When you’re not by my side
The world’s in two, and I’m a fool
When you’re not in my sight
Then everything, just fades from view
The mystery of love belongs to you
The mystery of love belongs to you
Tell me, have you changed your mind?
Am I a fool, because of you?
Tell me, do we still have time?
To make this wrong somehow be right
The mystery of love belongs to you
The mystery of love belongs to you
Show me sweetness, show me summer skies
Show me how to make this wrong seem right
Show me laughter in your pale blue eyes
Tell me, tell me have you changed your mind? ( Mystery of Love. P.J. Harvey, Marianne Faithfull)
“Barthes was against doxa, conformism, the status quo. He set no great store by his own work, which was a stick to beat the present and make it more reflective. In writing a text, any text, the writer himself comes undone, remaining only as devices within the text, appearing perhaps in the third person as he does in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975). In his own way, Barthes was a moralist, a hedonistic materialist, arguing that we must surrender our individuality whenever we enter language, which cannot belong to us.”
Roland Barthes, who died in 1981, was an eminent French historian, writer and philosopher, one of the chief formulators of semiology, the study of forms by interpreting the societal role of signs and symbols. …
In 1964 Roland Barthes ( 1915-1981) developed his ideas about semiotics in a short treatise translated as “The Elements of Semiology”. In 1967, after working on the project for nearly ten years, he published “Systéme de la Mode”, a study of the “language” of women’s fashions. Although both these books are worth reading for definitions and insights, neither is wholly successful. “Eléments de Sémiologie” is marred by a lack of familiarity with the work of American linguists of the Chomsky generation. “Systéme de la Mode” suffers from being focused not on clothes directly but on what fashioners say about clothes, which can be pretty boring, self-congratulating and narcissistic.
In the meantime he was steadily turning out essays on literature, some of which were collected in 1963 in “Sur Racine” and in 1964 in “Essais critiques” To these volumes and the mysteriously titled S/Z of 1970, all culminating in his “Camera Lucida” of 1981.
“S/Z (1970) was based on an untypical novella by Balzac: ‘Sarrasine’. Barthes chopped Balzac’s text into 561 units and then dissolved the story further by treating it under five codes: actional, hermeneutic, semic, symbolic and referential. The last code, the references the story makes to ‘reality out there’, was the most controversial. Barthes argued that this ‘reality’ was only the glib commonplaces and accepted wisdom of Balzac’s own time: not insights but stereotypes. As a Structuralist, he suggested that there was no author but rules, no expression but only technique.”
The story of S/Z concerns the unfortunate love of a duped eighteenth-century french sculptor , Sarrasine, for a beautiful Italian soprano, Zambinella , who turns out to be a “castrato” dressed as a woman. The title of the critical essay, Barthes explains, separates the initials of these personages with a diagonal because “S” and “Z” are the same letter, or at least mirror images; because in Zambinella Sarrasine contemplates his own unmanning ; and because the diagonal is used by linguists to mean “versus”
The first thing that strikes the reader is the wide range of Barthe’s interests. Everything from Sade to Proust to Baudelaire, Voltaire, Baudelaire, Kafka and Brecht among many others. Running through the various essays, however, are certain recurring approaches that pull everything together and exlpain why Barthes was known in France as the leading representative of the postwar “nouvelle critique”. This literary movement, although not at all organized, is coherent enough to be described as an updated French version of the New Criticism that arose in England and America between the world wars.
Like its foreign predecessor, “la nouvelle critique” stresses the use of nonliterary disciplines, such as the social sciences in the study of literature; that in the study of literature insists on the necessity of a close reading of the text, often considering a work as isolated from the context of its creation, and at time unearths levels of supposed significance that can disconcert a plain man who assumes that words mean what they say.
