I suffer from the fear of what has happened


‘To write,’ Barthes suggested in Criticism and Truth (1966), ‘is to engage in a difficult relationship with our own language.’ This is not exactly Cole Porter’s tone, but Barthes liked difficulty, talked about the work and the pleasure of writing in the same breath. Of course, our relationships with language change over time, and it has often seemed as if there were two Roland Barthes, early and late, with not much in between. One was theoretical, analytic, systematic and everyone’s favourite structuralist. The other was impressionistic, allusive and anecdotal, a writer rather than a thinker. The first was the author of Elements of Semiology (1965), The Fashion System (1967) and many essays; the second the author of all the later, more discursive, more autobiographical works, like A Lover’s Discourse (1977) and Camera Lucida (1980). Fans of the first, theoretical Barthes tend not to be too keen on the later, looser model; and they often think the decline set in soon after S/Z (1970), and was especially noticeable in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975). This last work was a kind of critical and publishing joke. Barthes’s second book (after Writing Degree Zero, 1953) was a study of the historian Michelet in a series called Ecrivains de toujours, timeless writers. Because the books contained large selections from the authors’ own texts, they were called Michelet (for example) par lui-même, or in his own words. Barthes was the first living writer to appear in the series (the others weren’t so timeless after all), and his book was the first one to be literally by himself – he wrote it, composed a sort of autobiography in photographs and epigrams, rather than making a selection from his earlier published writing. He even reviewed the book in the Quinzaine littéraire.

more from Michael Wood at the LRB here.