“They say . . . that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.”
The Private Barthes
Posthumous publication of the theorist’s journals draws disapproval
By Benjamin Ivry
Nearly three decades after he was hit and fatally injured by a laundry van in a Paris street, the French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes still enjoys rare prestige in his native land as well as in the English-speaking world. Generally considered the most readable of his generation of theoreticians, which also includes Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, Barthes has further benefited from being translated into English by the extremely able Richard Howard. Barthes titles that were Englished by Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as prolific translator, include Système de la mode (The Fashion System), L’Empire des signes (Empire of Signs), and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). To this rich legacy may be added two titles that appeared in France last month, amid some controversy: Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) and Carnets du voyage en Chine (China Travel Notebook).
Journal de deuil, out from Barthes’s longtime publisher Éditions du Seuil, consists of private notes he made after the death of his mother, Henriette, in 1977, at age 84. While neither text radically alters our understanding of Barthes, the Journal de deuil does add documentation about the writer’s deep attachment to his mother, from whose death, he told friends, he was never able to recover. Carnets du voyage en Chine, made also of impromptu jottings rather than the carefully worked out prose that readers of Barthes are accustomed to, is another unusually intimate glimpse into the writer’s daily life, even when bored and out of sorts.
Comparisons are inevitable between the Journal de deuil and La Chambre claire, Barthes’s 1980 book on photography, written as he mourned his mother and focusing on a childhood photo of the beloved Henriette. For almost two years, Barthes jotted down observations about his emotional distress, which, as he explains in the diary, he refuses to call bereavement because "that’s too psychoanalytical. I am not bereaved. I am in pain." As weeks go by, Barthes’s feelings remain as intense as ever, as these brief excerpts prove:
Sad afternoon. Quick shopping. At the pastry shop (pointlessness) I buy an almond cake. Serving a customer, the little female employee says, "Voilà." That’s the word which I would say when I brought Mom something when I looked after her. Once, near the end, she half-unconsciously echoed, "Voilà" (I’m here, an expression which we used mutually during a whole lifetime). This employee’s remark brought tears to my eyes. I wept for a long time (after returning to the silent apartment).
(Overturning of status) For months, I have been her mother. It’s as if I had lost my daughter (any greater suffering than that? I had never conceived it).
They say (so Mrs. Panzera informs me) that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.
(Saw the Hitchcock film Under Capricorn) Ingrid Bergman (it was made around 1946). I don’t know why, and don’t know how to express it, but this actress, the body of this actress, moved me, has just touched something in me which reminds me of Mam. Her carnation, her lovely, utterly natural hands, an impression of freshness, a non-Narcissistic femininity.
Those intimate recollections, as well as others, were not only published last month but also read onstage during a special event at Paris’s Théâtre National de l’Odéon by that theater’s director, the actor Olivier Py. This exposure of personal grief angered Barthes’s longtime friend and former editor at Seuil, the philosopher François Wahl, who told Le Monde: "The publication of Journal de deuil would have positively revolted [Barthes] insofar as it violates his privacy." Wahl is no more enthused by the appearance of Carnets du voyage en Chine (published by Éditions Christian Bourgois), which he describes as "the epitome of an unwritten text, which in [Barthes’s] eyes was a veritable taboo. He possessed absolute respect for writing and its innate logic.". . .
—excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, March 20, 2009
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