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The Day After his Mother's Death in October 1977, Roland Barthes began a diary of mourning. The man Susan Sontag considered "the most consistently intelligent, important, and useful critic ... to have emerged anywhere" confronted a new solitude. For nearly two years, taking notes on index cards as was his habit, he reflected on the ebb and flow of sadness; on the discourse of loss and recovery; on the slow pace of mourning, and modern society's quick dismissal of it. The contents of these 330 cards are published ...
The Day After his Mother's Death in October 1977, Roland Barthes began a diary of mourning. The man Susan Sontag considered "the most consistently intelligent, important, and useful critic ... to have emerged anywhere" confronted a new solitude. For nearly two years, taking notes on index cards as was his habit, he reflected on the ebb and flow of sadness; on the discourse of loss and recovery; on the slow pace of mourning, and modern society's quick dismissal of it. The contents of these 330 cards are published here for the first time. They mark a major discovery in Barthes's work: a skeleton key to the themes he tackled throughout his life. They are also a unique study of grief---intimate, deeply moving, and universal.
“This book’s unvarnished quality is the source of its wrecking cumulative power. Barthes’s ironic intellect is here wrapped around his nakedly beating heart.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Precise and touching memories intersect with spare and at times desperate notes on time, death and grief, written despite ‘the fear of making literature out of it.’” —Julian Barnes, The Times Literary Supplement
“A collection of aphorisms, sadnesses, self-analysis: a journal of savage intimacy.” —Adam Thirlwell, The New Republic
“A beautiful, lapidary portrait of mourning.” —Meghan O’Rourke, Slate
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.
MOURNING DIARY October 26, 1977–June 21, 1978
October 26, 1977
First wedding night.
But first mourning night?
—You have never known a Woman’s body!
—I have known the body of my mother, sick and then dying.
Every morning, around 6:30, in the darkness outside, the metallic racket of the garbage cans.
She would say with relief: the night is finally over (she suffered during the night, alone, a cruel business).
As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the future (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.
Who knows? Maybe something valuable in these notes?
—SS: I’ll take care of you, I’ll prescribe some calm.
—RH: You’ve been depressed for six months because you knew. Bereavement, depression, work, etc.—But said discreetly, as always.
Irritation. No, bereavement (depression) is different from sickness. What should I be cured of? To find what condition, what life? If someone is to be born, that person will not be blank, but a moral being, a subject of value—not of integration.
Immortality. I’ve never understood that strange, Pyrrhonic position; I just don’t know.
Everyone guesses—I feel this—the degree of a bereavement’s intensity. But it’s impossible (meaningless, contradictory signs) to measure how much someone is afflicted.
—“Never again, never again!”
—And yet there’s a contradiction: “never again” isn’t eternal, since you yourself will die one day.
“Never again” is the expression of an immortal.
Overcrowded gathering. Inevitable, increasing futility. I think of her, in the next room. Everything collapses.
It is, here, the formal beginning of the big, long bereavement.
For the first time in two days, the acceptable notion of my own death.
Bringing maman’s body from Paris to Urt (with JL and the undertaker): stopping for lunch in a tiny trucker’s dive, at Sorigny (after Tours). The undertaker meets a “colleague” there (taking a body to Haute-Vienne) and joins him for lunch. I walk a few steps with Jean-Louis on one side of the square (with its hideous monument to the dead), bare ground, the smell of rain, the sticks. And yet, something like a savor of life (because of the sweet smell of the rain), the very first discharge, like a momentary palpitation.
How strange: her voice, which I knew so well, and which is said to be the very texture of memory (“the dear inflection . . .”), I no longer hear. Like a localized deafness . . .
In the sentence “She’s no longer suffering,” to what, to whom does “she” refer? What does that present tense mean?
A stupefying, though not distressing notion—that she has not been “everything” for me. If she had, I wouldn’t have written my work. Since I’ve been taking care of her, the last six months in fact, she was “everything” for me, and I’ve completely forgotten that I’d written. I was no longer anything but desperately hers. Before, she had made herself transparent so that I could write.
