The Killers of Roland Barthes
The Jean Vrin bookshop, Place de la Sorbonne. I’m standing in front of a bookshelf, right at the entrance, where the cash desk is. Suddenly I hear a voice behind me: “Bonjour, do you by any chance have The 7th Function of Language? Laurent Binet is the author.”
“Monsieur,” replies a voice which can only be that of the lady at the cash desk, “we don’t stock fiction. That is a book of fiction.”
“Yes, I know, it’s a novel, but they all appear in it—Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Sollers, Althusser. It has won a few prizes, been translated into English, German, Spanish. I thought that…”
“It’s a novel in which Roland Barthes doesn’t die in a stupid road accident, but is run over by a van because he holds a great secret.”
“Actually, the accident happened not far from here. Or the assassination, we don’t know. What we know is that the driver of the van was of Bulgarian origin; and that day, just before he was killed, Barthes had lunch with François Mitterrand, who was preparing his bid for the presidency—I mean, he was in the middle of all the wheeling and dealing. Bizarre, quand même, don’t you think? In the novel, Barthes had come into possession of a document of extraordinary importance, a page describing the seventh function of language, which Roman Jakobson had supposedly discovered; whoever understood that function could convince anyone of anything. In his books, Jakobson only talked about six functions; at any rate, officially he only talked about six. In Binet’s novel, Mitterrand steals that page from Barthes, and…”
“And for 500 pages everyone is hunting for it—Soviet secret services, Bulgarian secret services, Sollers; plus a French police commissioner who suddenly finds himself in this Parisian intellectual milieu where he doesn’t understand a thing, and so he takes a doctoral student in linguistics as his guide and interpreter. I read a review.”
“Unfortunately, it seems that most reviewers have focussed on juicy details, of which, I must admit, there are plenty—Foucault having sexual relations with a young man in a public bath, Althusser, the great guiding light of Western Marxism, admitting that he has only read the first volume of Capital.”
“Écoutez, this is a work of fiction, and we sell only philosophy. For fiction, you should go to FNAC.”
“Umberto Eco also appears in it, and John Searle, plus a number of scholars who attend a conference on the linguistic turn at Cornell University. Cornell is in a town called Ithaca. That’s their Ithaca, language, and that’s where they return to. Anyway, even if all these people, as they appear in the novel, are only characters that do and say what Laurent Binet wants them to, and even if Roman Jakobson (note the forename!) didn’t really discover that seventh function of language, all the same, there is philosophy in this novel, and plenty of it. Didn’t Plato make Socrates say what he wanted?”
I turn round, and see that almost everyone in the bookshop has gathered around a middle-aged gentleman and the lady at the cash desk. The gentleman is plump, looks good-natured, and has a patch of baldness. To my surprise, I speak up: “Excusez-moi, pour intervenir. I haven’t read this novel, but I think the gentleman is right. I mean, you should stock fiction too. A novel is, as Kundera says, an exploration of the possibilities of human existence. Let alone the fact that philosophy itself is to a large extent fiction.”
I stop, startled at the fact that no one has interrupted me. On the contrary, everyone is looking in my direction. I don’t know where I find the courage and I continue, no longer bothering about my accent or about the fact that in French I often get the genders of nouns mixed up
“In the beginning was the myth,” I go on. “Then philosophy and history came along, with a discourse that was opposed to myth. The pre-Socratics called their writings Peri Phuseōs, About Nature. Except that ‘nature’ comes from the Latin translation of phusis, and it’s not quite the same thing. Heraclitus said that phusis likes to hide itself. But, as it turned out, what he and the pre-Socratics understood by it has remained somewhat hidden. Trying to understand them is like trying to remake an old vase when we’re only left with a few shards. We can remake the vase if we imagine how it would have looked in reality; the trouble is, we can imagine it in a number of ways. The pre-Socratics set themselves in opposition to myth, but understanding them calls for a sort of confabulation. As for the historians, well, it was a French historian who said that Thucydides is not their colleague because Thucydides tried to make us forget that his texts are no more than texts, which can be read in various ways, not documents in which the truth is preserved tel quel. Plato, however, tried to recover myth. There are so many myths in his dialogues, and for him they are not completely false.”
