The Private Art? On Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary

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I have never faithfully kept a diary, but I can imagine why you might do so: to record dribbles of the everyday so that, upon rereading years later, you can be transported into that high-summer garden of private nostalgia; as a writer’s chronological workbook in which to unfold images or drive the bumper car of meaning through the beautiful, maddening rhythms of the language-rink. There’s also a more urgent reason: a conviction that writing through something could mean writing your way in or out, or in circles. Making choices, reaching dead-ends, and embellishing all feel like necessary acts of building or tearing down (in order to rebuild differently, later, or never). Writing can seem to offer clarity or enhanced confusion (which is its own kind of clarity: an admission of complexity and ambiguity); clearly it offers a record of thinking and feeling, mediated by the act of writing and whatever mechanics enable it.

Diaries, then, offer a private space to play tic-tac-toe with intellectual, artistic, and personal complexities, practice wielding or calling upon language, confess amorous feelings, sharpen the switchblades of resentment (these last two are pronounced and poignant in the diaries of adolescents), and so on. Accompanied by this general outline of what a diary is for, I read Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary. He is best known as a literary theorist and a cultural critic, and my first contact with Barthes, through his Mythologies, “seduced” me, and next, flipping through his Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse, I was both “seduced” and (still maintaining his terminology) “wounded.” Barthes is the critic, the writer, who for me calms anxieties about my need for solitude and shows me how luxuriously and unsparingly a feeling, a thought, an observation can be magnified and miniaturized (can be endlessly revised and also completed) within that solitude. I love Barthes in a way that resembles the quiet intoxications of: alone, one glass of wine (I am being faithful to my assumptions about Barthes’s beverage preferences!), summer evening, ripened green leaves opening onto star-crusted night sky. In confessing this, I admit my inability to be truly critical of Barthes’s work, especially his stark Mourning Diary, which records his responses to his beloved mother’s death.

Roland Barthes and Maman

 (Roland Barthes and his mother.)

In the book’s forward, editor Nathalie Léger describes Barthes’s diary simply:

The day after his mother’s death, October 25, 1977, Roland Barthes began a “mourning diary.” He wrote in ink, sometimes in pencil, on slips of paper (regular typing paper cut into quarters) of which he kept in constant supply on his desk.

Barthes’s friend and translator, the poet Richard Howard, elaborates usefully in the book’s afterword:

As the reader discovers, Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary is in fact a diary only in a rather desperate sense: the writer kept a stack of quartered typing paper on his desk, and from the day of his mother’s death until nearly his own, while he was producing his last, best books, he would scribble one or another or sometimes several of these aphoristic losses as a sort of diagnostic test, a questioning of torment, a preparation for the day’s task: the companion to the ultimate writings of Roland Barthes.

Howard calls Barthes’s diary a “companion,” but a paragraph later suggests that it might be something else in addition: “evidence of creative intention.” Adam Thirwell’s piece at The New Republic situates the diary in the context of Barthes’s other late writing and teaching projects.

For those experiencing their own suffering (which is what Barthes insists on renaming his mourning in the November 30 entry: “Don’t say Mourning. It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.”), the diary is both comfortingly and unsettlingly familiar. And even those who read it out of curiosity, or are reading Barthes for the first time, will find within its pages a compelling view of a mind and heart conversing with each another.

I have read Mourning Diary several times. The first, grief and mourning had only passed through my world. Suffering of the intensity Barthes describes seemed as abstract as his November 26 entry: “What I find utterly terrifying is mourning’s discontinuous character.” Now I understand what he must have meant: the terror that there could be a momentary abatement of those feelings, a forgetting that one is mourning (which is a welcome relief until you realize why), but later, the double terror of plummeting back into active mourning when the forgetting lifts. The second time, just a few months ago, was long after “the formal beginning of [my] big, long bereavement.” I hadn’t become used to my father’s absence, but I had stopped forgetting about it momentarily, so I was less starkly jolted when I remembered. In other words, the loss had integrated itself into my new reality. Life had moved on, and I with it, sometimes limping, sometimes running, and sometimes comfortably strolling along.

