Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary

The writing is so fresh, so honest, so revealing, that at times the reader may feel that he should not be reading these notes…

On 25 February 1980, the distinguished French literary theorist and cultural critic Roland Barthes (b. 1915), walking home from a lunch party given by Francois Mitterand, soon to become President of the Fifth Republic, was struck by a laundry van outside the College de France, where he had taught for some time.  Although his injuries were minor and the doctors predicted a complete recovery, Barthes withered away, almost as if he had willed himself to death.  Perhaps he had.  His death on 25 March 1980 followed that of his eighty-four year old mother by less than three years.  They had lived together for more than sixty years.  Only those close to Barthes knew how deeply affected he had been by her passing.  Now, with the publication of Mourning Diary (published as Journal de Deuil last year in France), others will know, and share the dark privacy of his consuming grief.

The publication of this volume, and another, Carnets du Voyage en Chine (Notebooks of a Journey to China) shocked the Parisian literary crowd not just for the intimate moments and tastes disclosed (e.g., Barthes’ fondness for oral sex with men), not just because both texts are really fragments, certainly unfinished, but because neither was ever intended for publication.  Perhaps those who tend the flame of Barthes’ memory feared that his magisterium would be undermined or subverted if the public were to know too much about the great man (in the Chinese notebook he laments not having seen a single Chinese penis).  Has Barthes been betrayed by the revelations in both texts?  I think not.

The night after his mother’s death, 26 October 1977, Barthes began the habit of jotting down brief reflections or concern in pencil or ink, on sheets of typing paper, quartered like index cards.  Without fear, hesitation, restriction, or apprehension about future publication, Barthes recorded his most intimate and searching responses to death and life, ultimately providing an index of sorts to his writing.  He reflected on his own grief as well as the new solitude he experienced, while meditating on the larger mysteries of being and time, recording how he viewed his own mental state with disarming frankness (“Not even the desire to commit suicide,” he notes in one entry).

Struck by the abstract nature of absence; yet it’s so painful, lacerating. Which allows me to understand abstraction somewhat better: it is absence and pain, the pain of absence—perhaps therefore love?
Images courtesy Michel Salzedo

In his daily jottings, Barthes attempts – ultimately, without success – to come to terms with this catastrophic loss which, of course, prefigures his own death.  Without the consolation of traditional religious faith – but with an occasional flickering of speculation about souls and the afterlife – Barthes carries on in Existentialist fashion, choosing to continue living in the flat they had shared for so many years, intermittently wracked by nightmare and crying jags, tortured by the question, “from now on, what meaning can my life have?”  In the process of the daily round – for Barthes this meant not only the little chores of ordinary life but also preparation for his extraordinary lectures at the College de France and writing three of his most important works – Camera Lucida, A Lover’s Discourse, and Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes – all the while charting the geography of solitude and cataloging excursions into the realm of paradoxical contentment for a grief-stricken man desperately craving anonymity.

The Barthes of Mourning Diary is an epic heroic figure, confronting and accepting his own mortality.  He emerges as a deeply private and sensitive man devoted to his mother.  Suffering, pain, and a certain fragility imprint the text. The writing is so fresh, so honest, so revealing, that at times the reader may feel that he should not be reading these notes – it is almost a violation of a cherished intimacy and, like the greatest of loves, something not meant to be known to any but the participants themselves.

Embarrassed and almost guilty because sometimes I feel that my mourning is merely a susceptibility to emotion.
But all my life haven’t I been just that: moved?
Images courtesy Michel Salzedo

Farrar, Straus has produced an exceedingly handsome text to complement Richard Howard’s nuanced and masterful translation of Barthes’ notes.  Nathalie Leger established and annotated the text, no easy task to judge from the handwriting.  Eight pages of black and white photographs of Barthes, sometimes with his mother, personalize the experience of reading Mourning Diary; of greater importance are the careful reproductions of a number of the “cards” on which Barthes recorded these meditations:  the handwriting, sometimes an elegant cursive, sometimes a hasty scrawl desperately in need of a palaeographer, breaks the barrier between author and reader, generating a final irony:  Mourning Diary may be the strongest evidence to refute Barthes’ most influential notion about “the death of the author.”  The cards inscribed, translated, and stacked in the textual deck of this book are a royal flush that may well trump Barthes’ most cherished axiom.

In one of the first things he set down in Mourning Diary Barthes asked, “Who knows?  Maybe something valuable in these notes?”  Nothing more valuable than the clef to the roman that was this man’s life and work? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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