I pause and look around me; all the looks are encouraging, and the plump gentleman in search of The 7th Function of Language is radiant with delight.
“In that case we could reformulate Whitehead’s famous remark and say that all the history of philosophy is no more than a series of footnotes to Plato’s fictions.” We all turn to see who has spoken these words. It is a young woman, very tall, slim, with long black hair, very white skin, and a big black hat—you could take her for a fairy.
“Paul de Man,” she continues, “claimed that Derrida’s interpretation of Rousseau is ‘a good story’. Storytellers, that’s what philosophers are, and I’m not talking just about Derrida. Stories reveal the world to us, but metaphorically, not directly. We are three quarters water and one quarter fiction, and yet we no longer understand metaphor. Why? Because we’re deafened by the specialists and their abstruse jargon. Well, what’s the opposite of fiction? Non-fiction, you’ll say, like the booksellers. Wrong! The opposite of fiction is jargon. Everyone wants to be a specialist, and specialists can only talk in jargon, or else how could they claim to be specialists? Jargon is the arrogance of thinking. A demon we have created ourselves, like pollution. Philosophers, too, in spite of a promising start, ended up wanting to be specialists. After Barthes died, Derrida wrote a text—‘The Deaths of Roland Barthes’. That was a pun, of course, because the young Barthes had become famous with an essay he entitled ‘The Death of the Author’, in which he claimed that when we read a text we actually re-write it. An American scholar has accused Barthes of hypocrisy—what kind of reader could re-write the fancy prose of a Parisian intellectual? But Barthes was right, a text becomes alive only when it reaches its destination, the reader, and when this happens the author dies and the reader is born. That’s the main theme of Binet’s novel.”
When I read a text I re-write it? And then the author dies and I am born? But how? I’ve left the Place de la Sorbonne, without any particular destination, and here I am, in front of the pyramid through which one enters the Louvre. This pyramid is made of glass but its meaning is far from transparent. I’m sure Barthes would’ve liked to write something about it.
“To visit the Louvre,” I imagine him saying, “you have to enter the pyramid and descend into the immense hall that lies below it. You see, this pyramid doesn’t have a base as such: where the base should be is an empty space; and from the hall that lies below it, the pyramid looks as if it was suspended from its apex. Since the pyramid is in front of a museum that houses the Vénus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Mona Lisa, its apex can only be the beautiful. And now think of Plato. For him the most important things are high up, holding everything from up there. Plato’s world, we might say, is like a pyramid suspended from its apex, and in his Symposium this apex is the beautiful.”
“Wait a minute. This pyramid was part of a pharaonic restoration of the Louvre that was supervised by Mitterrand, nicknamed ‘the Sphinx’; you mean he’s the author of this clin d’oeil at Plato’s Symposium?”
“Forget about Mitterrand, he’s dead. This pyramid, however, is not the only one. From the hall beneath it, a corridor leads to an underground space with shops, and from the ceiling of that space, another pyramid—also made of glass, only much smaller—hangs down like a stalactite: la pyramide inversée. And right under this upside-down pyramid there’s a third one, an even smaller one, but made of stone and standing on its base, and it’s like the two of them are there to remind you of the big pyramid in front of the Museum, and tell you that you’ve missed its meaning.”
“That the world is like a pyramid suspended from its apex—the beautiful. This, by the way, is like a reversal of Plato’s cave story, because here at the Louvre you have to descend to be illuminated.”
“Yeah, but who’s the author of this construal?”
“You, right now. Anyway, what would happen if you went outside and told the people queuing in front of the Louvre that the world is like a pyramid suspended from the beautiful? I bet they wouldn’t listen to you; and, should you insist, they’d say that this is just a myth. You see, if I can make you believe that myths are completely false, I can convince you of anything. I know that from Roman Jakobson; but that’s another story.”