This second time reading Mourning Diary, I was struck by the familiarity of Barthes’s vacillations, corrections, and breakdowns. My own thoughts and feelings from the earlier mourning period were being played back to me in more incisive and elegant language. Barthes refers to himself, on November 2, as the “victim of [his own] presence of mind.” But he is not only present to his suffering—he records it, or writes it, as Elizabeth Bishop does in her well-known villanelle “One Art”:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This villanelle, with its circling refrains dictating (and questioning) the meanings of its language, presents losses as inevitable, moving from the mundane (“car keys”) to the catastrophic (“losing you”). The poem plays with the idea of composure and the need to create order (form: the villanelle) within chaos (loss: you). On November 2 Barthes also notes:

(Evening with Marco)

I know now that my mourning will be chaotic.

The losses accumulate hierarchically in “One Art” even though the speaker attempts to equate them through the casually explanatory refrain: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” At the poem’s end, the speaker asserts that it (only?) “looks like (Write it!) like disaster.” This closing draws attention away from the hard work of suffering and toward appearances, or perhaps ironizes the grim reality of loss: it is inevitable, and so cannot be mastered; but since it is inevitable, one could admit defeat by claiming to have mastered it, even though the losses will keep accumulating no matter what one does. The final declaration (admonishment?) to “Write it!” is part rallying cry, part couched admission: this loss and its expression does look “like disaster,” perhaps because the poem dramatizes its art by wrangling loss into a form that cannot help but appear conspicuous, even beautiful—a small monument to the creative act.

Barthes appears more decisively vulnerable (not retreating to the gorgeous shade of form) than Bishop’s speaker. The terse, pointed prose of Mourning Diary enacts a juxtaposition that is the sibling to the old form/content tension at work in “One Art.” The regularity of Barthes’s entries (particularly soon after his mother’s death) does not mean they are all the same. Instead, they support the variety of Barthes’s moods, the subtleties of his deep suffering. Barthes asserts his suffering outright, and refines it tirelessly.

Still, the question remains: why keep a mourning diary? To derive comfort from the regular activity of writing? (Barthes did not write according to a strictly regular schedule, and the entries thinned as time passed: “I write my suffering less and less yet it grows all the stronger, shifting to the realm of the eternal, since I no longer write it.”) As a memento of suffering? As a preparation for further, more “polished” writing? Barthes considers this question on October 27:

Who knows? Maybe something valuable in these notes?

Valuable for whom? Himself, probably, as he moved through each day, thinking of his mother and his work as a writer. As Léger notes, Barthes wrote many things while he kept his diary, including Camera Lucida, his book on photography and death, which is haunted by, and returns relentlessly to, a photograph of his mother when she was a little girl. Elements of this diary reappear there, though Michael Wood, writing in the London Review of Books, calls it “a sort of sketchpad for Camera Lucida, a trying out not of sentences but of an array of complicated perceptions and feelings; and a slim memorial in its own right.”

As a memorial, Barthes’s diary is unique in its near-exclusive focus on the mourner (Barthes). This is not to say that Barthes’s mother does not appear in the diary. Her death skims its pages, animating them. Barthes reveals her goodness, but never insists upon displaying it as more than his personal supreme—not the universal supreme (he does not insist that She was the best mother ever, anywhere.) There are, instead, these quieter expressions of having had a lucky childhood, of having had Maman:

Maman: (all her life): space without aggression, without meanness—She never made an observation about me (my horror of that word and of that thing).

In Camera Lucida, Barthes considers the “Winter Garden Photograph” of his mother as a young girl repeatedly, expressing the ultimately private quality of his love, the personal nature of its wound (its punctum):

(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most in would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.)

