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Jonathan Doering reviews Album

Roland Barthes, Album: Unpublished Correspondence and Texts, trans. Jody Gladding, ed. Éric Marty. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 392 pp.

Review by Jonathan Doering

11 December 2019

Was Roland Barthes continuous or fragmented, singular or plural? How does one structure the structuralist? Although these cardinal questions will be contested indefinitely, the publication of Album—made up of Barthes’ selected letters and certain other unpublished texts—helps dispel the hastier impressions of him prevalent in North America. Album illuminates the fascinating borderland between his life and work, as well as some of Barthes’ underappreciated critical undertakings such as the rehabilitation (and heavy critique) of the Greco-Roman-French rhetorical tradition (Paul Valéry and Jean Paulhan had previously attempted to revive rhetoric with limited success). Regrettably, Album also prompts a desire for texts and letters that could not be included. Since many letters remain lost, destroyed, or difficult to access, the fragmentary “album” became a necessary editorial ruse: a concept Barthes took from Mallarmé and developed in a Collège de France lecture shortly before his death. In a demurral from the architectural aspirations of what Mallarmé called “le Livre,” editor Éric Marty’s assemblage embraces the circumstantial quality of l’Album.” Marty's introductions and footnotes address the tantalizing sense of incompleteness that these vestiges often evoke.

To get one’s bearings in this heap of previously private materials, the letters of Album should be read alongside Tiphaine Samoyault’s brilliant and enormously useful Barthes: A Biography (2017). Readers in North America will be pleased to discover Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Blanchot, and Claude Lévi-Strauss as correspondents—and perhaps frustrated that Michel Foucault, who was extremely close to Barthes in the early 1960s, is underrepresented (he did find S/Z “magnificent,” [p. 192]). Barthes addressed many letters to publishers and editors (Raymond Queneau, Maurice Nadeau, Jean Piel, Jean Paulhan) and writers (Jean Cayrol, Alain Robbe-Grillet, George Perros, and especially Michel Butor). Numerous letters to Phillippe Sollers can be found separately in The Friendship of Roland Barthes (2017). Though few of the epistolary exchanges in Album span decades, a staggering number and diversity of renowned correspondents briefly make an appearance: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Hélène Cixous, Michel Leiris, Pierre Klossowski, and more. Even by the standards of the tightly interwoven Parisian intellectual community, Barthes lived a reticulated life of countless social, journalistic, and pedagogical affinities. 

The long, peregrine letters from Barthes’ youth prove biographically useful and sometimes delightful; he becomes a bit more punctual as he ages, but always warm and sensitive. Barthes’ struggles in the sanatorium, as well as his youthful enthusiasms (poetry, music, love), emerge eloquently in his correspondence with his dearest friend Philippe Rebeyrol. The Barthes of Album is as assiduous as he is insecure, eventually summoning a “rage for work” though “frenzied structuralism” while still dogged by self-doubt: “uninspired madness, Fourier without the genius,” he says of himself (p. 245). Constantly “touched,” “pleased,” “delighted,” “gratified,” or otherwise moved upon receiving letters, Barthes appears hopeful for and perhaps overly dependent upon the love and approval of his friends and acquaintances. 

Unless one is reading for epistolary pleasure or biographical understanding, the non-letter texts of Album are its best feature. These include preliminary sketches towards Barthes’ novel (the “Vita Nova” project), “Popular Songs of Paris Today,” and “The Politicization of Texts in Romania.” In the style of the late Barthes, “On Seven Sentences in Bouvard et Pécuchet” concludes that Flaubert’s novel is an “encyclopedia-farce” (p. 235). A miniature mythology of a page and a half, “The Postage Stamp,” tells us of its “microcosm”: “meant to travel the world, the stamp itself has become a world,” a “a conqueror” devouring society’s consecrated images (p. 210). Two Barthes pieces on rhetoric are included: “Valéry and Rhetoric,” from his 1960s seminars at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and “The Future of Rhetoric,” a remarkable manifesto on why this discipline must be “resurrected” after being nearly obliterated in France. Written in 1946, before Barthes had encountered Saussure, “The Future of Rhetoric” suggests that Barthes’ first “theory” was not structuralism, but the “taboo world” of rhetoric that must be resurrected “even if this must contribute to the death of all that we now call literature” (p. 144). Almost two decades before Barthes became a partisan of nouvelle critique and jousted with Raymond Picard, here Barthes argues against Gustave Lanson’s historical method for literary criticism. What Barthes calls the “Lansonian tyranny of influence, milieu, rapprochement,” largely sustained by Picard into the 1960s, presented a foil for Barthes’ own rhetoric-heavy critical practice (p. 106). This text, along with the eventual publication of Barthes’ masters-level dissertation on Greek tragedy, will shed much-needed light on the classical, pre-structuralist Barthes, obscure outside of France. Despite the influence of Paulhan’s Les Fleurs de Tarbes on interwar criticism and its insistence upon rhetoric, the early Barthes remains far more indebted to Valéry’s promotions of rhetoric and poetics (see Valéry’s “De l’enseignement de la poétique au Collège de France”).

No synoptic tour of such a happenstance assembly as Album is possible. Unlike Mythologies and his essay collections, this curious congeries offers few takeaways for casual readers. But for Barthesians, or those interested in the rhetorical revival in France, there is plenty here. In our techno-bureaucratic age of “effective communication,” reading the eloquent missives of Barthes, who resisted instrumental writing and opposed rhetoric-as-pejorative whenever and wherever he could, remains a worthy endeavour.