Roland Barthes Barthes, Roland (Vol. 24) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roland Barthes 1915–1980

French critic, essayist, and autobiographer.

Barthes is considered a leading writer of the French la nouvelle critique (new criticism) and one of the most important French critics since Jean-Paul Sartre. His studies in semiology and literary analysis ushered structuralism to the forefront of French intellectual thought in the 1960s. Barthes's most influential work is S/Z, a structuralist approach to Balzac's short story "Sarrasine." Through a line-by-line account of the story, Barthes identified five "codes" which he felt defined "Sarrasine."

Barthes's first collection of essays, Le degré zéro de l'écriture (Writing Degree Zero), is his seminal work. Here Barthes presented his concept of écriture, the idea that the text has a meaning independent of, and possibly different from, the author's intentions. Barthes felt that the reader, and especially the critic, should see a text as a series of symbols that combine to form the meaning of the literary work. It was also Barthes's contention that a completely objective style of writing (zero-degree writing) was the most desirable, and he cited Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet as examples.

Barthes's theories outraged many prominent French academics; the controversy reached its height upon the publication of Barthes's Sur Racine (On Racine) in 1963. Barthes's structuralist and psychoanalytic study of Racine's plays drew an angry response from Racine scholar Raymond Picard, who felt that Barthes's method was pseudoscientific, subjective, and almost totally unfounded. Barthes, in turn, wrote Critique et vérité (Criticism and Truth) as a rejoinder to Picard's views. In this work Barthes asserted that literary criticism should be the systematic structuralist study of language and style. This, along with a semiological approach to the study of cultural phenomena, characterized Barthes's later works.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100 [obituary].)

Claude Mauriac

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Le Degré zéro de l'écriture (Zero Degree of Writing) is presented by its author, Roland Barthes, as a working hypothesis, it has a dogmatic tone. (p. 185)

According to Roland Barthes, "writing is in no way a means of communication." As the opposite of spoken language, it is by nature a counter-communication. Its particular ambiguity is in that it is at the same time language and coercion. Since all paradoxes, however laden with truth they may be, are capable of being turned around, one could say just as correctly that it is speech that aims to remove adherence by intimidating means, and one attribute to writing the opposite character of a balanced, delicately shaded, essentially honest act. To the extent to which "it improperly combines the reality of acts to the ideality of ends" political writing is, however, by all evidence, coercive. Roland Barthes devotes a chapter to it which is all the more convincing in that his arguments appear to be political. Literary writing also fulfills the author's definition if we agree with him that since it is an instrument placed in the service of a class ideology it imposes its myths more than it proposes them. One can obviously play upon the word communication. But whether or not, in either case, it is a one-way transmission, changes nothing in the fundamental purpose of language, which is to make oneself understood. This elementary truth Roland Barthes knows as well as anyone else. He is...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

Raymond Picard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When I first ran through [Roland Barthes'] commentaries on [Racine's] tragedies, published on the occasion of a new edition of Racine, I did not take them very seriously. Somewhat baffled, and more scandalized than amused, I supposed them to be a piece of hackwork in the performance of which the writer had diverted himself, with his usual talent, by entering the realm of the venturesome and the preposterous. But when in 1963 these studies were collected in a volume with other writings [On Racine (Sur Racine)] which threw light on them, and when in 1964 another volume offered further details of doctrine and method, I realized my error. Without any doubt this was a coherent undertaking the importance of which was not to be underestimated; the reception of it by a certain segment of the public made that perfectly clear. Indeed, it is one of the most significant examples in the last ten years of the effort, so praiseworthy in itself, to develop a new criticism…. (pp. 1-2)

Mr. Barthes' assertions most often belong to two registers. Some of them (to write somewhat after his own manner) are of a vaticinal order; having no explicatory value, generally not very clear and slightly unusual, these oracular revelations must be accepted such as they are by the faithful. Others, accompanied by reasons and examples, are subject to control; unfortunately, we discover that they rest on astonishingly weak foundations.

What adds to the uneasiness of the reader is the fact that these ruinous structures are situated in an ambiguous and contradictory universe. From the very first, indeed, the critic introduces his study by announcing that "its language is somewhat psychoanalytical," though, he adds immediately, "the treatment [of the subject] is hardly so at all."… Thus he deliberately severs this language from its meaning. And to use the language of a discipline without practicing that discipline is to reduce it to a collection of similes and metaphors. For this reason, and for several others, Mr. Barthes, condemned never to speak of things, is dedicated (it must already have become evident) to a kind of metaphorical criticism—with all the indistinctness that that admits of, the relation between the object and the metaphor which qualifies it being multiple and blurred. (p. 6)

[It is] hard to grasp the exact nature of sexuality in this indefinite kind of psychoanalysis. Obsessive, unbridled, cynical, it nevertheless interposes itself everywhere, and one must reread Racine in order to be persuaded that his characters are different, after all, from D. H. Lawrence's…. It is clear that in the violent drama of Racine, Mr. Barthes has decided to find unbridled sexuality. No one can stop him, nor could they if he wished to find the fundamental role of the Father in a comedy by Marivaux or a drama by Hugo.

