The Pen in the First Person

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

The Pen in the First Person

La Repubblica, April 9, 1980.

One of the first details known about the road accident that took place on February 25 at the intersection of Rue des Ecoles and Rue Saint-Jacques was that Roland Barthes had been disfigured so that no one there—only two steps away from the Collège de France—was able to recognize him. The ambulance that took him to the Salpêtrière hospital considered him as “name unknown” (he had no documents on him), and as such he remained for hours unidentified in the ward.

In his last book, which I had read a few weeks before (La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie), I had been struck above all by the wonderful pages about the experience of being photographed, on the discomfort of seeing one’s own face become an object, and on the relationship between the image and oneself. So it was that in my concern for his fate one of my first thoughts was to remember what I had so recently read, and the frail and anguished link with his own features that had been suddenly torn as one tears up a photograph.

But on March 28, in his coffin, his face was not in the least disfigured. It was him as I had so often met him in the streets of the Quartier with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, in the manner of those who were young before the war (the historical aspect of the image, one of the many themes of Chambre claire, extends to the self-image that each of us offers in the course of his life); but it was fixed forever, and the pages from chapter five, which I went back and reread at once, now spoke to me of that, and only of that, of how the fixing of an image is death, and of the inner resistance one has to being photographed, and also of being resigned to it. “One might think that, in terror, the Photographer would have to fight enormously to prevent the Photograph from being Death. But I, already an object, I do not fight.” An attitude that now seemed to reverberate in all that one managed to hear about him during the month he spent in the Salpêtriere, unable to speak.

(The real danger at once turned out to be not the fractures to the head but to the ribs. And then his worried friends immediately thought of another quotation: the one about the rib amputated in youth because of pneumonia and kept in a drawer until he decided to throw it away, in Barthes par lui-même.)

These journeys into memory are not coincidental. All of his work, I now realize, consists in forcing the impersonality of the mechanisms of language and knowledge to take into account the physical nature of the living, mortal subject. The critical discussion about him—which has already begun—will be between supporters of the one or the other Barthes: the one who subordinated everything to the rigor of a method, and the one whose only sure criterion was pleasure (the pleasure of the intelligence and the intelligence of pleasure). The truth is that these two Barthes are really one, and it is in the presence of these two aspects together—continuous and variously dosed—that we find the secret of the fascination that his mind exerted over many of us, which Umberto Eco explained very well here in La Repubblica on March 28.

That gray morning of the 28th, I was wandering around the desolate streets behind the hospital looking for the “amphitheatre” from which I had learned that Barthes’s body would start on the journey to the country cemetery where his mother lay buried. There I met Greimas, who had also arrived early, and he told me about how he had first met Barthes in 1948 in Alexandria and had made him read Saussure and rewrite Michelet. For Greimas, the inflexible master of methodological rigor, there was no doubt whatever: the real Barthes was the Barthes of the semiological analyses, such as the Système de la mode, carried out as they are with discipline and precision. But the main point on which he disagreed with the necrologists of the newspapers concerned their attempts to bring definitions (such as “writer” or “philosopher”) to bear on a man who eluded all classifications, because all that he had done in his life was done out of love.

The day before, François Wahl had called to tell me the time of that private, almost secret ceremony, and had spoken of the “cercle amoureux” of young men and women that had gathered around the death of Barthes, a circle that was as if jealous and possessive of a grief that could tolerate no display other than silence. The stunned and speechless group whom I joined was mostly made up of youngsters. Among them were a few famous people, and I did recognize the bald pate of Foucault. The plaque on the building did not mention the university name “Amphitheatre,” but called it the “Salle de Reconnaissance,” so I understood that it must be the morgue. From behind white sheets hung all around the hall, a coffin would emerge from time to time, carried on the shoulders of bearers as far as the hearse and followed by a family of modest people, stumpy old women, each bunch identical with those of the funeral before, as if in some repetitive illustration of the uniform power of death. For us who were there for Barthes, waiting silent and motionless in the courtyard as if following the implicit command to reduce the signs of a funeral ceremony to a minimum, everything that met the eye in that courtyard enlarged its function as a sign: on every detail of that shabby rectangle I felt the acute gaze that had been engaged in discovering revealing glimmers in the photographs of Chambre claire.

