‘To write,’ Barthes suggested in Criticism and Truth (1966), ‘is to engage in a difficult relationship with our own language.’
Here, a few extracts from Michael Wood’s review of Roland Barthes’ Carnets du voyage en Chine and Journal de deuil which appears in the London Review of Books. If you have got to thinking you ‘did’ Barthes years ago, this short read may reignite your enthusiasm. Well, it did mine. Consider for instance (and everything below is Wood’s) the impossible focus upon the past historic tense (the preterite)….
He is not talking about a writer or a text or a style or an image or a story, but about … a tense. This is the preterite, the past historic, which in French exists only in written texts. It is, Barthes says,
the ideal instrument for every construction of a world; it is the unreal tense of cosmogonies, myths, history and novels. It presupposes a world which is constructed, elaborated, self-sufficient, reduced to significant lines, and not one which has been sent sprawling before us, for us to take or leave (jeté, étalé, offert). Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter. The world is not unexplained since it is told like a story; each one of its accidents is merely a circumstance, and the preterite is precisely this operative sign whereby the narrator reduces the exploded reality to a slim and pure verb without density, without volume, without spread.
Barthes loves etymologies because they make words look like palimpsests. It seems, he says, as if he is having ‘ideas at the level of language itself – which is quite simply: writing’. He likes double meanings for a similar reason: ‘the dream is not to understand everything (anything), it is to understand something else.’ Not multiple meanings, just the one that’s not there. ‘In this I am more classical than the theory of the text which I defend.’ ‘He is not very good at going deeper,’ he says of himself. ‘Il ne sait pas bien approfondir.’
A word, a figure of speech, a metaphor, a form of some kind gets hold of him for years, he repeats it, he uses it everywhere, but he doesn’t really try to reflect any further on what he means by these words or these figures (and if he did, he would find new metaphors by way of explanation); you can’t go deeper into a refrain.
Emboldened by these lines, we could rephrase his own definition: to write is to have ideas in and through language, to look for what is missing from the words you have, and to learn to live with old tunes rather than dig into them.
But the Journal is also a haunting account of a man watching himself grieve – watching what doesn’t ‘present itself as watchable’. It’s not that he thinks the vigil is going to do him any emotional good, but he has to keep looking so that he can write, and writing, he believes, is a kind of haven: ‘harbour, salvation, project, in short love, joy’. When he begins to think of what will become Camera Lucida he talks of ‘integrating my grief into an act of writing’. ‘I transform “work” in the psychoanalytic sense (work of mourning, dreamwork) into the real work – of writing.’ And yet what is most striking in the end about this (hypothesis of a) book is its written tracking of states of mind that writing itself can’t enter, only register. ‘The astonishing thing in these notes is a devastated person who is prey to presence of mind.’ ‘One doesn’t forget, but something atonal installs itself in you.’ ‘Grief … is a sort of deposit, of rust, of mud … a bitterness of the heart.’ ‘I say to myself … how barbaric it is not to believe in souls – in the immortality of souls. What a stupid form of truth materialism is.’ Not many writers, even in their most finished works, are going to be as lucid as this. Terminal mortality is barbaric and stupid … and true.