Andy Stafford’s biography of Roland Barthes is a sublime dot-connector that nevertheless exhibits remarkable restraint. It’s a solid close reading of the life, work and historical context of an important, widely misunderstood intellectual delivered in a voice that does not give in to the temptation to deviate from crisply academic rigor. After all, Barthes frequently and famously inserted himself into his analyses, so it would only be fitting if Stafford tried to perform a few of the same magic tricks as his subject. Instead, Stafford offers readers this overwhelmingly funny and retrospectively, delightfully obvious argument: Barthes was not a Barthesian.
Casual readers cannot begin here; many graduate students can most likely hack it and career academics are probably best able enjoy all that Stafford, a Senior Lecturer in French at the University of Leeds, has to offer. A basic sense of French history and literature will help; Stafford’s well-prepared to do the necessary translating. One of the few places he misses the explanatory mark is in his account of Barthes’ various teaching jobs, as some asides on how the French education system works compared to the British or American systems might be useful for more readers to grasp just how long it took Barthes to achieve security and then notoriety.
A great treasure within this book is the fact that Stafford positions it alongside another recent biography, Marie Gil’s Roland Barthes: Au Lieu De La Vie. Gil’s book is not available in English, but Stafford cleanly develops her position as a bedrock for his own. The work of Barthes appears to have so many separate phases, and these distinctive moments of Marxism or structuralism or neutrality are still too often considered in isolation—or worse, taken together, that Barthes appears as some noncommittal hypocrite of the ultraleft. Using a psychoanalytic approach, Gil diagnoses Barthes with a kind of ideological bipolarity; not a mental illness, just an intellectual proclivity for the refusal of opposites. She characterizes this as “oscillation”.
Stafford intends to apply this notion of oscillation within and across the various phrases of Barthes’ work. But then, ambitiously and successfully, he is able to cut through Barthes’ characterizations of himself and generate a genuine sense of parallelism between the life and the work of the man. Like all writers, Barthes was often producing work motivated by the necessity of making a living or the convenience of a particular teaching job. Like all writers, there are some events in his life that were hugely impactful on his frame of mind and the subjects he chose to consider. The book traces many of these formative influences, such as his long convalescence with tuberculosis when he was young, his struggle with open homosexuality as an adult, and his mother’s death just a short while before he himself died.
It’s this last trauma that threads itself most notably throughout the book. Traditionally, biographies are a chronological affair, but this structure becomes complicated when it’s only at the end of the subject’s life that the truly major event takes place. Stafford must therefore both begin and end in the same place if readers are to understand how close Barthes was to his mother: how the ebb and flow of the family money shaped his perceptions of bourgeois and petit bourgeois ideology (this became his Marxism); how the fact that she had to raise him alone after the Germans sunk his father’s Navy vessel shaped his understanding of war (this became his political protests) and; how their living together as adults produced in him a strong eye for detail to daily procedure (this became his Mythologies. When she died, Barthes soon thereafter lost his own will to live and died relatively young of a pedestrian car crash injury that should not have been fatal.
Finally, readers can see the arch of a smooth transition from theater to Marxism to semiology to structuralism and beyond, from Brecht to Sartre to Foucault and beyond. And of course, there’s Hegel. In Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning domains still in use in schools internationally today, the greatest depths of knowledge belong to synthesis and evaluation. We lace together opposing ideas in order to assign value to the system that produces them. That’s Hegel in a nutshell: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
However, Stafford says that “Barthes was working against simplistic resolutions of conflicting ideas” (48). In his later work, this presents itself as neutrality, a refusal to judge or evaluate. In his later life, this presents itself as a fragmentary style of lecturing, asking his students to put together the puzzle pieces he’s given them in whatever way they wish.
So Barthes’ life and work, and their historical context, are not an example of the tension of opposites, because for him there was no tension. Likewise, Stafford works painstakingly to illuminate a smoothness in what Gil describes as oscillation. Barthes is a multifaceted character, to be sure, and Stafford’s book zooms in on how the edge of each facet bleeds with ease into the next. So easily, in fact, that his cheeky little riff on Marx’s “all that I know is that I am not a Marxist” turns out to be thoroughly convincing.
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