“I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me.”― Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and literary critic, was born in Normandy, France, on November 12, 1915. His father was a naval officer and died during WWI, leaving his mother a 23-year-old widow. Barthes was not yet one when his father died. He was raised in the French countryside with his mother, his aunt, and his grandmother.
Barthes was an outstanding student but suffered from ill health, including tuberculosis, which interrupted his studies. By 1941, he had graduated from the University of Paris with a diplôme d’études supérieures with a focus on Greek tragedy.
His first published book was Writing Degree Zero, a book of literary criticism published in 1953. He followed with others; Mythologies (1957), Critical Essays (1964) and The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (1964) explore the meaning we put into cultural symbols. Through his works, he established a reputation for himself in many fields including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism.
His 1967 essay “Death of the Author” argues against reading literature with the biography of the actual author in mind. Barthes argued that the author who creates the work and the actual piece of art should be examined separately for critical evaluation. He backed away from this theory later in life, shortly before his death admitting in a speech that he “sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works.”
In 1975 he wrote an autobiography, Roland Barthes.
His 1977 book, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, is a fictionalized reflection of a lover meant to challenge readers’ views on love while offering no definitive meaning behind the work.
His last major work, Camera Lucinda: Reflections on Photography, a short book published in 1980, is in part a eulogy to his mother and an exploration of photography. His mother, whom Barthes had lived with for 60 years, died in 1977 at the age of 85. After her death, Barthes kept a journal of his personal suffering over losing his mother. In 2009 his longtime translator Richard Howard published the notebook as Mourning Diary.
On February 25, 1980, Barthes was struck by a laundry van in the streets of Paris. He died a month later, March 26, from his injuries, at the age of sixty-four.
A Barthes Reader (1982) and Incidents (1987) were published posthumously. Incidents, a collection of four essays, revealed that Barthes was homosexual, although he never publicly acknowledged he was.
Lesson from Barthes:
Barthes explored the world through language, questioning everything and looking for signs of meaning everywhere.
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