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Roland Barthes’s Fear of Making Literature

The New Yorker’s “Notes on Mourning,” excerpts of Roland Barthes’s (are they?) journal entries regarding the loss of his mother, are extraordinary. They are worth reading for anyone interested in loss, anyone interested in literature, and anyone interested in mothers. Said another way, they are worth reading for everyone. As the editors point out, Barthes was France’s “greatest prose stylist and most passionate reader.” It is for this reason that examining a subject of such intimacy was inevitably intertwined with intellectual reservation.

If you were in school in the mid-nineteen-nineties, and studying English, Barthes was unavoidable. He was, along with Jacques Derrida, the sine qua non of textual exegesis, what all students at once loved and dreaded when encountering fresh syllabi, knowing that such ancillary required critical works would make parsing Eliot or Austen or James even more difficult, but then for being more difficult somehow more legitimate. Barthes made the experience of reading at once a science and a seduction, and so fun, cool, rigorous. Literature, meet Mathematics.

We miss him now. What would he make of our world, and what would he make of the rhetoric of our noble politicians, especially that of our gifted President, whose ability with words was what launched him and perhaps what will carry him through this current climate of hate. Barthes was unlike Obama in most ways but like him in one: he was obsessive, maniacal, and precise in his devotion to what he believed in. He was a tactician as opposed to a strategist: he believed in diving deeply into a problem at hand, rather than stepping back to see a macro trend, or God forbid a Vision (macro trends and Visions being for far less fierce minds).

Read the excerpt. Here is just one meditation, worth pinning on a church door:

October 31st

I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it—or without being sure of not doing so—although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.

“It” is loss or death or experience. It is the thing closest to us that in examining we somehow degrade. What is divine in this passage is the dual acknowledgement: that to “make literature” of something is to destroy it at the same time as it pays the highest praise. Writers, like citizens, end in the same emotional place in times of crisis, so they can remember: we have nothing to fear but fear itself.


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