The Man who Smoked Twisted Cigars

 Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Tiphaine Samoyault, Barthes: A Biography, Polity, 2017.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam.

Originally published in French as: Tiphaine Samoyault, Roland Barthes, Le Seuil, 2016.

Every major French intellectual from the twentieth century has had his biographer: Annie Cohen-Solal’s Sartre, Olivier Todd’s Camus, Elisabeth Roudinesco’s Lacan, Didier Eribon’s Foucault. Tiphaine Samoyault’s Barthes can now be added to the list. It is the definitive intellectual biography of the author of Mythologies that will stand out as a reference for generations to come. It is not simply “Barthes: A Biography,” as the title of the English edition has it, but “Die Biographie,” to take the title of the German edition published by Suhrkamp. There are several commonalities between these authoritative volumes on French authors. These are all hefty, lengthy books: Tiphaine Samoyault’s Barthes runs to 766 pages in the French edition, and 584 pages in the English translation. They address men without qualities: like his intellectual peers, Roland Barthes led a very common and ordinary life, which stands out only in relation to his work. These intellectual biographies consider both the life and the work in a self-reflexive fashion. In the case of Barthes, as with Sartre, the author wrote an autobiography of sorts (Sartre’s Les Mots, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes) which was a highly evocative literary essay that called out for a more conventional biography. It should be noted that these books on French intellectuals were written with a French readership in mind, and were only translated in English and other languages due to the influence these French theorists had over intellectual debates in foreign countries as well. The intellectual biographies emerge from a wealth of books and articles addressing every aspect of their main character’s life and work, including many testimonies from contemporaries, film documentaries, audio recordings, even novels and fictions. Their ambition is not to bring something new, but to embrace totality and to portray a man in full.

The grain of Barthes’ voice

Tiphaine Samoyault was too young to know Barthes personally. As many other literature students, she encountered him through his books that were both required readings and the object of irony and distantiation in the humanities curriculum (a classic among students was The Roland-Barthes Without Tears, a poorly-written pastiche-cum-manual on how to write like R.B.). As Tiphaine Samoyault points out, approaching this author through his books is not the best way to understand Roland Barthes. A better way to make first contact is to listen to the grain of his voice. According to the many students who studied with him, his voice was the most distinctive trait of his personality. Listening to the many recordings, broadcasts, and testimonies of friends who heard him talk summons Barthes’s presence in a way that the written text can never achieve. The sound of his voice, the most transient trace of a living body, has survived the passing of time and endows his thought with a new lease of life. Books are also misleading in the sense that they give a sense of closure and completion when Barthes’s theorizing was always a work in progress. Most of his books are collections of essays and assemblages of fragments often written long before they were bundled into a volume. In order to draw a picture of an intellectual on the move, Tiphaine Samoyault examines the articles and book projects at the time of their writing, following Roland Barthes along the way rather than looking at his work in retrospect.

What makes Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography authoritative is the unprecedented access she had to written sources granted to her by the stakeholders of Barthes’s literary estate. The Barthes archives is not only composed of unpublished manuscripts, seminar transcripts, and private correspondence. It also includes a huge collection of notes and file cards, numbering 17 000 in total, designed collectively as “le fichier,” from which Barthes drew extensively in order to assemble his books. Pictures of these note cards are included in the biography: they consist of single sheets of paper indexed by a keyword or number, with one or two sentences written in aphoristic style. The Bathes archives also contains diary books in which Barthes noted at the end of each day everything he had done and the persons he had met in the preceding few hours. The twenty last years of his life are therefore recorded in minute detail, presenting the biographer with an embarrassment of riches. What is she to do with this wealth of information, and how to put it into a narrative? Samoyault’s answer is to insist on the diversity of writing practices reflected in the archives. Barthes wrote every day on many different media: he typed, took notes, wrote letters, drafted articles, proofread copies, annotated books, and spent a life immersed in texts. He was a man of letters in all senses of the word: indeed, if one withdraws writing practices and the print material from the biographical account, his life amounts to very little.

