Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Significant Loss

Bereaved confessions provide context for Roland Barthes's final books

Eric Banks

Not far into the second part of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes offers a lexical bouquet to the photographer responsible for the sepia print of his late mother, Henriette, at age five, in which floated "something like an essence of the Photograph." What the "unknown photographer of Chennevières-sur-Marne" left behind was "a supererogatory photograph which contained more than what the technical being of photography can reasonably offer." Supererogatory: That strange modifier, obliquely Barthesian to the core, seems at first like little more than a flourish, a bit of writerly lagniappe, but the more you think about it, the more pivotal this pirated theological term becomes. Signifying action that goes beyond the call of duty—excessive purpose, whose significance is all the more compelling for lying outside the strict domain of the meaning of an action—the word crystallizes Barthes's description of his encounter with the "banal" Winter Garden photograph. More than that, with a word it rejiggers the book itself. What book about photography could be more supererogatory than Barthes's Camera Lucida?

I found that word lingering in my mind while reading Mourning Diary. It's impossible not to see the sheaf of notes Barthes started keeping for himself the day after his mother's death in October 1977 as the preparation for Camera Lucida, which appeared in 1980, months before his own death. Plumbed from Barthes's archives, this document of grief is raw matter, unmediated and grippingly direct, everything the canonical study of photography and mourning isn't. (Supererogatory, it ain't.) But in shadowing Camera Lucida, it adds considerable contour to a book a generation of art students was weaned on.

So closely does Mourning Diary register the dominant chords of what would become Camera Lucida that you have to remind yourself that the latter was written only at the end of the two years' worth of daily jottings that make up the diary. "My haste (constantly verified in recent weeks) to regain the freedom (now rid of delays) of getting to work on the book about Photography, in other words, to integrate my suffering with my writing," Barthes writes on March 23, 1978, one of the earliest mentions of how the book he had talked about writing took the turn it eventually did. Several passages in Mourning Diary are strikingly familiar to the reader of Camera Lucida: the stray notes he writes about psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott ("I am suffering from the fear of what has happened. Cf. Winnicott: fear of a collapse which has occurred"), the actual discovery of the Winter Garden photograph. On November 16, 1977, he relates in a note of morbid lucidity, "Now, everywhere, in the street, the café, I see each individual under the aspect of ineluctably having-to-die, which is exactly what it means to be mortal.—And no less obviously, I see them as not knowing this to be so." On July 24, 1978, he writes, "Photo of the Winter Garden: I search hard to find the obvious meaning. (Photo: powerless to say what is obvious. The birth of literature.)"

But beyond the glimpse it provides of Camera Lucida, Mourning Diary is an unguarded and striking document on its own, a memorial to maman and a terse working draft of what its editor, Natalie Léger, describes as "not . . . a book completed by its author, but the hypothesis of a book desired by him." "In taking these notes, I'm trusting myself to the banality that is in me," Barthes wrote two days after beginning Mourning Diary. Yet even some of the most avowedly banal entries can leave a most resonating aftertaste. They give a stark impression of how "lacerating" ("I am either lacerated or ill at ease and occasionally subject to gusts of life") his mother's death was. "This morning, more snow, and lieder broadcast on the radio. How sad!—I think of the mornings when I was sick and didn't go to school, and when I had the joy of staying with her." Taking the temperature of his despair, these fragments bleakly register slivers of the world around him. "From the terrace of the Flore," he writes on May 18, 1978, "I saw a woman sitting on the windowsill of the bookstore La Hune; she was holding a glass in one hand, apparently bored; the whole room behind her was filled with men, their backs to me. A cocktail party. May cocktails. A sad, depressing sensation of a seasonal and social stereotype. What comes to my mind is that maman is no longer here and life, stupid life continues."

