I got Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary in a Quarterly mailing from Maud Newton, along with a few other items, a couple of months ago. It’s essentially a collection of thoughts Barthes wrote down and kept after his mother passed away. I made a sort of “halfway-through” video yesterday, but I wanted to have finished the book by the time I put up the video (today), so I did.
It’s a relatively short read, just because Barthes wrote in tiny snippets, as soon as the thoughts and realizations hit him. Like I mentioned in the video, it’s a very fragmented work, though of course, the threads of thought continue throughout the text, though not exactly in a linear way. In a way, it reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed,” which was also a sort-of journal he kept after the death of his wife. One of the main differences between the two is that Lewis’ work seems more “polished.” We get a raw, honest peek into Barthes’ process of grieving.
He had a lot of thoughts on the afterlife (or lack thereof). As he was an atheist, (I don’t believe) he believed in life after death. But, he thought about the possibility of it, perhaps because the thought of his mother being truly gone from the world was unbearable for him. He laments her “definitive” death, and also the banality of “materialism,” which I took to mean having a “corporeal” body. It reminded me a lot of Anya’s breakdown in “The Body,” an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She was an ex-demon who had lost her grasp of mortality, announcing that it was stupid.
Barthes wrote about his remarkable mother, who he seemed to revere and hold noble above all else. In the afterword, Richard Howard (the translator and a friend of Barthes) remarked how Barthes’ friends found it hard to believe that such a mother existed. Howard, having met Madame Barthes, said that he “wanted to translate Mourning Diary, improbable creation though it is, as evidence—as so many writings of Barthes testify so much more flawlessly—to the contrary.”
It’s a moving text that intelligently tries to understand death and the loss of someone so dear. Often, there are bursts of sadness, which Barthes tries to make sense out of. During these painful times, he would go on to continue writing great work such as Camera Lucida and A Lover’s Discourse. In Mourning Diary, he would refer to the lack of desire to create anything—except to write, something which he considered to be noble, a nod to the nobility he saw in his mother.
All in all, it is a very moving read. In my video, I mentioned that I wanted to know what made him stop writing in his diary, which he did so on September 15, 1979, about a month shy of his mother’s two-year death anniversary. In it, he wrote: “The mornings are so sad…”
Barthes died shortly after in 1980, succumbing to injuries sustained after being hit by a laundry van.
Seeing his thought process during this trying time made me want to read his other works. I took up parts of Elements of Semiology briefly, in a Semiotics class, and I picked up A Lover’s Discourse but never got around to reading it. I’m most interested in reading Roland Barthes, an autobiography in which he interrogates himself as a text (!), and Mythologies. Hopefully, I can acquire copies of them.Read More