Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so. Roland Barthes walks up Rue de Bièvre. The greatest literary critic of the twentieth century has every reason to feel anxious and upset. His mother, with whom he had a highly Proustian relationship, is dead. And his course on ‘The Preparation of the Novel’ at the Collège de France is such a conspicuous failure it can no longer be ignored: all year, he has talked to his students about Japanese haikus, photography, the signifier and the signified, Pascalian diversions, café waiters, dressing gowns, and lecture-hall seating – about everything but the novel. And this has been going on for three years. He knows, without a doubt, that the course is simply a delaying tactic designed to push back the moment when he must start a truly literary work, one worthy of the hypersensitive writer lying dormant within him and who, in everyone’s opinion, began to bud in his A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, which has become a bible for the under-twenty-fives. From Sainte-Beuve to Proust, it is time to step up and take the place that awaits him in the literary pantheon. Maman is dead: he has come full circle since Writing Degree Zero. The time has come.
Politics? Yeah, yeah, we’ll see about that. He can’t really claim to be very Maoist since his trip to China. Then again, no one expects him to be.
Chateaubriand, La Rochefoucauld, Brecht, Racine, Robbe-Grillet, Michelet, Maman. A boy’s love.
I wonder if the area was already full of ‘Vieux Campeur’ shops back then.
In a quarter of an hour, he will be dead.
I’m sure he ate well, on Rue des Blancs-Manteaux. I imagine people like that serve pretty good food. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes decodes the contemporary myths erected by the middle classes to their own glory. And it was this book that made him truly famous. So, in a way, he owes his fortune to the bourgeoisie. But that was the petite bourgeoisie. The ruling classes who serve the people are a very particular case that merit analysis; he should write an article. Tonight? Why not right away? But no, first he has to organise his slides.
Roland Barthes ups his pace without paying attention to the world around him, despite being a born observer, a man whose job consists of observing and analysing, who has spent his entire life scrutinising signs of every kind. He really doesn’t see the trees or the pavements or the shop windows or the cars on Boulevard Saint-Germain, which he knows like the back of his hand. He is not in Japan any more. He doesn’t feel the bite of the cold. He barely even hears the sounds of the street. It’s a bit like Plato’s allegory of the cave in reverse: the world of ideas in which he shuts himself away obscures his awareness of the world of the senses. Around him, he sees only shadows.
These reasons I mention to explain Roland Barthes’ anxiety are all well known. But I want to tell you what actually happened. If his mind is elsewhere that day, it’s not only because of his dead mother or his inability to write a novel or even his increasing and, he thinks, irreversible loss of appetite for boys. I’m not saying that he’s not thinking about these things; I have no doubts about the quality of his obsessive neuroses. But, today, there is something else. In the absent gaze of a man lost in his thoughts, the attentive passer-by would have recognised that state which Barthes thought he was destined never to feel again: excitement. There is more to him than his mother and boys and his phantom novel. There is the libido sciendi, the lust for learning, and, awoken by it, the flattering prospect of revolutionising human knowledge and, perhaps, changing the world. Does Barthes feel like Einstein, thinking about his theory as he crosses Rue des Ecoles? What is certain is that he’s not really looking where he’s going. He is less than a hundred feet from his office when he is hit by a van. His body makes the familiar, sickening, dull thudding sound of flesh meeting metal, and it rolls over the tarmac like a rag doll. Passers-by flinch. This afternoon – 25 February 1980 – they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very good reason that, until today, no one understands anything about it.
Semiology is a very strange thing. It was Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of linguistics, who first dreamed it up. In his Course in General Linguistics, he proposes imagining ‘a science that studies the life of signs within society’. Yep, that’s all. For those who wish to tackle this, he adds a few guidelines: ‘It would form a part of social psychology and, consequently, of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, “sign”). It would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since it does not exist yet, no one can say what it will be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of this general science; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics, and the latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts.’ I wish Anthony Hopkins would reread this passage for us, enunciating each word as he does so well, so that the whole world could at least grasp all its beauty if not its meaning. A century later, this brilliant intuition, which was almost incomprehensible to his contemporaries when the course was given in 1906, has lost none of its power or its obscurity. Since then, numerous semiologists have attempted to provide clearer and more detailed definitions, but they have contradicted each other (sometimes without realising it themselves), got everything muddled up, and ultimately succeeded only in lengthening (and even then, not by much) the list of systems of signs beyond language: the highway code, the international maritime code, bus and hotel numbers have been added to military ranks and the sign-language alphabet . . . and that’s about it.
Rather meagre in comparison with the original ambition.
Seen this way, far from being an extension of the domain of linguistics, semiology seems to have been reduced to the study of crude proto-languages which are much less complex and therefore much more limited than any real language.
But in fact, that’s not the case.
It’s no accident that Umberto Eco, the wise man of Bologna, one of the last great semiologists, referred so often to the key, decisive inventions in the history of humanity: the wheel, the spoon, the book . . . perfect tools, he said, unimproveable in their effectiveness. And indeed, everything suggests that in reality semiology is one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity and one of the most powerful tools ever forged by man. But as with fire or the atom, people don’t know what the point of it is to begin with, or how to use it.