Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so. Roland Barthes walks up Rue de Bièvre. The greatest literary critic of the twentieth century has every reason to feel anxious and upset. His mother, with whom he had a highly Proustian relationship, is dead. And his course on “The Preparation of the Novel” at the Collège de France is such a conspicuous failure it can no longer be ignored: all year, he has talked to his students about Japanese haikus, photography, the signifier and the signified, Pascalian diversions, café waiters, dressing gowns, and lecture-hall seating—about everything but the novel. And this has been going on for three years. He knows, without a doubt, that the course is simply a delaying tactic designed to push back the moment when he must start a truly literary work, one worthy of the hypersensitive writer lying dormant within him and who, in everyone’s opinion, began to bud in his A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, which has become a bible for the under-25s. From Sainte-Beuve to Proust, it is time to step up and take the place that awaits him in the literary pantheon. Maman is dead: he has come full circle since Writing Degree Zero. The time has come.
Politics? Yeah, yeah, we’ll see about that. He can’t really claim to be very Maoist since his trip to China. Then again, no one expects him to be.
Chateaubriand, La Rochefoucauld, Brecht, Racine, Robbe-Grillet, Michelet, Maman. A boy’s love.
I wonder if the area was already full of Vieux Campeur shops back then.
In a quarter of an hour, he will be dead.
I’m sure he ate well, on Rue des Blancs-Manteaux. I imagine people like that serve pretty good food. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes decodes the contemporary myths erected by the middle classes to their own glory. And it was this book that made him truly famous. So, in a way, he owes his fortune to the bourgeoisie. But that was the petite bourgeoisie. The ruling classes who serve the people are a very particular case that merits analysis; he should write an article. Tonight? Why not right away? But no, first he has to organize his slides.
Roland Barthes ups his pace without paying attention to the world around him, despite being a born observer, a man whose job consists of observing and analyzing, who has spent his entire life scrutinizing signs of every kind. He really doesn’t see the trees or the sidewalks or the store windows or the cars on Boulevard Saint-Germain, which he knows like the back of his hand. He is not in Japan anymore. He doesn’t feel the bite of the cold. He barely even hears the sounds of the street. It’s a bit like Plato’s allegory of the cave in reverse: the world of ideas in which he shuts himself away obscures his awareness of the world of the senses. Around him, he sees only shadows.
These reasons I mention to explain Roland Barthes’s anxiety are all well known. But I want to tell you what actually happened.
If his mind is elsewhere that day, it’s not only because of his dead mother or his inability to write a novel or even his increasing and, he thinks, irreversible loss of appetite for boys. I’m not saying that he’s not thinking about these things; I have no doubts about the quality of his obsessive neuroses. But, today, there is something else. In the absent gaze of a man lost in his thoughts, the attentive passerby would have recognized that state which Barthes thought he was destined never to feel again: excitement.
There is more to him than his mother and boys and his phantom novel. There is the libido sciendi, the lust for learning, and, awoken by it, the flattering prospect of revolutionizing human knowledge and, perhaps, changing the world. Does Barthes feel like Einstein, thinking about his theory as he crosses Rue des Écoles? What is certain is that he’s not really looking where he’s going. He is less than a hundred feet from his office when he is hit by a van. His body makes the familiar, sickening, dull thudding sound of flesh meeting metal, and it rolls over the pavement like a rag doll. Passersby flinch. This afternoon—February 25, 1980—they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very good reason that, until today, no one understands anything about it.
Semiology is a very strange thing. It was Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of linguistics, who first dreamed it up. In his Course in General Linguistics, he proposes imagining “a science that studies the life of signs within society.” Yep, that’s all. For those who wish to tackle this, he adds a few guidelines: “It would form a part of social psychology and, consequently, of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, ‘sign’). It would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since it does not exist yet, no one can say what it will be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of this general science; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics, and the latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts.” I wish Anthony Hopkins would reread this passage for us, enunciating each word as he does so well, so that the whole world could at least grasp all its beauty if not its meaning. A century later, this brilliant intuition, which was almost incomprehensible to his contemporaries when the course was taught in 1906, has lost none of its power or its obscurity. Since then, numerous semiologists have attempted to provide clearer and more detailed definitions, but they have contradicted each other (sometimes without realizing it themselves), got everything muddled up, and ultimately succeeded only in lengthening (and even then, not by much) the list of systems of signs beyond language: the highway code, the international maritime code, and bus and hotel numbers have been added to military ranks and the sign language alphabet . . . and that’s about it.
Rather meager in comparison with the original ambition. Seen this way, far from being an extension of the domain of linguistics, semiology seems to have been reduced to the study of crude proto-languages, which are much less complex and therefore much more limited than any real language.
But in fact, that’s not the case.
