Life,  Reading

Roland Barthes: The Last Days of a Literary Genius

On February 25, 1980, Roland Barthes had just attended a “big shot” party organized by the later French President François Mitterrand. After lunch, Bart walked back to the French Academy. When he was about to cross the zebra crossing, he was knocked to the ground by a speeding pickup truck. The ambulance personnel who arrived at the scene did not find any documents on the injured person, only the work card of the college. When the police went to the academy to inquire, someone notified Michel Foucault, and Foucault went to confirm that the injured was Bart.

As Herve Algararondo wrote in the book “The Last Days of Roland Barthes”: “The car accident itself is depressingly mediocre.” At the beginning, Barthes’ physical condition did not arouse his friends The panic, his consciousness is very clear, and he has been blaming himself for being too careless. The injury is not very serious. Although it needs to be hospitalized for recuperation, it will not be a serious problem. But the news from the hospital a week later was less rosy: he could no longer speak. When relatives and friends went to the hospital to visit him again, he was already on the verge of death. With feeble gestures he motioned for others to help him remove the tube so he could go away pain-free. Semiotician Kristeva recalled the scene at that time: “His eyes flashed with fatigue and melancholy, and his face was dull. He made a gesture of asking me to give up and say goodbye to me, which means, don’t keep me, it’s useless. It seems that living is tiresome to him, and death is a kind of relief instead.”

From 1977 to 1980, these are the “last days” chosen by Herway when writing this book. The reason why it started at this time is because 1977 has extraordinary significance for Barthes. In the first half of 1977, he was elected by Foucault to enter the French Academy, the highest hall of French academia. Everyone knows that this is a great honor. Although the Collège de France is not a university, the academicians’ lectures can attract a large audience and have a strong influence, and the selected academicians are lifelong. Michel Foucault was 44 years old when he was elected Fellow of the History of Philosophical Thought in 1970, and Barthes was 61 years old when he was elected Fellow of the Academy of Letters and Symbols. It is said that Barthes won in the end thanks to Foucault’s crucial vote.

Barthes is a late blooming scholar. He was 38 years old when he published his first book “Writing Zero”. He made his debut late, but he kept on writing, and his works were worth his time. There is a sense that he has something to say about any subject. Susan Sontag said that even faced with a cigarette case, Barthes would have an idea, two ideas, many ideas, and then an article would be made. In her opinion, it does not lie in the depth of knowledge, but in the sharpness of thinking. Barthes seemed to have the gift of being quick and keen to see where a problem was, and expressing himself in a poignant way. He is a natural essayist who can think and record anytime and anywhere, rendering it into writing. But the question is, does an essayist who has only written fragments qualify for admission to the Académie de France?

Barthes’s subsequent lectures at the Collège de France were well received by many people, which to some extent dispelled people’s doubts about him – Barthes’s class was always full of people, so that the academy had to adjust his classes to weekends, Even so, there were still no empty seats, and the academy had no choice but to install a sound system in the next classroom. In 1977, there was another big event. Barthes’ “Lover’s Whispers” was a big hit. It is said that 100,000 copies were sold, and he became a best-selling author. At the same time, his friends organized a huge academic seminar for him around this book. Whether in the hearts of readers at large or in serious academic circles, his popularity reached the apex. But along with this honor comes all kinds of troubles.

On October 25, 1977, his mother died of illness, which dealt him a heavy blow. We can understand the relationship between the mother and son through “Diary of Grief”. Bart’s father was a naval officer who died in a battle when Bart was 1 year old. Since then, the son has never been separated from his mother. Roland Barthes mentioned his family in his photographic notes. For a long time, he said, his family consisted of nothing but his mother. In “The Diary of Grief,” we can clearly see the degree of intimacy between Bart and his mother. After his mother died, he started talking about death, about hurt, about the passage of time. In Barthes’ diary, the image of the mother becomes clearer as time goes by, and the pain becomes more prominent.

In his diary on October 30, 1977, Barthes wrote: “I don’t want to talk about anything, for fear that people will say that I am engaged in literary creation, although in fact literature has its origin in these realities.” When a body dies and disappears, what it leaves behind is the memory and pain in the minds of the living. This kind of memory pain does not necessarily heal over time. Grief will only disappear temporarily, but sadness is always there, because, “What I have lost is not a person (mother), but a substance; nor a substance, but a good quality (soul): although it is necessary Indispensable, but irreplaceable. I can live without my mother (and we all have to live without a mother sooner or later), but the rest of my life, until I die, must be too bad for words “.

In his diary entry on April 12, 1978, Barthes wrote: “Is writing to remember? Not to self-remember, but to fight against the pain of forgetting. For forgetting is absolute and soon leaves no trace. No matter where, no matter who.” In his diary entry on June 5, 1978, he added: “For me, at this moment in my life (mother died), I was read by books. I have a vague feeling that I should be known again now that she is gone… I think it is necessary to write a book around my mother.” He wrote a book for his mother, which was later The completed photography notes “Bright Room”.

Roland Barthes and his mother

Without reading Barthes’ diaries, it’s hard to understand that this is a book he wrote in memory of his mother that discusses photography. But when looking through old photos, the image of my mother appeared again and again. In Barthes’ view, through photography, we calmly pass into death. After death, what photography leaves behind is a kind of evidence that we maintain the boundary between life and death. Looking at the photos of my mother is actually leaving the memory of her life by watching her death.

In “Diary of Sorrow”, he clearly recorded his own mental journey. He felt that after his mother died, this kind of pain destroyed him. “In my imagining of my own death, in addition to the anxiety about passing away prematurely, I also added anxiety about the unbearable pain that I may cause due to death.” For him, the imaginary ritual of death has been demonstrated finished. He is still alive as if he were dead. It was at this time that he decided to write a novel. While in New York, Sontag asked him what the novel he was about to write was. Barthes could not give a definite answer, he said, maybe, this novel will be composed of a series of fragmented texts like his previous articles.

The puzzling part of this question is that if this novel continues Barthes’s previous writing style, how can he continue the Proustian brilliance? He gave courses on Proust at the Collège de France, and he longed to find the secret of being Proust, but this search did not lead him to write a Proustian novel. His final distress was that he was not reconciled to being an essayist, and his talent was being questioned.

From 1977 to 1980, this was Bart’s most glorious period, but also his most painful period. For a time his brilliance overshadowed his pain, his loneliness. The love and death of his life were long over, the imaginary rite of death, and he had contemplated death before the speeding truck knocked him to the ground. Many people have noticed that his attitude towards death is an “animalistic” renunciation, death does not think, and salvation has no meaning. When death comes, just let it go. Since then, he has no fear, sorrow, and will never be alone again.

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