Barthes and Me

Posted: July 22, 2011 in On Beauty
Tags: , , , , ,

I have no shortage of philosophy, economics, and political science books sitting here in my home office. If you know me, even casually, then it won’t surprise you to know that most of them are about rationalism, personal responsibility, individualism, and free market economic systems. You know: A shelf on Mises, every book by my guru Robert Nozick, a bunch of Rothbard, some David Kelley – books like that.

Then, of course, there is the other side of the room, which houses the 3 shelves of books on Judaism.  Here is my Stiensaltz Talmud; my book of Hebrew Ethical Wills; a bunch of Buber, Rozenzweig, and Heschel; some siddurs; and most of the other things you’d expect.

Now…. the Jewish books and the other books I mentioned are indeed, on opposite ends of the room. This is because (even though the whole foundation of the Classical Reform movement in Judaism proposes to be rooted on integrating Judaism and enlightenment rationalism), I just don’t think that rationalism and religion mix. Stephen Jay Gould tried to let that be okay by simply calling them “non-overlapping magisteria”, but I don’t buy it. Never the less, I keep them apart.

Then, though, there is this funny little bookshelf that, but for a couple books by Umberto Eco and another book on semiotics, is devoted entirely to……………….. Roland Barthes.

Now… I’m not supposed to like Barthes. He’s not Jewish and he is about as Socialist as those post-enlightenment French philosophers come. You’d think that a guy who likes Barthes would have some books by Rousseau, and Kant, and Marx, and Lyotard, and Derrida, and Foucault. But, I don’t.  So, as a good self-conscious examiner of life, I have to ask myself : “why Barthes”?

I was introduced to Barthes in College (no shit). I had a linguistics professor who used “Mythologies” as the primary text for a course. Thinking I was supposed to be studying linguistics, I didn’t get “Mythologies” at all. Then I remembered I was in an art school, taking a class from someone who’s primary interest was in 20Th Century writing. That explained it all! This wasn’t going to be about phonemes, it was going to be about philosophies of LANGUAGE.

There is a whole group of thinkers out there who I don’t really respect because I can’t understand what the hell they are talking about. This obviously included Derrida and Foucault. Admittedly, this lack of comprehension may be my own fault – after all I’m not a philosopher. But, I need to give myself a little more credit than that. After all, I understand Nozick, and Popper, and even Habermas, just fine. So, it’s not that I’m too stupid to understand Foucault. It’s that I can’t bring my mind to believe that reality changes depending on the language with which you express it. I don’t get it and I basically don’t feel like trying. Once Nozick wrote “Invariances” I did not need to figure anthing else out. I had my philosophy.

But Barthes? Barthes??? Barthes is all about language.Why don’t I hate him? Why do I love his writing? The answer comes down to this:

“That is why childhood is the royal road by which we know a country best. Ultimately, there is no Country but childhood’s.” L’humanite 1977

“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas – for my body does not have the same ideas I do”. “The Pleasure of the Text 1975

“… language is a kind of natural ambiance wholly pervading the writer’s expression, yet without endowing it with form or content: it is, as it were, an abstract circle of truths, outside of which alone the solid residue of an individual ‘logos’ begins to settle.” Writing Degree Zero” 1953

“These same photographs, which phenomenology would call “ordinary” objects, were merely analogical, provoking only her identity, not her truth, but the Winter Garden Photograph was indeed essential, it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.” Camera Lucida 1981

You can barely even pick up a book by Barthes, open it to a random page, and find something other than an amazingly beautiful use of the language he so loves. Admittedly, the English translations are something less than their French original sources. After all you simply have no English word that means what the French word ” jouissance” means. We English speakers are just not cool enough to come up with a single word, usable in polite company, that means “I get so much pleasure out of this that I think I’m having an orgasm”> Only French can give us that!!! None the less, even translated, I can’t read Barthes (even when I disagree with him or can’t quite figure out what he’s saying) without smiling. Smiling; because Barthes so loves language that he makes everything he says into a perfect art object.

I think of Barthes writing like I think of Antonioni’s film making. You may get bored watching L’Avventura; you may think it’s plot is slow; but you can’t argue with the amazing fact that every single frame in the entire film is a perfectly composed photograph. I watch that film, time and again, for it’s visual jouissance 🙂 It’s just perfect in its beauty.  To me, that is exatly the same with Barthes writing. Every word = perfection.

Sometimes I read Barthes and I get so much pleasure out of it that I think I’m having…………………

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