AS A FIRST introduction to the work of Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice could not be bettered. Stimulated by generally intelligent questioners, Barthes here talks about the development of his thought, explains why and how he wrote his many books, and pays tributes to philosophers, linguists, novelists, poets, painters and film-makers who have interested and inspired him. His story is that of semiotics or semiology, the investigation of sign-systems, in the wake of Saussure (the Swiss who pioneered the study of modern linguistics); Barthes' whole life has been dedicated to an exploration of the codes that govern writing, speaking, depicting, the way we dress (especially the way we talk about fashions), the organization of serving food, and what he has called the "mythologies" of everyday life.
"What has preoccupied me ever since my first essay, Writing Degree Zero," he tells us, "is the problem of signification in cultural objects." We watch him evolve his own particular brand of structuralism, measuring "not structures, but the play of structures and their inversion along 'illogical' paths." There is mercifully little here about Barthes' failed experiment in revaluing the classics, On Racine, but much about the micro-analysis of Balzac's Sarrasine in S/Z, that fascinating search for new ways of conveying the experience of reading fiction -- an experiment born out of "a lassitude, almost a distaste, in any case an intolerance . . . towards the dissertation and its forms of exposition."
Barthes rightly stresses that it is wrong to see S/Z as a "reading of Balzac"; what he gives us, rather, is "a reading of . . . reading," a formal grid of reading according to certain specified codes, a survey of one intelligent reading of this particular text. No one can fail to learn from S/Z, or what Barthes says about it in the interviews reprinted in The Grain of the Voice, even if one thinks that in important instances the text has been misread, misunderstood, or (to use Barthes' terminology) wrongly decoded.
There are valuable expositions, here, of the cultural codes Barthes found in Japan, and their contrast with those he had known in France -- the subject of his Empire of Signs; of his explorations of the "Don Juanism" of texts, the way in which they attach themselves to us, woo us, affect our lives; of his debts to L,evi-Strauss, to Freud, to Brecht; of his interests in music and photography.
If, occasionally, we find him talking nonsense -- as when he tells one interlocutor that historians don't use metaphors -- that is the kind of thing which is easily forgiven in conversation; though one does wish occasionally that his questioners had been a little less deferential and a little more probing. What comes across most vividly is the sheer gusto of a man who never stopped developing and changing, never stopped interacting with contemporaries of all ages and all tastes, and never stopped enjoying his intellectual activities and spiritual explorations. The title that best sums up what Barthes is about is surely The Pleasure of the Text: a pleasure he constantly conveyed to his readers, his partners in coffee-house conversation, and the many students who passed through his seminars at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. How refreshing a phenomenon he is in a period that has seen so many dour, humorless exponents of narrow orthodoxies!
BARTHES HAS BEEN notably well served by his English translators. The "grain" of his voice comes across convincingly in Linda Coverdale's versions, and anyone who has ever struggled with the unusual vocabulary and stylistic leaps of his more formal essays must be filled with admiration for Richard Howard's achievement in The Responsibility of Forms. This is a collection of essays covering the same period as The Grain of the Voice, some of them already familiar to English-speaking readers from Image, Music, Text, edited by Stephen Heath in 1977; and it contains some of the best and some of the worst of Barthes.
Here we find again his justly celebrated analysis of the rhetoric of advertisements, based on a Panzani ad, which unites the insights and terminologies of the classical rhetoricians with those of post-Saussurean linguistics and semiotics; comments on the interplay of denotation and connotation in the press photograph; the imaginative following out of what was implied in Brecht's proposal (sent, among others, to Eisenstein and Piscator) to found a Diderot Society; the great essay on Arcimboldo, which is at the same time an exploration of the structure of languages, the meanings of rhetorical classifications, and French children's games; the demonstration of how the "Clovis Complex" -- "burn what you have worshipped, worship what you have burned" -- works itself out in avant-garde art; an unforgettable verbal recreation of the art of Ert,e; affectionate evocations of an individual experience of Schumann's music (characteristically entitled "Loving Schumann") -- these are among the many pleasures to be derived from The Responsibility of Forms, and they show their author at the top of his form. If the English-speaking reader occasionally feels that he could do with a glossary -- what does "imbrication" mean? What is "en abime"? what are "dysphoric values"? -- he is no worse off than the French reader, who alsonds himself left behind sometimes as Barthes rushes forward beyond the limits of a common language.