A hypertextual archive

The Barthes archives were pried open in their totality only recently: Tiphaine Samoyault was the first critic to have access to all the documents of the Barthes literary estate. This is an enormous amount of material, which in part explains the length of the biography. The “fichier” was all at the same time a repository of miscellanea, a private diary, a workbench for future works, a book of confessions, a livre de raison akin to the family registers that French protestants used to hold since the time of their persecutions. It cannot be published in a book form; or rather, the only way to make it accessible to the public would be to publish it as a hypertext document on the Internet. Indeed, Barthes invented ways to organize texts and develop ideas that are strikingly similar to contemporary practices enabled by digital technologies and multimedia. He was well ahead of his time in his preoccupation with fragments, archives, discontinuities, assemblages, and linkages. The “roman” that he never wrote but that would have given shape to his archives was in fact the harbinger of the definitive hypermedia work that still awaits its author(s) but that our epoch will surely produce one day. Art and technology live on different temporalities. Innovations very often appear before the technology that allows to tap their potential has been invented; but new art forms can also be late in their emergence, reflecting social and material realities that have already shifted to a new plane. In the same way, stars and planets can sometimes be discovered by calculus before their astronomical observation; but their light reaches us after a long journey, when the emitting star may have in fact ceased to exist.

In his hypermedia texts, Barthes heralded the disappearance of the book. Like Stéphane Mallarmé, he dreamt of the book to come, the book that would end all books. The Barthesian moment in literature marks the passage from books to texts and to fragments as the focus of literary criticism, and heralds the shift of the written word to the Internet. Likewise, Barthes announced forms of participatory politics and engagement that were both behind and in advance of his time. Unlike most intellectuals from his generation who drew their legitimacy from their opposition posture, Barthes was never a radical opponent. He invented the figure of the intellectual who contests established powers laterally and dissolves official thought by embracing it, a dissident from the inside as opposed to an attacker from the outside. Maybe because, as an orphan and a pupil of the nation, he had no father to kill, he never rebelled against the orders and strictures of the day. His peculiar relation to engagement was also linked to his chronic illness: he spent the war in a sanatorium, fighting with tuberculosis at the time France was occupied by Nazi Germany. This forced retreat explains his distance with political organizations, his impression to be out of sync with the times, his preference for intimacy and introspection over public appearances and expression. As Samoyault recalls, he did not sign the “Manifeste des 121”, a petition calling for insubordination during the Algerian war, nor did he take part in the Mai 1968 movement. But his forms of engagement were no less significant, and may have been more prescient than the politics of his radical contemporaries. Maybe it was not better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Barthes.

An untimely death

The end of books and the emergence of new reading practices, the extension of the autobiographical realm and the success of auto-fictions, the renewed interest for memory and its travails, the disengagement from radical politics and the salience of new forms of political commitments: in many ways, Barthes was ahead of his time. By the same token, Barthes was never completely of his time, he was never truly a contemporary. His literary tastes inclined him towards the nineteenth century and the classics, and if he did also comment modern authors, it was always to highlight their atemporality. He stood apart from the mainstream, not less because of his peculiar tastes and proclivities. He was known as the man who sported tweed jackets and smoked twisted cigars. A dyed-in-the-wool homosexual, he never officially came out of the closet for fear of upsetting his mother, with whom he shared residence. He never wrote the roman that would have consecrated his position as an author; but his fame in literary circles went far beyond the realm of literary criticism as practiced by academics. His book Mythologies set the spirit of the times, and was read by President Francois Mitterrand as well as by ordinary citizens with little inclination for literature. The death of Barthes, crushed by a delivery van while crossing the rue des Ecoles, is itself a kind of mythology, and belongs more to legend than to history (he died from a nosocomial infection). Tiphaine Samoyault, who begins her biography with this last episode, had to get over his death in order to enter his life. The book also closes abruptly with this death; between the two deaths of Roland Barthes was a life immersed in texts, and lived in full.

Catégories : Book reviews