Here Barthes absolves the reader of the need to go too deep into special consideration of his own mother, who, pictured in the Winter Garden Photograph, is “ordinary” to her or him. Barthes builds solidarity with mourners by implicitly acknowledging the private intensity of each grief instead of straining toward grandiose praise of another’s dead loved one. In Mourning Diary, the living can only identify with one another.

Reading the book, I had the strange experience of feeling transported, through Barthes’s language, back across contours of my own mourning. I found myself unable to remember what it felt like to be a few pages back, and I simply could not anticipate where I would be in several more. As Michael Wood notes in his review, “what is most striking in the end about this (hypothesis of a) book is its written tracking of states of mind that writing itself can’t enter, only register.” He goes on to share several entries that illustrate those shifting “states of mind.” Here are several more that transported me:

In the sentence “She’s no longer suffering,” to what, to whom does “she” refer? What does the present tense mean?

Monday, 3:00 p.m.—Back alone for the first time in the apartment. How am I going to manage to live here all alone? At the same time, it’s clear there’s no other place.

Around 6:00 p.m.—the apartment is warm, clean, well-lit, pleasant. I make it that way, energetically, devotedly (enjoying it bitterly): henceforth and forever I am my own mother.

People tell you to keep your “courage” up. But the time for courage is when she was sick, when I took care of her and saw her suffering, her sadness, and when I had to conceal my tears. Constantly one had to make a decision, put on a mask, and that was courage.
—Now courage means will to live and there’s all too much of that.

Today—my birthday—I’m feeling sick and I can no longer—I no longer need to tell her so.

[State confusion.] For months, I have been her mother. It is as if I had lost my daughter (a greater grief than that? It had never occurred to me.)

A violent crying jag.
(something to do with the butter, the butter dish, involving Rachel and Michel). 1)
Pain of having to live with another “household.” Everything here in Urt brings me to her household, her house. 2) Every (conjugal) couple forms a unit from which the single person is excluded.

Everyone is “extremely nice”—and yet I entirely feel alone (“Abandonitis”).

An onset of grief. I cry.

The locality of the room where she was sick, where she died, and where I now live, the wall against which the head of her bed rested where I have placed an icon—not out of faith—and still put flowers on the table next to it.

I reproduce myself—I observe that I reproduce in myself minute features of maman: I forget—my keys, or some fruit bought in the market. (Note: recall Bishop’s “hour badly spent,” looking for lost keys.) Failures of memory that supposedly characterized her (according to her modest complaints on this subject) now become mine.

I was not like her, since I did not die with (at the same time as) her.

Reading these notes, I can’t help but feel that Barthes wrote in memory of his mother, to record the process of grieving, and (naively, probably) for an outside reader—someone like me (who was not yet born when he died in 1980, three years after his mother’s death). In a snippet of an interview at West 86th, Barthes describes why he prefers writing to speech:

My writing… is immediately destined for everybody. Its slow pace protects me: I have the time to dangle the wrong word from the tip of my pen, the word that “spontaneity” never ceases to generate. There is a great distance between my head and my hand and I take advantage of it in order to avoid saying the first thing that comes to me. Finally, and this is probably the real reason, the challenge of tracing words on paper has a truly sculptural jouissance [une véritable jouissance plastique]. If my voice brings me pleasure, that is only out of narcissism. Writing comes from my muscles. I abandon [jouis] myself to a kind of manual labor. I combine two “arts”: the textual and the graphic.

In Mourning Diary, it is difficult to say whether or not Barthes is “saying the first thing that comes to [him].” Even if the book’s genre extends the perverse thrill of looking at someone’s most private and seemingly spontaneous impressions, this is not truly scandalous. What seemed private for Barthes is no real secret, and that is the diary’s devastating power. Grief and mourning will jolt us all.


Painting (ca. 1926-1936) and Photograph (1912): “The Artist and His Mother” by Arshile Gorky.

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