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  • "What's Fragile Is Always New":The Truth of Literature in Roland Barthes' The Preparation of the Novel1
  • Rudolphus Teeuwen (bio)

All theorizing is flight.

—Iris Murdoch (1977, 80)

On February 16, 1980, Roland Barthes tells the auditors of his Collège de France seminar The Preparation of the Novel II that the summer before, on August 29, 1979, he read Pascal on the plane to Biarritz (near Urt where he had a summer house). He feels "transported" by Pascal's text and thinks to himself,

to love literature is, from the moment you start reading, to chase away all possible doubt as to its presentness, its timeliness, its immediacy, it's to believe, it's to see that there's a living man speaking to me as if his body were here, next to mine, more real to me than Komeini or Bokassa; it's Pascal fearing Death, or being overwhelmed by it to the point of vertigo, it's discovering that those old formulations (for example, "Wretchedness of Man," "Concupiscence," etc.) perfectly express the present-day things that are within me, it's not feeling the need for another language → In fact, the present = notion distinct from the topical; the present is alive (I'm in the process of creating it myself) ≠ the topical can only be a noise.

(PN II, 2011a, 277)2 [End Page 207]

This is Barthes, as it turned out, only days before being hit by a laundry truck, an accident that would lead to his death a month later, age 64, on March 26th. Pascal's old formulation, the "Wretchedness of Man" ("Misère de l'homme"), seems painfully appropriate. Barthes' subjection to the truth he discovered in Pascal's formulation makes for a bitter application of mise en abyme, a form he loved.

But there is a happier mise en abyme, an affirmative recursiveness, that Barthes identifies in literature. "Things that are within me" are perfectly expressed by old forms of language and in this way literature affirms its "presentness, its timeliness ("son actualité," Préparation II, 2003, 353), its immediacy." Literature does away with the need for new language: what needs expression already finds a form in it: literature gives us the present, not the topical ("l'actuel," Préparation II, 2003, 353): "l'actuel peut n'être qu'un bruit (Préparation II, 2003, 353).3

Barthes expresses his love for literature's recurrent timeliness as a love for the archaic. Literature "no longer has any currency in the field of letters" (PN II, 2011a, 279) and it is the absence of literature from current collective consciousness that ignites, in Barthes, his love "in the way one loves and embraces something that's going to die" (PN II, 2011a, 277).

In The Preparation of the Novel II, it is the death of literature that concerns Barthes, and not in the sense that he wants to do something about it, but in that he wants to partake of it in a way he slowly unfolds in the course. As far back as in Writing Degree Zero (1953) Barthes' most memorable observation about literature already ties it to death: "Literature is like phosphorous: it shines with its maximum brilliance at the moment when it attempts to die" (2012, 38). And in a 1959 essay of barely two pages, "Literature and Metalanguage," French literature "has been for a hundred years a dangerous game with its own death…" (1972, 98). In this early part of his career, it was the avant-garde novel that was tasked with engineering through its own death the destruction of literature and of society in its ordered, durable existence, its horrors of "Terror or plausibility" (2012, 39). Later in his career, when much less in the grip of a theory, Barthes felt confident to declare his tastes in literature as "classical," and as having been so all along. Classical literature to him is not something that lives forever; it is something that dies forever.

What makes literature, to Barthes, "classical" is that it offers a reader a "Moment of Truth." Barthes' lecture series The Preparation of the Novel covered two semesters, and his notion of the Moment of...


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