From the prizewinning author of HHhH, “the most insolent novel of the year” (L’Express) is a romp through the French intelligentsia of the twentieth century.
Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes diesstruck by a laundry vanafter lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was . . . murdered?
In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristevaas well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory (starting with the French version of Roland Barthes for Dummies). Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”
A brilliantly erudite comedy, The Seventh Function of Language takes us from the cafés of Saint-Germain to the corridors of Cornell University, and into the duels and orgies of the Logos Club, a secret philosophical society that dates to the Roman Empire. Binet has written both a send-up and a wildly exuberant celebration of the French intellectual tradition.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. His first novel, HHhH, was named one of the fifty best books of 2015 by The New York Times and received the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. He is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.
Sam Taylor has written for The Guardian, the Financial Times, Vogue, and Esquire, and has translated such works as the award-winning HHhH by Laurent Binet and the internationally bestselling The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affairby Joël Dicker.
Read an Excerpt
Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so. Roland Barthes walks up Rue de Bièvre. The greatest literary critic of the twentieth century has every reason to feel anxious and upset. His mother, with whom he had a highly Proustian relationship, is dead. And his course on "The Preparation of the Novel" at the Collège de France is such a conspicuous failure it can no longer be ignored: all year, he has talked to his students about Japanese haikus, photography, the signifier and the signified, Pascalian diversions, café waiters, dressing gowns, and lecture-hall seating — about everything but the novel. And this has been going on for three years. He knows, without a doubt, that the course is simply a delaying tactic designed to push back the moment when he must start a truly literary work, one worthy of the hypersensitive writer lying dormant within him and who, in everyone's opinion, began to bud in his A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, which has become a bible for the under-25s. From Sainte-Beuve to Proust, it is time to step up and take the place that awaits him in the literary pantheon. Maman is dead: he has come full circle since Writing Degree Zero. The time has come.
Politics? Yeah, yeah, we'll see about that. He can't really claim to be very Maoist since his trip to China. Then again, no one expects him to be.
Chateaubriand, La Rochefoucauld, Brecht, Racine, Robbe-Grillet, Michelet, Maman. A boy's love.
I wonder if the area was already full of Vieux Campeur shops back then.
In a quarter of an hour, he will be dead.
I'm sure he ate well, on Rue des Blancs-Manteaux. I imagine people like that serve pretty good food. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes decodes the contemporary myths erected by the middle classes to their own glory. And it was this book that made him truly famous. So, in a way, he owes his fortune to the bourgeoisie. But that was the petite bourgeoisie. The ruling classes who serve the people are a very particular case that merits analysis; he should write an article. Tonight? Why not right away? But no, first he has to organize his slides.
Roland Barthes ups his pace without paying attention to the world around him, despite being a born observer, a man whose job consists of observing and analyzing, who has spent his entire life scrutinizing signs of every kind. He really doesn't see the trees or the sidewalks or the store windows or the cars on Boulevard Saint-Germain, which he knows like the back of his hand. He is not in Japan anymore. He doesn't feel the bite of the cold. He barely even hears the sounds of the street. It's a bit like Plato's allegory of the cave in reverse: the world of ideas in which he shuts himself away obscures his awareness of the world of the senses. Around him, he sees only shadows.
These reasons I mention to explain Roland Barthes's anxiety are all well known. But I want to tell you what actually happened. If his mind is elsewhere that day, it's not only because of his dead mother or his inability to write a novel or even his increasing and, he thinks, irreversible loss of appetite for boys. I'm not saying that he's not thinking about these things; I have no doubts about the quality of his obsessive neuroses. But, today, there is something else. In the absent gaze of a man lost in his thoughts, the attentive passerby would have recognized that state which Barthes thought he was destined never to feel again: excitement. There is more to him than his mother and boys and his phantom novel. There is the libido sciendi, the lust for learning, and, awoken by it, the flattering prospect of revolutionizing human knowledge and, perhaps, changing the world. Does Barthes feel like Einstein, thinking about his theory as he crosses Rue des Écoles? What is certain is that he's not really looking where he's going. He is less than a hundred feet from his office when he is hit by a van. His body makes the familiar, sickening, dull thudding sound of flesh meeting metal, and it rolls over the pavement like a rag doll. Passersby flinch. This afternoon — February 25, 1980 — they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very good reason that, until today, no one understands anything about it.
