Barthes' mother died on October 25, 1977. Her son, Roland, being an invalid-type had been nursed and coddled by her most of his life, but in their years of his mother's illness adopted the role of nurse himself. Barthes' relationship with his mother was one of extreme intimacy: he lived with her his whole life, and when she passed the world as he knew it changed irremediably. TO chronicle this change he kept a "mourning diary" in which he scrawled away, inconsistently over the proceeding two years, short accesses of emotion, insight, and reflection. Mourning Diary
is a strange volume, far more personal even than Barthes' autobiographical Roland Barthes
, far more fragmented and disjointed than Lover's Discourse
. This diary makes an excellent accompaniment to his Camera Lucida
: his mother's death and the subsequent sorting of her belongings and photographs results in the discovery of a photo which will dominate the latter half of Barthes' discourse on photography, and the death of his mother casts a shadow on the entirety of that work.
I am reminded profoundly of Proust and of Proust's narrator whenever I read Barthes, particularly the deeply personal portion of his work. Barthes was an avid re-reader of À la recherche du temps perdu
, and in his The Pleasure of the Text
he identifies it as his "infinite text": the textual lense through which he views the world: "...I read according
to Proust... I recognize that Proust's work, for me at least, is the
reference work, the general mathesis
, the mandala
of the entire literary cosmogony." The parallels between Barthes and Proust (and his narrator) are numerous: both are deeply reflexive, both profound aesthetics, both are sensitive, homosexual (perhaps not the case for Proust's narrator); they are delicate, porcelain dolls: invalids, attached to their mothers to the extent bordering on unnatural, nearly Oedipal. However the reflexive nature of both Barthes and Proust discover in themselves the profound egoism of grief, jealousy, love. For Barthes, he painfully acknowledges the ego-centrism of his grief:
How I loved maman: I never resisted going to meet her, celebrated seeing her again (vacations), put her within my "freedom"; in short I associated her profoundly, scrupulously. Acedia comes from such desolation: no one around me, for whom I would have the courage to do the same thing.
Mourning: At the death of the loved being, acute phase of narcissism: one emerges from sickness, from servitude. Then, gradually, freedom takes on leaden hue, desolation settles in, narcissism gives way to a sad egoism, and absence of generosity.
The egoism of grief is profoundly different from the narcissism of freedom, though they are related. Where the narcissism of relief is one of independence (I am responsible for no one), the egoism of grief is one of icy solitude (there is no one who I care for). Grief, like all extremes of emotion, is a wholly reflexive process, or rather state: "No progress in pleasures
(neither in grief), nothing but mutations."
Grief has a rhythm, a texture to reality, a vacillation and wave of intensity, rather than a progression or "adaptation" period. For Barthes, love, grief, never fade
, if they are genuine they are ever renewed in sharp waves of emotion. Despite sharing the same imagery, Barthes' views on the ocean of sorrow are different from many before him. Henry James wrote:
Sorrow comes in great waves — no one can know that better than you — but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see.
For James, sorrow is an ocean which wears us down, but which we redirect, which we overcome, which passes us by
. There is a calming solace in the repetition of waves crashing, but slowly a resistance building, and ultimately a vast ocean overcome like a summer rain. For Barthes, the imagery of the ocean is one of recurring pain, renewed intensity: the dull acedia of the trough and the jarring pain of the crest.
If only I could utter the profound desire of self-communion, of withdrawal, of "Don't concern yourself with me," which comes to me straight and inflexibly from the somehow "eternal" suffering - a self-communion so true that the inevitable little struggles, the caricatures, the wounds, everything that inevitably occurs as soon as one survives, are nothing but a bitter froth on the surface of a deep sea...
It is the rhythm and routine
of suffering which haunts Barthes, it is the on-off up-down vacillations which renew the strength of his pain.
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]
It is the illusion of discontinuity which is the cause of pain in grief: the feeling that it weakens, that it goes away, even if for a minute, that instills both hope and horror that one day grief will die away, fade.
I waver—in the dark—between the observation (but is it entirely accurate?) that I’m unhappy only by moments, by jerks and surges, sporadically, even if such spasms are close together—and the conviction that deep down, in actual fact, I am continually, all the time, unhappy since maman’s death.
But like all great passions of emotion: grief is self-indulgent. The retreat into oneself is the surest form of egoism. The diary is a profoundly egoistic format; it is a mirror into oneself which bars entrance to others, which gives the illusion of inaccessibility and uniqueness of feeling: but which ultimately a self-guarded prison. Barthes' grief is self-propagated, it is deliberately given vigor: Barthes' pain is a recurring self-infliction. The naked heartbreak in his diary may as well be written with a knife upon his heart, coming in waves themselves: frequent enough to sustain pain: never enough time for the sutures to heal. For Barthes, his own pain is the only "monument" which he feels worthy of his mother's memory. While he knows that his mother would hate to see him suffering, he cannot bear the thought of a release: one which would afford him an access of happiness in a world without his loved mother. Despite the seeming self-effacing nature of this sacrifice, it is a morbid narcissism: it is the hope that someone will suffer eternally for him. In his mother's death he sees the last barrier to his own death brought down, he sees his death as inevitable: mortality as universal: all men must die, I must one day die. If she lives on in his memory, it is a horrible second-hand life, a life which no one can want, least of all a mother. Like King Lear casting off his love to indulge in the egoism of flattery, or immortality in filial love, Barthes adopts acedia, casts off pleasures, retreats into his excesses of emotion: sacrifices to the false idol of immortality in grief.
To whom could I put this question (with any hope of an answer)?
Does being able to live without someone you loved mean you loved her less than you thought...?