Signs and Mythologies

I was asked to write and read an essay on Roland Barthes as part of a series entitled ‘Signs and Mythologies – The Significance of Roland Barthes’ for BBC Radio 3‘s The Essay programme. It first aired on 26 November 2015 at 10:45 pm and was repeated on 11 May 2017 at 10:45 pm. The other essays were written by Andrew Hussey, Nick James, Penny Sparke, and Michael Wood.

Here is the presentation from the BBC Radio 3 website:

An encounter as a teenager with Roland Barthes and an orange moped inspired the magazine editor Andrew Gallix, who now teaches at the Sorbonne, with a fascination for the ideas of the great French theorist. In this week of essays celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, Andrew reflects on what Barthes meant by ‘The Death of the Author’.

Across the week five authors write about Barthes’ significance to them and discuss the influence the maverick cultural philosopher has had upon their own work. Over the week they create a picture of a literary figure whose writing was fun, accessible and is still deeply influential on the way we look at the world. Barthes’s literary output was not only prolific, but also eclectic. During the course of his life his thinking influenced the development of theories of structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design, anthropology and post structuralism. A powerful blast of fresh air in post war cultural thought, his carefully argued, accessible and sometimes mischievous examinations of philosophical, cultural and social ideas continue to influence contemporary writers and thinkers.

An eclectic group of essayists celebrate the range of influence his writing has had. Andrew Hussey examines Barthes’ impact in Europe in the 1960s. Other essayists over the week include design historian Penny Sparke, film journalist Nick James, the editor of 3 A.M. Magazine and teacher at the Sorbonne in Paris, Andrew Gallix, and cultural historian Michael Wood.

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Here is the text. The passages that were cut are in square brackets:

I never met Roland Barthes, but I did spot him once, walking down the street[, at what I recall to be a brisk pace]. It was in the Latin Quarter, where he lived most of his life and seldom strayed from. I must have been fourteen at the time, fifteen at a push. The day before this sighting, I had chanced upon a Barthes profile in a weekly news magazine. Despite skimming it in a most cursory fashion, I gathered that he was a prominent intellectual. It was the accompanying picture — in colour, if memory serves — that allowed me to recognise him. The thing that struck me — and almost struck him — was that orange moped he narrowly avoided when crossing the road. In hindsight, it is difficult not to view this near escape as a dress rehearsal for his iconic (but also ironic, in light of his deconstruction of detergent commercials) encounter with a laundry van — an accident that would eventually lead to his demise in 1980. The feeling that I had conjured him up simply by reading about him was nonsense, of course, but also quite fitting given that Barthes — unbeknown to me — had extolled the creative powers of the reader, whose symbolic birth was the flip side of the death of the author.

‘The Death of the Author’ is not only Barthes’ most famous essay (at least in the Anglophone world) but also the most misunderstood. As though enacting one of its central themes — literature as palimpsest and collage — it first appeared in an American journal: the 1967 original was thus, in effect, already a copy; an English translation of a French text that would remain unpublished until the following year. As it was only anthologised a decade later, the essay was photocopied and distributed samizdat-fashion on campuses the world over, which no doubt enhanced its subversive appeal. For many, on either side of the barricades, it symbolised the emergence of what came to be known as Theory. Malcolm Bradbury’s satire of post-structuralism, Mensonge, is an extended joke on the death-of-the-author trope. The eponymous character — whose name means ‘lie’ in French — is a shadowy intellectual, a former student and collaborator of Barthes, who takes elusiveness to the point of illusiveness, so that the reader, and indeed the narrator, are never even quite sure whether he is meant to exist or not. Much comic capital is derived from the misconception — deliberate, I presume — that Barthes believed books wrote themselves, or that he was denying the very existence of writers, when in fact what he was challenging was the notion of authorship. Take a love letter someone sent you years ago, when people still sent letters and loved you. [An epistle you had mislaid perhaps.] You read it again. The content remains the same, although the person who penned it now hates you with a passion or, worse still, has forgotten about your very existence. The author is dead — detached from his or her work, which endures independently. Let me reassure you: Barthes’ essay, however brief, is far more subtle and interesting than that.

