Roland Barthes, a Contemporary Autofictional Writer? Or, Barthes Loses the Habit

What does Barthes, who never used this word himself, have to do with autofiction? I argue that, through his late work, Barthes belongs to the distinct generation of autofictional writers who emerged from the 1990s onwards, and helps us to understand the experience that their writings share in common. This is a paper for the conference ‘Roland Barthes “à l’écoute du contemporain”’, planned to take place 26–27 March 2020, but postponed because of COVID-19.

Image of book Journal de deuil by Roland Barthes

I recently came to the subject of the relationship between Roland Barthes and autofiction when I undertook to write a chapter on autofiction for the Cambridge History of the Novel in French. I chose to focus on the literary phenomenon rather than the interminable questions of theory and definition that have accompanied, and in doing so I made three broad observations: first, the role of Serge Doubrovsky has been exaggerated, partly because of the tendency to keep retelling the story of his creation of the word ‘autofiction’ in 1977; second, the writers of autofiction divide quite clearly into two generations, those born before and after the Second World War respectively, whose writing effectively involves two different conceptions of autofiction; and finally, the role of Barthes in this history has been underestimated, and not well understood. Critics sometimes refer to Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes as a sort of autofiction avant la lettre,1 and more remains to be said about Barthes’s importance for a return of the writing subject in the 1970s, a reassessment of the legacy of high theory, and a reconsideration of the problems of autobiography, all of which are central to the emergence of the first generation of autofiction. However, my aim in this paper is not to address Barthes’s place in the first generation of autofictional writers. Instead, I shall argue that the late stage of Barthes’s work following the death of his mother, focused on a broad project for a ‘Vita Nova’, makes him more a contemporary of the second generation of autofictional writers.

This is not a question of genealogy, although Barthes clearly exerted an influence over the younger generation, but rather an anachronism, by which Barthes showed himself to be ahead of his time. This anachronism appears less strange if we consider that autofiction is far from being a literary school, and that writers have generally discovered their own form of autofiction, especially – for the second generation – in response to certain crises in their relation to writing, their self, and the world. These crises, varied in nature, have been described by Arnaud Genon as ‘autobiographical fractures’.2 The comparison between Barthes’s late work and the second generation of autofictional writers can illuminate these two moments of literary history, which can be opaque for different reasons: the former because Barthes’s project for a ‘Vita Nova’ was cut short before it could come to fruition, and the latter because the field of autofictional writers is poorly defined, and sometimes conflated with all contemporary autobiographical writing. I shall return to the problem of this strange contemporaneity, but first I would like to relate a fictional episode from a short story by Jean Paulhan, which seems to characterise Barthes’s own situation in the late 1970s.

The Paradox of Aytré

This short story, entitled ‘Aytré qui perd l’habitude’ (‘Aytré Loses the Habit’), was first published in the Nouvelle Revue française in 1921, and was discussed in an article by Maurice Blanchot in 1946, entitled ‘Le Paradoxe d’Aytré’ (‘The Paradox of Aytré’).3 In this short story, Aytré is a French sergeant who, with two other officers, escorts a group of 300 Senegalese women across Madagascar. Aytré is responsible for writing the official diary of the expedition, a journal de route, which we are given to read. Initially, it is utilitarian and banal in the extreme: ‘we arrive, we leave; chickens cost seven sous’, etc.4 But, from a certain day, its character changes. As Blanchot summarises, ‘the accounts become longer. Aytré starts setting out his ideas about colonisation, he describes the women’s hair styles, their braids […]; he talks about the strange landscapes […] etc. In short, the diary is unusable. So what has happened? Clearly, Aytré has lost the habit’.5 It appears that this change is precipitated when Aytré commits a murder, although he does not admit this in the diary.

Blanchot uses this short story, and Aytré’s experience of writing, to address the question ‘where does literature begin?’. Before literature, the language of the diary is transparent, functional. Aytré accepts the world according to the established order, and he is satisfied with his role in it, including his role in the hierarchies of colonial rule. Then a crisis occurs, and literature begins: Aytré’s crime constitutes an ‘collapse’, an ‘initial catastrophe’,6 which overturns his relation to himself, to the world, and to language. He ‘finds himself deficient and tries to address this deficiency through an excess of language that might compensate for it’.7 Unfortunately, Aytré’s language itself is afflicted by the same inadequacy, such that ‘the sedimentation of comfortable meanings […] falls away, […] becomes a slippery and dangerous slope’.8 Aytré’s language may appear ‘happy’, but ‘his use of a more literary or prettier language signifies only the irreparable loss of the only language on which he could rely’.9 When Blanchot generalises from Aytré’s case, he acknowledges that: ‘The writer does not always start out with the horror of a crime that gives him a feeling of his instability in the world, but he can hardly begin without a certain inability to speak and to write, a loss of words, the very absence of the means that he has in abundance.’10

