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Presence of Mind

November 19, 2009

by Michael Wood
from London Review of Books

Roland Barthes died almost 30 years ago, on 26 March 1980, but his works continue to engage new and old readers with remarkable consistency. Books about him keep appearing: literary and philosophical essays by Jean-Claude Milner (2003), Jean-Pierre Richard (2006) and Eric Marty (2006), a gossipy biography of his last years by Hervé Algalarrondo (2006), a chapter about his piano-playing by François Noudelmann (2008). And now we have two new/old texts by Barthes himself, transcriptions of his notes on the trip he made to China in spring 1974 with his friends from the Seuil publishing house and the magazine Tel Quel (François Wahl, Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet), and of his so-called diary of mourning, a set of jottings made in the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death in the autumn of 1977.

The persistence of Barthes’s reputation might seem surprising, since his writing is so varied, topical, at times wilfully ephemeral. He was suspicious of monuments – ‘tombs die too,’ he says in a fine phrase in his mourning notes – and didn’t want to be one. He wrote with amusement, and without false modesty, about his own passing ‘notoriety’. But then the surprise lasts only as long as we are not thinking very hard. Monuments may or may not endure, but they are not looked at very closely; and fragile-seeming gestures, songs, jokes, metaphors, teasing sentences, often have long lives in the intimacy of many minds. It’s easy, and usually rash, to use the word ‘unforgettable’, or even ‘memorable’, since we can forget anything. But then what we hang on to becomes all the more remarkable, and Barthes, like Cole Porter, was the author of phrases and rhythms that for some of us will not go away until we do. more

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