The Eiffel Tower, and Other Mythologies
Accused of being “a geyser of pishposh” and “famous for remarks which mean nothing,” and acclaimed as “one of the foremost literary critics in France” and “a brilliant polemicist, a formidable rhetorician, an ingenious, mercurial man of letters,” Roland Barthes has indeed had a significant impact on the modern literary world. The tragedy of his death early in 1980—the result of an automobile accident—will not be soon forgotten. If not for being the forerunner of French structuralist theory, a respected literary critic (a label he would have gladly relinquished), a leading practitioner of la nouvelle critique, or the authority on semiological linguistics, Barthes most certainly will long be remembered as the perceptive and lucid author of Mythologies (1972), A Lover’s Discourse (1978), and, now, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies.
Barthes wrote the twenty-nine essays collected here in a three-year span from 1954 through 1956. A portion of these essays appears in Mythologies, which stands in refreshing contrast to his early theoretical works, Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology. Also included in Mythologies is the title essay, “The Eiffel Tower,” which Barthes originally wrote as an introduction to a volume of photographs of the Tower. The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies makes available for the first time to English-speaking readers “The Eiffel Tower” and the complete “mythologies” series.
In the title essay, the reader finds an adoring, even sentimental Barthes discussing “the universal symbol of Paris.” He begins with the simple statement “the Tower is friendly” and proceeds to unfold its myriad meanings. A structure touched by every Parisian glance, it is “reduced to that simple line whose sole mythic function is to join, as the poet says, base and summit, or again, earth and heaven.” Beyond its mythic function as an object, “it becomes a lookout in its turn when we visit it. . . . The Tower is an object which sees, a glance which is seen.” Barthes uses a system of polarities to define the Tower, and it functions both as the extremes and as the unifying force. Hence, for Barthes, the Tower is a “total monument,” at once a glance, object, metaphor, and symbol. Yet to complete this “infinite circuit of functions,” the Tower, he claims, “must escape reason.” The Eiffel Tower represents pure meaning—it exists as a playground for the imagination. “The first condition of this victorious flight is that the Tower is an utterly useless monument.” Barthes explains later that “use never does anything but shelter meaning.”
“The Eiffel Tower” displays Barthes at his best. Devoid of the abstruse language and neologisms which belabor his theoretical works, Barthes rejoices here in divulging the multilayered meanings of a well-known landmark. He tantalizes and spurs the imagination with his acute perceptiveness and his spontaneous insights. Affectionately rendered unforgettable by Barthes’s formidable intellect and poetic ability, the image of this monument will always “be something other and something much more than the Eiffel Tower.”
In his other essays, Barthes’s topics range from major events such as the Tour de France bicycle race, the Paris flood of 1955, and the Billy Graham crusade in France, to political rhetoric and international affairs, to literature, language, and the arts (a Buffet painting,...
(The entire section is 1447 words.)