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 New Theater, a Marlon Brando film). The unifying factor behind each of these phenomena is that they are all “mythologies”—phenomena whose multilayered meaning is not obvious, not “clearly apparent.” Mythologies are “empty realities” for Barthes. Their assumed, simple definitions hide the true underlayer of complex meanings. Barthes finds societal mythologies too easily ignored, or worse, accepted at their face value; it is such intellectual laziness that Barthes combats in these essays. In each, he confronts the obvious and reveals the underlying structure of meaning in an effort to replenish that “empty reality.”
There are myths of sentiment, myths of judgment, and myths of reason; there are myths created when a “difference” or “meaning” is reduced to a “universality.” Barthes attributes this reduction to the machinations of the petit bourgeoisie—he makes no attempt to subdue his Marxist philosophies. He states, “the petit-bourgeois flourish consists in eluding qualitative values, in opposing processes of transformation by a statics of equalities.” An easy system of simplification and static generalities, “the whole petit-bourgeois mythology implies the refusal of alterity, the exaltation of ’kind.’” We live in a world that changes constantly and, for Barthes, the inquisitive, open mind accepts change instead of evading it; change, differences, progress, and decay are all part of nature. Unfortunately, Barthes falls prey to his own criticism of static thought when he too easily includes the bourgeoisie in his attacks on “mythologies.” However, his bias rarely interferes with either his astute insights or the development of the text.
Barthes’s training as a semiologist and linguist provides a solid background for the essays dealing with word myths and language. In the powerful and perspicacious essay “African Grammar,” Barthes exposes the meaning of a few terms used in political rhetoric—“words [that] have no relation to their content, or else a contrary one.” Political language mollifies and obfuscates reality. Amplified nouns and destroyed verbs all serve in an ingenious political cover-up. In his dogged search for meaning, Barthes powerfully identifies that which obscures it. A primary obstacle in the search lies in the concept of “good sense.” “Good sense is the watchdog of petit-bourgeois equations: it blocks up any dialectical outlets, defines a homogeneous world in which we are at home, sheltered from the disturbances and the leaks of ’dreams.’” We protect ourselves from the rigors of thought and change through good sense. “We know the war against intelligence is always waged in the name of good sense.” Again and again Barthes warns us against using “simplicity,” “innocence,” and “good sense” as excuses for not having ideas, intellectual laziness, and for falling into the “admirable security of nothingness.”
Practicing the flexibility of mind he preaches, Barthes does not confine his essays to forceful assaults on the everpresent “mythologies.” “The Eiffel Towel” reveals his adoration of certain myths and exposes a sensitive, even whimsical, tone. Turning disaster into festivity in “Paris Not Flooded,” Barthes draws a parallel between the mobilization and cooperation of the citizens to Noah’s Ark: “For the Ark is a happy myth: in it humanity takes its distance with regard to the elements, concentrates itself and elaborates the necessary consciousness of its powers, making disaster itself provide evidence that the world is manageable.” Barthes defends New York City against false accusations in “Buffet Finishes Off New York,” another essay which reveals a playful, spontaneous, and humorous side of Barthes, who has often been described as cold, dry, and didactic.
No matter what tone Barthes employs or what approach—supportive or combative—he chooses, he always demands the close attention of his readers. Thinking is a commendable activity not only for writers but for readers as well. A passive reader accepts the myth that literature has only one dimension—the meaning which appears on the surface. For Barthes, reading is as much an activity as writing and is a crucial process in the creation of literature.
Thus, it is understandable that Barthes’s work is not considered easy reading. Structurally similar, all the essays of the collection develop, as it were, inwardly. They are not direct syntagmatic chains of events in which the narrative moves through space and time; instead, each essay is one complete digression. The sentence and paragraph structures varying from short statements to long passages (some sentences constitute more than twenty lines) layered with signification, underline the sense of digression. Barthes takes an “event” (be it the Eiffel Tower or a famous murder trial) and muses, meditates, explores, and examines that “event.” In the process, he destroys facile, superficial boundaries until the event can no longer be perceived in a single dimension. Barthes leads the reader through the obvious exteriors and into perceptive observation with a voice that is personal (the narrative stance is always in the first person and generally plural) yet authoritative, accessible yet intellectual. He provides the strong lead of a master teacher, while continuously insisting upon the reader’s aggressive participation. He challenges readers to use their powers of insight and instinct to broaden their point of view, even (or especially) when regarding the most common phenomena.
Barthes’s erudite theories of literary criticism and language are overshadowed by the swift and spontaneous insights of the essays. Barthes is an unconventional critic, author, and reader whose cogent observations reveal a new world of understanding. Long after his systems and theories have been confined to academic history, his insistence on mental activity, piercing and perceptive insights, and the pleasure of literature will remain to enhance our thinking.