For he is above all a man of system. What system, it is not always easy to see; and the uncertainty of his position with regard to psychoanalysis has just been noted. But, no matter. What fascinates him in a system is the spirit of system. "The Racinian Eros expresses itself only through a recital, a narrative. Imagination is always retrospective, and memory always has the distinctness of an image."… Always, only: the truths of which the critic makes himself the prophet are absolute, universal, definitive. One of the most annoying aspects of this book is the intellectual smugness of its author: he fearlessly decides, settles, affirms. Mystery itself has no mystery for him; he penetrates everything, explains everything, knows everything. The only thing that escapes him is nuance. And it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise, given the nature of his undertaking. For he is really concerned with "a kind of Racinian anthropology" which, taking up its station "in Racine's tragic world," describes that world's "population (which may be readily abstracted under the concept Homo racinianus)."… Everything is in this discreet parenthesis. Mr. Barthes gives himself over indeed to a job of abstraction. That is to say, in accordance with his needs (and with intellectual contortions which certainly do not give an impression of ease), he abstracts from the tragedies those elements which he thinks ought, when suitably adjusted, to enter into his prefabricated concept of Homo racinianus. For my part, I have never believed in the existence of such an animal—chimerical in every sense of the word. And the effort being examined here is certainly not one to make me change my mind. Each one of the elements composing this concept ought to be capable of application to all the tragedies; yet the sad truth is that none of the elements, at the outside, concerns more than two or three of them…. [The form Mr. Barthes'] thought habitually takes is that of aberrant extrapolation; one or two observations … are all that he asks as the basis of a generalization…. This method of thundering generalization is repeated too often with evidence that verges on caricature. (pp. 8-12)

One wonders if this critic does not rely upon some private inspiration, some criterion of truth unknown to the common run of mortals, in advancing, as he does in so intemperate a manner, such inaccurate, contestable, or preposterous ideas. Take Bajazet. The Seraglio is "a feminine or eunuchoid habitat."… Eunuchoid? Whatever has the form of an egg is ovoid. The deltoid has the form of a delta. (p. 14)

A eunuchoid habitat, a desexualized place, the asexuality of Achmet—the pathological character of such language has already struck its readers, and this problem cannot be ignored. The vocabulary of this book has been borrowed from biology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and so on, and it includes in addition a large number of neologisms made, not without a certain cleverness, in the image of those to be found in these various disciplines…. [The function of Mr. Barthes' jargon], artless perhaps but effective, is—as we have already seen a dozen times—to give "scientific" prestige to absurdities, to dress up commonplaces, to hide (rather unsuccessfully) the indecision of his thought. With its obscure terms, which remain undefined and are used—without warning—in different senses, with its elastic notions and its too fluid concepts, this jargon is nothing but the instrument of a "show-off" kind of criticism. (pp. 15-16)

[It] is not the obscurity of Mr. Barthes' jargon that I am finding fault with; with a little practice in philosophy and a smattering of Greek, one can manage to understand it. What is annoying for the reader is that his effort is poorly rewarded; the critic's language keeps posing little riddles to be answered by an error, an approximation, or a platitude…. His jargon is useless, and it is pretentious in promising a rigor that his thought...

(The entire section is 2830 words.)

Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Barthes] has powerful opponents at home, but I doubt whether there will be much raising of voices here, and the reason is not simply that we are insular. Although Barthes is famous for recondite meditations on the sign-structures not only of literature but of what you never thought had sign-structures, like menus, fashions and furniture, so qualifying as an adventurous structuralist, he rarely refers to any language except French, or to any literature except French. Thus in Writing Degree Zero there is a far-reaching discussion of the French preterite, a tense that now belongs to a written, not a spoken language, and which is treated as 'the corner-stone of Narration', an expression of an order...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Laurent Lesage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Histrionics and rhetoric give Barthes' essays a look of originality that they do not always possess. They capture attention by their emphatic style but often add little to what literary historians have already said in studies that maintain better balance and are more wary of specious generalizations. This is already evident in his first work, Le Degré Zéro de l'Ecriture, a dazzling piece of argumentation in which he attempts to isolate from language and style a distinct socio-historical aspect that he calls "writing." He pushes his investigation of language problems further in Mythologies and takes up the subject of social myths. In the introduction to Michelet par lui-même and in the essay on...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Susan Sontag

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Writing Degree Zero probably isn't the easiest text with which to start an acquaintance with Barthes. The book is compact to the point of ellipsis, often arcane. It barely suggests the variety and intellectual mobility of Barthes' subsequent work…. Though explicitly theoretical in character, the argument here can't compare in rigor or completeness with Barthes' later development of some of these ideas in his "Eléments de Sémiologie."… Moreover, Writing Degree Zero gives virtually no indication of Barthes' sensitivity and imaginativeness in handling individual literary texts and in stating the unifying metaphors of a single author's body of work, skills he was to exercise in the short book on...

(The entire section is 1631 words.)

