TEXT review

Forced to be honest

review by Rhonda Dredge


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Andy Stafford
Roland Barthes

Critical Lives Series
Reaktion Books, London UK 2015
ISBN 9781780234953
Pb 192pp GBP11.99


Andy Stafford concludes his critical life of Roland Barthes by placing his subject firmly in the tradition of French essayists. Just one of Barthes’s publications was written as a book, the rest being academic essays, teaching notes or plans for longer works published or re-released in book form. How does this method of working sit with creative writers who have become interested in the French theorist through questions raised by their own practices?

Barthes has been a friendly guide for many creative writers looking for inspiration in the academic archive. Compared to other sources, he is cheeky, irreverent, polemical, intimate and sometimes deeply technical. A disciple of Barthes can follow trails of thinking through the theorist’s published work leading back to major breakthroughs in the study of narrative. From Barthes we have the language of coded responses that signify at a level grasped only by initiates. He is our guide to the closed world of French semiotics.

Stafford does a good job of normalising the intellectual milieu of post-war France. At first we see Barthes off at regional posts, often a round peg in a square hole. His study has been broken by illness and his mentors are strictly archival. Writing was to become the pivotal concern of Barthes’s life, a retreat into a less demeaning place than the world at large. Friends would come to the rescue, however, and find him academic positions that suited his style.

Everyone wants a literary soul mate and Barthes is the universal donor. Those looking for structure in their own projects need only read S/Z for a brilliant abstract formulation of text. Those seeking ways of negotiating binaries in language find sustenance in The Neutral. Stafford finds similarities between Barthes’s early respect for the history of writing theory and the need for a writer to be read with love. He, also like Barthes, never dwells for too long in the one place.

The political cauldron of the 1960s sees Barthes busily inventing an antidote for structuralism. Students are calling for its downfall. They are writing anti-structuralist slogans on Parisian walls. They are siding with Sartre and the alienated self. Barthes is too cautious, too abstract, too … binary. His biographer Marie Penn has called him an oscillator. Stafford concurs, at least in Barthes’s later work. Early on Barthes was more careful about the intrusion of self.

Was the 1960s uprising a staging point for Barthes’s later career? He had just delivered an analysis of Balzac’s short story Sarrasine to a workshop at the Collège de France. In that analysis he had labelled parts of the narrative, not just in terms of codes, but in relation to specific rhetorical ploys. One ploy was the feint, a manoeuvre that involves a blow to the head while the narrator attempts to manipulate the heart. Narrators do not tend to like the limelight for this reason. They prefer to tap into what is bubbling underneath. What would Roland Barthes have said about the spotlight still shining down on his desk in the second century ‘AB’?

In S/Z Barthes demonstrates how an interdiegetic narrator spins out his tale until the end when he denotes the underlying truth. Barthes used this analysis to show how a complex system of codes can be employed to delay resolution. He compares the pattern of codes or voices to a fugue. S/Z is a brilliant simulation of storytelling with plenty of tips for the creative writer. It purports to support Barthes’s ideas about the role of the reader in creating meaning yet he uses it as a bedding ground for his later work on fragments and the polyvocal text. In other words S/Z flatters the reader while providing tips for the writer. It is a clever piece that implies that the value of a text lies in what is repressed.

Stafford adopts the position of feint in his study by describing in detail the mechanisms by which Barthes disseminated his ideas. A likely corollary of his finding is that Barthes was more of a conversationalist than a narrator. Conversationalists are more interested in exchange rates than return on their investment. In other words, he privileged parole over the system of language he so assiduously mapped.

What, then, is repressed in Stafford’s tale about Barthes? He has had the benefit of being able to draw on a recent biography by Marie Penn. There are allusions in his book to Barthes’s homosexuality, passages dealing with his maternal attachment and some passing criticism by Barthes’s contemporaries of his promiscuity. Barthes’s membership of editorial committees gets a mention as does his loneliness after his mother’s death and his tendency to oscillate. What then is the colourful truth that might be revealed in the last line?

It seems churlish to quote from an author’s discoveries without travelling the journey through a text. Many have done this to Barthes’s own work, finding aphorisms about the fascism of language or other snippets worthy of quoting. Writers deal with difficult truths and this is where a limitation may be found. Barthes and his post-structuralist compatriots were opposed to the representational qualities of narrative. It was all one simulation after another in their reading of writing. Stafford nails this tendency without making a judgment. ‘It is tempting therefore to say, with all the distance of the self and in parody of Marx’s mot that Barthes is not a Barthesian’ (159).

Readers will have to create their own journeys by linking clues in Stafford’s ‘Roland Barthes’ to get at the complete gist of this final word. Suffice to say that parody is always a remake and even though Barthes often comes across as amusing, irreverent, wise, modest and even fresh, he is never sincere. He never really means what he says or says what he means.

You could say that this is quite a tough reading of Barthes. At first Stafford’s book could be a little disappointing. You are hoping for something to sink your teeth into, some emotional content still undigested. But Barthes lived language. He believed, according to Stafford, that it had more social value than a reader. This is a powerful and heartening suggestion for the creative writer yet, as S/Z demonstrates, truth becomes never more than a textual strategy. In the end this leaves no real place for the reader whose only option is to go out and apply some of the great theorist’s principles herself. At the back of the reader’s mind is the suspicion that Barthes was a political animal adept at harnessing the power of binaries to find gravy trains. Then you turn up at a conference and you are the Barthesian, staying aloof, recording details, building narratives and you are forced to be honest – to give up being a Barthesian is to give up narrative. You stay close to your material and let it dictate your next move. That’s when you realise there is no limitation to Barthes. Stafford couldn’t find one and neither can you.



Rhonda Dredge has a PhD in Creative Writing from La Trobe University. She writes a monthly critical column for CBD News, tutors students on narrative for EduKingdom and is completing her novel, The Mutant Scholar, on the impact of the Metro Rail project on the Flinders Quarter in the city.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste