Roland Barthes Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Barthes was one of the most important literary critics of the twentieth century, and he made significant contributions to semiology.

Early Life

Roland Barthes was born into the heart of the French bourgeoisie of Cherbourg on November 12, 1915. His father died in a World War I battle in 1916, leaving the family in reduced circumstances, although the mother learned the trade of bookbinding and kept the household together for the family. Roland’s early brilliance at the lycée pointed to a career in the high academic circles reserved for graduates of the École Normale Supérieure; however, he contracted tuberculosis in 1941 and was forced to attend a lesser institution, the Sorbonne. In 1937, he was declared unfit for military service because of his illness, and he taught from 1939 to 1941 in lycées in Biarritz and Paris. He was, however, forced to abandon teaching when the tuberculosis flared up again, and he spent the war years in a Swiss sanatorium. After the war, he taught in Romania and Egypt before returning to France. During this period, he became further acquainted with literary criticism and linguistics and produced his first important book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero, 1967).

Life’s Work

The distinguishing mark of Barthes’s career was his refusal to be confined to one field of study, one critical position, or one group. He continually sought new areas to investigate after having made significant contributions to areas such as linguistics or semiology. Some have accused him of not developing or testing insights or breakthroughs he made; he has left it to others to complete systems in which he made seminal contributions. This refusal to be restricted to one position in a period of ideological rigidity is very attractive. A new work from Roland Barthes was always a new starting point for fresh investigations and never a mere recovering of old ground.

Through the 1940’s and 1950’s, Barthes worked in a branch of the French cultural service dealing with teaching abroad, and he was given a scholarship to study lexicology in 1950; however, he used that time to write his first books in the field of literary criticism. Writing Degree Zero is a Marxist rewriting of French literary history that was influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre and is, in part, an answer to Sartre’s Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (1947; What Is Literature?, 1949). Barthes was associated until the late 1970’s with the journal Tel Quel, which stood for a more formal approach to literary works. In his first book, Barthes identifies two distinct periods of French literature. The first (or classical) runs from 1650, when the writers of that time began to see the “literariness” of language, to 1848, the year of revolution in all of Europe. The second period (or modern) began in the revolution and continues to the present; it is marked not by the representational mode of the early period but by a questioning and experimental type of literature. Later, in S/Z (1970; English translation, 1974), Barthes defined two types of literary writing: the readerly (or the representational) and the writerly (the experimental). In this respect, he was the champion of the new, avant-garde literature. He was a supporter of the experiments of Alain Robbe-Grillet in the novel and defended him against received critical opinion. In S/Z, Barthes created a critical context in which these new writers could be discussed and understood.

Michelet par lui-meme (1954; Michelet, 1986) and Sur Racine (1963; On Racine, 1964) show Barthes moving away from the Marxism of Sartre to seeing a literary work as a system with codes or rules for functioning. In the book on Michelet, Barthes used many of the concepts of phenomenology in which the writer’s ideology is ignored, and instead Barthes discovered in Michelet the use of opposing substances, such as warm and dry. These substances show the “existential thematics” of Michelet; Michelet’s thought is dismissed as of no interest. On Racine is more consciously structuralist and psychoanalytic, as Barthes examines the conflict between authority and the “primal horde.” Barthes ignored the usual academic and historical view of the work in order to reveal its structure as composed of interior and exterior “spaces.” His irreverent treatment of the most sacred of French classics engendered a challenge from the academic world. Raymond Picard accused Barthes and his criticism of being a fraud, and Barthes replied with a defense of the new criticism that won the day. Barthes has consistently opposed a merely academic view of literature. Ironically, as a result of the notoriety of the Racine book and his innovative work, Barthes was appointed to teach at an academic institution, although it was not one of the first rank. He became a full-time teacher at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1962.

Mythologies (1957; English...

(The entire section is 2094 words.)