Bray on Diaz and Labbé, eds. (2019)

Diaz, José-Luis and Mathilde Labbé, editors. Les XIXe siècles de Roland Barthes. Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2019, pp. 266, ISBN 978-2-87449-704-9

March 2020 marks the fortieth year of Roland Barthes’s death, and yet his writing retains its formidable place in literary studies broadly, and in nineteenth-century French literary studies especially. Perhaps it is because, as an essayist, he managed to create new ways of reading that continue to surprise us. Perhaps it is because so many of us no longer “read” literature as literature, but rather as cultural artefactBarthes may be the last critic we accept in our discipline, in the way that a classic exists because we consider it safely in the past. The birth of the academic cultural historian must be at the cost of the death of the critic. 

Diaz and Labbé’s edited volume does its best to conjure up the ghost of Barthes, even as his work as a would-be dix-neuviémiste is repeatedly slain, or at least shown to be irrelevant. The contributors delight in Barthes’s critical inventions, his wit and style, his declarations of literary values. The quality of the writing in this volume is exceptional, as if Barthes brought out the best in each contributor, though of course the constraints of modern academic writing mean that Barthes’s unique combination of high theory and artful autobiography remain unmatched. Alongside the praise for Barthes as theorist and stylist, we find universal criticism for his actual understanding of all aspects of the nineteenth century, its literature, its history, its music. Among Barthes’s many qualities, discipline was not one. Inconsistencies in approach (in regards to Balzac, Ebguy describes Barthes’s “diplopie critique [...] [il] conteste même qu’il a posé,” 147), misreadings of history (his idiosyncratic and constantly shifting idea of “modernité”), inexcusable blind spots (nineteenth-century women writers, poetry, Zola, etc.), Barthes accumulated academic sins. One shudders to imagine his tenure dossier.   

This volume has an impressive collection of the best scholars of nineteenth-century literature working in France today. Françoise Gaillard on Flaubert, Jacques-David Ebguy on Balzac, Philippe Roger on Chateaubriand, Paule Petitier on Michelet, Philippe Hamon on Zola, among others. On top of being an engaging read, this book will also be an invaluable resource for specialists. It can serve as a reference guide for Barthes’s varied thought on so many authors of the century, from Stendhal, to Baudelaire, to (his rendez-vous manqué with) Zola. 

As Anne Herschberg-Pierrot writes in the concluding essay, Barthes’s relationship as an essayist to literature was “une relation d’appropriation et de recréation vectorisée par les projets théoriques ou l’écriture personnelle” (259). While scholars working within a discipline are expected to subsume the theoretical and the personal in favor of the factual, Barthes’s selective and idiosyncratic readings of the nineteenth century allowed him to invent novel ways of literary thought. As Vincent Vivès argues, Barthes shared with Nietzsche an attempt to free their thought from systems (241) and from followers, and to do so, an element of play, of dance, has to be introduced into writing: “Mais de fait, l’un est l’autre dédoublent l’instant critique par un instant festif. Il faut que le jeu intervienne pour que la critique du système [...] ne devienne pas elle-même systématique, pour qu’elle ne devienne pas ‘métalangue’” (243). To enshrine Barthes’s concepts as laws of literary theory and critical faith is to misread him and his intellectual moment. Barthes’s work requires us, in turn, to write and to read, to prompt us to think and create our own values and interpretations. 

Patrick M. Bray
University College London