Semiology is a very strange thing. It was Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of linguistics, who first dreamed it up. In his Course in General Linguistics, he proposes imagining "a science that studies the life of signs within society." Yep, that's all. For those who wish to tackle this, he adds a few guidelines: "It would form a part of social psychology and, consequently, of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, 'sign'). It would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since it does not exist yet, no one can say what it will be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of this general science; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics, and the latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts." I wish Anthony Hopkins would reread this passage for us, enunciating each word as he does so well, so that the whole world could at least grasp all its beauty if not its meaning. A century later, this brilliant intuition, which was almost incomprehensible to his contemporaries when the course was taught in 1906, has lost none of its power or its obscurity. Since then, numerous semiologists have attempted to provide clearer and more detailed definitions, but they have contradicted each other (sometimes without realizing it themselves), got everything muddled up, and ultimately succeeded only in lengthening (and even then, not by much) the list of systems of signs beyond language: the highway code, the international maritime code, and bus and hotel numbers have been added to military ranks and the sign language alphabet ... and that's about it.
Rather meager in comparison with the original ambition.
Seen this way, far from being an extension of the domain of linguistics, semiology seems to have been reduced to the study of crude proto-languages, which are much less complex and therefore much more limited than any real language.
But in fact, that's not the case.
It's no accident that Umberto Eco, the wise man of Bologna, one of the last great semiologists, referred so often to the key, decisive inventions in the history of humanity: the wheel, the spoon, the book ... perfect tools, he said, unimprovable in their effectiveness. And indeed, everything suggests that in reality semiology is one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity and one of the most powerful tools ever forged by man. But as with fire or the atom, people don't know what the point of it is to begin with, or how to use it.
In fact, a quarter of an hour later, he still isn't dead. Roland Barthes lies in the gutter, inert, but a hoarse wheeze escapes his body. And while his mind sinks into unconsciousness, probably full of whirling haikus, Racinian alexandrines, and Pascalian aphorisms, he hears — maybe the last thing he will hear, he thinks (he does think, surely) — a distraught man yelling: "He thrrrew himself under my wheels! He thrrrew himself under my wheels!" Where's that accent from? Around him, the passersby are recovering from the shock, have gathered in a circle and are leaning over what will soon be his corpse, discussing, analyzing, evaluating:
"We should call an ambulance!"
"No point. He's done for."
"He thrrrew himself under my wheels — you werrre all witnesses!"
"Doesn't look too good, does he?"
"Poor guy ..."
"We have to find a pay phone. Anyone got some coins?"
"I didn't even have to time to brrrake!"
"Don't touch him. We must wait for the ambulance."
"Let me through! I'm a doctor."
"Don't turn him over!"
"I'm a doctor. He's still alive."
"Someone should inform his family."
"Poor guy ..."
"I know him!"
"Was it suicide?"
"We have to find out his blood group."
"He's a customer of mine. He comes to my bar for a drink every morning."
"He won't be coming anymore ..."
"Is he drunk?"
"He smells of alcohol."
"A glass of white, sitting at the bar. Same thing every morning, for years."
"That doesn't help us with his blood group ..."
"He crrrossed the rrroad without looking!"
"The driver must remain in control of his vehicle at all times. That's the law here."
"Don't worry, man, you'll be fine. As long as you've got good insurance ..."
"Yeah, there goes his no-claims bonus, though."
"Don't touch him!"
"I'm a doctor!"
"So am I."
"Look after him, then. I'll go and call an ambulance."
"I have to deliverrr my merrrchandise ..."
Most of the world's languages use an apico-alveolar r, known as the rolled r, in contrast to French, which adopted the dorso-velar R about three hundred years ago. There is no rolled r in German or English. Nor in Italian or Spanish. Portuguese, maybe? True, it does sound a little guttural, but the man's intonation is not nasal or singsong enough; it's quite monotonous, in fact, so much so that it's hard to make out the notes of panic.
