To be fascinated = to have nothing to say
We thought we knew everything about Roland Barthes – the way he managed to glide effortlessly across the entire French intellectual landscape, in turn embracing semiotics and dismissing it, dissolving the author in the text and then bringing out the secret of its pleasure, all the while keeping his distance and the singularity of his style. Closely associated with the avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel, but unabashedly classical in his tastes, Barthes never wavered from his obsession with writing, even after philosophy in France superseded literature and, in turn, the new media culture dismissed them both by imposing its own language and reality. Right to the very end Barthes remained the quintessential French homme de lettres and literary oracle. As he himself liked to say, he was the ‘rear guard’ of the avant-garde, and yet he always remained one step ahead of himself. As for the self-styled avant-garde, it died on its own, just a few years before Barthes’ accidental death in 1980 at the age of 64. (He was run over by a van in front of the Collège de France in Paris.)
Barthes was spared ‘familialism’ from the very start. His father, a merchant navy captain, was killed at sea during World War I, when Barthes was still an infant. Later on, after the publication of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in 1972, he declared (somewhat flippantly) that he had ‘no father to kill, no family to hate, no milieu to reject: great Oedipal frustration!’ His mother occupied all the parental space, and he remained extremely devoted to her all his life. She was the only woman he ever loved. Her death in the autumn of 1978, a year after Barthes was elected to the prestigious Collège de France, tipped the balance. He wrote that it ‘profoundly and obscurely altered my desire for the world’. (A compilation of the notes Barthes made in response to his mother’s death were recently published as Mourning Diary, 2010.) Sensuality had always been paramount in his life and it didn’t help that by the time his mother died the garçons no longer found him desirable. For months afterwards he felt deeply disengaged, a kind of ‘listlessness which bears upon everything I do’. He envisaged making a radical break with his past. He would renounce everything – his courses and academic duties, Collège included – and settle into a life of writing. Dante had done it ‘nel mezzo del cammin’ (in the middle of life’s journey). Marcel Proust hesitated for a few years after his mother’s death, remaining ‘without will or clarity’, drawn between two contrary directions: essay or novel. Barthes was divided as well, between affect and intellect. Would he be, like them, capable of going over to the other side?
The Preparation of the Novel, Barthes’ last book, provides a direct account of what he experienced during that period. It gathers posthumously the lecture courses he gave at the Collège between December 1978 and February 1980, and his protracted attempt to turn his mourning into a new departure. Something happened that forced his decision. On 15 April 1978, while resting in a room in Casablanca at the end of a sluggish afternoon, he had a sudden illumination. He would remain at the Collège and write a novel. He would use his teaching to unlearn what he knew, to get rid of any critical language. Like Proust, he would look for a ‘third form’ to ‘treasure his suffering’, and transcend it. He would write about his desire to write, but in the language of writing. It was a pure moment of joy, the kind of bedazzlement that Proust’s narrator experiences at the end of Time Regained (1927). It was, Barthes wrote, the ‘beginning of an idea’, something like a literary conversion. It made everything possible. He was to invoke that date repeatedly in the outline of a novel, just a few pages long, that he worked on the following year, entitled La Vita Nova (The New Life), after Dante. But his intellect wasn’t entirely taken in. ‘All the same,’ he wrote in Preparation, ‘I don’t want to make too much of that April 15! And so will repeat certain elements of that “decision” in a more detached, theoretical, critical manner.’ Barthes was beginning to fictionalize his own biography.