In “Sur Racine” for example, Barthes reduces the tragic Racinean universe and its population to a structuralist , existentialist, and Freudian mechanism that churns out systematic oppositions such as shade/light, silence/language, virility/femininity, authority/submission and throbs with oedipal conflict. He adds to this analytical tour de force a flat , provocative statement that he is making “no reference” whatever to possible biographical and historical sources for Racine’s work. “Freud, who was keenly aware of the trap that literature sets for the psychoanalytically inclined reader- a trap into which it is ironically, the most talented who are the most likely to fall- remained constantly sensitive to this point, in contrast to many of his epigones…”
“I read Barthes’ text as a countertext to Freud; at the same time I read both of their late texts as love stories, as stories of loss which are transformed into what are also stories of writing. Our lives can be broken by the loss through death of someone we loved. That is true and I would be foolish to deny it. But they can also be impelled forward by such a loss… Freud in old age continued his investigation of mourning in a creative way, and Barthe continued to radically invent a writing self. ” ( Kathleen Woodward )
“The Freudian framework would seem to be more receptive to some of the contradictory ideas involved in the subliminal. After all, it has a theory of the subconscious and its relationship with conscious aspects of human existence. Given a layman’s knowledge of Freud and the definition of subliminal already described, myth has the potential to shape them together as one coherent discourse. In taking the first steps in articulating the discourse of subliminal persuasion, it is useful to let the imagination take over and see what happens when these ideas are combined. According to Barthes (1972), this is the essence of myth. Just as language selects and combines preexisting linguistic elements to form unique sentences, so myth selects and combines preexisting semiological systems to form a new and unique discourse.
To do this, however, it is necessary that one suspends one’s critical faculties for the moment and pardon the apparent sloppy treatment of these discourses. The intention is to articulate the myth in its own terms rather than in the discourse of the objective observer. In the Freudian world view, behavior is the result of unconscious mental forces, inner drives fueled by desire, fear and the libido. The definition of a “subliminal message” describes an entity which can bypass the threshold of consciousness. By definition, it follows that this message is being “received” in this subconscious region of the mind. ( Gary P. Radford )
In the best French tradition of the exchange of insults, Barthe gave as good as he got. He irritated French literary scholars to no end, in particular those who like to trace sources and influences on a writer’s work. Barthes was accused of playing fast and loose with facts, employing jargon, yielding to sexual obsessions, giving classics a modern ideological slant, and treating language as something halfway between molasses and rubber. Raymond Picard said, ” Barthes is like a man who might be interested in women but who , by a strange perversion, can appreciate them only by examining them with X rays.”
There were other reasons to be irked by Barthes as well. His harping attacks on the wickedness of the bourgeoisie could be tiresome, largely because he was so vague about identifying these scoundrels that he leaves you with the suspicion that, like Sartre’s hell, they are just “the others,” the non Barthesian people. Also, his puncturing of “myths” could imply, in a rather uncomplimentary fashion, that he assumes you were taken in before he came along. However, long before your complaints become a final exasperation, you are likely to be appeased by his intelligence and also by his pure enthusiasm for signs and language as such.
“Indeed, looking at Mythologies through the lens of contemporary culture, it is depressingly obvious that Barthes’ theories, in teaching society about the way it controls its own meanings, actually enhanced and inspired the very world of advertising and marketing that he sought to question and warn us against. Fifty years on, Mythologies hasn’t been superseded, it’s been implemented.”
Ultimately with Barthes, it can be argued that only a person who is sensitive to signifiers as signifiers is likely to see through a modern mythmaker, for in fact the latter, in his own iniquitous way, is a connoisseur of media as such. The sly meaning, or insinuation, in a myth arises not so much from a “content”, as from an illicit manipulation of a “content” as a mere signifier. In a sense, you have to “empty” the apparatus in order to perceive how it works, and if you don’t “empty” it you are almost certain to be hooked by it. Hence, there is only a seeming paradox in saying that Barthes would not be the ardent moralist he is if he were not also an ardent formalist.
Inaugurating the chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France in the late 1970s, Barthes reminded his audience that:
“Semiology, so far as I am concerned, started from a strictly emotional impulse. It seemed to me (around 1954) that a science of signs might stimulate social criticism, and that Sartre, Brecht, and Saussure could concur in the project. It was a question, in short, of understanding (or of describing) how a society produces stereotypes, i.e., triumphs of artifice, which it then consumes as innate meanings, i.e., triumphs of nature. Semiology (my semiology, at least) is generated by an intolerance of this mixture of bad faith and good conscience which characterizes the general morality, and which Brecht, in his attack upon it, called the Great Habit.”