- Barthes's Death Sentences and the End of Literature
We don't forget, but something vacant settlesin us. (Barthes, Mourning Diary)
This terrible solitude which is mine orours at the death of the other is whatconstitutes that relationship to self whichwe call "me," "us," between us, "subjectivity,""intersubjectivity," "memory."(Derrida 34)
To talk about Barthes the man, one must examine his relationship to both reading and writing and how they relate to his love of literature and the maternal. In Barthes's work the professor of desire's life becomes the modus operandi of theoretical speculations. This so-called professionalization that was not one became invested, as Lauren Berlant has suggested, in a different context, with "anxieties and seeds for mirroring what one normally associated with the restrictions of privacy and domestic intimacy."
Tell me what you read and I will tell you who you are, as Colette once declared, becomes for Barthes a dictum allowing him to be seduced into the erogenous zone called the text. Barthes required transgressive behavior enabling him to get beyond the transmission of literary stereotypes based on cultural capital. Barthes became the salesman for the literary avant-garde in writers such as Robbe-Grillet and Sollers in the pages of Tel Quel. Nevertheless, as a member of [End Page 864] the "arrière garde de l'avant-garde," he was more at home in reading writers such as Racine, Balzac and Proust, whose texts functioned as hauntological representations of subjects through which he identified. The engagement with these texts allowed Barthes to express psychological intensities that adhered to his demand for love.
Barthes's love of literature allowed him to practice an erotics of reading, producing sensuous writing. He conceived of texts as a corpus or a libidinal body containing figurative language representing what I have characterized in another context as "theoretical fictions" (Kritzman, "The Discourse of Desire"). Barthes viewed the texts with which he had a libidinal relationship as able to allow him, the "devirilized" son, to engage in the symbiotic pleasure derived from the maternal body. "The writer is someone who plays with the mother's body […] in order to glorify it, to embellish it, or in order to dismember it, to take it to the limit of what can be known about the body" (Pleasure of the Text 37). For Barthes the writing of the text embodies the transgression of the forbidden satisfaction derived from the maternal and allows for a substitute object of nurturance.
In Fragments of A Lover's Discourse, for example, the maternal imago becomes the center of the subject's very being; its absence constitutes a symbolic castration. The absent mother symbolizes a lost symbiotic bliss and the pain of separation. What one observes in this text is an anticipatory gesture that foreshadows what I describe as Barthes's death sentences, the catastrophic event emanating from the loss of the maternal.
The Death Knell
In the shadow of his mother's death, Barthes undertakes a quest to turn the act of mourning into a reparative gesture destined to culminate in the writing of a novel. He asks at the end of his penultimate course at the Collège de France in 1980: "Indeed, what would the conclusion to this course be?—The Work itself" (The Preparation of the Novel 298). As in the work of Dante and Proust, the death of the mother makes way for what Barthes terms a "vita nova," a renaissance of sorts. Now the theorist of the science of semiology and the death of the author wished to make way for a new form of writing that, in its passion and sensuality, must transcend the absolutism of language. In analyzing Mourning Diary and The Preparation of the Novel I examine how mourning becomes the subject and how it ultimately enables the quest for the creative act to end in failure. In his seminars on the [End Page 865] preparation of the novel Barthes expresses ambivalence concerning the possibility of its realization, suggesting that this fantasy of writing might culminate in nothing beyond a stillborn birth. Reflecting on what he terms the possible death of literature...