Roland Barthes (Look out Mountain, Look out Sea), an essay

Is this a picture of the student’s sanatorium at Sainte-Hilaire-du-Touvet in the Isère in the Alps between Grenoble and Chambery? The same sanatorium where a young Roland Barthes spent his days reading and writing between 1942 and 1945 after suffering a relapse of pulmonary tuberculosis, a condition he was first diagnosed with in 1934? Or is it a picture of the university sanatorium at Leysin above Aigle in Switzerland, where he spends another year convalescing in 1946? In any case – between Leysin, Sainte-Hilaire-du-Touvet and the village of Bedous in the Pyrennees, to which he briefly relocates from Paris in 1934 for the benefit of the mountain air – Barthes will have spent a total of some eight years convalescing in medical isolation. Disrupting his studies for the baccalauréat in 1934 and depriving him of the chance of sitting the entrance exam for the École Normale Superieure, the condition painfully diverts him from the traditional academic path to which he had aspired. Far from the customary institutional routes of the French elite, Barthes is forced to forge a different path towards writing and publication by substituting the formal contexts of higher education with a concentrated time of solitary reading and writing ‘at a distance aloof from the uproar of life’. Deprived of the institutional benefits of Higher Education, his medical isolation in rural refuge nevertheless provides him with certain favourable conditions for a desiring reading, that ‘absolutely separated, clandestine state in which the whole world is abolished’. When burrowing through the 60 volumes of the complete works of nineteenth-century historian Jules Michelet on top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps, he first develops what is to remain a life-long working method of compiling index cards filled with fragmentary notes, quotations and drafted thoughts that accompany his reading. Advancing a kind of ‘intelligence of the mole’, he ‘scratch[es] out the details’, or perhaps more caringly selects and assembles the fragments, indexes the flakes, against the contrasting backdrop of the panoramic setting. Closely entangling the gestures of reading and writing in an elaborate system of note-taking, filing and the shifting combinatorial re-assemblage of parts into the singular constellations of works, the young Barthes unwittingly stumbles upon a gesture and attitude of production that is to concern him more self-reflectivly later on. Letting his reading and writing practice be knowingly and demonstratively traversed by quotations, references and the echoes of cultural languages, he rehearses a modality of thought that begins to ‘think in other heads while in his own others beside himself are thinking’. An avid collector of fragments with a keen eye for the cut and the seam, he is devoted to a gesture of production that resembles ‘the original art of the courtier’: ‘pieces, fragments are subjected to certain correspondences, arrangements, reappearances’. The autodidactic and artisanal quality of this scene becomes a more and more legible trace within the lapidary tone of Barthes’ style, which selects, turns and shifts the pieces of disparate genres, disciplines and sources with the lightest of touch, gathering fragments with the near pressureless ‘gesture of the chopstick’ into singular constellations of assemblage.

What brings and holds together the various elements of Barthes works and oeuvre is not the disciplined rigor of the expert in pursuit of a narrowly scoped out field of accumulated knowledge – paying his respects before the itinerary of some tightly pre-prescribed menu – but the idiosyncratic trajectory of the cruise: a self-reflective mapping of the stroll of an idle subject without precise destination. Suspicious of the ‘arrogance of theory’ his research is saturated with a ‘joyous dilettantism’, the obsessive love and admiration of recurring sources and the recently discovered. True to his claim, as Jacques Derrida has recalled it, ‘to be looking for what comes to him and suits him, what agrees with him and fits him like a garment’, the ‘Preliminaries’ to his lecture course on ‘The Neutral’ eschew the usual bibliographical ambition or pretense of objectivity and totality of a staked-out field of research in favour of ‘nothing more than a list of the texts whose reading, in various ways, has punctuated the preparation of this course’. Limiting himself solely to works found in his personal library in Urt, ‘a place-time where the loss in methodological rigor is compensated for by the intensity and the pleasure of free reading’, his working ‘method’ – if we can still call it that, given that it lacks systematicity and orderliness, and therefore, precisely, method – embraces chance, accident and an unabashedly personal and forever tenuous logic of consistency as valid structures for a project of public research driven by an attraction for advenience, if not adventure. Deeply involved with, as well as more or less committed to various intellectual currents that sweep throughout his oeuvre, he remains an “amateur” before them all – borrowing, mixing, more or less adopting but above all testing their respective ‘language’ from a position of theatrical distance. The kind of ‘distance’ he so much admired at the heart of Brecht’s ‘revolutionary dramaturgy’ and the Japanese puppet theatre Bunraku. Demonstratively gathering a ‘heterology of knowledge’ marked by a discontinuity of the codes, he denies his discourse the illusory ground of a stable, masterful site of origin. Unable to account in his own person for what he is never alone to write, he follows the Brechtian dictum to let citation rule, allowing himself to be traversed and somewhat tossed about by a wide range of sources and influences, finding serenity in the midst of disorder, sustained by a contradictory immobility in movement of the drift. Carried whilst himself carrying, his is a paradoxical productivity in a state of passive relaxation, taking up that ‘most relaxing position of a body’ that floats, that is, ‘live[s] in space without tying oneself to a place’. Not unlike the image of the ‘halcyonian bird,’ which builds its nest on water to labor on a momentarily calm sea.

©Swen Steinhäuser, Extract from 'For the Love(rs) of Dramaturgy: On Roland Barthes Amateur' in Rethinking Roland Barthes Through Performance: desire for Neutral dramaturgy. Edited by Harry Wilson and Will Daddario.