This review of Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary appeared recently in the Irish Times.
By Roland Barthes
Translated from the French by Richard Howard
Hill and Wang, 261 pp, $25.
Roland Barthes is still a scandalous writer. It is half a century since his Mythologies wittily deplored the mystifying tendencies of popular culture: comically ecstatic ads for washing powder, the latest Citroen as modern Gothic cathedral, the obscuring pieties of literary reputation. It’s over forty years since his polemic ‘The Death of the Author’ banished the tired personage of the originating genius from the stage of literary history, and substituted the dramatic exchange between text and reader. And in the three decades since he died generations of students have had their assumptions about literature, art and film upended by his elegantly involved essays.
In other words, Barthes is canonically installed at the heart of our thinking about culture in general. The scandal that remains lies in the curious turn his books took towards the end of his life, when the rigorous prophet of semiotics began writing unashamedly about love and loss. Mourning Diary is the belated summa of Barthes’s best and most personal writing.
The subjective swerve of his late style may be traced to Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the odd little ‘autobiography’ he published in 1975. Two years later A Lover’s Discourse thinly veiled his own life as a middle-aged gay man in Paris inside an ostensible study of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. The same year, Barthes’s mother Henriette died. He had lived with her almost all his life – his father died in the First World War – and now started to write a fragmentary diary of the mourning ‘process’. (He would not have liked that word.) The diary leached out over the next two years on handwritten slips of paper – some of them are reproduced in this edition – and it was eventually published in France in 2009, to the disapproval of some of his academic colleagues.
Mourning Diary is a svelte artefact: one aphorism or pensée per page, some of them revisions of earlier thoughts and the whole perhaps easily parodied as the precious musings of French literature’s least abashed mummy’s boy. (After Proust, that is.) But we need only consider the opening entry, written the day after Henriette died, to get a sense of the intimacy and scope of the undertaking. ‘First wedding night. But first mourning night?’ The whole of Barthes’s innocently conjugal relationship with his mother is there, as well as a feeling, crucial in the rest of the diary, that there exists no language by which a fifty-something male intellectual may express this particular grief. Much of Mourning Diary is about his feeling discomposed among the conventions of bereavement, as if he had simply lost ‘the Mother’ rather than the uncultured particularity of this one beloved person.
As ever with Barthes, he is fascinated by the banality of his own feelings, alive to the ‘stupidity’ of his crying at certain pieces of music. At the same time, he rages that there is no place for his ‘lacerated’ soul among the friends and colleagues who are nonetheless all being ‘extremely nice’ about his new solitude. As for the subject of these reflections, the Henriette Barthes who emerges here (perhaps impossibly gentle and intelligent) will be familiar to readers of Barthes’s magnificent late book about photography, Camera Lucida. There, he swiftly abandoned any pretence at academic objectivity in favour of rapt attention to a photograph of his mother, aged five. In a tantalizing treat for Barthes obsessives, the image (absent from the photography book) appears in the present volume, on a wall behind the author, but it’s too blurred to make out. In the summer of 1978, he had discovered the snapshot and written: ‘I weep. Not even the desire to commit suicide.’
In truth, the two standard versions of Barthes – early and late, austere and vulnerable – were never really antithetical. Barthes himself loved exposing such lazy dichotomies, in fact built his whole style around dissolving them. Mourning Diary reminds us that at his best – as thinker and stylist – Barthes was a writer for whom detail, not theory, was everything. (That said, he casually invented a theory of detail in his great essay on fiction, ‘The Reality Effect’.) Mythologies was all about texture and impression – ‘The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of [Audrey] Hepburn an Event’ – while his 1954 book on Jules Michelet revealed a nineteenth-century historian obsessed with blood, flesh, earth and water. In Mourning Diary Barthes is movingly attached to the room where his mother had lain ill, to the sight of swallows on a summer evening, even to a new tartan scarf of which he knows Henriette would have approved.
This book, for sure, is an essential addition to Barthes’s academic afterlife, and it’s published to coincide with fresh editions of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse – all with stylish new introductions by the likes of Geoff Dyer and Adam Phillips. But it’s also an immensely engaging and affecting book about grief, comparable in a completely different register to Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. As with Didion, we feel Barthes’s pain all the more keenly for the author’s effort to engage head and heart with equal force.