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Roland Barthes - The Philosopher as Outsider

Mid- December had arrived in South Kensington, and winter was descending upon buildings and streets, as if it could swallow up everything in its chilled maw. We were gathered in the Salons of the French Institute for a lecture and discussion on Roland Barthes, that confrontational French thinker who dared to undermine all our seemingly comfortable embedded assumptions.

     Someone on an adjacent chair spoke to me in French at the start, but I could not understand what she was saying, such was the unsettling speed of her words.

     And Barthes the philosopher can at times come across as inaccessible, incomprehensible. The moderator for this Reading Group was Jennifer Rushworth, from St John’s College, Oxford. She had provided us with some essays by Barthes, to be debated on. Not all of us had actually read these predictably controversial items. These had been e- mailed to me, in French and English. I had borrowed from the Mediatheque a book of the writings of Barthes between 1974 and 1980, which included the philosophical autobiography, ‘Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes’. This personal work seemed of much charm to me, with photographs being interwoven into the text, but there was perhaps a narcissistic tinge to it.

     One of the texts provided by the moderator was from ‘Mythologies’, and was entitled ‘Vin et Lait’. This appeared a clever piece, slyly highlighting the role of wine as essential to ‘being French’, to ‘French identity’. Barthes refers often to, as it were, his non- identity, to his outside status as a protestant and homosexual in France. Wine is France, and ‘to know how to drink is a national technique that serves as qualification as a Frenchman, to prove his power of performance, his self- control and his sociability. Wine establishes thus a collective morality.’ It is ‘collective morality’ to which Barthes does not belong, maybe does not wish to belong. Barthes posits water, and above all milk, as the opposite of wine- milk strangely remains an exotic substance- it is wine that is conventional, national. Here is the myth of wine deconstructed by Barthes, and, in the final paragraph- which is the killer coda- he emphasizes the mass production character of industrial viniculture and the wine business in Algeria, the French colony, as essentially humiliating and exploiting the native Muslims- for whom alcohol would be taboo. Barthes questions wine as a national myth. He associates wine with French capitalism and French imperialism. The allegedly happy mythology of wine as something at the heart of France concealed, Barthes suggested, something cruel, something dark. As a diversion, two members of the audience mentioned how Algeria was the producer of the ‘gros rouge’- presumably a sort of ‘vin ordinaire’ to be consumed indiscriminately at the table.

     Barthes notes beefsteak and ‘frites’ as belonging to Frenchness. Steak, the same as wine, is associated with blood, and maybe not in the sense of something life- giving, but, rather, in terms of a vampiric need to destroy. Barthes is suggesting that wine, beefsteak, ‘frites’, can appear ‘nostalgic and patriotic’, but, in their own way, as part of a collective ethnicity, of the majority and the norm- are somewhat dangerous.

 Barthes felt himself isolated, and perhaps saw this separation from society as being his entry- point into philosophy. In ‘Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes’, above all, he provides us with the interlocking of the philosophical and the personal. He needs not only the abstract, the mathematical, but also the subjective, even emotional, perspective when approaching an issue. Perhaps he is implying that the philosopher needs to be an outsider- to be viewing institutions and people from some other alternative dimension. In ‘Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes’, the author provides an anatomy of the philosopher- from childhood to late middle age. In the section, ‘Le Naturel’, Barthes says of himself: ‘he has always belonged to some minority, to some margin- of society, of language, of desire, of career, and even previously of religion (he was not indifferent to being a protestant in a class of little catholics)… who does not feel how much it is natural, in France, to be Catholic, married and well- qualified?’ Barthes is ultimately ‘contre ce ‘naturel’’- against this sense or consensus of the ‘natural’. He describes, if not very joyfully, the advantages of being ‘an intermittent outsider’. In my view, Barthes thus summarizes his own personality and his own philosophy.

     In another section, ‘Un Souvenir d’ enfance’, he recalls how he and other children used to play in building sites. There were holes across the hard ground; in one of these, he was trapped, while the other kids got out, shrieking from above at him: ‘Lost! Alone!’ and so on. His mother had to drag him out, and away from the kids teasing him. This anecdote not only indicates his isolation as a young boy, but his simultaneous psychological dependence on his mother. This dependence was to continue into his adulthood; he perished in a very bizarre accident shortly after she died; he could not contemplate life without her.

     In ‘L’arrogance’, one more piece in ‘Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes’, the philosopher has contempt even for the concept of victory. This is the cry of someone feeling dragged down by whatever ‘received opinion’ may be. There is one terribly revealing sentence:

     ‘The Doxa (word that is going to crop up often) is public opinion, the majority spirit, the petit bourgeois consensus, the voice of the natural, the violence of prejudice.’

     It is against this ‘Doxa’ that Barthes rails.

     The beginning of ‘Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes’ is crammed with pictures, from his family album, showing himself and his parents and grand parents. But his use of personal photographs is, as might be expected, far from usual. These images, while he presents them with that somewhat sly charm of his, have to be analyzed in his at times frigid text. What can one make of this comment by him on a photo of his grand-mother:

     ‘…she had a keen feeling for the social narrative that she conducted in a careful convent French in which imperfect subjunctives persisted’.

      There is a coldness that may be one of the philosopher’s tools, but that can be unpleasant too.

 The photographs of himself as child or man are also unsettling. He shows together three pictures, where the ‘ennui’ on his face verges on distress, one from childhood, the other two from adulthood. The childhood picture is particularly sad, as Roland Barthes reveals himself in terrible isolation amidst waste ground. He is misery personified. For me, this grim image sums up Roland Barthes as the philosopher in the role of the outsider. There were some philosophy students present, who used terms that I- as a mere amateur myself in their subject- could not understand.

     Photography seems very important to Barthes. Audience members pointed out his interest in art and music. Cinema too appears to have attracted him. Someone argued that he found Barthes in English translation very difficult. I countered that English translations of French philosophy- as with French poetry- are often not very good. I gave as an example the rendering into English of Foucault’s ‘Histoire de la Folie’- the translation, I feel, is gobblygook. Philosophy and poetry are just not easy to transfer from one tongue into another. The moderator mischievously suggested that Foucault, such a complex and obscure figure, might seem an appropriate subject for another Reading Group session.

     We discussed Barthes and Proust, and the way Barthes emphasized both the individual talent of the author, and the need for a collective cultural framework on which creative people depend. The moderator observed that Barthes, perhaps simply through being so bafflingly prolific, could contradict himself, and she struggled to find an English equivalent for this thinker who was so French, and yet not French at all.     

     Barthes seems to have been attracted to Marxist analysis, for everything from food to literature; Marxism was of course the fashion of the day in the France of the 1960’s and 1970’s. But he was above all the Gallic outsider, daring to poke fun at convention. Madame Line- Playfair inferred he was too confrontational. In the end, the intellectual requires clash rather than conciliation. There has to be a sense of minds fighting.

     And so, the Reading Group ended. We chatted on, as we munched cheese and shortcake, then departed into South Kensington during the December cold. I wondered if all academics, from Barthes downwards, have an ambience of chilled haughtiness about them. The mechanical rumbling and chrome atmosphere of South Kensington tube station were ahead, into which I carried in my briefcase a volume of Barthes’ essays.

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