Barthes’ premiss is a sentence lifted from a novella by Balzac[, which cannot be attributed to anyone with any degree of certainty]. He argues that as soon as writing becomes ‘intransitive’ — as soon as language is no longer an instrument, but the very texture of a text — ‘the voice loses its origin’. [In literature, as Mallarmé, Heidegger, and Blanchot had already claimed, it is essentially language that speaks.] The ‘scriptor’ — whose existence coincides with the composition of a text — replaces the ‘Author-God,’ whose absence implies that a work can no longer be assigned a single, ultimate[, ‘theological’] meaning. Barthes also undermines the authority of the critic, whose traditional remit was precisely to decipher the Author-God’s message; to explain a work of fiction through the life (frequently the private life) of its progenitor. Every text, he concludes, is always ‘written here and now’ — by the reader.

Roland Barthes took reading out of the library and into the world, which, he believed, was structured like discourse. In Mythologies, his 1957 bestseller, he exposed the ideological underpinning of what usually goes without saying in everyday life, from the world of wrestling to the art of striptease [through steak and chips], thus demonstrating that the world is always already written. Language — as he put it, somewhat provocatively, [during his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977] — is ‘fascist’: it [speaks us,] compels us to think and talk along certain lines. In one of his numerous television appearances, he ventures that death is the only true event — in that it escapes language — while all the rest is words, words, words.

If reading was a means of engaging with the world, it could also be a personal, even intimate, activity. For Barthes [reading literature involves ‘rewriting the text of the work within the text of our lives’.] Textual pleasure climaxes when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our daily lives’ — when it reads us. Life and text even become synonymous in what he called ‘life writing’: writing as a way of life, whereby life becomes the text of the work [— a text to be produced, not deciphered]. Barthes, who, for better or worse, popularised the use of the word ‘text’ instead of essay, novel or book, went back to the etymology of the word, which, in Latin, refers to a textile. [This fabric, he argued, is traditionally regarded as a ‘ready-made veil’ concealing meaning (which can only be unveiled through interpretation).] He suggests we consider text as a piece of material that is constantly in the process of being woven, prompting him to compare Proust’s work to that of a seamstress. As early as ‘The Death of the Author,’ he had pinpointed the ‘radical reversal’ operated by Proust. Barthes said of Proust, ‘instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model’. In his last series of lectures, entitled The Preparation of the Novel, he reaffirmed his assessment of Proust: ‘the positioning of the life as work,’ he declared, ‘is now slowly emerging as a veritable shift in values’. In Search of Lost Time, he went on, is ‘entirely woven out of him, out of his places, his friends, his family; that’s literally all there is in his novel’ — and yet it is not an autobiography.

Barthes had little time for the sanctity of books. What interested him was the interaction between life and writing. He claimed, for instance, that he derived more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ that his distracted reading imposed upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself: ‘I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again’. He established a famous distinction between the Book (capital B) and the Album (capital A). The former is a total artwork[: the Absolute in codex form]. The latter — aphorisms, scrapbooks, journals, collages, and so on — remains resolutely fragmentary in nature. According to Barthes, ‘the future of the Book is the Album, just as the ruin is the future of the monument’: ‘What lives in us of the Book’ — a quotation, for instance — ‘is the Album’. Similarly, what lives in us of the biography is, what he called, the biographeme, akin to a textual snapshot: ‘Photography,’ he writes in Camera Lucida, ‘has the same relation to History that the biographeme has to biography’. If someone were to write his life, he once remarked, anticipating his own memoir, he hoped it would be limited to a few ‘biographemes’ — ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ [— which, ‘like Epicurean atoms,’ would perhaps touch ‘some future body, destined to the same dispersion’]. Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone since the past never stands still and identity is open to constant recomposition. His oeuvre is punctuated with [prefigurations or] echoes of the biographeme, which, I think, attests to the centrality of this concept. One finds ‘the Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku’ — presented as near synonyms — or the punctum, the accidental detail in a photograph (as opposed to its ostensible subject), which moves the observer to the extent that his or her involvement becomes deeply personal.

Surprising though it may seem, Roland Barthes had nothing against biography per se, and even toyed with the idea of composing one himself. Susan Sontag observed that he started his career by writing about André Gide’s journal and ended up reflecting upon his own. Barthes was always fascinated by the moment when authors like Stendhal or Proust switched from diary to novel, and seemed to be about to follow suit. His work took a decidedly autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. This was followed by a memoir in fragments (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes) and what he described as an ‘almost novel,’ a novel ‘without proper names’ (A Lover’s Discourse). The subject (himself, his life) is real, but the narrative voice belongs[, of necessity,] to the realm of fiction. This is why it is prefaced with the following caveat, which, significantly, appears in the author’s own elegant script: ‘It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel’. Readers often suspect novels of being thinly disguised biographies; Barthes sensed, contrarily, that biographies were novels that dare not speak their name. The appeal of authors’ diaries is that they are repositories of what he described as the ‘fantasy’ of the writer figure, that is to say ‘the writer minus his work’. In truth, though, a writer cannot dissociate him or herself from the act of writing, just as it is impossible to discuss language in nonlinguistic terms. Barthes, I suspect, felt that he somehow produced himself through his work.