In taking these notes, I’m trusting myself to the banality that is in me.
The desires I had before her death (while she was sick) can no longer be fulfilled, for that would mean it is her death that allows me to fulfill them—her death might be a liberation in some sense with regard to my desires. But her death has changed me, I no longer desire what I used to desire. I must wait—supposing that such a thing could happen—for a new desire to form, a desire following her death.
The measurement of mourning.
(Dictionary, Memorandum): eighteen months for mourning a father, a mother.
At Urt: sad, gentle, deep (relaxed).
. . . that this death fails to destroy me altogether means that I want to live wildly, madly, and that therefore the fear of my own death is always there, not displaced by a single inch.
Many others still love me, but from now on my death would kill no one.
—which is what’s new.
I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it—or without being sure of not doing so—although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.
Monday, 3:00 p.m.—Back alone for the first time in the apartment. How am I going to manage to live here all alone? And at the same time, it’s clear there’s no other place.
Part of me keeps a sort of despairing vigil; and at the same time another part struggles to put my most trivial affairs into some kind of order. I experience this as a sickness.
Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment—a kind of numbness—which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.
A strange new acuity, seeing (in the street) people’s ugliness or their beauty.
What affects me most powerfully: mourning in layers—a kind of sclerosis.
[Which means: no depth. Layers of surface—or rather, each layer: a totality. Units]
Moments when I’m “distracted” (speaking, even having to joke)—and somehow going dry—followed by sudden cruel passages of feeling, to the point of tears.
Indeterminacy of the senses: one could just as well say that I have no feelings or that I’m given over to a sort of external, feminine (“superficial”) emotivity, contrary to the serious image of “true” grief—or else that I’m deeply hopeless, struggling to hide it, not to darken everything around me, but at certain moments not able to stand it any longer and “collapsing.”
What’s remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being the victim of presence of mind.
(Evening with Marco)
I know now that my mourning will be chaotic.
On the one hand, she wants everything, total mourning, its absolute (but then it’s not her, it’s I who is investing her with the demand for such a thing). And on the other (being then truly herself), she offers me lightness, life, as if she were still saying: “but go on, go out, have a good time . . .”
The idea, the sensation I had this morning, of the offer of lightness in mourning, Eric tells me today he’s just reread it in Proust (the grandmother’s offer to the narrator).
Last night, for the first time, dreamed of her; she was lying down, but not ill, in her pink Uniprix nightgown . . .
Today, around 5:00 in the afternoon, everything is just about settled: a definitive solitude, having no other conclusion but my own death.
Lump in my throat. My distress results in making a cup of tea, starting to write a letter, putting something away—as if, horribly enough, I enjoyed the now quite orderly apartment, “all to myself,” but this enjoyment adheres to my despair.
All of which defines the lapse of any sort of work.
Around 6 p.m.: the apartment is warm, clean, well-lit, pleasant. I make it that way, energetically, devotedly (enjoying it bitterly): henceforth and forever I am my own mother.
Sad afternoon. Shopping. Purchase (frivolity) of a tea cake at the bakery. Taking care of the customer ahead of me, the girl behind the counter says Voilà. The expression I used when I brought maman something, when I was taking care of her. Once, toward the end, half-conscious, she repeated, faintly, Voilà (I’m here, a word we used to each other all our lives).
The word spoken by the girl at the bakery brought tears to my eyes. I kept on crying quite a while back in the silent apartment.
That’s how I can grasp my mourning.
Not directly in solitude, empirically, etc.; I seem to have a kind of ease, of control that makes people think I’m suffering less than they would have imagined. But it comes over me when our love for each other is torn apart once again. The most painful point at the most abstract moment . . .
The comfort of Sunday morning. Alone. First Sunday morning without her. I undergo the week’s daily cycle. I confront the long series of times without her.
