Barthes for dummies

October 12, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Introducing Barthes, a graphic guide by Philip Thody and Piero. 1995.

 Literature is the proof and the assertion of human freedom.

I know this is strange, I’m French and I’m reading a book introducing Barthes in English. It’s not natural, it’s a conscious choice coming from me stumbling upon a graphic guidebook about Barthes at the Tate Modern. I browsed through it, saw no complicated words, liked the drawings and thought “That, my mind can grasp and I’ll finally know why everybody talks about him.”

BarthesIt’s well-done, I think I understood the concepts. Of course, I’m totally unable to assess if it’s faithful to the original thinking of Barthes, if it simplifies too much his works or if it leaves aside relevant part of his texts. Hell, I’ve read this because I knew his name –not from a street plaque, I’ve never encountered a Barthes street— and had heard about him. The only time I tried to read his prose, I couldn’t link the signs with any content. It was filled with too much unknown jargon to be understandable to the philistine I am. Battre en brèche la naturalité du signe doesn’t make much sense to me. Philip Thody manages the anti-Barthesian –I can invent whatever adjective I want, words are just arbitrary signs— task to sum up with clarity Barthes’ work.

So this graphic guide goes through Barthes’ major works in chronological order. I knew some of the titles but had no idea of what they were about. It happens that I’m the Bourgeois Gentilhomme of Barthenism: lots of concepts I partially knew from I don’t know where (Business school probably) and without knowing it came from him. Not that he’d be happy to be associated to anything containing the word “bourgeois” in it.

As it is I agree with a lot of what I’ve read. I don’t believe in Fate, in things being “natural”. Most of what the society wants us to accept as natural is cultural and language is as cultural as anything else. Trying to sell things as natural is a way to keep the society in a stand-still and let the power in the hands of those who already have it. Take women and how convenient it is to talk about maternal instinct and the nature of women that predetermines them to stay at home and nurture kids.

I also agree with the idea of a reader, a spectator setting their mind upon reading a book or watching a play as if it were reality while knowing at the same time that it isn’t. We’ve all experienced this: sometimes we’re not in the right mindset to accept a book as it is. Think of Thomas Hardy. Some readers reproach him for the use of implausible and most convenient coincidences to move the plot forward. When I read Thomas Hardy, I know that it’s implausible but I’ve decided that I’ll believe it while I’m reading the book, just to enjoy the ride. It’s a sort of prerequisite to my reading and I accept them. Just like I accept objectified women in hard-boiled as part of the genre.

Later, Thody explains:

“Barthes’ thinking about literature criticizes the view that an author’s work has to be seen in the context of his life. It rejects any idea that the way to understand a literary work is to find out what the author was consciously trying to do”.

Regular readers of this blog know I don’t really care much about a writer’s biography. I don’t think a reader needs to know about the writer’s life to enjoy and understand a book. I like to approach a novel without prejudice and see it as a stand-alone, apart from the author’s life. The literary worth of a novel is independent of the worth of the writer as a man. Lots of writers would disappear of our shelves if we decided to disregard the works of writers whose life goes against our definition of a good or honourable man. And I think Voyage au bout de la nuit is worth reading despite Céline being anti-Semitic and Emile ou De l’éducation by Rousseau is still widely read even if Rousseau abandoned all his children.

This passage compares Barthes’ view on literature to the traditional technique to study texts and it helped me understand why I hated literature in class. I like Barthes’ vision, a lot. It suits me. And I’ve been doing the exact opposite in class. I hated the explications de texte that Barthes puts on the grill and the ideas that each word of each sentence had been thought and written on purpose by the writer. This was digging out what the author was consciously trying to do. I was young but I thought it pointless and opposite to what I wanted from literature: pleasure, evasion, knowledge, enlightenment and emotions.

Then, there’s this “The only literature worth writing or reading is the one that is about something. In short, it is content and not form that creates literary value”. It’s a little extreme and I’m convinced that great literature allies content and form. The best plot in the world won’t work for me if it’s poorly written. And a good style isn’t enough. That’s why I struggle with experimental literature that emphasizes more on experiment than on trying to say something. I’m fond of Exercice de style because Queneau doesn’t try to wrap it into what it’s not. I’m less tempted by La disparition by Perec; I can’t help thinking that such a constraint as writing without the letter e had inevitable impact on the quality of the plot. Yet it is tagged as a novel.

Well, this is what interested me in Introducing Barthes. I expected it to be more difficult than that and more distant from my experience as a reader. I hope I didn’t write anything stupid that will make specialists roll their eyes. In my defence, I’ll say that it’s not my line of work, it’s not what I majored in, so be lenient with me and correct me gently in the comment section.

