Review: Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

November 28 / To whom could I put this question (with any hope of an answer)? / Does being able to live without someone you loved men you loved her less than you thought . . . ? (68).

41MU9St4YgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’m, once again, looking at a “tiny texts” course selection in Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary.  Why? Well, I think the books studied in the course were and are incredibly meaningful, interesting selections that may go overlooked, and so I’d really like to do my part to at least put them on the radar of even the few that may read Motion Sick Lit.

Central to understanding Mourning Diary and its’ themes of grief, time, and self-analysis is understanding Barthes himself, so I’d like to start with a bit of biographical information. Keep in mind that Barthes was a scholar of structuralism (understanding human culture in relation to a larger, overarching system) and semiotics (the study of signs and symbols).

Roland Barthes was many things–an author, literary theorist, critic, philosopher, and teacher.  Barthes was born on November 12, 1915 to Louis and Henriette Barthes in Cherbourg, France.  Louis Barthes was a navy officer, dying in a battle in 1916 during World War I.  His mother learned bookbinding to keep the family afloat financially.

A gifted scholar, Barthes worked in a diverse range of fields and projects, writing barthes-2on lexicology and a sociological study of fashion.  He also wrote on contemporary culture and literary subjects.  He became heavily interested in structuralism, and wrote on the theory for several years.  Barthes’ work in theory gave him international fame.  He later abandoned structuralism, writing such works as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, which served as a critical study of himself.  Barthes also explored post-structuralism, amongst other literary movements.  One of his more famous works, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980), explored the nature of photography and also served as a eulogy to his mother.

Close with his mother throughout his life, Barthes was deeply affected by his mother’s death in 1977.  He began writing Mourning Diary (published 2009, translated 2010) the day after her death, intending to utilize the diary to complete a longer work.  After being struck by a laundry van in 1980, he died shortly after due to his injuries.  Mourning Diary was published after his death.

January 16, 1978 / My universe: flat. Nothing echoes here—nothing crystallizes either (88).

October 27 / --"Never again, never again!" / --And yet there's a contradiction: "never again" isn't eternal, since you yourself will die one day. / "Never again" is the expression of an immortal.
October 27 / –“Never again, never again!” / –And yet there’s a contradiction: “never again” isn’t eternal, since you yourself will die one day. / “Never again” is the expression of an immortal.

Mourning Diary includes numerous references to various texts that Barthes studied, especially works of Marcel Proust, perhaps best known for his multi-volume work In Search of Lost Time.  In In Search of Lost Time, Proust writes of the death of one of his characters, and, in his own letters, he writes of his mother’s death.  It is possible that Barthes found a kindred soul in Proust, as one mourning his mother, as a writer, and as a man who was often ill.   In Search of Lost Time looks at memory, separation anxiety, and the nature of art—subjects Barthes writes about in Mourning Diary.  

August 1, 1978 / Which is what literature is: I cannot read without pain, without choking on truth, everything Proust writes in his letters about sickness, courage, the death of his mother, his suffering, etc. (177).

Barthes, as a scholar, also brings his education and works in academia to the work.  In addition to his many literary references, Barthes uses semantics and etymologies to examine the nature of suffering and mourning, an extension of his work in semiotics and philosophy.

October 29 / The measurement of mourning. / (Dicionary, Memorandum): eighteen months for mourning a father, a mother (19)

Mourning Diary was written on quartered pieces of typing paper, regarded as notes by Barthes.  Interesting is Barthes’ shifting between the first-person and a kind of universal omniscience, perhaps attempting to allude to a sense of depersonalization that can occur during times of grief, but also accepting the universal nature of death, grief, and suffering.  While his intentions are unknown, Richard Howard suggests that Barthes intended to use the notes to create a new work.  As it stands, Mourning Diary is an odd. experimental journal, a text ahead of its time.

November 2 / What’s remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being the victim of presence of mind (30).

But journals themselves are strange pieces of literature due to their secretive nature. Mourning Diary is one of many journals or diaries of prominent cultural, political, or social persons published in the last three hundred years, such as The Diary of Anne Frank, The

November 10 / Embarrassed and almost guilty because sometimes I feel that my mourning is merely a susceptibility to emotion. / But all my life haven't I bene just that: moved?
November 10 / Embarrassed and almost guilty because sometimes I feel that my mourning is merely a susceptibility to emotion. / But all my life haven’t I bene just that: moved?

Journal of Henry David Thoreau, and The Journals of Lois and Clark, as well as those of contemporary celebrities, such as Kurt Cobain’s or Sylvia Plath.  There has also been interest in the journals of otherwise ordinary people in exceptional circumstances, such as Craig Douglas’ Fire Mission – The Diary of a Firing Sergeant in Afghanistan and Matt Freedman’s Relatively Indolent but Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal. Interesting is the idea that Sarah Manguso put forth in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary–her journal is the only written work she had completed that wasn’t intended for an audience, and Mourning Diary is much the same.

Mourning Diary is a heart-breaking read, a naked and universal case study of grief.

October 29 /  In the sentence “She’s no longer suffering,” to what, to whom does “she” refer? What does that present tense mean?

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