I understood (yesterday) so many things: the unimportance of what was bothering me (settling in, comfort of the apartment, gossip and even sometimes laughter with friends, making plans, etc.).
My mourning is that of the loving relation, not that of an organization of life. It occurs in the words (words of love) that come to mind . . .
I limp along through my mourning.
Constantly recurring, the painful point: the words she spoke to me in the breath of her agony, the abstract and infernal crux of pain that overwhelms me (“My R, my R”—“I’m here”—“You’re not comfortable there”).
—Pure mourning, which has nothing to do with a change of life, with solitude, etc. The mark, the void of love’s relation.
—Less and less to write, to say, except this (which I can tell no one).
People tell you to keep your “courage” up. But the time for courage is when she was sick, when I took care of her and saw her suffering, her sadness, and when I had to conceal my tears. Constantly one had to make a decision, put on a mask, and that was courage.
—Now, courage means the will to live and there’s all too much of that.
Struck by the abstract nature of absence; yet it’s so painful, lacerating. Which allows me to understand abstraction somewhat better: it is absence and pain, the pain of absence—perhaps therefore love?
Embarrassed and almost guilty because sometimes I feel that my mourning is merely a susceptibility to emotion.
But all my life haven’t I been just that: moved?
Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say: I’ll be back at a specific time or who you can call to say (or to whom you can just say): voilà, I’m home now.
Horrible day. More and more wretched. Crying.
Today—my birthday—I’m feeling sick and I can no longer—I no longer need to tell her so.
[Stupid]: listening to Souzay* sing: “My heart is full of a terrible sadness,” I burst into tears.
*whom I used to make fun of.1
1. See “L’art vocal bourgeois” in Mythologies, 1957. This essay is missing from the current English edition of Mythologies (Hill and Wang, 1972). It will be included in the complete, revised edition to be published by Hill and Wang in 2011.
In a sense I resist the Invocation to the Status of the Mother in order to explain my distress.
One comfort is to see (in letters I’ve received) that many readers had realized what she was, what we were, by her mode of presence in “RB.”1 Hence I had succeeded in that, which becomes a present achievement.
1. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1975 (Hill and Wang, 1977; revised, 2010).
There is a time when death is an event, an ad-venture, and as such mobilizes, interests, activates, tetanizes. And then one day it is no longer an event, it is another duration, compressed, insignificant, not narrated, grim, without recourse: true mourning not susceptible to any narrative dialectic.
I am either lacerated or ill at ease
and occasionally subject to gusts of life
Now, everywhere, in the street, the café, I see each individual under the aspect of ineluctably having-to-die, which is exactly what it means to be mortal.—And no less obviously, I see them as not knowing this to be so.
Sometimes roused by desires (say, the trip to Tunisia); but they’re desires of before—somehow anachronistic; they come from another shore, another country, the country of before.—Today it is a flat, dreary country—virtually without water—and paltry.
(Fit of depression)
(because V. writes me that she still sees maman, in Rueil, dressed in gray)
Mourning: a cruel country where I am no longer afraid.
Hill and Wang A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
18 West 18th Street, New York 10011
Copyright © 2009 by Éditions du Seuil/Imec Foreword and annotations copyright © 2010 by Nathalie Léger Translation and afterword copyright © 2010 by Richard Howard All rights reserved
Originally published in French in 2009 by Seuil, France, as Journal de Deuil
Published in the United States by Hill and Wang First American edition, 2010
A portion of this book first appeared, in slightly different form, in The New Yorker.
Foreword Nathalie Leger Leger, Nathalie
Mourning Diary 1
October 26, 1977-June 21, 1978
Continuation of the Diary 153
June 24, 1978-October 25, 1978
Further Diary Pages 211
October 25, 1978-September 15, 1979
Some Undated Fragments 245
Some Notes on Maman 249
Afterword Richard Howard Howard, Richard 257
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