In the wake of the death of his mother, with whom he lived most of his life, the French theorist famously declared: ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science’. During a lecture delivered a mere two months before his death, he even disavowed ‘The Death of the Author,’ dismissing it as modish structuralist excess. He goes on to confess that he has ‘sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works’. Barthes had seemingly forgotten to reread his own essay, just like his numerous detractors who never bothered to read it in the first place. Let it be said once and for all, then: the death of the author is that of the ‘Author-God’. Barthes never denies the very existence of the writer, which would be patently absurd. [When he states that, from a linguistic standpoint, ‘the author is never more than a man who writes,’ he recognises that he or she is never anything less either.] When he speaks of literature being an experience of identity loss ‘beginning with the very identity of the body that writes,’ he acknowledges that a body is doing the writing. [It is the presence of this body that he would increasingly seek out in his work.] The author [‘who leaves his [or her] text and comes into our life,’ as Barthes put it,] is primarily a physical presence devoid of psychological [or chronological] unity (a body, not a person). The text dispossesses the writer of his or her ‘narrative continuity’: ‘it takes my body elsewhere,’ he says. [The subject unmakes him or herself in the making of the text, ‘like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web’. However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, in disseminated form, ‘like the ashes we strew into the wind after death’. These ashes are ‘biographemes’].

Roland Barthes never considered himself as a visual artist, but he derived a great deal of pleasure — ‘a kind of innocence,’ he said — from the sheer physicality of drawing or painting. His most interesting artworks are multicoloured squiggles that resemble a preliterate child’s impression of writing[: writing as ludic abstraction]. What he found most attractive about Japanese calligraphy was that it allowed writing to take flight into painting. Barthes devoted several essays to the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists like Cy Twombly. He even produced some elegant doodles of his own, which we would now describe as asemic writing — a purely gestural form of writing with no semantic content whatsoever. The care with which he fashioned the file boxes for his famous index cards indicates that he also considered writing as a handicraft, as do the corrected proofs of his manuscripts, with their lovingly redacted lines in blue felt-tip that look like erasure poetry. His beautiful handwriting is as distinctive as the legendary grain of his voice. Barthes, it is often said, wrote from the body. He sought to inscribe ‘the hand as it writes’ — his very desire for writing, rather than his psychological subjectivity — into the body of his texts. Given the fascist nature of language, the utopian mission of literature is ‘to unexpress the expressible,’ to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion by relinquishing meaning altogether: ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible’. Roland Barthes, the arch-interpreter dreamed, paradoxically, of a world ‘exempt from meaning’ — an unwritten world, that simply is.

Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

My interview with Simon Critchley appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 3 December 2014:

Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

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3:AM: Do you agree that much of your back catalogue can now be read as a preemptive commentary on Memory Theatre, as though the latter had been written in the stars all along (which would be in keeping with the book’s uncanny astrological theme)?

SC: Sure. Why not? Look, what I really learned from Paul De Man years and years ago was that writers are structurally self-deceived about what they do, what they write and the intentions that might or might not lie behind their writing. Namely, to write is to be blind to one’s insight, if such insight exists. I understand this structurally: namely, that writing is an adventure in self-deception. I simply do not know what I am doing and you — as a reader, and a very good reader, moreover — can tell me what I am doing much more accurately than I can. Therefore, I should be interviewing you. In fact, let’s consider that we have reversed roles.

3:AM: The late Michel Haar, who haunts the book, is said to have been fascinated by the “poetic dimension” of Nietzsche’s style, which he saw as “that which might escape philosophy” — a fascination you also share. In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing (1997), you argued that “Writing outside philosophy means ceasing to be fascinated with the circular figure of the Book, the en-cyclo-paedia of philosophical science, itself dominated by the figures of unity and totality, which would attempt to master death and complete meaning by letting nothing fall outside of its closure”. Did you need to exorcise your fascination with this totalising tradition — by dramatising its failure — in order to write “outside philosophy”?