So he's probably a Russian.
Born of linguistics and almost doomed to be the runt of the litter, used only for the study of the most rudimentary, limited languages, how at the last possible moment was semiology able to turn itself into a neutron bomb?
By means Barthes was familiar with.
To begin with, semiology was devoted to the study of nonlinguistic systems of communication. Saussure himself told his students: "Language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and in this way is comparable to writing, the sign language alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military signals, et cetera. It is simply the most important of these systems." This is more or less true, but only if we limit the definition of systems of signs to those designed to communicate explicitly and intentionally. The Belgian linguist Eric Buyssens defines semiology as "the study of communication processes; in other words, means used to influence others and recognized as such by the others in question."
Barthes's stroke of genius is to not content himself with communication systems but to extend his field of inquiry to systems of meaning. Once you have tasted that freedom, you quickly become bored with anything less: studying road signs or military codes is about as fascinating for a linguist as playing gin rummy would be for a poker player, or checkers for a chess player. As Umberto Eco might say: for communicating, language is perfect; there could be nothing better. And yet, language doesn't say everything. The body speaks, objects speak, history speaks, individual or collective destinies speak, life and death speak to us constantly in a thousand different ways. Man is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere: in the color of his wife's coat, in the stripe on the door of his car, in the eating habits of the people in the apartment next door, in France's monthly unemployment figures, in the banana-like taste of Beaujolais nouveau (it always tastes either like banana or, less often, raspberry. Why? No one knows, but there must be an explanation, and it is semiological), in the proud, stately bearing of the black woman striding ahead of him through the corridors of the metro, in his colleague's habit of leaving the top two buttons of his shirt undone, in some footballer's goal celebration, in the way his partner screams when she has an orgasm, in the design of that piece of Scandinavian furniture, in the main sponsor's logo at this tennis tournament, in the soundtrack to the credits of that film, in architecture, in painting, in cooking, in fashion, in advertising, in interior decor, in the West's representation of women and men, love and death, heaven and earth, etc. With Barthes, signs no longer need to be signals: they have become clues. A seismic shift. They're everywhere. From now on, semiology is ready to conquer the world.
Superintendent Bayard reports to the emergency room of PitiéSalpêtrière, where he is given Roland Barthes's room number. The case he is investigating can be summarized as follows: a man, sixty-four years old, knocked over by a laundry van, Rue des Écoles, Monday afternoon, while on a pedestrian crossing. The driver of the van, one Yvan Delahov, of Bulgarian nationality, tested positive for alcohol but was below the limit: 0.6 g, while the legal maximum is 0.8. He admitted that he was running late, delivering his shirts. Nevertheless, he claimed that he was not driving at more than 60 kilometers per hour. The victim was unconscious when the ambulance arrived, and had no papers on his person, but he was identified by one of his colleagues, a certain Michel Foucault, a lecturer at the Collège de France and a writer. The man, it turns out, was Roland Barthes, also a lecturer at the Collège de France and a writer.
So far, nothing justified sending an investigator, never mind a superintendent from the Renseignements Généraux, the French police's intelligence service. Jacques Bayard's presence is, in truth, down to one detail: when Roland Barthes was run over, on February 25, 1980, he had just eaten lunch with François Mitterrand, on Rue des Blancs-Manteaux.
In theory, there is no link between the lunch and the accident, nor between the Socialist candidate for the following year's presidential election and some laundry firm's Bulgarian driver, but it is the habit of Renseignements Généraux to gather information about everything, and especially, during this lead-up to the election campaign, about François Mitterrand. Michel Rocard is more popular in the opinion polls (Sofres survey, January 1980: "Who is the best Socialist candidate?" Mitterrand 20 percent, Rocard 55 percent), but presumably those in high places do not believe that he will dare to cross the Rubicon: the French Socialists believe in following the rules, and Mitterrand has been reelected as leader of the party. Six years ago, he gained 49.19 percent of the vote against Giscard's 50.81 percent: the smallest margin of defeat recorded in a presidential election since the establishment of universal suffrage. So it's impossible to dismiss the risk that a left-wing president could be elected for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic; that is why the RG have sent an investigator. Jacques Bayard's mission consists essentially in verifying whether Barthes drank too much at Mitterrand's apartment or, better still, whether he took part in a sadomasochistic orgy involving dogs. The Socialist leader has been involved in so few scandals in recent years that one might almost imagine he was deliberately watching his step. The fake kidnapping in the Observatory Gardens has been forgotten. The Francisque medal awarded by the Vichy regime is now taboo. They need something new. Officially, Jacques Bayard's task is to establish the circumstances of the accident, but he doesn't need to have spelled out what is expected of him: to find out if there is any way of damaging the Socialist candidate's credibility by investigating and, if necessary, smearing him.
