France's irritable intellectual

Roland Barthes
March 31, 1995

To write a biography of Roland Barthes presents a lot of hazards, but Louis-Jean Calvet admirably traverses the texts surrounding the life of the writer with sympathy and detached scholarship. Barthes thought extensively of the processes of biography and his writing exudes an awareness of himself as subject. He coined the term "biographemes" to categorise fragments of his own life and these usefully punctuate this biography to reveal and unmask the contradictions of a complicated and often unhappy man. At the outset, Calvet declares an intentional vagueness about Barthes's homosexuality and largely refuses to relate sexuality to the writer's work. This is a weakness given the nature of Barthes's approach to such issues as pleasure and desire.

Hysteria permeated the life of Roland Barthes. From his childhood we are aware of a "great Oedipal frustration" enlivened by the circumstances of his father's early death followed by a lifelong attachment to his mother, Henriette. His life, career and scholarship were as affected by tuberculosis, which made years of isolation necessary, as by his intellectual friendships. Barthes's early life was marked by boredom, frustration, isolation and resentment. The illness meant he could not keep to the timetable of a brilliant academic but had to face the frustration of lacking appropriate qualifications while still gaining respect through his publications. But equally this enforced and often unwanted detachment may have provided him with some of the methods that mark his writings: the early scholarship on Jules Michelet was exhaustively catalogued on index cards and in his solitude Barthes would recklessly explore new permutations of ideas, fissures, themes and so forth.

In early critical life as towards the end, he flirted with writing a novel. In short, Barthes's relationship with writing developed idiosyncratically and he rapidly developed an approach contrary to traditional expectations and tastes. Calvet writes a clear account of Barthes's initiation into critical circles and provides useful comparisons with other intellectuals.

In addition to providing genealogies of influence, the biographer also follows his subject through the many cultural milieux to which he periodically had to, or chose to, exile himself. Barthes spent considerable periods away from Paris, for his health or for his career. He had postings in Romania, Biarritz, Alexandria and significantly after May 1968, a voluntary posting to Morocco. These trips were usually necessitated by the need for income but were later supplemented by cultural trips to the United States, Japan and China. Barthes's response to these trips is generally skilfully handled. In particular, one becomes aware of how Barthes attempted to balance his private pleasures, his interpretative acumen and his political/cultural position. The move away from Paris in 1968 marked an important realisation that Barthes's political stance, as articulated by his association with the Marxist journal Tel Quel, was difficult to sustain. The student revolts struck him as "hysterical" and the priority of speech and sloganeering went against his natural disposition to the written.

Barthes's move towards new approaches and formulations did not end the controversy his earlier thought provoked. We become aware of how acutely sensitive Barthes was to this criticism. In the meantime we are equally aware that the persona of sickly youth still existed even though fame and academic tenure were his. He maintained his status as a "moaning Minnie" as ill-health, pressures of work and institutional demands continually hectored him. He was irritated and unsettled. The death of his mother was a trauma, and although most important works were written late on, when he died in an accident at 64, there was speculation that he no longer had any particular will to continue. It is clear that in death, as in life, certain contradictions between his life, his loves and his writings will maintain more than just academic or prurient interest.

Piers Nicholls is course leader, contemporary arts, Nottingham Trent University.

Roland Barthes: A Biography

Author - Louis-Jean Calvet
ISBN - 07456 1017X
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 291pp

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