of empty signs and no ultimate signified, and the play of the signifier questions the regime of meaning. In her essay “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes,” still one of the best texts on this French theorist and writer, Susan Sontag correctly points out: “Barthes is constantly making an argument against depth, against the idea that the most real is latent, submerged” (1982: xxviii). Sontag reads Barthes as an important part of a tradition of aesthetes. In her opinion, the central argument of the modern aesthete position is “[t]he idea that depths are obfuscating, demagogic, that no human essence stirs at the bottom of things, and that freedom lies in staying on the surface, the large glass on which desire circulates” (1982: xxviii).
Regarding the notion of a postmetaphysical literary culture, it is not only Barthes’s antifoundationalism and antiessentialism which are of utmost importance, but also the idea of a plurality of vocabularies which is central to his thinking. Barthes was probably one of the most productive and provocative theoretical redescribers of the twentieth century. His atttude toward other theoretical approaches or systems of thought always was somewhat ironic. He plundered those systems for ideas that simply attracted him and often used them in ways that did not have much to do with their original meaning. Barthes playfully and creatively redescribed other theoretical languages in the manner of a strong poet who wanted to make it new and whose greatest fear was that his paradoxical position might turn into a new static doxa or the truth of a new stereotype. The point is not so much that Barthes, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s, often misunderstood and misapplied (structuralist) terminology and that this added to the opacity of his texts, but one should rather realize the Nietzschean attempt to create the taste by which one would be judged by posterity. Presenting himself as more than an epicurean aesthete, Barthes always sought to offer new sets of metaphors and ways of speaking. His constant Gestalt switches produced a plurality of vocabularies, from the seriousness of ideology critique or critical study of myth to the introduction of new terms which were shamelessly used to produce new writing. Those terms were supposed to stimulate him and to show him new directions and possibilities with regard to his writing. To put this somewhat differently, it is not only the texts of the modern writer which are characterized by the intertextuality and polyphony of a multiple writing, as we saw above, but also those of the modern theorist. The writer and the theorist or critic both produce aesthetic objects, both mingle writings or vocabularies, and a growing collapse of traditional genres (narrative, criticism, essay) can be detected. Regarding this blurring of genres, Barthes’s Critique et vérité (1966) is particularly valuable.
As far as the Barthesian plurality of vocabularies, or mixing of languages, is concerned, Michael Moriarty speaks of “an occasional overhaul of the writer’s linguistic tool-kit, or a series of discursive love affairs” (1991: 170). On Jonathan Culler’s account, Barthes “values new approaches for their explanatory energy and power of estrangement but rebels as soon as the possibility of orthodoxy arises” (1983: 70). Further below in his text Culler comments on Barthes’s “method” (maybe too technical a term) as follows: “Even at the time when he was proposing new sciences, he gave himself the writer’s licence to steal and exploit the language of other disciplines” (1983: 102). A fragment in his “autobiography” Roland Barthes, which deconstructs the traditional understanding of autobiography, nicely illustrates his theoretical and writerly endeavor. In “The echo chamber” he writes:
In relation to the systems which surround him, what is he? Say an echo chamber: he reproduces the thoughts badly, he follows the words, he pays his visits, i.e., his respects, to vocabularies, he invokes notions, he rehearses them under a name; he makes use of this name as of an enblem (thereby practicing a kind of philosophical ideography) and this enblem dispenses him from following to its conclusion the system of which it is the signifier (which simply makes him a sign). (1977: 74)
Barthes’s radically antisystematic approach uses fragments of other discourses or vocabularies and covers them with its own writing, as it were. He does not intend to reproduce or summarize thoughts, he rather playfully seeks to integrate words and names into his perpetually changing framework. Tentatively invoking notions and following the complex meaning of certain words, he does not try to leave the realm of the signifier by penetrating to the signified of the respective theoretical system or vocabulary. Barthes writes in the same fragment: “In this way, no doubt, words are shifted, systems communicate, modernity is tried (the way one tries all the push buttons on a radio one doesn’t know how to work), but the intertext thereby created is literally superficial: one adheres liberally: the name (philosophic, psychoanalytic, political, scientific) retains with its original system a line which is not cut but which remains: tenacious and floating” (1977: 74).
