In 1977, when he was 61, the French philosopher Roland Barthes lost his mother after a prolonged illness. Barthes, by then a celebrated cultural critic, was on the verge of beginning several seminal book projects, including his classic Camera Lucida. Yet alongside this work, he took notes describing his mourning, and compiled a journal of 330 cards spanning two years. These cards, translated by Richard Howard and presented now in book form, are themselves a classic in the making. Whether we approach Barthes as an old intellectual companion, or open his work for the first time, they’re not to be missed.
Fragmentary yet deeply insightful, intellectually astute yet always humane, Barthes records the progression of a profound loss in flashes that reveal both heart and mind to themselves newly. Here’s fresh grief on October 29: “How strange, her voice…I no longer hear. Like a localized deafness.” Or this critique: “In the sentence “She’s no longer suffering,’ to what, to whom, does ‘she’ refer? What does the present tense mean?” For those familiar with Barthes’s work, the cards may provide rich insights into his academic life, and they may see how Camera Lucida’s meditations on lasting images relate deeply to his own experiences of loss and grief.
Nevertheless, that’s only one facet of this slender book’s power. For any reader, the unveiling of a mind and heart at work—so clearly expressed, so deeply and astutely questioning the range of human feeling— can’t fail to leave its own haunting after-image.