When Jacques Bayard reaches the hospital room, he discovers a line several yards long outside in the corridor. Everyone is waiting to visit the victim. There are well-dressed old people, badly dressed young people, badly dressed old people, well-dressed young people, people of all kinds, long-haired and short-haired, some North African types, more men than women. While waiting their turn, they talk among themselves, speaking in loud voices, sometimes yelling, or they read books, smoke cigarettes. Bayard is yet to fully appreciate just how famous Barthes is and must be wondering what the hell is going on. As is his prerogative, he walks to the front of the line, says "Police," and enters the room.
Jacques Bayard notes immediately: the surprisingly high bed, the tube stuck in the throat, the bruises on the face, the sad look. There are four other people in the room: the younger brother, the editor, the disciple, and some kind of young Arab prince, very chic. The Arab prince is Youssef, a mutual friend of the master and his disciple, Jean-Louis, whom the master considers the most brilliant of his students, or at least the one he feels the greatest affection for. Jean-Louis and Youssef share an apartment in the Thirteenth Arrondissement, where they organize parties that brighten up Barthes's life. He meets so many people there: students, actresses, lots of celebrities, often the director André Téchiné, sometimes Isabelle Adjani, and always a crowd of young intellectuals. For now, these details do not interest Superintendent Bayard, who is here simply to reconstruct the circumstances of the accident. Barthes regained consciousness after his arrival at the hospital. He declared to his close friends, who rushed to his bedside: "How stupid of me! How stupid!" Despite the multiple contusions and a few broken ribs, his condition did not appear too worrying. But Barthes has an "Achilles' heel," as his younger brother puts it: his lungs. He had tuberculosis in his youth, and he is a prodigious cigarette smoker. Result: a chronic respiratory weakness that catches up with him that night: he starts suffocating, has to be intubated. When Bayard arrives, Barthes is awake but no longer able to speak.
Excerpted from "The Seventh Function of Language"
Copyright © 2015 Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: Paris,
Part II: Bologna,
Part III: Ithaca,
Part IV: Venice,
Part V: Paris,
Also by Laurent Binet,
A Note About the Author and Translator,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of the wisest people I know, C. Spencer "Spence" Johnson, once remarked that as a Mormon farm boy from Utah, he totally "got" how Woody Allen films spoke to him, but he couldn't understand how anybody else could relate to them. That's the way i feel about this book. In the late '70's, I had already flitted thru a number of graduate programs, including linguistics, and was knuckling down to get an advanced degree in something, which turned out to be an M.A. in English Literature. I read with little understanding some Deconstructionists and their antagonists enough to know that was where the action was. So the acton of this book takes place just before Reagan's election. It starts in Paris, where Roland Barthes's automobile accident turns out to be murder, and the investigating detective and his forcibly recruited sidekick, a young semiotics lecturer, are two of the few truly fictional characters.. The rest are real: politiicians, literary theorists, semioticians (most notablly Umberto Eco), movie actors and directors, historicists, most of the structuralists and deconstructionists I've ever heard of (and probably many more). So having taken graduate course work during the events and within some of the disciplines of this book makes me feel that it was written for me. Who else would get it? And frankly, because of this book, I now better understand some of the French philosophers than I did the first time around.. I guess you could call this a literary thriller. i had a wonderful time reading it and recommend it highly.. If is sounds like fun to you, I guarantee you it is!