Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

I seem to have been lost in something of a Barthesian parallel universe of late; as well as reading his seminal book “Mythologies” back in January, he’s turned up in books about translation, collections of essays, and even cartoon anthologies! I’ve also nearly read some of his works at times (“A Lover’s Discourse” was a possible for the 1977 Club). However, my most recent reading of Barthes is a lovely, and possibly unexpected, work published in a beautiful version by Notting Hill Editions – one of their first, I believe.

Around 6 p.m.: The apartment is warm, clean, well-lit, pleasant. I make it that way, energetically, devotedly (enjoying it bitterly): henceforth and forever I am my own mother.

“The Mourning Diary” is, at first sight, a rather different book in many ways to his more philosophical works; but as I read on I soon began to wonder if it really was. Barthes lived for most of his life with his mother Henriette; her death in 1977 devastated him, and it could be argued that he never really recovered from that loss, dying in the aftermath of a car accident in 1980. “The Mourning Diary” is made up of notes he made on small slips of paper after her death, recording the process of grieving, which were finally collected and pubished in 2010. In it, the reader watches a great mind try to come to terms with loss, and it’s a moving and resonant work.

I now know that my mourning will be chaotic

Barthes’ father was killed in World War 1 when baby Roland was not even one, so he was raised by his mother (and grandmother); an upbringing which would by necessity create a close bond. The family moved to Paris when Barthes was 11, and he lived with his mother for the rest of his life. Part of me would argue that that isn’t necessarily healthy (I’ve seen in my own family-by-marriage the detrimental effect on one particular individual by not leaving the nest); but nevertheless, so it was for Barthes and who are we to judge another person’s way of living?

Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment- a kind of numbness -which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.

So inevitably the death of Henriette was a catastrophe for Barthes, and an event with which he struggled to deal. He noted his thoughts, feelings and emotions on these little pieces of paper, in fragments which often read like poetry, and these meditations explore the effect of death and mourning, how we deal (or don’t deal) with the fact the loved one is no longer present, and in fact that gaping absence. This latter factor is one that shines through most strongly as Barthes attempts to understand the way he’s feeling; and the hollowness after a loss is one of the hardest parts, the fact that the person has gone missing from your life permanently.

We don’t forget,
but something vacant settles in us.

You could argue that it’s impossible to rationalise this kind of human emotion; yet the intellectual in Barthes cannot help but try to make sense of his loss. It’s our way, I suppose; with anything, we try to understand it, yet with grief I don’t know that we ever can. So we witness Barthes drawing on the experience of Proust, when his beloved grandmother died; and finding himself soothed by the poetry of haiku (an increasing influence during his later life, as I discovered from “This Little Art“).

I am either lacerated or ill at ease and occasionally subject to gusts of life

I very much recognised Barthes’ need to understand his mourning from my own personal experience. I lost my father in 2015 – the first major close family death in my adult life – and frankly the shock was immense and I didn’t actually know how to deal with it. Nothing prepares you for the death of a parent, and I wish at the time I’d had this book to hand. Even if it didn’t necessarily bring comfort, as more saccharine works might try, it may have helped me to rationalise some of what I was feeling but couldn’t articulate.

A cold winter night. I’m warm enough, yet I’m alone. And I realise that I’ll have to get used to existing quite naturally within the solitude, functioning there, working there, accompanied by, fastened to the presence of the absence.

“Mourning Diary” is a powerful and emotional read, and a very different one from what I’ve encountered from Barthes the theorist. And yet, his study of a photograph of Henriette as a child led him to write one of his most famous works, “Camera Lucida”, which although ostensibly a study of the essence of photography, apparently also is something of a tribute to his mother. I have a copy of this work sitting on the TBR; the first Barthes I ever bought, I believe, after a recommendation by either Georges Perec or Italo Calvino, and it may have to come off the shelves soon. I have a feeling it’s going to be a Barthesian kind of year…