- Reading through Photography:Roland Barthes's Last Seminar "Proust et la photographie"
The posthumous publication of Roland Barthes's Collège de France lectures and seminars (delivered between 1977 and 1980) has triggered a new interest among scholars in Barthes's late œuvre.1 His last seminar, however, entitled "Proust et la photographie"2—one Barthes never delivered owing to his fatal accident on the Rue des Écoles in early 19803—has to this point received surprisingly little scholarly attention.4 The seminar's subtitle, "Examen d'un fonds d'archives photographiques mal connu," is with hindsight ironically appropriate: although the photographs that Barthes refers to are much more widely known today, especially among Proust scholars (due in part to the 1978 exhibition of these images and the subsequently revised publication of the exhibition catalogue, "Le monde de Proust vu par Paul Nadar" edited by Anne-Marie Bernard),5 Barthes's text remains largely "mal connu." Published as an appendix to the last volume of the Cours et séminaires au Collège de France series (the 2003 La Préparation du roman), the bulk of "Proust et la photographie" consists of fragmentary notes. There is an introduction, however, in which Barthes lays out the concepts that he wishes to address during the course of the seminar, followed by a large collection of photographic material—primarily late nineteenth-century portraits of Proust's family, friends, and acquaintances taken by Paul Nadar, the son of the famous Félix Nadar—accompanied by short biographical notes on each person represented and his or her connection to Proust and his monumental À la recherche du temps perdu.
The incompleteness of "Proust et la photographie" notwithstanding, I would like to suggest that a close reading of this text sheds new [End Page 97] light on a number of central themes with which Barthes's late writings are deeply concerned. Firstly, it expands on issues pertaining to the relation between authorship and the reception of literary works from an angle that may be surprising to the reader more familiar with Barthes's earlier conception of the author, as precipitated in his seminal 1968 essay "La mort de l'auteur," and yet is consistent with the perspective on these issues found in other lectures and seminars delivered at the Collège de France. Secondly, "Proust et la photographie" reflects on the complex relation between photography, the imaginary, and the real, in a way that can be provocatively juxtaposed with Barthes's last book on photography, La Chambre claire, Note sur la photographie, written in 1979, shortly before the seminar on Proust was prepared.
This essay has a double objective: it will attempt to explicate a number of the concepts forwarded in "Proust et la photographie" as a freestanding work, and it will also view this text from an historical and contextual perspective with reference to Barthes's late critical project, more generally. It will become clear that in discussing photographic portraits in close conjunction with a specific type of reading, one which Barthes's calls his "Marcellisme" (391) as rooted in his identification with Proust the writer, on the one hand, and Marcel the narrator of La Recherche, on the other, Barthes subtly intertwines his own idiosyncratic interpretation of La Recherche with a new theory of reading that hinges on the reciprocal relationship between reality, in the form of biographical information, and the imaginary, associated with fictional narrative. I shall argue that it is the double function of the photograph as both evidence of the real and, at the same time, a starting point for a flight of imagination on the part of its beholder, that foregrounds an engagement with literature for which Barthes's reading of La Recherche paradigmatically stands.
The desire to write and "moments de vérité"
It has often been acknowledged that Proust and his À la recherche du temps perdu play a significant, if paradoxical, role in Barthes's œuvre: Proust is omnipresent in Barthes's writing, yet his work was never the object of direct critical analysis.6 Although his comments on Proust are still largely parenthetical in Barthes's late texts, dating from the mid to late 1970s...