On Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

When I was younger, I have kept diaries, or journals, here and there, but I have never in my writerly life faithfully kept one, having been always ready to abandon my notebooks whenever I lost the urge to write. But I can perfectly imagine why one might keep a diary at all: to record passing thoughts, dribbles, mental preoccupations, the minutiae of the everyday so that, upon rereading years later, hope to be carried away back into that little space of private nostalgia. One might keep a diary simply for the sake of keeping a diary: to talk to oneself, or to treat it as some sort of chronological workbook in which to unfold images, to jot down one’s miseries, joys, desires, thoughts, sentiments, what have you, in the hopes of capturing on paper the “essence,” that kernel of the moment.

But there’s also a deeper, perhaps a more exigent reason to keeping a diary: a vague yet visceral feeling that writing through something could mean writing your way in or out, or in circles. Encountering forked paths, making decisions, reaching dead-ends, and embellishing all feel like necessary acts of building or tearing down – of constructing and deconstruction – in order to rebuild differently at a later time, or never. There are two things that writing seems to offer: clarity or confusion, an enhanced type of confusion – perplexity – which, looked at differently, is a type of clarity itself: an acknowledgement of unease, of complexity and ambiguity, i.e., it is clear to me that I am being perplexed. Whichever the case, writing offers a concrete record of thinking and feeling, a personal history, orchestrated by the act of writing and its subterranean mechanics.

The act of keeping diaries, then, is like playing solitaire with one’s own intellectual, creative, and psychological complexities, and practicing to wield language. With this general outline in mind, I read Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered his name. I think I’ve first come across his name in my readings of Umberto Eco when I was still in Dumaguete (circa 2009), and I assumed then that he was a literary giant, an intellectual of some sort. Like Umberto Eco, Barthes is renowned as a literary theorist and a cultural critic, a (post-)modern philosopher (of language), although unlike Eco he wrote no novels. My first acquaintance with Barthes, through excerpts of his Mythologies, seduced me, despite understanding very little, and then, after reading wild praise from distant literary friends through the internet for his A Lover’s Discourse, perhaps his most well-known work, I was both intrigued and fascinated when I read some passages of the work myself. Since then, Barthes has become for me the critic, the writer, who calms storms of anxieties about my primal, sometimes almost hysterical need for solitude and shows me how lavishly and unsparingly a single thought, a feeling, or an observation can be enlarged, its meanings probed and magnified – and miniaturized, can be unceasingly revised, altered, and completed within that solitude. I have learned to love Barthes in a way that resembles the quiet intoxications of being alone, locked up with your private, often wild ruminations, ponderings in turbulent abandon, but with a powerful guide. In confessing this, I admit my incompetence to be truly critical of this stark Mourning Diary, which records Barthes’ responses to his beloved mother’s death.

“How strange: her voice, which I knew so well, and which is said to be the very texture of memory (‘the dear inflection…’) I no longer hear. Like a localized deafness.”

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

“I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it – or without being sure of not doing so – although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.”

“Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment – a kind of numbness – which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.”

“What affects me most powerfully: mourning in layers – a kind of sclerosis. Which means: no depth. layers of surface – or rather, each layer: a totality. Units.”

“Struck by the abstract nature of absence; yet it’s so painful, lacerating. Which allows me to understand abstraction somewhat better: it is absence and pain, the pain of absence – perhaps therefore love?”

“Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say: I’ll be back at a specific time or who you can call to say (or to whom you can just say): Voilà, I’m home now.”

“There is a time when death is an event, an ad-venture, and as such mobilizes, interests, activates, tetanizes. And then one day it is no longer an event, it is another duration, compressed, insignificant, not narrated, grim, without recourse: true mourning not susceptible to any narrative dialectic.”

“Now, from time to time, there unexpectedly rises within me, like a bursting bubble: the realization that she no longer exists, she no longer exists, totally and forever. This is a flat condition, utterly unadjectival – dizzying because meaningless (without any possible interpretation). A new pain.”

There is something psychologically aglow about this tapestry of fragments – a fabric of feeling that Roland Barthes had woven for his “maman” the day after her death in 1977. The above quotations are some of the diary entries of a set of over two hundred, each as terse as a phrase or two to three sentences at most. This compilation is Barthes’ last writing, but it is uncertain whether he intended this diary for publication.

Here, suffering and despair find a home for Barthes in the oxymora of language – a deep, dark, and inexhaustible place the French post-structuralist theorist frequently visits. Barthes writes of his suffering, “[I am] unwell . . . until I write something having to do with her.” Purging his grief, he realizes that even his words have simply revealed “mourning’s discontinuous character.” Writing has amplified his suffering, has incensed the pangs of depression. What catharsis is this?

Reminiscing, Barthes evokes his mother as someone who “simply concerns herself with the family she loves . . . She never employs a metalanguage, a pose, a deliberate image. O paradox,” he writes, “I, so ‘intellectual,’ at least accused of being so, I so ridden by an incessant metalanguage … she offers me in the highest degree her nonlanguage.”

This nonlanguage that Barthes here refers to emerges and takes in the form of these tightly knotted, aphorism-like statements, which seem to lull him, to somewhat dull his pain. However, as soon as emotion is captured, it flees. It’s like you can feel Barthes’ “emotivity” inhabit his words and then fade away, without warning, as if his words were suddenly dispossessed of their meaning, their passion, because the ample white space of each page underneath a diary entry provides those words an exit.

Reading this work, despite the attempt to verbalize or intellectualize his grief, it’s natural to expect sentimentality, perhaps even a little bit of romanticizing. And yet Barthes himself is dumbfounded most by the “presence of [his mother’s] absence,” as if he failed to anticipate that grief was this potent. Words as memories are like panicked gasps of air for a resurfacing diver – the tone of her voice that he can no longer hear, “like a localized deafness,” awakens his loss.

This book’s foreword reveals that Barthes wrote these entries in ink, sometimes in pencil, on slips of paper (regular typing-paper cut into quarters). Barthes writes: “The indescribableness of my mourning results from my failure to hystericize it: continuous and extremely peculiar disposition.” It’s like something of the emotional power of what Barthes has denied having had still holds its sway over him. Thus, unless he expresses the hysteria of his mourning, his words remain ineffective. The paradox, which I feel lays in the core of Mourning Diary, is what I find most astonishing: to be able to come up with the very words that explain how and why words themselves have failed him.

In Mourning Diary, Roland Barthes disrobes prose writing of its non-essentials in order to get to the crux, the heart of the matter: ironically an “anti-prose” stratagem. The nature of the prosaic is designed, in part, to flatten feeling, which Barthes revitalizes by taking away everything but his grief, his suffering, over his maman’s death. Here less is more: its near-nakedness is its greatest literary merit.

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