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.)

Roland Barthes Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Roland Barthes (bahrt) was one of the leading proponents of the new French criticism and one of the founders of structuralism. He was born in Cherbourg, France, in 1915 to the solid bourgeois family of Louis and Henriette Barthes. Louis Barthes, a naval officer, was killed in 1916, and in 1924 young Roland moved to Paris with his mother. It was in Paris that he lived most of his life and received his education. In 1939, he received a license in classical letters from the Sorbonne, and between recurring bouts of tuberculosis he taught in and around Paris while continuing his education. During the convalescence from his second attack of tuberculosis, Barthes was first published, and he began a distinguished career as a teacher, researcher, critic, and writer.

One result of Barthes’s years of convalescence was that he had the time to read widely and to decide that he was more aligned to Marxist ideology than to the bourgeois ideology in which he had been reared. With this willingness to embrace leftist ideas came a willingness to question and explore many of the commonplaces of his world. It was in this frame of mind that he was introduced to modern linguistics while teaching in Alexandria, Egypt, and this introduction gave Barthes a tool with which to explore his world.

Barthes was able to acquire several scholarships after his return to France in the early 1950’s. The first provided funds for him to study lexicology and the second supported his sociological study of fashion. Neither project was immediately successful, but both helped produce several of Barthes’s important early works: Writing Degree Zero, Mythologies, and, eventually, The Fashion System.

Barthes was a prolific writer...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Roland Barthes Biography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Roland Barthes, like its Barthesian predecessors, is controversial. The author does not allow his reader any reassuring tranquility. In this volume, he immediately formulates two implicit enigmas to be solved by a persevering, active, and playful reader: first, “What is autobiography?”; second, “Who is Roland Barthes?” Throughout the work, his efforts to forestall the reader’s answers paradoxically offer clues to those answers.

By inscribing his work in a traditional series in which each volume is entitled “so and-so by himself” (for example, Bachelard by himself) but is always authored by someone else, Barthes mocks the very concept of autobiography. His review in the Quinzaine littéraire, entitled “’Barthes by Barthes by Barthes,’” leaves no doubt that his primary concern continues to be challenging both existing modes of writing and means of writing about the writing process. It is entirely appropriate that the series to which he contributed be subsumed under the general heading écrivains de toujours (which is perhaps best rendered as “writers whose works have become classics”). Barthes would undoubtedly scorn the stasis implied by such a description and, indeed, he may not be “de toujours”; he is certainly, however, an exemplary writer.

Barthes revamps the autobiographical genre by imposing upon it a form which seems radically inconsistent with its usual goals. The book begins with about forty pages of captioned photographs, depicting a bourgeois, Protestant childhood in Bayonne: an “image-repertoire.” There follow about one hundred and fifty pages of discontinuous passages on some two hundred topics, organized in a more or less alphabetical order based on key words. Unlike other more “narrative” autobiographies, this one offers two choices of reading procedures: it may be read consecutively or it may be read selectively, by picking out fragments either arbitrarily or by interest in a certain topic. This fragmentary, aphoristic composite of meditations and memories, insights and intentions, is in no way confessional, or even revelatory in the sense of disclosing the “secret” man. The references to Barthes’ life (for example, his family, health, left-handedness, hints of homosexual proclivities, working space, schedule) in fact deny the model of individual development we have come to expect from autobiography.

By refusing traditional rhetoric, Barthes forces his reader to adopt a new role replete with new responsibilities. Since it is the author’s goal to outrun any stereotypes that constantly trail him, and since the writer of autobiography risks being categorized according to cultural and structural stereotypes. Barthes deliberately places squarely in the lap of his reader the burden of retaining the fluidity of his image. Enough clues are stowed in the text to bias the reading. However, the traditional meaningful self-revelation that we seek in autobiography never materializes. The kaleidoscope, so to speak, rearranges the image indefinitely. A reader who resists surrendering himself to the drift (a word Barthes favors) will, rightly, become exasperated.

Ultimately, the unstable mosaic offered to the reader for assembly and reassembly is that of language: Barthes, as he has indicated, is “a being of language.” As early as 1953, in Writing Degree Zero, and Elements of Semiology, he warned that “language is never innocent.” Thus, this wry and elliptical autobiographer signals his own cunningness. His fall from innocence is concomitant with his incurable compulsion to discover meaning in everything. In Roland Barthes, Barthes, the (now) “anti-structuralist,” would have his reader discover meaning in the very disorder of the work. His tactic—that is, moving away from the stereotype by paradox—necessitates the simultaneous existence in his work of the despised Doxa (his term for banal public opinion or classical ideology) and the active, dispersed image with which he attacks tradition. The word “stereotype,” as he notes, comes from the Greek “stereos” which means “solid.” Barthes vigilantly opposes the “solidification” of his Self. That highly articulate consciousness known as Roland Barthes is exceedingly aware of his own tactics. They are at once the form, the content, and the raison d’être of this book.

Barthes claims that his book is composed of the “unconscious” and “ideology,” things he cannot know about. Furthermore, he describes the text as “novelistic” (as opposed to, say, “theoretical” or “autobiographical”) in the sense that...

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