Contemporary autofiction

What use, then, can we make of this short story and of Blanchot’s reading of it? Clearly, autofiction is not co-extensive with all literature, or it would be a redundant concept. However, Aytré’s experience of an ‘initial catastrophe’ is very similar to the experience of an ‘autobiographical fracture’, which seems to be a characteristic feature of the second generation of autofictional writers. The ‘autobiographical fracture’ is a sort of ‘identity crisis’ in which a traumatic event or situation makes a subject’s identity and place in the world untenable, but also destabilises their relation to language, through which they would try to restore this identity.11 As a result, their writing takes on an autobiographical project, in order to address their fractured subject position. However, they cannot use language as a simple tool to represent their life directly. Instead, their writing manifests, or figures, their fractured state indirectly, and strives to create a self that can only ever be fictional.

Of course, some of the first generation of autofictional writers also experienced traumatic events. Doubrovsky himself was writing, like Barthes, in the wake of the death of his mother, and both Sarraute and Duras revisited difficult periods from their childhood in works that they wrote in the 1980s. But these events did not determine their writing through and through, and they broadly addressed problems arising from the ‘depersonalisation’ of the years of high theory, using formal techniques derived from the Nouveau Roman. The first clear example of writing in response to an ‘autobiographical fracture’ comes from Hervé Guibert, who in a sense inaugurates the second generation.

He had in fact been publishing books since 1977 with the broad autobiographical project of a ‘unveiling of the self’,12 pursuing the themes of writing the body and death, and seeking new forms that combined truth and fiction. However, the fracture appeared in 1988 when Guibert found that he was HIV positive.13 He was not only alienated from his body and facing an unpredictable, potentially imminent death, but he was also faced by the problem of all AIDS writing from this period: AIDS is an all-powerful signifier, entwined in collective narratives of guilt and shame, ancient discourses of plague, and a dehumanizing medical gaze. The voice of the individual person living with AIDS is either silenced or co-opted by these collective fictions. Yet Guibert, in his 1990 work À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life), found a form to manifest this fractured state, to write the alienation of the disease and of writing itself. He later declared: ‘AIDS allowed me to radicalise a little further certain systems of narration, of my relation to the truth, of putting my own self into play, even beyond what I thought possible.’14

For Christine Angot, who associated herself with Guibert’s work and would become a sort of figurehead for contemporary autofiction, her own ‘autobiographical fracture’ related to her incestuous relationship with her father during her adolescence. After several early works that presented her life through an ambiguous mixture of truth and fiction, her 1999 work L’Inceste (Incest) addressed this ‘fracture’ directly both in content and form: a form marked by obsessive repetition, owing to the insufficiencies of the language at her disposal, and creating incongruous or forbidden liaisons. Chloé Delaume, in her 2001 work Le Cri du sablier (The Cry of the Hourglass), relates how, as a child, she witnessed her father murdering her mother before committing suicide. Perhaps more than any other autofictional writers she has created a distinctive style marked by her investment in the literary creation of her identity, and the contestation of the power of collective fictions over our lives.

It is important to note that, in a writer’s response to an ‘autobiographical fracture’, both the autobiographical element and the element of fictional creation are crucial. As Camille Laurens describes it, the truth of this writing is founded in the body of the author, on the principle that ‘language, even written language, is produced from a body, [especially] when the writing concerns bodily events such as pleasure, childbirth, illness, suffering or physical torture, agony, death.’15 The writer does not represent the body directly, but writes ‘from the body’.16 This writing of such prelinguistic bodily experience is itself a problem, and autofiction attempts to express ‘something of ourselves that we know we will, in expressing it, fall short of’, ‘an impossible remainder’ which, in Lacan’s words, ‘never stops not writing itself’.17 These authors necessarily use different forms to address their own individual relation to language, but their texts share certain features: the use of the fragment, repetition, a diaristic form of writing (in a broad sense), writing derived from the body, and a deep investment in their creation of self through writing.

