Death of the author ROLAND BARTHES: A Biography by Louis-Jean Calvet, trs Sarah Wykes, Polity Press £25
`He mixed a protestant passion for order with nights in brothels'
Sunday 08 January 1995
That said, we can enjoy the book. Barthes' father died in the First World War, when Barthes was still a baby: "No father to kill, no family to hate, no milieu to reject: great Oedipal frustration", as he put it. He was brought up, first in Bayonne and then in Paris, in an almost exclusively feminine world; like so many intel- lectuals, including his mentor Sartre, he was cosseted, indulged, lonely and, yes, bored. A precocious child, while still a teenager he tried his hand at a satirical Platonic dialogue and a novel, and was a founding member of a small anti-fascist group, the Defense Republicaine Antifasciste. Sent to the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, an elite school adjacent to the Sorbonne, he seemed destined for the prestigious cole Normale Superieure.
Barthes was from a good family - his grand-father was a well-known explorer and colonial administrator - but he had good reason to dislike the class from which he came. The Barthes were genuinely poor. According to Barthes there was often no food at home, and a wealthy grandmother, who lived nearby in Paris, did nothing for them. The sense of marginalisation increased as Barthes grew up to realise he was both homosexual and an invalid. He was even, as he used to observe, left-handed.
When tuberculosis first struck, Barthes was only 19. After a year spent recuperating, he began to read Classics at the Sorbonne, where, with lengthy interludes of illness, he finally gained a degree. Then, in the middle of the war, TB struck again. But this time Barthes was dispatched to the limbo of an Alpine sanatorium: loneliness and more boredom, but also, of course, the time to do a great deal of reading. Cheated of the education and the career he desperately wanted - Barthes described the day thathis friend Philippe Rebyrol got into the cole Normale as the most painful of his existence - he was to spend the rest of his life arguing against the methods and values of the training he never received.
After the war, Barthes worked in French institutes in Bucharest and then Alexandria, where he was fortunate enough to meet Guy Greimas, who was in the process of becoming an authority on structural semantics and semiology. He read hard: by 1945 he had over a thousand index cards with notes on Michelet, and throughout the early 1950s he devoted himself to linguistic theory and to a host of different projects, many of which were never completed.
But at 35 he still did not have a "real" job, and it was only the appearance of Mythologies in 1957, when he was 41, that secured his reputation. Finally, in 1960, he got a teaching post at the cole Pratique des Hautes tudes. By this time, however, Barthes was almost famous, and the message of Mythologies was slowly permeating France: the search was on for bourgeois ideology in the most apparently innocuous and natural objects.
Even advertisers began to take the new discipline seriously. The 1960s were years of Structuralism, not just for Barthes but for France, but with the appearance of The Fashion System (a surprisingly dry and weighty treatise of the late 1960s) Barthes' desire for systemisation had been exhausted. In the works that came afterwards - S/Z, Empire of Signs, Sade/Fourier/Loyola, The Pleasure of the Text, A Lover's Discourse and Camera Lucida - writing as a duty gave way to reading for pleasure.
Barthes was devoted to Julia Kristeva, apparently once even declaring: "She's the only person I'm really in love with, the only woman who could make me change my sexuality." But by far the most important woman in his life was his mother. They lived with each other until her death, and his friend Greimas commented: "I have never seen a finer love." When she died in 1977 Barthes was devastated - his last book, Camera Lucida, was about her. A special professorship had been created for Barthes at the College de France in 1976 (despite a lukewarm reference from his old friend Foucault) but now he felt depressed, frustrated, and once again bored. Young men no longer desired him, and he was "too scrupulous to impose my own desire upon them"; he found his work, and the endless demands made upon him, a chore. Run over in Paris in 1980, he died in hos-pital some weeks later, seemingly having lost his will to live.
Barthes was a contradictory figure. He combined a Protestant passion for order and routine with nights in Tunisian brothels and Parisian gay bars. He was a radical critic of the fashion system who liked classic English clothes, a Marxist who recoiled from '68, a champion of hedonism who never publicly proclaimed his homosexuality. Julia Kristeva summed it up by saying: "He was an ambiguous character, on the side of order and also on the side of difference at the same time." A less devoted commentator might, I suppose, say he was inconsistent, even hypocritical.
But whatever the antinomies in his life, Barthes remained, it is clear, an enormously alluring, sympathetic and sexy character. Friends insist on his loyalty and his kindness: he suffered from an inability to say no to any request made to him, writing prefaces to books he evidently had not read. They also stress his sense of irony, the way at a glance he could censure what was ridiculous or highlight what was unexpectedly funny: "When you were at a party with Roland the world seemed topsy-turvy." Surpri singly, however, what comes across almost most strongly is the enthralling quality of Barthes' voice. He loved music, had taken singing lessons with Charles Panzera, "a famous singer of French songs" [sic], and gave seminars on the voice. People continue d to remember the first time they heard him long after the event - Kristeva even wrote an article about it.
Calvet is himself a professor of "sociolinguistics", and it is a great pity that this uneven and rather clumsy book does not say a bit more about Barthes' work. After all, as Calvet argues, Barthes was not a system builder; he used "theory" to give expression to his moods, and his life and work are to that extent (and contrary to his own protestations) inseparable. Still, there will be other Lives, and, with luck, Barthes' letters will be published.
If A Lover's Discourse is anything to go by, this will be a memorable event. In the meantime, Calvet's biography is a valuable stop-gap which at least succeeds in demonstrating that Roland Barthes was an utterly captivating individual.
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