We don't expect consistency or authorial coherence in a diary, and the tone of the entries varies throughout. At times, Barthes abandons the confessional voice to get some distance from himself, as if he were jotting the field notes for an ethnographic study of the culture of mourning. Frequently, he makes Proustian observations on the temporality of mourning ("It is here, the formal beginning of the big, long bereavement"), its duration and chaotic recurrence ("What I find utterly terrifying is mourning's discontinuous character"), and its language: "In the sentence 'She's no longer suffering,' to what, to whom does 'she' refer? What does the present tense mean?" Proust puts in a more direct appearance in the knotty reading notes Barthes includes. On July 6, 1978, he writes, "Proust nearly dies (overdose of veronal). —Celeste: 'We'll all meet in the Valley of Jehosephat. —Ah! Do you really believe there's a chance of meeting? If I were sure of meeting Maman again, I'd die right away.'"

Henriette is present not just in the words of Mourning Diary but in a cache of photographs included in the book—the majority of them images that appear at the beginning of Roland Barthes (1975), his flamboyant book-length essay-experiment in the autobiographical "I" (like Camera Lucida and A Lover's Discourse [1977], Roland Barthes is being reissued with a new introduction). And as in Roland Barthes, there are facsimiles of his own handwriting (here, four of his diary entries have been reproduced). The role they play as a kind of authenticity anchor in Mourning Diary couldn't be further, though, from their tactical deployment in Roland Barthes. In the latter, both the script and the photographs are reminders of distance and mediation—they play with the idea of an autobiography written by someone who would disdain the obdurate certainties that govern the "autobiographical self," the coded voice behind the author telling his own story. ("Tout ceci doit être considéré comme dit par un personnage de roman"—It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel—is the famously vertiginous first line of Roland Barthes.) In all his published writings, but particularly the late works, Barthes maintained a church-and-state separation between the intimate and the personal—the former was his playing field, the latter strictly and proudly out of bounds.

And yet there is no avoiding the deeply, confessionally personal in Mourning Diary, and for that matter it's hard to imagine that the experience of reading the book would be nearly so immediate without that uninvited closeness. When the journal was published last year in France, it was denounced by some critics, particularly Barthes's longtime editor, François Wahl, who claimed that the author would have been revolted by the "indiscretion" of airing his private words. The diary was never intended for publication, and although there is hardly any salacious detail revealed in the pages—unlike "Soirées de Paris," the erotic journal Barthes kept late in his life that Wahl himself green-lighted for publication in 1987—there is a tinge of voyeurism that never quite goes away as one reads these notes without, as it were, the author's express go-ahead.

It's only a tinge, though, and there is lagniappe indeed in meeting the unexpurgated, unmediated Roland Barthes who appears in the pages of Mourning Diary: He makes the "literary" Roland Barthes of Roland Barthes, Lover's Discourse, and Camera Lucida all the more remarkable for the creation of a ferocious intelligence navigating a language whose codes made him bristle. In all three, what might seem personal is a feint, a way to write about the self without falling prey to the ruses of fictional self-disclosure. Read alongside Mourning Diary, Camera Lucida, with its flood of intimacy and its throbbing reverberations of the, well, supererogatory, becomes an oddly fruitful essay that's as sui generis as Barthes's idea of photography itself. The more you tug at its threads, the less clear it is just what this text really is—a form of criticism? a work of theory? a memoir of mourning?—becomes. The vibrant uncertainty and unsettled fight with form make all of late Barthes inexhaustably rewarding. In his introduction to the new edition of Camera Lucida, Geoff Dyer isn't exaggerating when he writes, "It bears emphasizing that a knowledge of or even interest in photography is no more a precondition for reading Camera Lucida than an interest in young girls is necessary for embarking on Lolita."

An interest in bereavement isn't a precondition for reading Mourning Diary, either. It stands on its own as a remarkable if orphaned set of notations, a writerly mind in motion, a "realization that yet another kind of utterance might, eventually, be constituted out of this deprivation, this dispossession, this travail," as Richard Howard, Barthes's faithful translator, writes in the afterword. "Who knows? Maybe something valuable in these notes?" Barthes writes on the second day of entries. Even if they never progressed past a hypothesis, we may be thankful for the fleeting view they offer—of a book that might have been, and of the books that were.

Eric Banks is formerly the editor of Bookforum.