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“To each his own rhythm of suffering.” #rolandbarthes #mourningdiary @NottingHillEds

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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…

“A light without a shadow generates an emotion without reserve” #mythologies #rolandbarthes

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Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Well – I may not quite have had a Barthes Binge (except in shopping terms…) but I *have* finished “Mythologies”; and what a fascinating and brain-pummeling book it turned out to be. I read it during December, finishing it close to the end of the month (yes, I’m very behind with my reviewing); and I let it sit and settle over the Christmas and New Year period. If I’m truly honest, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to approach this post as so much has been said about the book over the years that I find myself wondering if I’m really qualified to comment (or, indeed, clever enough…) But for what it’s worth I’ll throw my two penn’orth into the discussion…

Barthes on the train…

According to Wikipedia, “Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism.” For a non-academic like me, that’s fairly scary to start with; but in fact I’ve owned a Barthes book since 2015 when I picked up “Camera Lucida“; and I considered reading “A Lover’s Discourse” for our 1977 Club reading week, but ran out of time. So Barthes has slipped in and out of my line of sight for some time now, turning up most recently in Richard Clay’s “Viral…” documentary; and frankly he seemed like an author I had to read, so after a bit of thought I decided to start with his most famous work – “Mythologies“.

The book was first published in 1957, and is split into two parts; the first section collects together a series of essays Barthes wrote on modern myths. Covering anything from wrestling to soap powder to toys to the face of Greta Garbo, he discusses the signs and symbols which affect us on a daily basis. This was a time in the 20th century where the mass media was taking hold and bombarding us with all kinds of imagery designed to sell stuff, control us and mould our thinking; imagine how much more powerful that media control is nowadays… Anyway, these essays were fascinating; a glittering series of pieces, full of so many ideas and observations that linger in the mind. The wrestling essay struck a number of bells as I can remember this being on the TV when I was growing up, with its (what seemed to me) ridiculous ritualistic format; and Barthes identified it as a form of theatre, as subject to signs and symbols as is any drama.

Advertising, of course, is one place where semiotics are vital (and this element turned up in the “Viral…” documentary); Barthes deconstructs this wonderfully and I shall try to keep his comments in mind when next being tempted to splurge on something I really don’t need! The essays sparkle with trenchant and often very funny analysis – I hadn’t quite expected to find myself laughing out loud at Barthes! His essay on the differing on-screen representations of historical Romans by French and American cinema was hilarious, with his discussion of Spectacle as a concept perhaps prefiguring the Situationists (“What matters is not what it thinks but what it sees”). “Blind and Dumb Criticism” is quite brilliant, and actually makes me think I should stop implying I don’t know what I’m talking about and have the belief that I’m making some kind of sense.

Part two of the book contains an extended section entitled “Myth Today”, and I have to confess to finding this a little more difficult than the essays. In fact, I wish I’d discovered the graphic below earlier to help clarify signified, signifier etc in my head a bit more clearly… However, it was worth persevering with, because in particular his insights into the effects of bourgeois cultural norms on our everyday lives were utterly fascinating.

Katyabogomol [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Semiology can sound scary, but the more I read and think about this, the more I believe we need to pay attention to the objects around us and what they signify. And interestingly, there seems to me to be a strong relationship between semiotics and iconoclasm; if we study the signs and symbols around us and there is a disjuncture between these and our beliefs, then naturally we’re going to want to tear down those symbols…

“Mythologies” is a book that is still so very relevant, particularly in our modern world where the cultural norms seem to be all over the place at times, and there are multiple media competing for our attention. Commenting on celebrity culture, Barthes bemoans the “regrettably materialistic times, and the glamour status which bourgeois society liberally grants its spiritual representatives (so long as they remain harmless)“, a statement that still sounds fresh today. And he’s very clear-eyed about the aspirations fed to the general public to keep them distracted from the real issues, saying of bourgeois culture:

The whole of France is seeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our theatre, our pulp literature, our rituals, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversations, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a touching wedding, the cooking we dream of, the garments we wear, everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world.

Semiotics is not something I’ve really thought about until recent years, but I do feel that it’s such an important element of understanding our world. Part of our inherited survival skills come from our ability to correctly decipher the signs and symbols around us; on the most basic level, “Is that rustle in the bushes over there a ferocious threatening beast or just the wind?” I guess the risk is that you could end up analysing your responses to everything around you so thoroughly that you become paralysed and unable to take any action! However, I do think we need to look morely closely at the signs and symbols we’re being fed, and resist the forms of control society is trying to enforce.

The Barthes pile has increased slightly…

Well – that’s my (hopefully not too dumb) non-academic take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”. Although at times a testing read, it was fascinating and in plenty of places I got those “Yes!” moments you sometimes get when reading a book, realising how we’re often surrounded by cliche and cultural shorthand, really not thinking very deeply about the world. Although it’s over 60 years old, so much of the book seems remarkable relevant; and in this day and age, when the signs and symbols being fed to us daily by our mogul-controlled mass media are becoming hard and harder to decipher and decode, we need Barthes and his “Mythologies” even more than we ever did.

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