Re:Living Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary

INSTRUCTIONS: To participate in a LIVE reading of the Mourning Diary, send a ‘friend request’ to Roland Barthes on Facebook.

Mourning Diary, even fragmentary, even translated, even betrayed by divulgation, is … an effort to make something, to explain something, to warrant something (Richard Howard)

On 26 October 1977, the day after his mother died, Roland Barthes began a ‘mourning diary’. At his desk he kept a constant supply of typing-paper cut into quarters. On these slips of paper he expressed his private thoughts, emotions and despair. The paper trail – some 330 cards – span almost two years, leading up to the autumn of 1979 (not long before Barthes himself died, in March 1980). Sometimes multiple entries are recorded on a single day; other times only a single line. Always, however, there is an intensity.

During this period, Barthes prepared his lecture courses on ‘The Neutral’ (which he delivered between February and June 1978) and ‘The Preparation of the Novel’ (1978-1979 and 1979-1980); he also wrote numerous articles and completed his last book, Camera Lucida. We can look back on this period as having been tremendously productive and fertile. Yet, throughout, Barthes himself speaks of a weariness, and a tussle with life itself. In the Neutral lectures, for example, he places particular attention upon a ‘desperate vitality‘; yet equally his diary notes allude to an ever retiring state (see ‘Soirées de Paris’ in Incidents).

Barthes never intended his mourning diary for public viewing. Indeed, it is unlikely he even considered it a diary as such. It is more simply evidence of a fragmented and desperate attempt to come to terms with an overwhelming sense of grief. Richard Howard explains:

Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary is in fact a diary only in a rather desperate sense … while he was producing his last, best books, he would scribble one or sometimes several … aphoristic losses as a sort of diagnostic test, a questioning of torment, a preparation for the day’s task…

Today, the Mourning Diary is available as a neatly bound book, published relatively recently in 2009 in the French; and 2010 in English translation. The decision to publish was never a straightforward one, but ultimately the text has come to be seen a distinctive work. For Howard the book offers ‘evidence of creative intention’; though he adds: ‘Mourning Diary can be correctly read only by a concomitant reading of [the] ultimate books and of the hundreds of pages of Barthes’s final texts written at the same time … he was producing these crucial and painful notations’.

So, why choose to ‘read’ the Mourning Diary online, on Facebook? 

  • The form of the diary, made up of short, pithy entries as emotional digressions from the day’s ‘proper’ work, bears comparison with both the brevity and regularity of status updates on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. There is inevitably a big difference between the strict privacy of Barthes’ notations and the deliberate sharing of one’s thoughts online. Yet, equally, there is in both cases a confluence of the public and the private. Barthes’ diary notes were written in private, yet now they have become public property. Status updates are by their nature a form of publicity, yet what is striking about social media is the propensity of people to share their innermost thoughts and feelings.
  • As a book, Mourning Diary can be read in a single sitting. Like a series of heartfelt haikus, we consume almost two years of mourning. Easily lost is the ‘time’ of grieving – a time that is slow, laboured, and lonely. The point of offering a ‘live’ reading of the book is to dramatically slow the book down. It is intended not as a literal reading, but as a living with and through the Text. There is no telling where it will lead, and there is no sense in which it can be final…
  • Barthes was well-known for his critique of myth and the so-called ‘authentic’; what he frequently labelled, with a capital ‘H’, as History. His autobiography, Roland Barthes, presents a critique even of himself, of the image(s) of Barthes. Mourning Diary, however, appears to disrupt this work, revealing his intimate, ‘authentic’ self. Bringing the diary to ‘life’ on Facebook is a deliberate attempt to play with ideas of the authentic and inauthentic. In summer 2012, Facebook openly admitted the existence of over 83 million illegitimate accounts on the network (see BBC Report). These range from duplicate and misclassified accounts to those designated as ‘undesirable’. The Roland Barthes Facebook account, through which this project operates, can undoubtedly be classified an ‘illegitimate’ account. Indeed, there is no guarantee the account will survive the course; in the event, a virtual form of mourning might well necessitate…