Dr Rhys Tranter specialises in twentieth-century and contemporary culture. His writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of academic books and periodicals. His website RhysTranter.com is an independent website that promotes literature and the arts.
Today is the birthday of American singer, composer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who was born in 1933. No matter how many times I hear her recording of the Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse song ‘Feeling Good’ (recorded as ‘Feelin’ Good’), I never fail to be moved by the way she sings ‘Sleep in peace when day is done, that’s what I mean’.
Spent yesterday evening reading Thomas Merton‘s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Still a young man, he has lost his mother and his father to illness. With no fixed home, he moved from his birthplace in France to America, then back to France, then to England, and now to America. His attention to detail is wonderful, whether describing middle-class English life or American cinemagoers enjoying Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times. He is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his literary career, and there are early signs that he will consider monastic life. I’m looking forward to returning to the book as soon as I can: rich in everyday details, it’s a remarkable document of early-twentieth-century life.
I am becoming increasingly fascinated with life writing for its potential to blend historical record, philosophical observation, and literary style. I’m thinking here not only of Merton, but figures like St Augustine, Henri Amiel, and one of my all-time favourites, Jules Renard. Samuel Beckett‘s poignant and dryly humorous letters have a similar quality.
In a recent interview with Neil Badmington, I was reminded of the profound power and solace that that life writing can provide. Badmington reveals that ‘The Mourning Diary is the posthumous text by Barthes to which I return more than any other. Every time I revisit it, I’m struck by the desperate, impossible tension in its brief sighs of sorrow’.
Neil Badmington discusses his fascination with the work of Barthes, the continuing relevance of critical theory, and his own approach to academic style
What led you to write The Afterlives of Roland Barthes?
‘Who’ rather than ‘What’, really. It’s all the fault of my good friend Jürgen Pieters, who has repeatedly led me, with our conversations over the years, in new directions. In 2006 Jürgen and Kris Pint (who was Jürgen’s PhD student at the time) organised a conference at their home institution of Ghent University on Barthes’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, which had recently appeared in print for the first time. I’m not sure why I was invited to participate: the other speakers were people with formidable reputations in the field of Barthes studies (Andy Stafford and Claude Coste, for instance), while I’d never written extensively about Barthes. His work had often informed mine up until that point — he’s there in Alien Chic and even the Posthumanism anthology, for instance — but he’d not been the primary object of analysis: I’d written with Barthes, not on Barthes. And the Barthes with whom I’d written had been the familiar Barthes, the ‘classic’ Barthes — the Barthes of S/Z and Mythologies, for example. But the unexpected invitation from Jürgen and Kris led me to look closely at the various volumes bearing Barthes’s name which had been published long after his death, and I was struck by how a different Barthes, another Barthes, was emerging gradually into print — not just the Barthes of the Collège years, but the Barthes of Travels in China, the Barthes of the seminars at the École pratique des hautes études, and the Barthes of Journal de deuil (or Mourning Diary, to give it its English title). It was the appearance of the latter in French in 2009 which really convinced me that The Afterlives of Roland Barthes needed to be written, in fact. I remember reading it at the time and realising as I turned the pages that it was altering my established perspective on Camera Lucida. This ‘new’ Barthes was reshaping the ‘old’ Barthes. In short, then, I wrote Afterlives to take stock of some of the posthumous publications which have appeared in recent years, and to ask how they might lead us to reconsider our understanding of the well-known publications which appeared during Barthes’s lifetime. (more…)
Overcast, but bright. The marine layer has moved in over the city. Watching political commentators reflect on the unfolding of the Trump administration—particularly impressed by the insights of MSNBC reporters Rachel Maddow, Katie Tur, Joy Reid, Chris Hayes, Kasie Hunt and Chuck Todd.
Robert Cohen has written Franz Kafka‘s ‘Budget Guide to Florence’, filed under The Paris Review‘s ‘Department of Tomfoolery’. It includes a vital piece of Kafkaesque advice: ‘In the struggle between one’s self and the world, bet on the world.’
Meeting friends for coffee, and hoping to find some time to read Thomas Merton.
Beautiful light today. Went running along the water’s edge.
Karl Marx‘s life has always fascinated me. When I hear his name, I imagine him restlessly working in the reading rooms of the British Museum, juggling his money problems and worrying about his family. While Marx is acknowledged as a titan of philosophical thought, it’s the relatable, everyday details that transfix me. Aware of this interest, my good friend Anindya Raychaudhuri has sent me an article by Benjamin Kunkel for The Nation.
Kunkel points out a fundamental problem for Marx biographers: “Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism […] warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes.” In an essay that comprises biography, commentary, and analysis, Kunkel traces a history of Marx biographies through the decades. I won’t be giving up my romantic, and perhaps sentimental, image of Marx anytime soon, but Kunkel’s piece is an important reminder of the political and ideological roles that biographical writing can play.