It’s no accident that Umberto Eco, the wise man of Bologna, one of the last great semiologists, referred so often to the key, decisive inventions in the history of humanity: the wheel, the spoon, the book . . . perfect tools, he said, unimprovable in their effectiveness. And indeed, everything suggests that in reality semiology is one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity and one of the most powerful tools ever forged by man. But as with fire or the atom, people don’t know what the point of it is to begin with, or how to use it.
In fact, a quarter of an hour later, he still isn’t dead. Roland Barthes lies in the gutter, inert, but a hoarse wheeze escapes his body. And while his mind sinks into unconsciousness, prob ably full of whirling haikus, Racinian alexandrines, and Pascalian aphorisms, he hears—maybe the last thing he will hear, he thinks (he does think, surely)—a distraught man yelling: “He thrrrew himself under my wheels! He thrrrew himself under my wheels!” Where’s that accent from? Around him, the passersby are recovering from the shock, have gathered in a circle and are leaning over what will soon be his corpse, discussing, analyzing, evaluating:
“We should call an ambulance!”
“No point. He’s done for.”
“He thrrrew himself under my wheels—you werrre all witnesses!”
“Doesn’t look too good, does he?”
“Poor guy . . .”
“We have to find a pay phone. Anyone got some coins?”
“I didn’t even have to time to brrrake!”
“Don’t touch him. We must wait for the ambulance.”
“Let me through! I’m a doctor.” “Don’t turn him over!”
“I’m a doctor. He’s still alive.”
“Someone should inform his family.”
“Poor guy . . .”
“I know him!”
“Was it suicide?”
“We have to find out his blood group.”
“He’s a customer of mine. He comes to my bar for a drink every morning.”
“He won’t be coming anymore . . .”
“Is he drunk?”
“He smells of alcohol.”
“A glass of white, sitting at the bar. Same thing every morning, for years.”
“That doesn’t help us with his blood group . . .”
“He crrrossed the rrroad without looking!”
“The driver must remain in control of his vehicle at all times. That’s the law here.”
“Don’t worry, man, you’ll be fine. As long as you’ve got good insurance . . .”
“Yeah, there goes his no-claims bonus, though.”
“Don’t touch him!”
“I’m a doctor!”
“So am I.”
“Look after him, then. I’ll go and call an ambulance.”
“I have to deliverrr my merrrchandise . . .”
Most of the world’s languages use an apico-alveolar r, known as the rolled r, in contrast to French, which adopted the dorso-velar R about three hundred years ago. There is no rolled r in German or English. Nor in Italian or Spanish. Portuguese, maybe? True, it does sound a little guttural, but the man’s intonation is not nasal or singsong enough; it’s quite monotonous, in fact, so much so that it’s hard to make out the notes of panic.
So he’s probably a Russian.
Born of linguistics and almost doomed to be the runt of the litter, used only for the study of the most rudimentary, limited languages, how at the last possible moment was semiology able to turn itself into a neutron bomb?
By means Barthes was familiar with.
To begin with, semiology was devoted to the study of non linguistic systems of communication. Saussure himself told his students: “Language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and in this way is comparable to writing, the sign language alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military signals, et cetera. It is simply the most important of these systems.” This is more or less true, but only if we limit the definition of systems of signs to those designed to communicate explicitly and intentionally. The Belgian linguist Eric Buyssens defines semiology as “the study of communication processes; in other words, means used to influence others and recognized as such by the others in question.” Barthes’s stroke of genius is to not content himself with communication systems but to extend his field of inquiry to systems of meaning. Once you have tasted that freedom, you quickly become bored with anything less: studying road signs or military codes is about as fascinating for a linguist as playing gin rummy would be for a poker player, or checkers for a chess player. As Umberto Eco might say: for communicating, language is perfect; there could be nothing better.
And yet, language doesn’t say everything. The body speaks, objects speak, history speaks, individual or collective destinies speak, life and death speak to us constantly in a thousand different ways. Man is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere: in the color of his wife’s coat, in the stripe on the door of his car, in the eating habits of the people in the apartment next door, in France’s monthly unemployment figures, in the banana-like taste of Beaujolais nouveau (it always tastes either like banana or, less often, raspberry. Why? No one knows, but there must be an explanation, and it is semiological), in the proud, stately bearing of the black woman striding ahead of him through the corridors of the metro, in his colleague’s habit of leaving the top two buttons of his shirt undone, in some footballer’s goal celebration, in the way his partner screams when she has an orgasm, in the design of that piece of Scandinavian furniture, in the main sponsor’s logo at this tennis tournament, in the soundtrack to the credits of that film, in architecture, in painting, in cooking, in fashion, in advertising, in interior decor, in the West’s representation of women and men, love and death, heaven and earth, etc. With Barthes, signs no longer need to be signals: they have become clues. A seismic shift. They’re everywhere. From now on, semiology is ready to conquer the world.
From The Seventh Function of Language. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Laurent Binet.