Roland Barthes’ Challenge to Biography

This appeared in Guardian Books on 14 August 2015:

Roland Barthes’ Challenge to Biography

The great critic’s life can certainly be seen in his work, but — as one would expect from the man who pronounced the Author dead — in more complicated ways than we are used to

 Life in writing ... Roland Barthes in 1978. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

Life in writing … Roland Barthes in 1978. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a piece on Roland Barthes shall be prefaced by a sarcastic reference to “The Death of the Author“. Especially when the centenary of his birth is commemorated with the publication of a third biography. Tiphaine Samoyault — who had access to a wealth of fresh material — is no ordinary biographer, however. Her premise is that a writer’s life is understood by what it lacks, as much as by the events it encompasses. She highlights the dangers of trying to explain the work through the life, or vice versa, as they are two “heterogeneous realities”. She also wastes no time in reminding us that the death of the writer (following an accident in 1980) is not The Death of the Author (1967).

When Barthes wrote his much-maligned essay, academic criticism in France had barely evolved since the days of Sainte-Beuve. The key to a work of literature was sought, ultimately, in the life — often the private life — of its author. Barthes argued that the latter’s authority was fundamentally undermined by modern fiction. As soon as writing becomes “intransitive” — as soon as language is no longer an instrument, but the very fabric of literature — “the voice loses its origin”: “to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality … that point where language alone acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘oneself’”. The “scriptor” — “born simultaneously with his text” and dismissed from it once it is finished — replaces the “Author-God”, whose death implies that a text no longer has an “ultimate meaning”. Every text is “eternally written here and now,” first by the scriptor, and then by the reader, whose creative power Barthes unleashes. (Ironically, this theory could lend itself to a textbook psychological reading, with the author standing in for the absent father.)

The death of the author is that of the Author-God. Barthes does not deny the very existence of the writer. Neither, to be fair, does he deny that biographical elements may come into play during the writing process. When he states that, from a linguistic standpoint, “the author is never more than a man who writes,” he clearly 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 clearly acknowledges that a body is doing the writing. It is, in fact, the presence of this body which he would increasingly strive to highlight in his intensely personal work.

During a lecture delivered a mere two months before he died, the French theorist disavowed his landmark essay. He shrugs it off as modish structuralist excess, and goes on to confess that he has “sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works”. Barthes protests too much. There was no “sudden about-face,” simply a shift of emphasis. If in Sade Fourier Loyola (1971) — published only four years after “The Death of the Author” — Barthes mentions an “amicable return of the author,” he hastens to add that this is not a resurrection of the Author-God. First of all, this is the author as he or she is experienced by the reader: “the author who leaves his text and comes into our life”. Secondly, this author has “no unity,” whether psychological or chronological. Finally, this author is primarily a physical presence: “he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body”.

The intersection of life and writing was always at the heart of Barthes’s project. Tiphaine Samoyault traces back his interest in self-portraiture to his sanatorium days, the diseased body being his original object of analysis. Susan Sontag shrewdly observes that he started his career by writing about Gide’s journal and ended up reflecting upon his own. He was 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 (1970). This was followed by a memoir in fragments (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1975) and what Barthes described as an “almost novel” (A Lover’s Discourse, 1977). In the wake of the death of his beloved mother, he declared: “It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science”.

If Barthes presents biography with a problem, it is not because he is absent from his work, but on the contrary because he is inseparable from it. Etymologically, a text is a piece of cloth, one that, in Barthes’s view, is constantly in the process of being woven. In this making, “the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973). 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” (Sade Fourier Loyola, 1971). These ashes are what he called “biographemes”. Barthes also came to identify “life writing” — whereby life becomes the text of the work, à la Proust — as a viable way of voicing the intimate. Beyond that, and even beyond meaning itself, he dreamed of a purely gestural writing that would inscribe “the hand as it writes” — his very desire for writing — into the body of his texts.

In literary biography, the life of an author is traditionally read as leading to the work. After Proust and Barthes, the biographer must treat life and work as two separate entities, which both converge and diverge. Samoyault does everything one expects a conventional biography to do, and more, bringing to life the changing intellectual climate of Barthes’ time, making — to take one iconic example — his silence after the events of May 1968 seem perfectly comprehensible. But with Barthes, it is the work that seems to lead to the life, or at least to biography. If our interest in Barthes’ work draws us to investigate the author, then it is not enough to consult the letters, diary entries and ticket stubs of traditional biography. In the end, our biographical investigations must lead us back to the work itself.

