GAZING OVER THE TEXT of The Eiffel Tower, one experiences the same mixture of intellection and delight that the French critic Roland Barthes finds in the panoramic view from that celebrated monument. There is the "euphoria" of an "aerial vision" that reaches from the opening essay on the tower itself, to the final one on paintings of New York, touching in between on Martians, gangsters' gestures, Billy Graham's sermons, the Tour de France bicycle race and the art of song. Like a contemplative glance, the language settles on each object, caressing it with mixtures of sensual concreteness and lofty abstraction. And just as an observer perched on the tower "deciphers" the world below him, "reconstitutes" it, by recognizing monuments, streets, forms of city life, so Barthes' essays attempt to "read" the world from their abstract heights, "to see things in their structure."
Barthes is no ordinary sightseer. In fact, he occupies a position in French literary life that is similar to that of the tower that so intrigues him: I am told that it is impossible to go anywhere in Paris without being aware of him -- without seeing his books, or hearing his name. In the advanced literary circles of this country he is one of the major representatives of the French fashions in what used to be called "literary criticism": Barthes and other French critics have long since moved away from the kind of essays and considerations of cultural meaning -- written a quarter of a century ago -- found in The Eiffel Tower.
The book is actually a companion volume to Mythologies published here in English in 1972; both are, for the most part, selections from the larger French Mythologies, published in 1957. The earlier English volume is the more exciting and eclectic collection; this one is often obscure and provincial, treating events that Richard Howard, the translator, should have annotated. It also seems, at times, slightly dated and pedantic, particularly in some of the political essays. Racial myths hardly need as much explication as they did, and UFO's have little relation right now to the cold war. No doubt too, the entire approach has lost some of the impact it might have had a quarter of a century ago, since the search for explanations of cultural symbols has itself become a major preoccupation of our culture.
But most of the views in The Eiffel Tower remain remarkably fresh and unique. Barthes has a novelist's love for detail and image; (Billy Graham holds his Bible at arm's length "like the universal can opener of a quack peddler"), along with a compulsive, nearly mystic, need to see meaning, to distill facts into essences and determine their relationships, and to link those relations to others so that one has the unsettling feeling of seeing that which is most familiar as if for the first time. So when he considers the "cool" snap of a gangster's fingers that "give the clean economical signal for a burst of gunfire," what he finds is the mythical decisive gesture of the gods who need no speech to change the world. When he looks at the dancers and acrobats in a music hall variety show, he sees confrontations of "gesture and substance" that reveal an "aesthetic form of work." When he looks at advertisements for beauty products, he finds an "epic representation of the intimate" that involves the "conflict oftwo warring substances" -- water and grease.
What gives Barthes this unique perspective? He seems to be balanced on a structure with a very particular view. Each of these little essays is really observing what Barthes calls the "bourgeoisie": Martians are projections of bourgeois culture; singers exaggerate inflections for the naive bourgeois consumer; newspapers advice columns consolidate bourgeois dogma. This "bourgeoisie" is left undefined, but its characteristics, for Barthes, are clear. Its ideology is based entirely upon commerce. Its morality has a "rhetoric of retaliation" based upon "book-keeping." "Qualitative values" are excluded in favor of the "quantitative." Its rationality is simplistic. It negates all that is different from itself. It is diabolical. It acts as if it were part of nature itself, and it is imperial. As Barthes argues in a theoretical essay in the English Mythologies, everything in everyday life, from our films to our cooking, is dependent upon the notions the "bourgeoisie" makes us have."
The bourgeoisie succeeds in its conquest, according to Barthes' essay, by infiltrating everyday life with "myth." Traditional myth explains a culture's origins out of nature's forces. Modern myths in Barthes' view, are similar: they justify and enforce the power of the bourgeoisie by presenting it as a natural force. But such myths are insidious; they may appear innocent, but in fact, have a "stranglehold" upon our life, even engaging in an imperialist "colonization" of our language. They are the myths of the "oppressor" on the political Right. The myths of the Left, on the other hand, are "rare, threadbare." In fact, "revolutionary language proper cannot be mythical." Barthes sees himself, then, as a sort of revolutionary demystifier, battling against the corrupt, crass, totalitarian bourgeoisie.
But this epic struggle and its presentation are themselves leftist "myths" -- even in Barthes' sense -- and are neither "rare" nor "threadbare." It alters language, hides history, presents itself as what really is. In fact, in opposition to a bourgeois "nature," Barthes denies that there is any "nature" at all. The "natural," he has written recently, "is the alibi paraded by a social majority; the natural is a legality." This myth, however, is at least as oppressive as the most insidious bourgeois advertisement; it argues that there is nothing that is inherently human. Anything can be made of man in politics and revolution.
This absence of a full human center can be felt in these essays. Barthes' flat hollow world is filled with abstractions; he touches only the formal surfaces of culture because he believes there is nothing underneath. He is attracted then to rich surfaces, even to those of the bourgeois world he so adamantly rejects. He is entranced by those "well-fed, sleek, garrulous" myths he sees about him. He is fascinated by the excitement of the bourgeois urban world: New York is "this fabulous reservoir, this world emporium;" the Tour de France bicycle race is a grand Odyssean epic; and the music hall is a "magical heaven . . . danger and effort are signified at the same time that they are subsumed by laughter or by grace." His essays are full of things he derides as bourgeois: essences, maxims, spectacle. He handles ideas the way music hall acrobats handle objects; they are "metallized, flung away, caught up again, manipulated, quite luminous with movements in perpetual dialogue with gesture." Such pleasure would only be possible in a bourgeois world full of images, myths and bustle; Barthes loves "reading" that world so much he could hardly want to depose it. It is no wonder he eventually turned from political mythologies to the interior explorations of The Pleasure of the Text, or of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.
Given this fascination with abstract, glittering vistas, Barthes may be happiest perched atop the Eiffel Tower where "one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of the world." That may be, in fact one of the mythologies underlying his writing, his politics -- and perhaps much of contemporary life. ING, by---- THE----CLOCKS, by----
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The two English novels in which terrorism figures prominently are "The Secret Agent," by Joseph Conrad (1907), and "The Man Who Was Thursday," by G. k. Chesterton (1908).
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