SC: Wow, thanks for reminding me of that passage from Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, which was written in 1992 or 93, as I recall, right towards the beginning of what became that odd book. I have two contradictory reactions to your question: on the one hand, many of the authors I have been obsessed with over the years have endeavoured to take a step outside philosophy, by which is usually meant the circle and circuit of Hegel’s system or Heidegger’s understanding of history as the history of being. I respect and love that gesture, that can be found in Bataille, Levinas, Blanchot and others. But, on the other hand, what I learned from Derrida very early on — my master’s thesis was on the question of whether we could overcome metaphysics — is that the step outside philosophy always falls back within the orbit of that which it tries to exceed. Not to philosophize is still to philosophize. Similarly, any text or philosophy that simply asserts the value of metaphysics is internally dislocated against itself, undermining its own founding gesture. This leaves us writing on the margin between the inside and the ouside of philosophy, which is where I’d like to place Memory Theatre. Also note that although Michel Haar existed and was real, as it were, he didn’t say much or anything that I say that he said. He is a kind of vehicle that I try and drive and steer.

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3:AM: At one time, you entertained the idea of writing a book entitled “Paraphilosophy”, devoted to philosophically-impossible objects. A memory theatre strikes me as an impossible object of a different kind: one that can be conceived of, yet never conceived. Is your work a critique of what you call elsewhere the “aestheticization of existence” — the avant-garde project of turning life into art?

SC: Another way of answering your previous question would be to say that I am committed to a form of paraphilosophy, organized around what I call ‘impossible objects’ (a version of the scraps of that abandomed project will be published next year, I think). On the question of the aestheticization of existence, I sometimes really don’t know where I stand. On the one hand, we have known since Benjamin, that fascism aestheticizes politics, but on the other hand, much of what I do is committed to the idea of the aesthetic particularly as art practice as it was embodied in various avant-garde groups. Does that make me a fascist? Lord, I hope not. I think at that point we need to make a distinction between aestheticization in the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk and totality, the architecture of fascism, and that writing that unpicks, unravels and mocks that tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the name of another practice of art, what Blanchot called the infinite conversation. It is in the spirit of the latter than I have tried to work.

3:AM: Memory Theatre includes a series of photographs — by British artist Liam Gillick — of a skyscraper in construction. Their appearance in reverse order (which reminded me of Robert Smithson’s notion of “ruins in reverse”) mirrors the deconstruction of the narrator’s attempt to build a real-life memory theatre. I wonder, however, if these pictures do not also refer to his surrogate grand narrative: a “perfect work of art” that would eventually “become life itself” by merging with it. One of the recurring themes in the book is that of the quest for a prelapsarian universal language which, although mocked by Swift, was once very fashionable: you write, for instance, of Leibniz’s “attempted recovery of the language of Adam against the Babel of the world”. Does Gillick’s dismantling of this Tower (block) of Babel gradually lead us towards an immanent conception of art that could express the world as it is in itself, free from human perception?

SC: Yes, but this is another fantasy: that of the artwork having an autonomy independent of its creator. A kind of machine or a puppet, or the fantasy of a non-human artwork, which is currently doing the rounds. All of this is in play in Memory Theatre for sure. What do Liam’s pictures suggest? To me, they exhibit a process of dismantling, or decomposition, that is ultimately the dismantling of philosophy and the decomposition of the heroic figure of the philosopher that has plagued us since Socrates. Memory Theatre is a critique of philosophy and, of course, a self-critique of my position as a ‘philosopher’. And yes Swift’s mocking of the science of his day, in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels has always been very important to me.

3:AM: Would you agree that the memory theatre and the “perfect work of art” envisioned at the end of the book correspond, respectively, to the two poles between which literature oscillates according to Maurice Blanchot? On the one hand, what you have called the “Hegelian-Sadistic” tradition, driven by the work of negation of human consciousness, and on the other, a striving after “that point of unconsciousness, where [literature] can somehow merge with the reality of things” (Very Little . . . Almost Nothing). Both poles, of course, are unattainable, but I suspect you have more sympathy for the latter, which is on the side of “The Plain Sense of Things” (Wallace Stevens) — “the near, the low, the common” (Thoreau) — and “lets us see particulars being various” (Memory Theatre) . . .