Undoubtedly, Barthes’s statement that “words are shifted, systems communicate, modernity is tried” (“les mots se transportent, les systèmes communiquent, la modernité est essayée” 1975: 78) is one of his best self-characterizations. However, it is crucial to see that in his last texts one often gets the impression that modernity is no longer tried. The conceptual revolutions associated with the “chambre d’échos” are not of primary importance anymore. Barthes’s last revolutionary gesture, in other words, is to indirectly proclaim the end or at least the diminished significance of conceptual revolutions. The modern theorist expresses his desire to write a novel. – In the context of our discussion this change raises the question of whether Barthes can still be counted among the members of a literary or poeticized culture. At the beginning of “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure…” Barthes underscores that he does not want to presumptuously compare himself to Proust, but he rather wishes to identify himself with this novelist. At the center of this identification is the question of practice, that is, Barthes feels strongly attracted to Proust since the latter’s Recherche “is the narrative of a desire to write: I am not identifying myself with the prestigious author of a monumental work but with the worker – now tormented, now exalted, in any case modest – who wanted to undertake a task upon which, from the very start of his project, he conferred an absolute character” (1978: 277-78). It is precisely this Proustian “désir d’écrire” which fascinates the late Barthes. The fact that Barthes obviously values Proust’s attempt to confer an “absolute character” upon his task shows that the gesture governing this piece is not of a playful and experimental, but rather of an existential kind.
In his earlier works Barthes would not have appreciated the attempt to confer an “absolute character” upon a task, a literary text, or a theoretical endeavor. His tentativeness, fallibilism, and his aversion to any kind of grand theory would have warned him against using or uncritically accepting such a phrase. That the Proust lecture illuminates a decisive change in Barthes’s career can also be seen from his elaborations on his subject position. Strongly influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, Barthes had always been highly critical of a traditional (Cartesian) understanding of subjectivity. However, the following passage shows that one might feel tempted to speak of a return of the subject after structuralist and poststructuralist aberrations: “‘Myself’ is to be understood here in the full sense: not the asepticized substitute of a general reader (any substitution is an asepsis); I shall be speaking of the one for whom no one else can be substituted, for better and for worse. It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science” (1978: 284). This “intimate” does not have anything to do with the Lacanian “imaginaire,” but it is the formerly criticized and abhorred bourgeois subject who returns and who desires to express his profound and overwhelming pain. This desire for the expression of one’s unique pain, for making one’s cry heard, seemingly inevitably culminates in the desire to write.
An important aspect of “Longtemps…” is that it is dominated by a feeling of melancholy, or “acedie,” and “ennui.” Referring to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Barthes’s contention is that the “middle of our life” ought to be understood as “a semantic point, the perhaps belated moment where there occurs in my life the summons of a new meaning, the desire for a mutation: to change lives, to break off and to begin, to submit myself to an initiation […]” (1978: 284). In 1978, Barthes’s life seemed static to him, or as he put it: “doomed to repetition” (1978: 285). He, the modern theorist and aesthete always looking for new ideas, theoretical influences, names, words, and physical stimulations, had the painful impression of no longer being capable of experiencing anything new. There was no more “Adventure (that which ‘advenes’ – which befalls me)” (1978: 285) waiting for him. Alluding to the famous last sentence of Camus’s Le Mythe de Sisysphe (1942), Barthes writes: “Can this be all? No, Sisyphus is not happy: he is alienated, not by the effort of his labor, or even by its vanity, but by its repetition” (1978: 285). It should have become obvious that this is no longer the elegant and innovative redescriber, or creative strong poet, who strives to contribute to the next aesthetic revolution and who playfully accepts his own contingency. The tone of his Proust lecture is more serious and existential in comparison with his other texts. In addition, the essay is less fragmented than his former pieces. What might be the reason for this important change? Simply the boredom of repetition? Approaching old age? The text names the reason only indirectly. It speaks of the death of Proust’s mother in 1905 (cf. 1978: 278). It was four years after this death, after a period of indecision but also productive agitation, that Proust began to write the Recherche. In October 1977 Barthes’s beloved mother Henriette died. He had spent most of his life living together with her. Without wanting to engage in a kind of “critique biographique” à la Hippolyte Taine, one should see that the almost unbearable pain, sadness, and forlornness caused by this death shaped the text on Proust, as well as La Chambre claire. Furthermore, Henriette’s death foreshadowed that of her son, at least that was the way he felt.
