Although I have read an *awful* lot of books during my lifetime, there are many authors who are still a bit intimidating and whom I’m nervous of approaching; Roland Barthes was one of those, and although I love what I’ve read, he’s definitely not the easiest of reads. However, even scarier is Jacques Derrida; nevertheless, I’ve often thought of reading him, and when I heard about his book “The Work of Mourning”, which includes a piece on Barthes, I succumbed. I may not get everything he writes, and it may well be a funny place to start with Derrida, but I will give it a go! 😀

Derrida was a French philosopher; born in Algeria, he’s probably best-known for his work on the process of ‘deconstruction’ as a way to understand a text, and he’s closely associated with post-modernism. “The Work of Mourning” is a collection of texts written between 1981 and 2001 in which Derrida reflects on the loss of friends and colleagues over this period. Some are lectures, some eulogies, but all are either engagements or re-engagements with the work of those he’s memorialising.

I do not yet know, and in the end it really does not matter, if I will be able to make it clear why I must leave these thoughts for Roland Barthes fragmentary, or why I value them for their incompleteness even more than for their fragmentation, more for their pronounced incompleteness, for their punctuated yet open interruptions, without even the authoritative edge of an aphorism. These little stones, thoughtfully placed, only one each time, on the end of a name as the promise of return.

As I said, I was intrigued to see what Derrida had to say about Barthes; the pieces are presented in chronological order of death so RB appears at the start, and Derrida focuses in the main on Barthes’ first and last works, “Writing Degree Zero” and “Camera Lucida”. Exploring his reactions to those books, he also explores Barthes’ work in them and the resulting text is exhilarating, if not always an easy read…

What’s particularly interesting is how Derrida draws on “Camera Lucida” as also being a work of mourning; it was, of course, Barthes’ last work and was informed by a photograph of the philosopher’s mother who had recently passed away. This is covered more directly in Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” (which I wrote about here), but Derrida seems to be suggesting that “Camera…” is just as much about mourning, memory and loss as is the other work. As he points out, Barthes final book’s “…time and tempo accompanied his death as no other book, I believe, has ever kept watch over its author.” Barthes, of course, tragically died not long after the publication of his last work, and I believe it’s been actually regarded as the writer’s eulogy for himself.

Although I’ve read “Writing Degree Zero“, I’ve yet to read “Camera Lucida”; however, I know enough about it to trail Derrida in his musings; and although I didn’t always follow his train of thought, there were many shafts of brilliance which stood out from this piece (I could have marked many more than I have…) Certainly, his explorations of photography and memory were fascinating, and I can see how the effect of having photographic records and the way these alter our modern life is continuing to be explored by authors like Maria Stepanova. It also seems to me that Derrida was using the death of Barthes to not only return to the great man’s work, but also to meditate on mortality itself, how we react to it, deal with the loss of a person, and how we think of them after they’ve gone. It’s never less than fascinating, and I’ll be very interested to see his responses to the loss of other friends and colleagues.

“The Working of Mourning” was edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, who provide a detailed introduction, and each chapter opens with a short biography of the subject who follows. I suspect, from the quick look I’ve had, that Derrida’s style will vary from piece to piece; certainly the length does, as some are simply a letter sent on the occasion of a death, and some longer, more detailed works like the Barthes. Anyway, my first encounter with Derrida was intriguing, if mentally bracing, but I am determined to keep going with the book – watch this space to see how I continue to get on with him! 😀