Barthes, contemporary autofictional writer

How, then, does Barthes’s writing from the last years of his life compare with the writing of these contemporary autofictional writers? First of all, we must nuance the idea of a clear division in his work. Barthes did not use language only in the purely utilitarian way that Aytré did to begin with. And like most of the later writers, there are continuities between his work before and after the assumption of the ‘autobiographical fracture’: in 1973 Le Plaisir du texte (The Pleasure of the Text) marked the start of a rejection of the earlier theoretical exclusion of the writing subject, anticipating a writing based in bodily pleasure, and the autobiographical project of Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes). The novelistic fragments of ‘Incidents’ were also written in the early 1970s, and even the announcement of a ‘Vita Nova’, in Barthes’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, precedes his mother’s death.

However, after his mother’s death the ‘Vita Nova’ took on a much broader scope. During his ‘satori’ of 15 April 1978, which he describes as a ‘“literary” conversion’,18 he recognises that he is suffering from no ordinary mourning, but a ‘unique and as if irreducible mourning’ that leaves him in a state of acedia, unable to invest in the sort of work that he used to do.19 His previous work now appeared ‘doomed to repetition’, articles, courses, and lectures varying only by subject.20 He must therefore undertake a new life, and for a writer, a new life must be attached to ‘the discovery of a new practice of writing’.21 He therefore resolves to ‘unify a life of writing’, and finds a sort of joy in the idea ‘that every moment of life could henceforth be work integrated into the Great Project’.22 From this point, every part of his work is directed towards his imagined novel, the culmination of his ‘new practice of writing’, and we now know that this project was not abandoned but was only cut short by the accident of Barthes’s premature death.23

Barthes’s diaries

It is difficult to assess the actual change in Barthes’s writing, since the ‘Great Project’ is so dispersed, and its main product, the novel Vita Nova, is barely begun. However, we can find in Barthes’s diaristic writing a more linear thread running through the ‘Vita Nova’ project, including a transformation similar to that of Aytré, and a response that anticipates that of later autofictional writers. We should recall that both the Journal de deuil (Mourning Diary) and Soirées de Paris (Paris Nights) are envisaged as components of the imagined novel, in the eight pages of plans that he produced, and that the article ‘Délibération’ is, among other things, a pretext for publishing an excerpt from a diary that shortly precedes his mother’s death.24

This first diary is as elegant an example of the form as we would expect from a writer of Barthes’s talents, but it is also generically conventional. As Barthes himself observes, as a text it does not have the ‘necessity’ of a work in which he would be deeply invested, which ‘would be demanded of him by a mad desire’.25 The day after the death of his mother, Barthes began writing his Journal de deuil. The contrast with his earlier diary is stark: His writing now consists of very short fragments, sometimes several on one day. Whereas he had previously boasted that he had ‘never written a nominal sentence’,26 his writing is now full of them. His writing is therefore unlike Aytré’s attempt to ‘compensate’ for a ‘lack’ through an excess of language, and instead tends towards a minimal form that resists narrative development, rhetorical expansion, or metalanguage.

These fragments do, however, comment on his current state and his relation to writing. Despite the title that Barthes himself gave to this ‘mourning diary’, he resists the common, psychoanalytic concept of mourning, and insists instead that he is experiencing le chagrin (sorrow, grief, afflication). Whereas deuil is ‘subject to time’, measurable, generalisable, an object of scholarly knowledge, a process of social reintegration, his chagrin is ‘chaotic, erratic’, it ‘does not wear away’.27 His chagrin appears to him to be a permanent state, not something to recover from, and indeed ‘[he] wishes only to inhabit [his] chagrin’.28 His chagrin is a bodily experience, ‘without substitutes, without symbolisation’,29 although he has recourse to a recurring metaphor of its mute nature: it is ‘like a stone […] (around my neck, deep within me)’.30

As a consequence of this state, writing becomes an unprecedented problem for him: on the verge of depression, unable to invest in anything else in his life, he sees writing as the only possibility for a ‘work’ to address his ‘great crisis’,31 and it appears to him as ‘“something to be desired”, haven, “salvation”, project, in short “love”, joy’.32 Yet his chagrin is incommunicable, and furthermore he is reluctant to discuss it ‘for fear of making literature out of it’, and so to risk betraying this ‘essential, intime possession’33 The response to this problem has two stages. First, in the Journal de deuil, he will maintain a strict adherence to truth and to the minimal writing of his chagrin, while recognising that, even if it is ‘inexpressible’, it can at least be ‘spoken’:34 Following the logic of the ‘nominal sentence’, he can simply name the bodily effects of his chagrin (‘burning’, ‘lacerating’, ‘nausea’, ‘palpitation’),35 and he can reproduce the words that arise in his head, (‘it’s impossible’, ‘why, why’, ‘forever’ and the remembered words of his mother’s affection, ‘My Roland […], you’re not sitting comfortably’).36 As the diary progresses the fragments become more sparse, and instead of a dénouement, it reaches its logical conclusion by fading away to nothing.

