Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

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 AugustineHenri 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

Neil Badmington, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Neil Badmington, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes (Bloomsbury, 2016)
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…)

Calum Gardner talks about editing a special edition of Barthes Studies exploring the writer’s relationship to poetry
Roland Barthes

What kind of academic journal is Barthes Studies?

Barthes Studies is an open-access online journal dedicated to the work of influential French literary and cultural theorist and critic Roland Barthes. It’s the only such journal in English (although there is an older French equivalent, the Revue Roland Barthes), and it was founded by Neil Badmington in 2015 with an issue that marked the centenary of Barthes’ birth. It’s interdisciplinary, has published articles by those working in French studies, English studies, literary theory, and cultural theory, and is open to those working in any area that has to do with Barthes. Because of the breadth and variety of his interests and writings, this is a very wide remit indeed!

What inspired you to oversee an issue devoted to the subject of poetry?

I think a few years ago, many people who are interested in Barthes, particularly in the UK, were seeing that there was a gap: it was commonly assumed that Barthes had something to say that was of relevance to poetry, and perhaps experimental poetry in particular, but why had so little been written about Barthes and poetry? I looked at a lot of books about poetry and found that in the index they would have one or two references to Barthes, but that these would lead to passing references to his most famous ‘The Death of the Author’ – an essay we assumed all the poets and poetry critics were familiar with, but nobody wanted to seem to talk about why, or how they got that way. When I started my PhD at Cardiff’ in 2013, I was hoping to fill this gap. (more…)

Britt Grootes (GEMS) talks to the prominent Barthes scholar about his life and work

On Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

What draws me back to the late Barthes above all, I think, is his attention to ‘the magic of the signifier’, to nuance, to all that is light and delicate. His restless invention and reinvention. Drift. Then there’s the unclassifiability and the mischief. And the style, of course — that elegant, seductive style. (We often call him a ‘theorist’ in the anglophone world, but ‘écrivain’ is much closer to the mark in so many ways.) Barthes knew a thing or two about the seduction of the reader with only the signifier. When I open something like Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, I’m his. [Read More] (more…)


New open-access journal launched to celebrate Roland Barthes’ centenary

Introducing Barthes Studies

Neil Badmington

And lead us not into doxa… I have an uneasy feeling that Roland Barthes, were he still alive, would have doubts about this venture. An academic journal bearing his name and devoted to his work? In English? The noun ‘studies’, with its ring of stillness and seizure? The implicit claim to a field or a fold? Is not the very idea of a publication called Barthes Studies at odds with the drift, the unlearning, the reinvention, the non-arrogance, the escape, the non-vouloir-saisir, and the ‘desperate resistance to any reductive system’ which so often fire the pages of Roland Barthes? Might not this journal set or settle at once into doxa – that fatal term enlisted repeatedly in Barthes’s work to describe established knowledge, common sense, the obvious, the natural, what-goes-without-saying? Have I forgotten that Barthes told the audience at the conference held in his honour at Cerisy-la-Salle in 1977 that he had twice refused the invitation, and that he only accepted on the third occasion because he did not wish to create the image of ‘hewho-refuses-conferences-in-his-name’?