Realizing the reality of death, the Proustian “désir d’écrire” offers Barthes the possibility of inventing a new life, as it were. This life will be that of a writer, a novelist who confronts the existential problems of life and who strives to express his own personal pain. Barthes stresses that this will be his last choice (this Sartrean, existentialist terminology is probably adequate here): “I no longer have time to try several lives: I must choose my last life, my new life, ‘Vita Nova,’ Michelet said […]” (1978: 286). Defining himself as “‘the subject who wants to write’” (1978: 288), Barthes makes clear that “a new life” can only mean a new practice of writing. He longs for the practice of a new form whose contours are still somewhat blurry but which will give his writing a new direction. He speaks of a “third form” (1978: 281) which is neither essay nor novel, or both at once. It is fascinating to see that Barthes indirectly critiques his former life as a modern theorist who constantly changed his approaches and conceptual frameworks. All this intertextuality and polyphony, this juggling with different vocabularies, now seem frivolous and banal, not the real thing, as it were. The following passage leaves the impression as if Barthes considered his former life as genuinely superficial and as if he now sought to discover the truth of writing (i.e., a new form):
To change doctrine, theory, philosophy, method, belief, spectacular though this seems, is in fact quite banal: one does such things the way one breathes; one invests, one lays aside, one reinvests: intellectual conversions are the very pulsion of the intelligence, once it is attentive to the world’s surprises; but the search, the discovery, the practice of a new form – this, I believe, is equivalent to that Vita Nova whose determinations I have described. (1978: 286)
Barthes’s desire for a new practice of writing (“une nouvelle pratique d’écriture”) goes hand in hand with a new understanding of literature. His new conception of literature confirms our suggestion that as far as the late Barthes is concerned modernity is no longer tried. Of primary concern to the Barthes of the Proust lecture is no longer the idea of literature as the interference of multiple codes (as in S/Z) or as a means to evoke feelings of physical pleasure of “jouissance” (as in Le Plaisir du texte), but he now advances the idea that the reader can discover “moments of truth” (1978: 287) in literary works. Naming as examples the death of old Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace and the death of Marcel’s grandmother in the Recherche, the former theorist of the avant-garde now wants his readers to acknowledge pathos as a force of their reading. Moreover, he draws attention to the role pity or compassion play in reading. “Moments of truth”, “pathos”, “pity or compassion” – as conceptual instruments these terms would have been anathematized by the modern Barthes. In his essay on Proust, Barthes depicts literature as an existential practice which answers the last questions after the radically reduced authority of religious world views. It should have become clear that this Barthesian return to a rather traditional understanding of literature also entails the resuscitation of a rather traditional notion of truth. The novelist Barthes, it seems, no longer presents himself as the ideal member of a postmetaphysical literary culture. In another context Jonathan Culler correctly underscores that Barthes’s appeal to the body, for instance, in his texts of the early 1970s, “seems to carry a constant possibility of mystification. Barthes’s own formulations sometimes suggest that what comes from the body is deeper, truer, and above all, more natural than anything else” (1983: 95). Clearly preferring the structuralist theoretician Barthes to the poststructuralist hedonist, Culler contends that in “Barthes’s later works he begins to present as a transgression what could easily be taken as a reaffirmation of quite regressive, pre-semiological notions” (1983: 121). The question must indeed be posed whether the Barthesian return to pre-modernist traditions really declares an end to the dynamics of aesthetic modernism, or whether this gesture of a transgression of transgression only continues the process of making it new and ought to be regarded as another form of a Nietzschean will to self-overcoming. Undoubtedly, this is a problem that concerns most avant-garde writers, artists, and theorists.
