With righteous indignation, structuralism, and something called semiotics, a multi-faceted Frenchmen named Roland Barthes captured a large audience with his social and literary criticism. Roland Barthes is a key figure in international intellectual life. He is one of the most important intellectual figures to have emerged in postwar France and his writings continue to have an influence on critical debates today. “Mythologies” is one of his earliest and most widely-read works. Mythologies is one of Barthes’s most popular works because in it we see the intellectual as humourist, satirist, master stylist and debunker of the myths that surround us all in our daily lives.
Best by many “écritures” available, how can a writer be honest? How can they dodge the implicit commitments? How can they avoid being alienated? Attempts to answer these questions constitute a major part of the history of modern prose. Some writers, one of the first being Flaubert, have tried what Barthes calls the “artisan” approach and have seated over their “mots justes” . Others have tortured and nearly murdered the language in their effort to get closer to reality. Some have retreated into a supposedly meaningful silence. And still others have sought to escape from dishonest “literature” by writing in an argot, a dialect, or some other sort of primarily oral language. Especially interesting to Barthes are those who, like Albert Camus in “L’Etranger” , have tried to invent a neutral, colorless, purely instrumental, absolutely cold prose; have tried that is, to get down to Barthes’ “le degré zéro de l’écriture”.
The trouble, of course, is that each act of defiance has tended to become in its turn, a convention and, finally, one more ideological subterfuge, for the modern bourgeoisie is notoriously capable of transforming censure into praise and co-opting opponents. Barthes concludes, a bit dispiritedly, that modern prose can be only an anticipation and that there can be no complete solution to the problem of “decorative and compromising” “ecritures” without a social revolution. Double talk is the natural language of an ethically flawed society.
After the density of “Le Degré zéro de l’écriture” , the short witty essays collected in “Mythologies” may seem to be only light entertainment. They were written between 1954 and 1956 in response to occasional inspirations, and are concerned with such matters as Garbo’s face, wrestling matches, detergents, plastics, Martians and UFO’s, wine and milk, steaks and french fries, Chaplin, Billy Graham, strippers, astrology, and the politics of shopkeepers.
There are bright thoughts in the aphoristic “écriture” of the French seventeenth century. A discussion of a magazine sob sister’s advice to the lovelorn opens with the fine sententiousness: ” The heart is a female organ.” In an account of a guidebook we are given a law of the genre:”Christianity is the leading provisioner of tourism; one travels only to visit churches.” An essay on a child prodigy yields: “In the time of pascal childhood was considered a lost period; the problem was to get out of it as soon as possible. Since the Romantic era, since the triumph, that is, of the bourgeoisie, the problem is to stay in it as long as possible.”
There is entertainment, too, in his habit of explaining presumably ignoble art in terms of the noble. Having observed that a professional wrestler exaggerates his plight when pinned down, Barthes adds: “The gesture of the vanquished wrestler signaling to the world a defeat which, far from concealing, he accentuates and “holds” in the fashion of a fermata in music, corrsponds to the ancient mask that was designed to signify the tragic tone…”
These essays are not, however, just deadpan divertissements and cultural slumming; they are also protests, like “Le Degré zéro de l’écriture” , against the humbug in our society. The piece on the advice to the lovelorn column becomes a denunciation of the way women’s magazines “amid trumpet blasts about Feminine Independence,” convert their readers into a “colony of parasites” dependent on men and wretchedly isolated from the real world. Tiece on the guidebook criticizes the kind of tourism that reduces a country to a museum.
A review of the photographic exhibition “The Family of Man” condemns the sentimentality that stresses our common human lot; birth, work, death, and thus diverts attention from the unjust differences. Sometimes Barthes is ironical to the point of approval; he obviously likes the play acting of wrestlers, probably because in this instance the myth fools nobody. But he is relentless against the alibis of the well-off, the paltering of admen, the dream-mongering of the popular press, and every sort of modern tartuffe.
“The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theatres. And in fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle, for what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky (a romantic value suited rather to fashionable occasions), it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve. ( Barthes)
There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque [Barthes here refers to characters in neo-classic French plays by Molière and Racine]. Of course, there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unnecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight; this is of no interest. True wrestling, wrong called amateur wrestling, is performed in second-rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest, like the audience at a suburban cinema. Then these same people wax indignant because wrestling is a stage-managed sport (which ought, by the way, to mitigate its ignominy). The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.
This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it wold make no sense. A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future.
In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result. Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win: it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him. It is said that judo contains a hidden symbolic aspect; even in the midst of efficiency, its gestures are measured, precise but restricted, drawn accurately but by a stroke without volume. Wrestling, on the contrary, offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. In judo, a man who is down is hardly down at all, he rolls over, he draws back, he eludes defeat, or, if the latter is obvious, he immediately disappears; in wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.
This function of grandiloquence is indeed the same as that of the ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity. The gesture of the vanquished wrestler signifying to the world a defeat which, far from disgusting, he emphasizes and holds like a pause in music, corresponds to the mask of antiquity meant to signify the tragic mode of the spectacle. In wrestling, as on the stage in antiquity, one is not ashamed of one’s suffering, one knows how to cry, one has a liking for tears.” ( Roland Barthes )
… Barthe’s Marxism and his existentialism appear in “Mythologies” in the form of attacks on the “bourgeois norm” and on the complacent tacit assumption, which he ties to philosophical essentialism, that our spuriousness and silliness are somehow built-in instead of being produced by historical circumstances that can be controlled- if need be, by a violent political revolt. “I was trying”, he explains in his foreword, ” to reflect regularly on certain myths in french daily life… the point of departure for this reflection was most often a feeling of impatience when confronted by the ‘naturalness’ with which the press, art, and the common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is one we live in, is nevertheless completely historical; in brief, it pained me to see nature and History confused at every turn in accounts of our daily behavior, and I wanted, in this decked out display of what goes without saying, to get hold of the ideological abuse which in my opinion is hidden there.”
Toward the end of the book he returns to this theme, insisting that what is called human nature in a capitalist society is mostly just a set of customs that are convenient and profitable for the dominant class. In all this there is an evident implication that a myth , in the special sense under scrutiny, is a piece of ideological double-talk comparable to an “écriture” with allowances for the frequent use of images or actions or other substitutes for words.