But there is a second part to Barthes’s response to this situation, which embraces literary writing and the symbolisation of his chagrin, while recognising that the fragmentary ‘truths’ in the Journal de deuil are at the origin of literature,37 like the ‘moments of truth’ that he finds in War and Peace and À la Recherche du temps perdu, and will be a part of the imagined novel that will present ‘the truth of affects’.38 This second approach to writing is manifested in Soirées de Paris.

Soirées de Paris corresponds to Barthes’s reflection in the article ‘Délibération’ on the question, ‘can I make the diary into an “œuvre”?’, and also to his conclusion: ‘I can save the Diary on the condition of working it to death, to the point of extreme exhaustion, like an almost impossible Text […].’39 Both the literary goal and the process of literary work evoked here are the polar opposite of the Journal de deuil, and indeed the form of the diary is radically different again. The entries are long, containing detailed observation, extensive commentary, and a narrative thread covering a series of failures in the pursuit of sexual relations. Furthermore, the work is suffused with a deep irony, founded in the gap between the perceptions of the Barthes who is depicted wandering in the cafés and streets of Paris, and the Barthes who is writing the diary at his desk the following afternoon, crafting a narrative in which every banal detail seems to take on a wide and unstable significance. The diary as a whole has the architectural structure of a novel, as it is centred symmetrically around a brief trip to the family home at Urt, which attaches all these incidents to the underlying theme of Barthes’s chagrin, and the diary concludes with a dénouement involving a decisive act of renunciation and a reinvestment of desires in writing alone.40 All of these features can more properly be termed ‘literary’ than ‘fictional’, but they have nonetheless led critics to describe Soirées de Paris as a fictional work: for Éric Marty it is a ‘little fiction of writing’, and for Michael Moriarty, ‘a short story in journal form’.41

Conclusion

This leads us, by way of conclusion, to address two questions: first, what is the status of Barthes’s texts, as truth, fiction, or autofiction? This is not primarily a question of the reading pact, which has preoccupied much of the criticism on autofiction, since these works were either not published in Barthes’s lifetime or, in the case of the Vita Nova, not brought to completion. Instead, it is more useful to consider the conceptual oppositions that Barthes constructs with regard to the problems of writing in response to his own ‘autobiographical fracture’. To summarise, in the Journal de deuil, Barthes pursues one extreme, an adherence to the truth of his experience that resists any literary transposition or generalisation, and leads logically towards silence. Soirées de Paris offers the opposite extreme, not absolute fiction but rather a trial of the limits of literary writing while maintaining the truthfulness of a genuine diary. He ventures onto the ‘slippery and dangerous slope’ of writing, running the risk of deforming his individual truth, and facing the impossibility of expressing it directly. He produces something that is coherent, sufficiently lisible (readable), publishable,42 but this writing seems destined to be repeated and deferred in any number of different symbolic transpositions. The plans for the novel Vita Nova mention both these diaries as components of the imagined great work,43 along with many other transpositions of Barthes’s chagrin, and furthermore there is no reason for us to believe that this ambitious work, had it been completed, would have been the last word on the subject.

The second question is ‘what is Barthes’s relation to contemporary autofiction?’. Superficially, Barthes’s works do not resemble the style of a Guibert, Angot, Laurens, or Delaume. But they address Barthes’s own experience of an ‘autobiographical fracture’, and they sketch out the problems and possibilities of responding in writing. This experience was conceived by Paulhan in his short story, conceptualised by Blanchot as an origin of the literary in the individual life of a writer, addressed in practice by Barthes, and pursued in many new directions by autofictional writers from the 1990s. The historical filiations between Barthes and the later writers are complex – he was the friend and patron of younger writers, they attended his lecture courses, and more broadly Barthes continued after his death to shape the intellectual culture of the following decades – but the experience of all these writers is caught between literary tradition and an individual leap into the unknown. For any writer, even the most established and experienced, who ‘loses the habit’, they discover, like Roussseau at the beginning of his Confessions, ‘the inadequacy of traditional literature and the need to invent a new one’,44 and so to embark, like Barthes, on a new life, a ‘Vita Nova’.