In “Longtemps…,” Barthes seeks to make his readers believe that he is still hesitant as regards the genre of the novel. For instance, he writes that the novel is “what I am calling any Form which is new in relation to my past practice, to my past discourse” (1978: 288). Furthermore, he speaks of “this (fantasized and probably impossible) Novel” (1978: 288). He also states that he means “by the Novel that uncertain, quite uncanonical Form, insofar as I do not conceive it but only remember or desire it” (1978: 289). Barthes explicates that he is not sure whether the work which is supposed to fulfill his “désir d’écrire” and which is meant to break with the intellectual nature of his previous writings can be called a novel. Nonetheless, he maintains that it is crucial for him to act as if he were to write “this utopian novel” (1978: 289). Again, Barthes puts a premium on the importance of practice, that is, he is no longer satisfied with the creative invention of metalanguages. He wants to escape from the critic’s or theorist’s discourse on discourse. To put it differently, covering discourse with his own discourse is not sufficient to him anymore, he desires to directly confront the practice of writing the world, as it were: “I put myself in the position of the subject who makes something, and no longer of the subject who speaks about something: I am not studying a product, I assume a production; I abolish the discourse on discourse; the world no longer comes to me as an object, but as a writing, i.e., a practice” (1978: 289).
Barthes’s Proustian desire to write urges him to “postulate a novel to be written” (1978: 289). One might feel tempted to argue that at least to a certain degree the last book that was published during his lifetime, La Chambre claire, is that novel. This book on photography, which consists of 48 fragments, is much more than another book on photography. It is a book of mourning, a Proustian text of memory which elegantly and movingly addresses the existential themes of love, death, time, solitude, and bereavement. This book in which Barthes mourns the death of his beloved mother, undoubtedly his most personal text, comes close to the third form he mentioned in his Proust lecture. Neither essay nor novel, or both at once, the book opens with a theoretical part in which the author introduces the terms “studium” and “punctum.” The first part of La Chambre claire is still governed by the gestures of a theorist who distinguishes, classifies, and defines. Yet it is a kind of “private” theory which prepares the ground for the personal narrative in the second part (remember that it is “the intimate” which seeks utterance in Barthes). This personal narrative centers on a photograph which shows Henriette Barthes as a little girl together with her brother in a winter garden in their parents’ house in Chennevières-sur-Marne. It is in the picture of this five-year-old girl, taken in 1898, that Barthes rediscovers his mother. This old photograph, although barely “legible” anymore, tells the truth about his dead mother. Somewhat like the “mémoire involontaire” in Proust’s Recherche, whose significance Marcel realizes in Le Temps retrouvé, the discovery of the old photograph allows Barthes to recreate the past, to capture its truth by means of writing.
I cannot elaborate on Barthes’s differentiation between his meditation on the nature of photography and the function of memory in Proust (cf. 1993: 82), but I wish to call attention to the intimacy of mourning and memory in his personal narrative:
At the end of her life, shortly before the moment when I looked through her pictures and discovered the Winter Garden Photograph, my mother was weak, very weak. I lived in her weakness (it was impossible for me to participate in a world of strength, to go out in the evenings; all social life appalled me). During her illness, I nursed her, held the bowl of tea she liked because it was easier to drink from than from a cup; she had become my little girl, uniting for me with that essential child she was in her first photograph. (1993: 71-2)
It is Barthes’s own coming death which plays a crucial role in the second part of La Chambre claire. What remains for the former avant-garde theorist to do is to strive to fulfill his novelistic desire and to write against death, as it were:
Once she was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the Superior Life Force (the race, the species). My particularity could never again universalize itself (unless, utopically, by writing, whose project henceforth would become the unique goal of my life). From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death. / That is what I read in the Winter Garden Photograph. (1993: 72)
What this boils down to is that in the essay on Proust and in La Chambre claire Barthes no longer appears as the creative redescriber or strong poet of a postmetaphysical literary or poeticized culture who playfully seeks to convince his readers to realize the advantages of another aesthetic or conceptual revolution, but he presents himself as a (quasi-) novelist who considers writing an existential practice and who does not grant utmost importance to his former antifoundationalism, antiessentialism, and nominalism anymore. One could argue that the late Barthes, like Blanchot before him, has finally recognized the relation of literature and language to death (cf. Blanchot 1949 and Foucault 1963). Or one might fell inclined to end on a more positive note by advancing the argument that because of his desire to write Barthes, like Proust’s Marcel in Le Temps retrouvé, has finally come to understand that the true life, the only life really lived – is literature: “La vraie vie, la vie enfin découverte et éclaircie, la seule vie par conséquent réellement vécue, c’est la littérature” (Proust 1954: III, 895).
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