My darling, knowing my heart with its eleven year old’s thirst for encyclopedias and atlases, bought me what I really wanted this Christmas: the complete works of Roland Barthes. Sturdily made paperbacks, published by Seuil, divvying up the work chronologically.
So the plan is, read Barthes this year.
Beginning at the beginning, the first thing to notice is that Barthes has comparatively little juvenilia. There he is, in 1951, in his first major essay, Michelet, history and death (published in Esprit) and we are already off. Like a horse race, there’s no warm up steps, just an out of the gate sprint, one of course that will lead us through five volumes to Barthes death in 1980.
The essay is one of those amazing, monumental texts which even as you read seems to slip from your grasp. You advance across it continually losing your baggage, continually needing to stop and to note, inscribe on some piece of paper of your own a comment, a quote. According to his biographers, Barthes wrote this essay, and eventually the book on Michelet (1954), while a student, and then while in the sanatorium, recovering from a recurring case of tuberculosis. In the sanatorium, he would spread out his index cards – legend speaks of one thousand – over a table, or tables, index cards on which he’d written his text, displaying it like a fortunetelling spreading her cards, aligning and rearranging fates. This way of going about writing – in which the profound connections are achieved through contiguity – leaves its impress on all of Barthes’ writing. You can say of him what he said of Michelet’s history of France: “the order of events is not, properly speaking, either logical or chronological: it is geographic: each fact is a locality tied to the rest of historical space by the body of the historian-voyageur himself.”
Barthes great struggle – which was either with the demon or the objective god – was to find a way to renounce or transcend the prestigitator’s role, to return to a logic and a chronology that did not refer to Barthes. Before the death of the author was a thesis, it was a way out.