Two of Roland Barthes’ private journals have been published in France: Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) and Carnets du voyage en Chine (China Travel Notebook). The publication of the notebooks have sparked a predictable controversy about the appropriateness of publishing texts that were never intended for publication.
The guardians of the Barthes legacy worry simultaneously that the notebooks are both too deep and too shallow. The Journal de deuil shows Barthes grieving inconsolably about his dead mother, while the China notebook documents a bored Barthes meandering his way through China in 1974. While the reader winces in awkwardness watching Barthes weep after a shop clerk says “voilà” just like his mother did, Barthes’ China diary has prompted much snickering for the banality of Barthes’ observations: “Forgot to wash my ears” and “8pm. Arrived Nanking. It’s cold.” This from the guy who produced the exquisite musings of A Lover’s Discourse?
Barthes knew as well as Lacan that no one truly writes for oneself. Diaries and other private jottings are critical elements in constructing an idea of authorship as a mode of being, which is something entirely different than the works produced by a writer. In his autobiography Barthes By Barthes he shook his head over the whole juvenile idea of writing in notebooks. In the section “The Writer as Fantasy” he declares
Surely there is no longer a single adolescent who has this fantasy: to be a writer! Imagine wanting to copy not the works but the practices of any contemporary–his way of strolling through the world, a notebook in his pocket and a phrase in his head . . . For what the fantasy imposes is the writer as we can see him in his private diary, the writer minus his work: supreme form of the sacred: the mark and the void. [Emphasis in original]
Notebooks and diaries are the texts ontologically closest to the writer him or herself, before a piece of writing gets developed and polished–before it becomes literary. The very incompleteness of the note invokes the mind of the author in place of the finished text. The notebook is the stage for our own fantasies about living in a state of being in which a person is always fully himself or herself, an antidote to our own partial and unresolved selves. This is Roland Barthes, one of the keenest critical minds of the twentieth century, picking out ear wax. This is the great Roland Barthes weeping alone in his apartment.