How to neutralise the pain of mortality

Cultural Studies: Roland Barthes saved my life

Cultural Studies: Roland Barthes saved my life. It's the sort of melodramatic admission one can imagine the critic himself coolly scrutinising: parsing literature's powers of consolation, noting a certain confessional gaucherie.

But I'll stick by the slightly hysterical phrasing: I was sixteen, and, stunned by the recent death of my mother, searching for something to get me through the summer. My standard teenage syllabus - scraps of Wilde and sci-fi, the stoned rhythms of the Beats - had suddenly failed me. Somehow, I happened upon a collection of Barthes's essays on literature, film, photography and music. I may have had scant sense of why I ought to know about Diderot, Brecht or Eisenstein, but I knew I'd hit upon a thought, a set of insights - and most of all a style - that made sense of everything.

Made sense, that is, by admitting the ambiguity of all things. I loved Barthes's sentences: the way a thought ramified, insinuated itself about its subject by way of nuance and qualification, and still sounded elegant, epigrammatic, utterly gorgeous (and all of this in translation, thanks to the poet Richard Howard). By the time I reached university, I'd acquired, awkwardly, some Barthesian tics of style (an addiction to parentheses and strictly gratuitous italics) and an aversion to certainty. The latter, I'm sure, was at least in part a desperate rearguard action against the obtuse fact of bereavement: "one studies what one desires or what one fears", Barthes writes towards the end of The Neutral.

By 1977, when he began to deliver the lectures collected here, Barthes had moved a long way from the rigour that made his name: the ingenious analyses of popular culture in Mythologies, the intricate examination of texts as disparate as the Bible and pasta advertising, the austere anatomy of The Fashion System. With the publication of Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (a fragmentary meditation on autobiography) in 1975, he had allowed himself to drift into almost novelistic territory.


Indeed, he announced his intention to write a novel, then conceded his failure by teaching a course on the desire to write novels. The Neutral is not that course, but the previous year's: a reflection, already, on letting go.

The "neutral" of the title has little to do with the "neuter" of linguistics, and nothing at all to do with a geopolitical neutrality. What Barthes has in mind is instead a subtle refusal of the categories that language, politics, culture and daily life inflict upon us. Not, in other words, a rebellion, but a kind of evasion of power, assurance and arrogance. For a writer so often accused of certain doctrinaire attitudes (it is hard to imagine a critic less at home with the tone of the manifesto, whatever people who have skim-read The Death of the Author might tell you) he spent a good deal of his career trying to imagine a neutral - which is not to say detached - space from which to write and think. He finds it in an extraordinary range of places, works and experiences. Tiredness, he writes, is a sort of neutrality: "I am always surprised (stunned) by the tirelessness of others". He admires the neutral qualities of discretion and tact, and recoils from the idiotic performance of openness and honesty; frankness, he says, is "an open door, and wide open, onto stupidity".

Although the references pile up - to Proust, Montaigne, Baudelaire, Buddhism, to the "banality" prized by Chinese aesthetics and (intriguingly) the lonely wanderings of Irish monks - this neutral seems an elusive entity. No sooner has Barthes settled on an example than it slips away: headaches are apparently instances of the neutral, but headaches are also hysterical, and there can be no meeting of hysteria and neutrality. Sleep is neutral, but dreams are not. At times, the book resembles a list of its author's likes and dislikes (he admits, elsewhere, to this tendency in himself); it is as if, by asserting his allergy to assertiveness, by declaring his love for Paris at dusk, he thinks to keep the world at bay behind a fog of sensibility.

This, in the end, is what The Neutral is about: Barthes's desire ("I want to live according to nuance", he writes) to immerse himself in small differences, and thus to avoid the biggest - death. He alludes only briefly to the recent death of his mother: "there entered my life, some of you know it, a serious event, a mourning"; but it is actually everywhere in his book. All his ravishing, brilliant reflections on refusal and disavowal might as easily be descriptions of clinical depression, of inconsolable grief, of a melancholy that seems to have overtaken him a few years later. After his death following a relatively minor traffic accident, his friends reported that, in properly novelistic style, he simply gave up on life.

Brian Dillon is an editor of Cabinet, a quarterly of art and culture. His book, In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory, will be published by Penguin Ireland in October

The Neutral by Roland Barthes Translated by Rosalind E Krauss and Denis Hollier Columbia University Press, 312pp. £19.50

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic. His books include Suppose a Sentence and Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives