Death and the author

A 'new' collection of personal writings by the philosopher and cultural theorist Roland Barthes combines the desolation of grief with moments of dazzling beauty.

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Mourning Diary
Roland Barthes
Translated from the French by Richard Howard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Despite widespread disaffection with the torpid and self-indulgent French-style cultural theory churned out in academia, Roland Barthes, the French theoretician par excellence, continues to prosper. Indeed his star has only ascended in the 30 years since his death. America's most influential literary critic, James Wood, frequently quotes Barthes in his popular essays and cites him as a major influence in his book How Fiction Works, although he disagrees with Barthes's vision of literature. The recently published Mourning Diary, the first "new" Barthes book to be made available in years, has already been excerpted in The New Yorker and received praise from the critic Michael Wood in the London Review of Books. When the book came out in France in 2009 it was a certified literary event, attended by controversy when Barthes's former editor, François Wahl, protested the publication of these private writings.

Barthes has remained relevant because of a contradiction at the heart of his remarkable body of work. Though he did as much as anyone to elevate theory, and though he often couches his ideas in esoteric language, his writing is nonetheless deeply personal. Whether he is considering the role of professional wrestling in popular culture, declaring modern Japan an "empire of signs", or atomising Honoré de Balzac's short story Sarrasine into lines, fragments and individual words, his writing always feels like a direct and essential extension of his own personality. He had a unique ability to combine icy precision and uncompromising rigour with an idiosyncratic, quietly emotive voice.

Barthes entered the world of cultural criticism - indeed, he helped to create the field - with Mythologies. In this collection of short articles, published in 1957, he considered mundane aspects of contemporary society (Einstein, for example, or red wine) as systems of signs, then explained their use within the culture at large. The impact of the book, as well as the fact that the short essays therein were first published in the magazine Les Lettres nouvelles, demonstrated from the beginning Bathes's rare ability to satisfy diverse audiences.

His most famous work is probably his 1967 essay The Death of the Author. A text that has been widely misunderstood, it merely declares what by the late 1960s was becoming a commonplace: a reader's reaction to a literary work is at least as important as the writer's intentions. Subsequent developments - such as Stanley Fish's reader-response theory or, more concretely, the proliferation of customer reviews online and hypertext-like branching novels - confirm that Barthes caught the zeitgeist. But the essay is important in Barthes's own mythology, establishing him as the reader whose interpretation stands at least as tall as the texts he reads.

Towards the end of his life, Barthes began a number of projects connected with his mother, with whom he lived uninterruptedly until her death in 1977. He immediately fell into a period of deep mourning, a blackness so abysmal that many of his close friends felt that this was the true cause of his death in 1980, and not the apparently non-life-threatening injuries he received after being hit by a laundry van.

A chronicle-in-fragments of the two years after his mother's death, Mourning Diary is a work of profound intellectual and emotional strength. It consists of 330 notecards that Barthes began writing on as a way to cope with his loss. Exact and enigmatic, the notes feel like a natural extension of the terse books that Barthes specialised in, and their suggestive declarations make Mourning Diary feel substantial despite its small size. Though these notes offer only fragments of thought, they give an impression of immensity, as if they were the extremities of a submerged mass.

What one witnesses while reading Mourning Diary is Barthes in the process of creating a personal language with which to understand an event that has left him shattered. After two months of mourning he writes on December 7, 1977: "This is a flat condition, utterly unadjectival - dizzying because meaningless (without any possible interpretation)… A new pain." These lines - at once so coolly analytic and wrenched with sadness - are representative of the approach that Barthes attempts here. He continually stresses the newness and inarticulability of his state, slowly constructing a complex framework around the very fact of his mourning's inexpressibility.

The unattainable object at the centre of that framework constitutes the second major theme in Mourning Diary. This is Barthes' inability to conceive of life after his mother's death. On November 19, he writes: "To see with horror as quite simply possible the moment when the memory of those words she spoke to me would no longer make me cry…" The sentence ends quite properly in ellipsis, because there is nothing in this journal to suggest that Barthes would ever reach a point at which it might be concluded. On the contrary, he seems resigned to the likelihood that his mourning will never end.

The Barthes in Mourning Diary is a man for whom the fundamental quality of mourning - something he searches for furiously but does not find - is the essential ingredient of identity. Emphasising that search, he repeatedly returns to the idea that the death of his mother is a profound break from the world around him and his former life. "I have the obscure feeling, now that she's no longer here, that I must gain recognition [as a writer] all over again." "No sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance." "Anything that keeps me from living in suffering is unbearable to me."

Throughout Mourning Diary Barthes appears willing - and even at times grateful - to accept this deeply static, inconsolable desolation as his lot. Occasionally he even takes a perverse pleasure in it. Amid the fatalism, there are just a few moments of counterpoint where he appears to want to move beyond mourning.

On June 9, 1978, he writes: "I notice that I am always asking for something, wanting something, always pulled ahead by childish Desire. One day, to sit in the same place, to close my eyes and ask for nothing… Nietzsche: not to pray, to bless.

"Is it not to this that mourning should lead?"

Apparently Barthes never found that place. These notes mark the beginning of his journey to his final, great book, Camera Lucida, which he makes clear is enmeshed in his mother's death. "It is necessary for me (I feel this strongly) to write this book around maman…In a sense, therefore, it is as if I had to make maman recognised. This is the theme of the 'monument'."

Mourning Diary makes a rich companion piece to Camera Lucida. Both treat the same subject: that essential quality of images that can bring about Proustian moments of time regained (Barthes quotes Proust repeatedly throughout Mourning Diary). Occasionally Barthes remarks in awe on watching a movie and catching a detail that transports him back to childhood. These moments of wonder and brief happiness point towards the purely personal concept of photography that Barthes would articulate at length in Camera Lucida.

Almost every page of Mourning Diary carries with it an overwhelming sense of sadness, so much so that the art of Barthes's language and the radiance of his thoughts frequently makes an odd disjuncture - should such pain carry with it such beauty? We are right to be wary of aestheticising suffering, but Mourning Diary does not diminish Barthes's pain with the beauty of his prose. That is its power, and that makes it a proper testament to a man who showed us so many new ways to talk about things we thought we understood.

Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.