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"It will afford profit and pleasure to that numerous class of persons who have no instinctive enjoyment of literature," writes a British reviewer of the French text of S/Z. Instinctive enjoyment of literature! Surely all of Roland Barthes's ten books exist to unmask such an expression, to expose such a myth. It is precisely our "instinctive enjoyment" which is acculturated, determined, in bondage. Only when we know—and it is a knowledge gained by taking pains, by renouncing what Freud calls instinctual gratification—what we are doing when we read, are we free to enjoy what we read. As long as our enjoyment is—or is said to be—instinctive it is not enjoyment, it is terrorism. For literature is...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Peter Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A decade ago, Susan Sontag suggested that rather than an esthetics we need an erotics of art. Roland Barthes has gone some way toward providing this in a slim volume called "The Pleasure of the Text" ["Le plaisir du texte"], a liberated and self-indulgent meditation on the solitary vice of reading. Here, and in the book that immediately preceded it, "S/Z," Barthes demonstrates a renewed suppleness that takes him beyond the limitations of much recent French work of a "structuralist" persuasion, including his own.

Taken together, "The Pleasure of the Text," and "S/Z" force us to notice how much of the most interesting thought today is being carried forward in what we used to call "literary criticism,"...

(The entire section is 1155 words.)

John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"S/Z" is a nearly unreadable book about reading, a two-hundred-page crawl through a thirty-page story by Balzac…. The reader emerges, as from that machine of Kafka's which engraved commandments upon the transgressor's skin, lexically enriched but lacerated; I have no recollection of any other book ostensibly in the English language which gave me such pains to peruse. Barthes says elsewhere, of good prose, that "it grates, it cuts," and his own is notably abrasive, his vocabulary a gnashing, flashing compound of Greek [and terms lifted from modern linguistics and common words] … recoined with a specific and not easily grasped meaning. His style is dense, terse, nervous, parenthetical, sometimes arch, and faintly...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)

Philip Thody

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Barthes's view, we are perpetually caught up, at every moment of our experience, by a mesh of words that prevents us from seeing what is really happening…. [We] perpetually see life in terms of the books we have read, and have quite lost the ability to see physical objects as they actually are. In so far as it ties us down to a predigested version of the way somebody else first saw the world and expressed it for us, this habit prevents us from realising our full potential as free human beings. It is consequently—though here I am extrapolating from Barthes's work, not referring to any formal statement which he has made—the task of the person who writes either about literature or about language to make people...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)

Roland A. Champagne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Literary theory has not yet found its place in literary history. Many Anglo-Americans are skeptical about its place in literary transactions because literary theory sometimes places actual readers and spectators of literary events in the background. The solution may not lie in integrating literary theory into literary history…. [The] writings of Roland Barthes encourage the beginnings of … a case for theory which encompasses both literary and historical texts. Barthes especially encourages exploration into a theory of reading with its own historicity with his writings on history and within the historical moment of reading. His kind of theory is one which engages readers and spectators of the reading transactions...

(The entire section is 1581 words.)

John Sturrock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roland Barthes is an incomparable enlivener of the literary mind. He is as adventurous in the formulation of new principles for the understanding of literature as he is provocative in dispatching the old ones. To read him is to be led to think more intelligently and enjoyably about what literature is; about both the practice of writing and its function. He has renewed literary criticism in France, which is now a far more varied and practical discipline than it was, and is helping to renew it outside France as the translations of his work spread.

Barthes has not done this by constructing some definite theoretical position of his own vis-à-vis literature and then sticking to it stubbornly over...

(The entire section is 3620 words.)

Christopher Prendergast

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two writers, Nietzsche and Gide, both of whom played a decisive role in Barthes's intellectual formation, once compared their mode of thinking as analogous to a 'dance'. The analogy could be aptly applied to Barthes's own work, not in the sense of a carefully choreographed execution, but rather as an experimental performance, forever changing positions, ceaselessly self-revising, above all always on the move….

[In] the simplest terms, what was Barthes—a literary critic, a cultural historian, an anthropologist of the modern world, a structuralist, a semiologist? What was his most important book—the structural study of French fashion (Système de la mode, 1967), the...

(The entire section is 1303 words.)

Thomas Merton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To say [Barthes] is one of the new French "structuralists" is no help: it is only misleading. What is "structuralism" any-way? We shall later see whether such a "school of philosophy" exists at all. Meanwhile, Barthes can be localized as a French critic and indeed as one of the most articulate and important literary critics writing today in any language, although Writing Degree Zero might not be enough, by itself, to convince anyone of the fact.

This is an extremely condensed little book, thick with esoteric language, highly charged with intuitions which may or may not be profound. You need some time to decide whether or not this is really a brilliant book or just another bag of critical...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)

Edward Jayne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If a consistent theory of criticism emerges in [the] discontinuity of perspectives offered by Barthes … throughout his career, it very probably depends on what might be coined a zero-degree hermeneutics comparable to the concept of zero-degree style which he originally proposed almost three decades ago. As he advocates for literary form, his critical theory seems to be suspended in interspace between the methodologies which dominate it, but without really bringing these into harmony with each other. The critical act verges on each of them, but short of fusion and in a pattern of temptation and quick abandonment which actually seems to have accelerated throughout his career. In Roland Barthes by Roland...

(The entire section is 3813 words.)