SC: That’s very interesting and I stole the “particulars being various” from Louis MacNiece, who is underrated and underread in my view. I remember reading Blanchot’s account of the two slopes of literature and it making a huge impact that continues to reverberate, particularly in relation to the INS [International Necronautical Society] work that I do with Tom McCarthy. On the one hand, literature is a conceptual machine that comprehends all that is, digests it and shits it out. That transforms matter into form. On the other hand, there is a kind of writing — poetry usually (Ponge, Stevens, late Hölderlin) — that attempts to let matter be matter witout controlling or comprehending it. I am more sympathetic to the second slope, but the attempt to let matter be matter without form is also an unachievable fantasy. We can say with Stevens, we don’t need ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. But we are still stuck with ideas about the thing itself, with the materiality of matter. Form, even the form of the formless, is irreducible.

3:AM: Reviewers have remarked on the hybrid nature of Memory Theatre — a mixture of essay, memoir, and fiction. Why did you choose to call the narrator ‘Simon Critchley” — who is both you and not you — instead of creating a fictive character based on yourself? I’m guessing that you relished the ambiguity of inhabiting that gap between you and yourself (to paraphrase Pessoa) . . .

SC: The figure ‘Simon Critchley’ is a quasi-heteronym in Pessoa’s sense. You are absolutely right. I did have a lot of fun working in the gap between myself and myself, trying to create a kind of crack in myself, a decomposition as I said just now. ‘Simon Critchley’ is not me, but is still more than a little bit me. As for the hybrid nature of the text, all I can say is that this is how it came out. I wrote the first draft really quickly in about three weeks, largely against my will. It just came pouring out like that after I’d finished writing The Hamlet Doctrine with Jamieson Webster. Then I looked at Memory Theatre when it was done and was perplexed. What is that thing? I didn’t want to publish it. But other people liked it and I am stupidly vain.

3:AM: At one point your narrator believes he is about to discover his deathday, and feels “strangely exhilarated rather than afraid”: this episode echoes what Blanchot (or his protagonist) experiences, in The Instant of My Death, when he seems to be on the verge of being executed. The opposition between death and dying also derives from Blanchot (and Levinas), as does the example of suicide by hanging:

Even if I hanged myself I would not experience a nihilating leap into the abyss, but just the rope tying me tight, ever tighter, to the existence I wanted to leave (Memory Theatre).
Just as the man who is hanging himself, after kicking away the stool on which he stood, heading for the final shore, rather than feeling the leap which he is making into the void feels only the rope which holds him, held to the end, held more than ever, bound as he had never been before to the existence he would like to leave (Thomas the Obscure).

The image of the dredging machine is a clear reference to Derrida (referencing Genet). “The void has destroyed itself. Creation is its wound” is lifted verbatim from Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death. “The blank, expressionless eyes of forty-nine papier mâché statues stared back at me” is possibly a nod to Hoffmannstahl’s “I felt like someone who had been locked into a garden full of eyeless statues” (The Lord Chandos Letter). I am sure that there are many other examples of references to, or quotations from, other people’s works that I missed or did not even recognise. Do you consider intertextuality — another aspect of the book’s hybrid nature — as a memory theatre?

SC: You are too good, Andrew, too good. Yes, I used all these quotations, usually from memory, in the text and there are many, many others. Memory Theatre is a kind of composite and composition drawn from everything that I have ever read and remembered. I then seek to decompose them, pull them apart, by setting them to work in some different way. Palimpsest-like. I have always been suspicious of ‘intertextuality’ as it sounds like a post-structuralist version of ‘tradition’. We are composed of networks of citations and references. At least I am. It’s the way I think about things most of the time.

3:AM: There are many instances of internal intertextuality (sorry!) in Memory Theatre, but most seem to come from your earlier works. Is this purely coincidental, or does a regressive theme run through the whole book? I’m thinking, for instance, of the narrator’s contention that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit “can only be read in reverse” or his tentative description of his youthful memory loss as “a kind of reverse dementia”, not to mention Gillick’s pictures . . .

SC: Yes, there is a kind of inhabitation of all my earlier work in Memory Theatre. That was deliberate. It felt like a taking stock, a settling of accounts with myself. A look back into the rear-view mirror as I press harder on the gas. Also, to make matters worse, my first idea for a PhD thesis in 1987 was on Hegel’s conception of memory in relation to the tradition of the art of memory. So, Memory Theatre is also an attempt to write (and unwrite or undo) that original dissertation plan.

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3:AM: When the memory theatre is built, ‘Simon Critchley’ surveys his work: “Like crazy Crusoe in his island cave out of his mind for fear of cannibals, I would sit onstage and inspect my artificial kingdom, my realm, my shrunken reál”. This reminded me of what Barthes writes about Jules Verne’s “self-sufficient cosmogony” — symbolised by The Nautilus (“the most desirable of caves”) — that he likens to “children’s passion for huts and tents”:

The archetype of this dream is this almost perfect novel: L’Ile mystérieuse, in which the manchild re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain (Mythologies).

One might also think of Georges Perec, who often circumscribed a small fragment of the world and then set about exhausting it. This dream of a total artwork in which one might poetically dwell often ends up being a womb with a view, right?

SC: Absolutely right. It is a kind of male, maternal fantasy. Except the child is always stillborn. It is also a meditation on obsessional neurosis and the masculine sexual tendency to collect, to collate and to kill. Memory Theatre describes a solitary and dead world devoid of love. I do not want to live in that world, though I have often found myself oddly at home in it. I hate myself. That much should be obvious.

3:AM: There seems to be a crisis of fiction today, highlighted by authors like David Shields or Knausgaard. Is Memory Theatre’s genre-bending a reflection of this crisis? Have we — writers and readers alike — lost that capacity to lose ourselves, which fiction, I feel, is premised on? Can disbelief no longer be suspended?

SC: Maybe we have lost the capacity to suspend disbelief because the world seems such a strange, malevolent fictional edifice. But I am against the heroic authenticity of memoir, the laying bare of oneself in what purports to be reality. I read a chunk of Knausgaard recently. It’s great, but it’s not for me. I’ve been to Norway too much for that. Memory Theatre is a kind of anti-memoir, perhaps even a kind of pastiche. I mean, someone wrote to me recently because they believed that everything I had said in Memory Theatre was true and they were truly worried about me. This was heartfelt and nice, but strange. I do not want to be the ‘Simon Critchley’ of Memory Theatre.

3:AM: Recently, Rachel Cusk claimed that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” — and she may well have a point. This put me in mind of what you wrote, quoting Blanchot, in Very Little: “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing, ‘when he is alive and real, and not dying and without truth'”. Does this account for the autobiographical turn in literature and the arts?

SC: I don’t know, in the sense that I don’t have an opinion. I am always suspicious of ‘turns’ to anything. Literature is always autobiographical and it always isn’t just that. It requires research and reading. We have to simply face up to that contradiction. Literature is one long song of myself even when that self is something I really don’t want to be. In fiction, we step out of our skin, but we still remain in our skin as we read it.

3:AM: Has psychogeography partly inherited this tradition of the memory theatre (as the narrator seems to imply at one stage)?

SC: Yes, that was definitely on my mind at an early stage of thinking about the project. The idea of psychogeography as the construction of alternative maps for cities and places is what is at stake in Memory Theatre. I got that from Stewart Home. When the narrator wakes from the dream/nightmare of the Gothic cathedral in the middle of Memory Theatre, the entire landscape is psychogeograpized, legible through some arcane, occult grid.

3:AM: I’m pretty sure you must also have been thinking about the web — today’s version of the memory theatre — while writing the book. We live in an age of total recall and rampant dementia. It would be absurd to establish a connection between the two phenomena, but are we not increasingly relying on Google or Wikipedia to remember facts we would have memorised ourselves in earlier times? In other words, are we not using the web in order to forget?

SC: Yes, absolutely. Today’s memory theatre is the internet. I deliberately avoid broaching the question of the internet in Memory Theatre, but it’s what the whole thing is about. The difference — and it is crucial — between the internet and the memory theatre is the difference between Gedächtnis and Erinnerung, between an external, mechanized memory and an internal, living recollection. What has happened — largely without anyone noticing it — is that we have outsourced memory onto the internet. Everything is there, googleable, but not in our heads. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. It is certainly an odd thing, given that for several thousand years all education has ever meant has been the cultivation of a trained memory. We have somehow abandoned that in the name of forgetfulness. So, yes, we have chosen to drink the waters of Lethe and enter our private Hades. Literature can at the least remind us of that choice.

3:AM: Even though we are constantly (unwittingly) rewriting our own pasts, isn’t the right to be forgotten — which has arisen in the face of total digital recall — a rather dangerous concept? Are we really the sole owners of our pasts?

SC: No, we are not sole owners of our pasts. The drama of Memory Theatre is showing how our existence can be pre-remembered, as it were, by someone else, pre-destined. The fantasy of total recall, which is one way of approaching Hegel, is often met by the fantasy of active forgetting, in Nietzsche’s sense. Both these fantasies are delusional. We are flayed alive by memory, but not in possession of it.