IIf you would like to buy any of the books discussed here, please avoid Amazon and support a local bookshop, or one of these online booksellers: Blackwells (UK), FNAC (France), Bookshop.org (US), Biblio.com (international, new and second hand).

1Tiphaine Samoyault, Roland Barthes (Paris: Seuil, 2015), p. 583.

2Arnaud Genon, ‘Hervé Guibert: Fracture autobiographique et écriture du sida’, in Autofiction(s): colloque de Cerisy, ed. by Claude Burgelin, Isabelle Grell, and Roger-Yves Roche (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 2010), pp. 187–206 (p. 199). All translations are my own.

3Jean Paulhan, Aytré qui perd l’habitude, in Œuvres complètes I: Récits (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), pp. 237–60; Maurice Blanchot, ‘Le Paradoxe d’Aytré’, in La Part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), pp. 66–78.

4Blanchot, p. 73.

5Ibid.

6Blanchot, p. 74.

7Ibid.

8Ibid.

9Blanchot, p. 76.

10Blanchot, p. 74.

11Genon, ‘Fracture autobiographique’, p. 199.

12Arnaud Genon, Roman, journal, autofiction: Hervé Guibert en ses genres (Paris: Mon Petit Éditeur, 2014), pp. 46–47.

13Jean-Pierre Boulé, Hervé Guibert: Voices of the Self (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 2.

14Hervé Guibert, ‘La Vie sida’, interview with Antoine de Gaudemar, Libération, 1 March 1990, p. 21.

15Camille Laurens, ‘“Qui dit ça?”’, in Autofiction(s): colloque de Cerisy, pp. 25–34 (p. 27).

16Laurens, p. 28.

17Laurens, pp. 29–30.

18Roland Barthes, Préparation du roman I et II: Notes de cours et de séminaires au Collège de France 1978–1979 et 1979–1980, ed. by Nathalie Léger (Paris: Seuil, 2003), p. 32.

19Roland Barthes, “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure”, in Œuvres complètes, v, pp. 459–70 (p. 477).

20Barthes, ‘Longtemps’, p. 466.

21Barthes, ‘Longtemps’, p. 467.

22Barthes, Préparation, p. 32.

23Samoyault, pp. 650–51.

24For more detailed readings that I have made of these diaries, see Sam Ferguson, Diaries Real and Fictional in Twentieth-Century French Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 161–92; Sam Ferguson, “Diary Writing and the Return of Gide in Barthes’s ‘Vita Nova’”, Textual Practice, 30/2 (2016), 241–66.

25Roland Barthes, « Délibération », in Œuvres complètes, v, pp. 459–70 (p. 679).

26Claude Coste, ‘Roland Barthes: Le regard du caméléon’, in Changer de style: Écritures évolutives aux XXe et XXIe siècles, ed. by Sophie Jollin-Bertocchi and Serge Linarès (Leiden: Brill-Rodopi, 2019), pp. 244–63 (p. 260).

27Roland Barthes, Journal de deuil (Paris: Seuil, 2009), pp. 81–82.

28Barthes, Journal de deuil, p. 186.

29Barthes, Journal de deuil, p. 156.

30Barthes, Journal de deuil, p. 117.

31Barthes, Journal de deuil, p. 143.

32Barthes, Journal de deuil, p. 69.

33Barthes, Journal de deuil, p. 175.

34Barthes, Journal de deuil, p. 187.

35Barthes, Journal de deuil, pp. 52, 107, 23.

36Barthes, Journal de deuil, pp. 50, 89, 227.

37Barthes, « Longtemps », p. 468.

38Barthes, « Longtemps », p. 469.

39Barthes, ‘Délibération’, pp. 669, 681.

40James Williams observes that this strong narrative conclusion is uncharacteristic of the diary in general, and also of Barthes’s former writing; James Williams, ‘The Moment of Truth: Roland Barthes, “Soirées de Paris” and the Real’, Neophilologus, 79/1 (1995), 33–51 (p. 38).

41Éric Marty, ‘La Vie posthume de Roland Barthes’, Esprit, 174 (1991), 76–90 (p. 80); Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 5.

42Indeed, Barthes prepared this text for publication, as François Wahl explains in the introduction to Incidents (Paris: Seuil, 1987), p. 8.

43Ferguson, Diaries Real and Fictional, p. 237 n. 64.

44Maurice Blanchot, ‘Rousseau’, in Le Livre à venir (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), pp. 59–69 (pp. 63–64).

About Sam Ferguson

I am a researcher in French literature, and freelance translator, with a wide experience of teaching French literature and language at university level.
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