And so now that I reread that book I find it all tends toward that journey, that courtyard, that gray morning. Because it was from a flash of recognition among the photographs of his recently dead mother that Barthes started on his meditations, as he tells us at length in the second part of the book: an impossible search for the presence of his mother, found at last in a photo of her as a child, an image that was “lost, distant, that did not resemble her, the photograph of a child I never knew,” and one that is not reproduced in the book, so that we can never know the value that it took on for him.

A book on death, then? As his previous one (Fragments d’un discours amoureux) had been on love? Yes, but this is also a book on love, as is shown by a passage on the difficulty of avoiding the “weight” of one’s own image, and the “meaning” to give to one’s own face: “It is not indifference that removes the weight from the image—nothing more than an ’objective’ automatic photograph can make you into a criminal individual under the eye of the police—but it is love, supreme love.”

It was not the first time that Barthes had spoken about being photographed. In his book on Japan (L’Empire des signes), one of his lesser-known books though rich in the subtlest observations, he sees photos of himself published in Japanese newspapers and makes the extraordinary discovery that there is something indefinably Japanese about his look, which is explained by the habitual way of retouching photos in those parts, in which the pupils are made round and dark. This argument about the deliberate acts that superimpose themselves on our features—history, belonging to a certain culture, but above all the deliberateness with which someone else uses our image as an instrument—comes up again in Chambre claire in a passage on the power of truquages subtils in reproduction. A photo in which he had thought he recognized his grief at a recent death he found again on the cover of a satirical book directed against him; on that cover his face had become inexpressive and sinister.

My reading of this book and the death of the author have come too close on each other’s heels for me to be able to separate them. But I must succeed in doing so in order to give an idea of what the book is: a progressive approximation to a definition of that particular kind of knowledge opened up by photography, an “anthropologically new object.”

The reproductions in the book are chosen according to this way of thinking, which we might call “phenomenological.” Speaking of the interest a photograph arouses in us, Barthes distinguishes one level, that of studium, or cultural participation in the information or the emotion the image conveys, and another, that of punctum, or the surprising, involuntary, and transfixing element that certain images communicate—certain images or, rather, certain details of images. The reading Barthes makes of the works of photographers, famous or anonymous, is always unexpected. It is very often physical details (hands, fingernails) or particulars of dress that he picks on to reveal their singularity.

As opposed to the recent theories of photography as a cultural convention, an artifice, a nonreality, Barthes stresses the “chemical” basis of the operation, the fact of a photograph’s being a sign made by light rays emanating from something that exists, that is actually there. (This is the fundamental difference between photography and language, which is capable of speaking about things that are not. In the photograph we are looking at something that has been and is not there any more.

This is what Barthes calls the “temps écrasé” of photography.)

A book typical of Barthes, with its more speculative moments in which it seems that by dint of multiplying the meshes of his terminological network he will never extricate himself again, and the sudden illuminations like self-evident flashes that arrive as surprising and definitive gifts, La Chambre claire from the very first pages contains a statement of the method that has always been his: he refuses to define a “photographic universal” and decides to take into consideration only those photographs “that I was sure existed for me.” “In this basically conventional debate between subjectivity and science, I arrived at this bizarre notion: why could there not be, in some way, a new science for every object. A Mathesis singularis (and no longer universalis)?”

This science of the uniqueness of every object that Roland Barthes continually approached with the instruments of scientific generalization, and at the same time with poetic sensitivity aimed at defining what is singular and unrepeatable (this aesthetic gnosiology or eudaemonism of understanding), is the great thing that he—I do not say taught us, because one can neither teach nor learn this—but showed us is possible. Or, at least, that it is possible to seek it.