3:AM: I was thinking of Proust’s notion of involuntary memory, and how In Search of Lost Time could be construed as a memory theatre, but what of the unconscious?

SC: Like I said earlier, Memory Theatre can be read as a case study in obsessional neurosis, as an attempt to collate, collect, control, and kill all that is and all that is close to you. I see the ‘moral’ of Memory Theatre in negative terms: do not build your memory theatre! That means trying to access unconscious material in other ways, in relation to other forms of sexuality than masculine obsessionality, and in relation to a different range of affects and transferential relations. This is a project I tried to begin with Jamieson Webster in The Hamlet Doctrine, a book of which I am really proud, mostly because I only-co-wrote it.
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3:AM: Did Giulio Camillo Delminio’s memory theatre remind you, like me, of a similar contraption in 60s TV series Joe 90?

SC: Oh Lord, I used to love that show. I’d forgotten about it, as it were.

3:AM: The memory theatre tradition and dream of total recall find an echo in ‘Simon Critchley’ because (like you) he lost much of his memory following an accident (“My self felt like a theatre with no memory”). Accident-induced memory loss also happens to be the premise of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The quest for the “now of nows” — that moment of “absolute coincidence” with oneself and one’s fate at the point of extinction — is precisely what McCarthy’s anti-hero strives to achieve through his increasingly elaborate reenactments. As for the following sentence, it could come straight out of C: “My body is a buzzing antenna into which radio waves flooded from the entire cosmos. I was the living switchboard of the universe” . . . In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, you pointed out that there is so much overlapping between Blanchot and Levinas that it is sometimes difficult to tell if an idea originated with the former or the latter. The very same comment could be made about you and McCarthy. Are you — especially through the International Necronautical Society — trying to escape the confines of the self by merging your two voices in a collaborative, polyphonic project? Is it two people, one artist, like Gilbert & George?

SC: Matters become even worse when you think of the first sentence of Remainder, which refers to Very Little . . . Almost Nothing. My relation with Tom is very precious to me and I have loved working together with him so much over the years. There is no doubt that meeting and working with Tom loosened my tongue and enabled me to say things I would never have previously imagined. We have a disinhibiting effect on each other, where the usual super-ego bullshit gets shut down and we are able to just burn it up and let it rip. As Levinas was fond of saying, on est mieux à deux. Writing with four hands is better than two. It is fair to say that Memory Theatre wouldn’t have existed without Remainder and elements of C are all over it.

3:AM: Memory Theatre opens with the following three sentences: “I was dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction” — well, is it?

SC: Yes, it is. Oh, there is tinnitus too.

In Theory: Mimetic Desire

This appeared in Guardian Books on 8 February 2010:

In Theory: Mimetic Desire

Nearly 50 years on, René Girard’s theory remains a powerfully illuminating insight into both literature and the world


Mediated desire … Amanda Drew as Emma and Simon Thorp as Rodolphe in Oxford Playhouse’s 2003 production of Madame Bovary. Photograph: PR

Many thanks for your insightful comments on “The Death of the Author” and interesting suggestions concerning future discussion topics — please keep them coming. All this feedback confirms the utility of a debate on the purpose of literary theory at a time when critics have all too often retreated into academia or become appendages of publishers’ marketing departments. Talented critics can do so much more than just test-drive the latest products for consumers. They can shape the zeitgeist, renew our perception of great literary works and even help authors make sense of their own worlds — a hat-trick René Girard pulled off with Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

Discovering Deceit, Desire and the Novel is like putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before. Girard’s premise is the Romantic myth of “divine autonomy”, according to which our desires are freely chosen expressions of our individuality. Don Quixote, for instance, aspires to a chivalric lifestyle. Nothing seems more straightforward but, besides the subject (Don Quixote) and object (chivalry), Girard highlights the vital presence of a model he calls the mediator (Amadis of Gaul in this instance). Don Quixote wants to lead the life of a knight errant because he has read the romances of Amadis of Gaul: far from being spontaneous, his desire stems from, and is mediated through, a third party. Metaphysical desire — as opposed to simple needs or appetites — is triangular, not linear. You can always trust a Frenchman to view the world as a ménage à trois.

