Autobiography/memoir is a strange genre in the literary universe. It is at once a piece of fiction and non-fiction, a chronicle of one's memories, and a perversion of history in favor of art. In Proust, who blends the lines of autobiography, fiction, and essay in his À la recherche du temps perdu
, admonishes his readers: "Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
" This is certainly true, our memories are not perfect accounts. We have only one perspective by which we can really view our personal histories, and with time those perspectives are corrupted by what we come to know of the "future" which follows, by the warm glow of nostalgia, by the distance of interceding time and the blurry faculties of our memory. An admirer of Proust, and perhaps the closest true successor of him stylistically who I have read, Barthes is expertly aware of the relative "truths" of history and art. Though Roland Barthes
is ostensibly an autobiography, it is at the same time against autobiography, combative and resistant to it: What right does my present have to speak of my past? Has my present some advantage over my past? What "grace" might have enlightened me? except that of passing time, or of a good cause, encountered on my way?
Pursuant to his own philosophy on semiology, Roland Barthes
is both doxa
, the status-quo, the obvious, and the paradoxa
, or the nuance sign which opposes it.
Though Roland Barthes
is presumably about its author, you will limn from its pages very little about him. This is not his story, not a "portrait of the artist as a young man" - no, it is Barthes' very essence. You are not informed of his youth's scraped knees, failed entanglements of first love, nor even much of friends or family, but rather you become immersed in the fishbowl of his memory, a slideshow purveyance of his image-repertoire
: Coming home in the evening, a frequent detour along the Adour, the Allées marines: tall trees, abandoned boats, unspecified strollers, boredom's drift: here floated the sexuality of public gardens, of parks.
As in all of Barthes' works, there is an apotheosis of language as both sacrosanct ritual and also a profane, sensual pleasure. As in Proust, there is an intermingling of the present Self and the childhood Self, which instead of complementing into a blend, become a layered portrait - one of innocence and one of adulthood: sexualized, self-awareness, bias, disillusion. But Barthes' approaches his memory with both a longing for closeness and a respect for distance: he views his childhood self, his young-adult self, his yesterday self, more liek a series of divergent individuals, like many ancestors' portraits hung on the enfilade of his life - ancestors which inform him, but withhold something from him. He feels a warm nostalgia and affinity with his former selves, but also a remoteness, something which is both impossible to regain and also impossible to fully grasp. From the past, it is my childhood which fascinates me most; thee images alone, upon inspection, fail to make me regret the time which has vanished. For it is not the irreversible I discover in my childhood, it is the irreducible: everything which is still in me, by fits and starts; in the child, I read quite openly the dark underside of myself - boredom, vulnerability, disposition to despairs (in the plural, fortunately), inward excitement, cut off (unfortunately) from all expression.
The ceaseless evasion of the past, revealing itself only in fits and starts like an atavistic quirk, a borrowed gesture, a facial tick. The memory is both a removal from the present, but it is also alive in us. And it is alive in the fullest sense: it is changing, it is waxing and waning, corrupting and ameliorating ever. And to anesthetize memory, to pin it down, to write it out, is to ultimately let it escape.To write the body.
Neither the skin, nor the muscles, nor the bones, nor the nerves, but the rest: an awkward, fibrous, shaggy, reveled thing, a clown's coat