New Critical Essays Essay - Critical Essays

Roland Barthes

New Critical Essays (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

This small collection of essays is the most recent text to have been published in English by the man who was probably the most adventurous and original literary critic of the third quarter of this century. Tragically, Roland Barthes died in March, 1980, following an automobile accident. This provoked an inevitable feeling of déjà vu, since, exactly twenty years earlier, France lost another of its greatest writers, Albert Camus, in just this way. Other similarities exist as well: at his death, each man was at the height of his powers as a writer (and, in the case of Barthes, as a teacher), each occupied a position of enormous prominence within the world of French letters, and each had relatively recently received a prestigious award—Camus the 1960 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Barthes, in 1977, elevation to La Chaire de la Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France, a post created expressly for him.

Nevertheless, the appearance of this book in English not long after the death of its author is nothing more than a coincidence. While events compel the reader to scrutinize the text as one would a “last will and testament,” it is hardly that. For that matter, the French text appeared in 1972 in conjunction with his reissued first book (1953), Le degré zéro de l’écriture (Writing Degree Zero), published by Editions du Seuil as Le degré zéro de l’écriture suivi de nouveaux essais critiques. Yet, despite the fact that this volume lacks the significance of such works of Barthes as Sur Racine (On Racine, 1963), Système de la mode (1967), S/Z (1970), it is nevertheless representative of the catholicity of Barthes’s interests. This is also demonstrated by the fact that the most recent of his texts to have been published in France is La chambre claire: note sur la photographie (1980). Certainly, New Critical Essays provides an opportunity to comment on the significance of Roland Barthes and the important implications of some of his ideas.

An important result of the career of Roland Barthes was an expanded definition of “critic.” Barthes regarded a given text as being capable of yielding a multiplicity of meanings—as a cultural “sign” pointing to nonliterary domains as well as to the enterprise of literature. Accordingly, his own studies and investigations carried him into a number of different fields. If one endorses Barthes’s critical practice, it becomes impossible to say “just a critic,” for criticism ceases to be the appendage of “creative writing.” In fact, the task of the Barthesian critic at least equals, if not surpasses, the creative challenge facing the novelist, poet, or dramatist. For, like Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, he must be prepared to investigate everything; albeit, one would hope, in a less ludicrous fashion. The boundaries between “critic” and “anthropologist,” “linguist,” “psychologist,” and so on dissolve in the effort. For Barthes, the interpretation of literary texts is subsumed under a more broadly defined “semiology,” a science of signs in society. These signs, which inhabit works of literature but which are to be found as well in popular entertainment, sports, advertising, public ceremonies, and the leisure activities of the bourgeoisie lead one to nothing less than the understanding of man and society.

This is not to say that Barthes lost sight of literature. During his career, he commented on the works of many of France’s greatest writers, such as Jean Baptiste Racine, Honoré de Balzac, Jules Michelet, and Marcel Proust, and on enfants terribles such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Raymond Queneau. Moreover, his observations on literature as a vocation and as a way of life constitute perhaps the most eloquent example of such testimony since the writings of Proust, as in the latter’s passages on Bergotte. In addition, one must not forget that, for Barthes, literature is more, even, than writing and criticism. There is the crucial act of reading, wherein the richness and fecundity of a given text are made manifest. Reading equals pleasure: intense pleasure, many kinds of pleasures. It is true that, without reading, there could be no literature, yet, when reading Barthes, one senses that reading is everything. Indeed, in Le Plaisir de texte (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973), the work in which Barthes gives the greatest primacy to reading, one is left with the conclusion that, precisely because of the intensity of the individual reading experience, there exists no one “text” of which one may speak. For the text itself is transformed and undergoes some degree of metamorphosis each time it is read.

Does this mean that Barthes sends conflicting signals? On the one hand his radical approach to reading rejects the possibility of “definitive” exegesis. Yet, this is the same Barthes whose name is associated with “the science of signs.” Semiology, to many of those who oppose its aims, seems to be about superimposing a forbidding hermeneutic system on the humanistic study and appreciation of literature. Once Barthes has been read, however, the tentative nature of his assertions becomes clear. Barthes was not one to make the kinds of grandiose claims for the efficacy of his methods for which some structuralists are known. The word “essai” (“essay”) should remind one of a test, a trial, something tentative. Readers should remember its kinship to the verb essayer. It was Michel de Montaigne who introduced the essai as a literary genre, and he made it clear that, just as he avoided taking himself too seriously, so should we. These essais critiques of Barthes, informed as they are by an erudite consciousness, are trial balloons and should be regarded as suggestions—catalysts to further thought and investigation. Thus, there is no real conflict within the ideas of Barthes. Suffice it to say that he is a complex thinker who presents many different aspects of his thought to a reader. Clearly, the critical endeavor is forever unfinished, continually...

(The entire section is 2512 words.)