Review: Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes Print E-mail

Barthes_-_A_Very_Short_Indroduction_pic0006(Contrary Magazine December 2010)

Alchemical Grief

There is something physiologically aglow about this tapestry of fragments—a fabric of feeling that Roland Barthes began weaving for his mother the day after she died, October 25, 1977. Mourning Diary, keenly translated by Richard Howard, is a set of two-hundred-plus intensities, each a sentence or two at most, written by Barthes over a two-year period following his mother’s demise. The compilation is Barthes’ last writing, and it is unclear whether this was an intentional book.

Barthes lived with his mother, in Paris and in Urt, his childhood home in Southern France, all his life. She adored him, supported his difference, his genius. He adored her, bringing her a rose—and himself one—whenever he could. Since her death has ripped away such affecttion, he quickly diagnoses his condition: “I’m not mourning,” he writes, “I’m suffering.”

Months pass, and the suffering won’t abate. Barthes continually lands on this variation of its core conflict: “Maman taught me you cannot make someone you love suffer. She never made anyone she loved suffer. That was her definition, her ‘innocence.’” And yet the longer she’s dead, the more deeply he despairs, contrary to that which she would have wanted.

Suffering, however, finds a home for Barthes’ woe in the paradoxes of language, an edge the French post-structuralist regularly inhabits. He notes he is “unwell . . . until I write something having to do with her.” His anguish purged, he sees that his words have merely produced “mourning’s discontinuous character.” Having written has made him worse, not better.

In present tense, Barthes recalls his mother as one who “simply concerns herself with the family she loves, without raising any problem of appearance, of sanctity, of the Church. . . . She never employs a metalanguage, a pose, a deliberate image. That’s what ‘Sanctity’ is. O paradox,” he continues, “I, so ‘intellectual,’ at least accused of being so, I so ridden by an incessant metalanguage (which I defend), she offers me in the highest degree her nonlanguage.”

That nonlanguage Barthes materializes in tightly knotted statements, which seem to sooth him for the duration of their high-wire pose. As fast as emotion is captured, it flees. One feels Barthes’ “emotivity” occupy his brief and brittle words then slip away, in part, because the ample white space of the page beneath each remark allows those words an exit.

Reading Barthes, we expect neither sentiment nor sentimentality. And yet he is surprised most by the “presence of [his mother’s] absence.” Grief is more potent than he realizes. Words-as-memories are like gasps of air for a resurfacing diver—the timbre of her remembered voice awakens the loss; a shop girl’s use of a term he and maman once shared induces tears; a “rice-powder box” he sees in a Bette Davis movie, one like his mother owned, fuses child to adult. Of that time-dissolving memory, he writes: “The self never ages.”

Barthes regularly jotted down his idea/emotion on note cards. The recording in Mourning Diary feels caught in its movement between the bucketed ingot and the burned inscription. For example: “The indescribableness of my mourning results from my failure to hystericize it: continuous and extremely peculiar disposition.” Something of the emotional charge of what he denies having had still holds its charge. Unless he describes the hysteria of his feeling, words remain inadequate. This is pure Barthes: to write the very words that show how and why words have failed him.

Such pith and paradox disturb the narrative-discursive tradition, the many-act drama we Westerners know all too well, for example, the dozens of pages Thomas Wolfe takes to prepare and deliver Ben’s dying scene in Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe’s tale arrives with pre-existing conditions, one of which, so the story goes, is our “human need” for story. We recognize this need from reading’s grand narrative whose purpose is to extend and, thereby, deepen suffering. But with Barthes and his fragments, that purpose is undermined. He resists the whole “immortality” apparatus that narrative and we, its prisoners, are heir to.

Barthes strips the prose of its non-essentials so prose might get to the (broken) heart of the matter, an anti-prose (anti-Proustian) strategy. The prosaic is designed, in part, to flatten feeling, which Barthes—the contrarian—resuscitates by eliminating everything but his agony over his mother’s death. Back-story gone, his language accomplishes more with less, its near-desiccation, its greatest efficacy. One future path for writing is Barthesian—to disenthrall prose from the traditions by which it has enthralled us and yet allow it to retain its alchemical power.