Mediation is said to be external when the distance between subject and mediator is so great that never the twain shall meet. This is the case of Don Quixote and Amadis, or Emma Bovary and the fashionable Parisian circles she dreams of. Here, the derivative nature of desire is clearly acknowledged. The hero of external mediation “worships his model openly and declares himself his disciple”. When mediation is internal, however, the distance between subject and mediator is small enough to give rise to rivalry between the two. The mediator, who aroused desire for the object in the first place, comes to be seen as an obstacle to the fulfilment of this very desire: “the model shows his disciple the gate of paradise and forbids him to enter with one and the same gesture”. Although now ostensibly a figure of hatred, the mediator continues to be idolised subterraneously or even subconsciously. In Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time, for instance, the Guermantes remain Mme Verdurin’s sworn enemies until the day when she marries into this family she had in fact secretly admired and envied all along.

Girard’s contention is that the need for transcendence has survived the decline of Christianity, resulting in the ersatz “inverted transcendence” of mimetic desire. The spread of this highly-contagious “ontological disease” gathers momentum in the works of Stendhal before reaching pandemic proportions in Proust and Dostoyevsky. Whereas Don Quixote is an “upside-down hero in a right-side-up world,” Julien Sorel (The Red and the Black) is a “right-side-up hero” in a topsy-turvy world. By the time we reach Dostoyevsky (Notes From the Underground, The Possessed), everything has gone awry. All these novels illustrate how internal mediation “triumphs in a universe where the differences between men are gradually erased”. The more egalitarian a society, the closer the mediator and the greater the rivalry.

In Stendhal’s worldview, there once was a golden age when the nobility’s social status was correlated with its nobility of spirit. Passion and spontaneity, which used to be the hallmarks of the true nobleman, have all but disappeared from The Red and the Black, giving way to abject vanity. After the French Revolution, it is no longer possible for the nobility to simply be: it must now justify its privileges in the eyes of “the Other”. In so doing, it becomes ignoble. The aristocrat mimics the bourgeois who mimics the aristocrat. At the level of individuals, this double mediation is a delicate balancing act in which the loser is the one who can no longer conceal his desire for the other, from the other. This revelation acts as an instant passion killer, since it shatters the illusion of “divine autonomy” that had proved so compelling. Open rejection, in turn, makes the heart of the spurned lover grow ever fonder.

Masochism — which features so prominently in both Proust and Dostoyevsky — is a by-product of the increasing proximity of the mediator; a means of enhancing his supposed divinity. The greater the obstacle he represents, the greater his divinity. Girard explains that we become masochists as soon as “we no longer choose our mediator because of the admiration which he inspires in us but because of the disgust we seem to inspire in him”. As the “ontological sickness” progresses, the desired object is increasingly forgotten — it virtually disappears in Dostoyevsky — to be replaced by the mediator. The masochist desires the obstacle which signals the divine presence of the mediator. In the same way, the Proustian snob puts up purely abstract barriers between himself and an object that is so ineffable it barely exists at all. This disappearance of the object is of no real consequence since it “loses its value in the very act of being possessed” anyway.

Writers themselves are not immune to mimetic desire. The release of a book is an “appeal to the public” which is frequently experienced as an affront to authorial pride. Aristocratic writers used to keep up appearances by claiming that they never intended their works to be printed. La Rochefoucauld even went as far as to claim that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. The modern writer has no servants, so he makes “an anti-appeal to the public in the shape of anti-poetry, anti-novel, or anti-play. The main thing is to make the Other taste the rare, ineffable, and fresh quality of one’s scorn for him”. Sound familiar?

With Deceit, Desire and the Novel, René Girard wanted to demonstrate that the truly “great novelists reveal the imitative nature of desire” in their works. In the process, he reinterpreted some of the most important novels ever written, launched a devastating broadside against the inheritors of Romantic individualism and spawned a whole new sub-genre — mimetic theory — which has been applied to almost everything, from psychology to economics. Were it not for this brilliant debut, published in France back in 1961, incidentally, Facebook may have remained the plaything of a handful of Harvard geeks.

Peter Thiel — a venture capitalist whose mentor at Stanford was none other than Girard lui-même — soon spotted the commercial potential of a social networking site based on mimetic desire. In fact, the whole concept of viral, word-of-mouth marketing follows Girard’s principle according to which the strongest desires are those influenced by an admired third party. The gods haven’t withdrawn: they have gone online and their name is Legion. What the venerable Académicien makes of this exploitation of an “ontological disease” he has been denouncing for half a century is anyone’s guess.