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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.2 (2001) 527-533

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Caritas Incarnate: A Tale of Love and Loss

Philippe Roger

I'd like to treat the notion of love in Barthes's final writings, and this, by way of his love for the novel. Paradoxically, considering all that has been written on Barthes's reversals, his recanting, little of the strangeness and radicalism of his last articles and talks (1977-1980) on the "desire for a novel" has been noticed. Or if it has, it's been through the wrong end of the telescope, a telescope pointed at a theatrical, vaguely ridiculous Barthes, announcing that he plans to "go there," like opera choruses repeating, "Onward, onward," while remaining noisily stationary.

It seems to me that this final space, fixed by his death as a kind of destination, does, in effect, act as a point of arrival. In these texts--and particularly in "Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure," a lecture delivered first at the Collège de France then at New York University in the fall of 1978 1 --Barthes is not content simply to break the taboo weighing on that obsolete form, the novel; he is not content simply to profess that he is in its thrall; rather, he makes the difficult avowal of his own "desire for a novel," and then goes still further. He assigns to this refound novel a solemn "mission," and to that character, still recently considered "a little ridiculous, the writer," a singularly serious role. The writer, the novelist, is no longer the naive or duplicitous officiant of the impossible cult of an already-lost Literature; he becomes the indispensable depositary of all the world's losses, and their scribe. But this, not only in the sense that allowed James to say: "The writer is the one on whom nothing is ever lost"; also, and more surprisingly coming from Barthes, in the sense that the novelist is the one by whom loss will be redeemed.

It is a veritable conversion to the novel--or reconversion, insofar as Barthes had always been a fervent and secret lover of the Novel. (Wary as we might be of the word's religious connotations, I'll note that "conversion," at least in French, also signifies the operation by which novice skiers, uncomfortable on a slippery slope, can turn, one after the other, their skis in the desired direction.)

I will also add: Barthes is not converted to the novel at the expense of decryption, analysis, or interpretation. "Going toward the novel" doesn't imply, for him, renouncing anything, or making some "leap of intellection." His desire remains profoundly heuristic. The last lines of [End Page 527] "Longtemps . . ." leave little doubt about that: "I postulate a novel to be written, whereby I can expect to learn more about the novel than by merely considering it as an object already written by others." 2 Would Barthes himself, time allowing, have struck out on the path of the novel? "How should I know?" says Barthes in the course of the same lecture; so how should I? What is clear, however, is that this "novel"--dreamed of or desired--would have looked very little like the sketches and scribblings of "Notations" and "Incidents," which appeared posthumously. What is clear is that by means of this fantasy or project, Barthes reorganized his world and, singularly, to paraphrase Fourier, his New Amorous World.

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I can now ask a question that has intrigued me, without the risk of being misunderstood. Why does the Novel (as in "question of the novel," but also "desire for the novel") reappear at the center of Barthes's later articles, those written between 1977 and 1980--as well as in Camera Lucida, which is also a book convexly about novelistic writing as love's legitimate reliquary?

The answer to this question can be found in the new formula (the term referring here to the "chemistry" of the novel, to its molecular nature, not to its proceedings or procedures) that Barthes came to describe and defend. Insistently, with...