But alas: the worst of Barthes is no less in evidence than the best. There are the factual inaccuracies: he is perfectly content to make a weighty point about the iconography of the cinema by means of a description of a scene from Dreyer's Vampyr which can be immediately refuted in every detail by a viewing of the film. There are quotations wrenched from their contexts and distorted: nowhere does Goethe say "The hands want to see, the eyes want to caress" -- he is not talking about "wanting to" in the Roman Elegies, but about something that happened and happens. There is Barthes' all too frequent failure to make elementary distinctions before generalizing; he talks at length about the cinematic "still," for instance, without seeming to realize that there is a difference between a "still" photograph, specially taken on the set, and the blow-up of a frame from the film.
CONTRADICTIONS are expected in a constantly developing mind like that of Barthes; but it is still disconcerting to find in a volume which categorically denies that photographs can be art an essay that talks, blithely and without explanation, of the "incomparable art" of Richard Avedon. His contrast between the German Lied and the French chanson is vitiated by his unhistorical confrontation of the art of Schubert and Schumann with that of Faur,e, Duparc and Debussy; had he considered Hugo Wolf and his great interpreters, he might have found that what he thinks so characteristic of French song could be illustrated just as easily from that Austrian composer's work: "What is involved in these works is much more than a musical style, it is a practical reflection (so to speak) on the language; there is a gradual assumption of the language to the poem, of the poem to the m,elodie, and of the m,elodie to its performance."
Altogether, there are more questionable statements in the "Music" section of The Responsibility of Forms than in any of the others. "The lied's interlocutor is the Double -- my Double, which is Narcissus: a corrupt double, caught in the dreadful scene of the broken mirror, as Schubert's unforgettable >Doppelganger puts it." Schubert's Doppelganger "puts it" in no such way, anymore than Heine's poem does. It has nothing at all to do with mirrors, broken or otherwise; indeed, a good part of the effect of its confrontation of a present and a past self depends on its setting in the dark open street, away from all mirrors, on the literal and on the metaphorical plane, the absence of the mirror is crucial.
We can be as stimulated by disagreement with Barthes as by agreement; he is never boring, and never unintelligent, even when he is most wayward. One objection, however, I do feel called upon to make with some emphasis. Barthes is constantly telling us what a great writer the Marquis de Sade is, and how much pleasure that author's novels have given him, a pleasure comparable to that he derived from his reading of Proust. He seems to consider it irrelevant that what Sade so frequently depicts, without explicit or implicit disapproval and without emotional or intellectual revulsion, is the infliction of pain, torture and death on other human beings. I am not for burning Sade's books, but I do think that one cannot assess a writer's stature without taking fully into account whether his art is humane or its opposite, whether it is the product of a mature mind, however problematic and complex, or one that is sick and twisted. One might, with profit, think out the implications for literature of those splendid words of a 16th-century Calvinist, Castellion, which Barthes himself once quoted with approval when he was not talking about the delight he takes in Sade: "Killing a man is not defending a doctrine; it is killing a man."
Whatever objections we may make to Barthes -- and there are sure to be many more -- must nonetheless be made from a position of respect and admiration. There are few figures on the contemporary scene who have taught us more valuable lessons about the different forms of discourse, the different sign-systems, by whose means men order their world. His death in 1980 dried up a source of sparkling commentary, new ways of analysis and classification, and poetic insight, which we could ill afford to lose. His books, fortunately, remain; and the two volumes here discussed will continue to provide fruitful irritation, stimulation and delight for many years to come.