In Theory: The Death of the Author

This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 13 January 2010:

In Theory: The Death of the Author

Kicking off a new occasional series about the most influential literary theory, Andrew Gallix revisits a classic essay by Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes in 1979. Photograph: Fabian Cevallos/Corbis

Ecclesiastes famously warns us that “Of making many books there is no end” — the same, of course, applies to book commentaries. George Steiner has long denounced the “mandarin madness of secondary discourse” which increasingly interposes itself between readers and works of fiction. For better or worse, the internet — with its myriad book sites — has taken this phenomenon to a whole new level. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, literature has always given rise to its exegesis, but now that no scrap of literary gossip goes untweeted, it may be time to reflect a little on the activity of literary criticism.

I have chosen to inaugurate this series with a few considerations on “The Death of the Author” because of its truly iconic nature: it symbolises the rise of what would come to be known as “theory“. Even if he never names them, Roland Barthes (like Proust before him) launches an attack on the traditional biography-based criticism à la Sainte-Beuve or Lanson which still dominated French academia in the sixties. The paradox, of course, is that this essay — with its symbolic slaying of the paternal “Author-God” — could lend itself to a textbook psychological reading given that Barthes lost his own father before his first birthday. The “Death of the Author” theme itself takes on added meaning, in hindsight, when you consider that Barthes’s critical career was, at least in part, a displacement activity to avoid writing the novel he dreamed of. Does any of this invalidate his theories? I’ll let you be the judge of that…

In 2002, the prestigious Pompidou Centre in Paris devoted a major exhibition, not to an artist, philosopher, scientist or novelist, but a literary critic: Roland Barthes. Now that the “theory wars” — which had once torn apart literature departments on both sides of the Atlantic — were largely over, it served as a reminder of a time when a posse of structuralists and post-structuralists superseded the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre as France’s premier intellectual icons. Many of them were primarily philosophers, anthropologists, historians, linguists or psychoanalysts — Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva et al. — but the locus of this intellectual revolution was undoubtedly literary criticism.

La nouvelle critique was flavour of the month, much like its culinary counterpart, nouvelle cuisine, albeit more of a mouthful. Critics-cum-thinkers such as Barthes himself — who was equally at home at the lofty Collège de France or down the trendy Le Palace nightclub — achieved bona fide celebrity status. Their works often became bestsellers in spite of their demanding and iconoclastic nature. Soon, NME journalists were peppering their articles with arcane references to Baudrillard while Scritti Politti dedicated a postmodern ditty to Jacques Derrida. The whole movement seemed as provocative, and indeed exciting, as Brigitte Bardot in her slinky, sex kitten heyday. Its defining moment was the publication of a racy little number called “The Death of the Author“.

As if mimicking one of its central themes, Roland Barthes’s article first featured in an American journal in 1967: the original (an English translation of a French text) was thus, in effect, already a copy. With a nice sense of historical timing, it appeared in the critic’s homeland in the quasi-insurrectionary context of the 1968 student protests. As it was only anthologised much later (first in Image-Music-Text in 1977 and then in The Rustle of Language in 1984), the essay was photocopied and distributed samizdat-fashion on campuses all over the world, which enhanced its subversive appeal.

Subversive, it certainly was. In France, perhaps more than anywhere else, the secularisation of society (compounded by the Republic’s struggle against the Roman Catholic Church) had led to the adoption of art and literature as substitute religions. Nietzsche had announced the death of God only to see Him replaced by the “Author-God”. Enter Roland Barthes.

His starting-point is a sentence lifted from Sarrasine (1830), a little-known Balzac novella about an artist who falls in love with a young castrato he believes to be a woman. Barthes (who was gay) was so taken with this gender-bending tale of mistaken identity that he would study it at length in S/Z (1970). Here, he draws a parallel between the ambiguity of Sarrasine’s feelings and the ambiguous identity of the speaker who, ironically, describes the castrato as the essence of womanhood. Is it the deluded, love-struck protagonist? The narrator? Balzac the writer? Balzac the man?… Having exhausted all possibilities, the critic draws the conclusion that it is impossible to say for sure who the sentence should be attributed to. He goes on to describe literature as a space “where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”. The death of the author marks the birth of literature, defined, precisely, as “the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin”.

Indeed, the “modern writer” — or “scriptor” as Barthes calls him — can only mimic “a gesture forever anterior, never original” by recombining what has already been written. Whereas the “Author-God” maintained with his work “the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child,” the scriptor “is born simultaneously with his text”: for him, “there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now”. As Barthes puts it, apropos of Mallarmé, “it is language which speaks, not the author” — or the scriptor for that matter. Works of fiction are palimpsests and as such are devoid of any “single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)”. The key to a text is not to be found in its “origin” but in its “destination”: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Next time, I’m planning to investigate the notion of mimetic desire — unless there’s anywhere else you’d rather visit first. Suggestions on future topics are most welcome…