I found this graphic book entertaining and easy to read. It’s aimed at Anglophone readers so it explains many French facts that I knew from my background. For example, if you’re French and you’re reading something about Barthes theories, you don’t need so many details about who Racine was, you already know. It’s like Shakespeare for an Anglophone. And also, there’s one minor slip: the Abbé Pierre fought for downs-and-outs in the winter 1954, not 1952.

  1. October 13, 2013 at 12:40 am

    I’m old fashioned enough to steer away from graphic books. probably a short-coming on my part but there you are. Although I have to say that in this specific case, I can see the point.


    • October 13, 2013 at 9:44 pm

      I like graphic books, sometimes. And yes, it was a good medium to demythologise the writer.


  2. October 14, 2013 at 4:33 am

    I was hoping an expert would stop by to correct you – or confirm what you wrote. I don’t know anything about Barthes. I should read this book!


    • October 14, 2013 at 6:20 am

      I’m disappointed, I kind of counted on you for that. I should have read a graphic guide about John Ruskin. 🙂


  3. October 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I can’t contradict you as it’s too long ago that I’ve read him. I had thought about returning to him some day, so you gave me a nudge. I’m not too keen on introductions like this but I can see why they would appeal. On the other hand, you hate abbreviated literature. But is that not the same aim? Making something a bit more challaneging accessible? I think that’s where the value lies. You might very well feel inclined to read his work now. I’ve actually just saw I got his biography here. Unlike you, I’m interested in biographies, but I agree, mostly the books should have some value without us knowing too much about the author.


    • October 14, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      I don’t consider his articles or books as works of art whose integrity needs to be preserved. That’s why it’s not the same for me. His academic language is too complicated for me and I couldn’t read him in the text. (Even after the graphic book)
      I look at biographies on Wikipedia to know facts about the life of a writer. I’m not interested enough to read bios, most of the time. I don’t think that you absolutely need to know what was happening in a writer’s life when he was writing the book you are reading.
      I also liked the idea that the relationship between a reader and a book is personal, that each reader has a different experience while reading and that a book has a different meaning according to the reader. We project who we are in our reading. See how billets about a same book can vary from one blogger to the other.


  4. October 15, 2013 at 5:57 am

    Beautiful review, Emma! I love the fact that there is a graphic guide introduction to Barthes’ work and I am glad that you discovered it. Your comment – “Philip Thody manages the anti-Barthesian task to sum up with clarity Barthes’ work” – made me smile 🙂 I haven’t tried reading Barthes yet, but I once tried reading Michel Foucault and it was so hard to even understand a word – so I could totally identify with what you said about reading Barthes for the first time. Your comment on literature class – “I hated the explications de texte that Barthes puts on the grill and the ideas that each word of each sentence had been thought and written on purpose by the writer” – made me remember something. I once went to a talk by Amy Tan and during the talk she said that sometimes writers don’t write a sentence or a passage with a deeper meaning and they are just what they are at first sight and sometimes ‘blue’ is just the ‘colour blue’ and she also said that when she sees Cliffs Notes of her books which describe some of the implied themes in her books it makes her smile because those were not the themes and interpretation that she intended. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on content and form. I agree that a combination of both is what creates magic.

    Thanks for this wonderful review, Emma. I will look for this book.


    • October 16, 2013 at 10:14 pm

      Thanks Vishy
      If you ever read that book, you’ll understand a bit more about the comment on “clarity”.

      Every field has their jargon. I have one at work too. I’m not surprised Barthes uses some vocabulary I don’t understand. That’s why I liked the idea of a graphic book. It doesn’t mean I can read the original now. It’s like listening to a scientist being interviewed. Listen to a Nobel prize in physics. Most of the time they’re so brilliant that they can explain their work to common people. They simplify it, it’s intelligible but you still can’t read their actual articles. I feel the same about academicians like Barthes or philosophers. (Reading Bachelard in school was a torture)

      The commentaire de texte seems to be a French thing. It was not translated in the book I wrote, I supposed there wasn’t an exact English equivalent.
      What I didn’t write in the billet is that I thought Barthes’ world was quite narrow. From what’s in this graphic book, the guy got interested in Japanese culture but most of his thinking was centred in France and around French habits and vision. I thought it was a bit limited but perhaps the graphic book skipped parts of his work where he gets more “international”

      Except for famous exceptions like Flaubert (we know he weighted every word he wrote in Madame Bovary), I think most writers would have a good laugh when reading thesis and various commentaires de texte. I don’t mind it at all as long as it’s not presented as the Truth. As I said before, each reader has a personal and unique experience with a book.

      However, I enjoy reading comments about the context of a book in terms of history (what kind of historical or political context impacts the book. Think of Balzac and his novels written after the fall of Napoleon) or “sociology”, I don’t know if it’s the right word to use. In other words, what kind of ideas were widespread in the society of the time the book was written that could impact the novel. For example, I’d like to understand why Madame Bovary was so scandalous at the time.

      I hope you read it and write about it. I’m interested in having a second opinion on the book.


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