I go out to buy some paints (Sennelier inks) … In putting them away, I knock one over: in sponging up, I make a new mess … And now, I am going to give you the official name of the spilled color, a name printed on the small bottle… it was the color called Neutral (obviously I had opened this bottle first to see what kind of color was this Neutral […] Well, I was both punished and disappointed: punished because Neutral spatters and stains (it’s a type of dull gray-black); disappointed because Neutral is a color like the others, and for sale (therefore, Neutral is not unmarketable): the unclassified is classified – all the more reason for us to go back to discourse, which, at least, cannot say what the Neutral is – Roland Barthes

In the first instance, Barthes’ interest in the Neutral was in the means it provided in ‘speaking of the suspension of conflicts’. And on the whole that is the line of enquiry taken by his lecture course. However, ‘underneath this discourse’, there is ‘in fleeting moments, another music’. Accordingly, the Neutral is ‘the difference that separates the will-to-live from the will-to-possess … as the drifting from arrogance,’ he writes, ‘I leave the will-to-possess, I move to the will-to-live’. Tired, as it were, of the insistence to assert meaning, to impose critique, Barthes does not want or no longer believes in taking possession of what is before him. Understanding something is not to explain it, but to live with it. This is a difficult process, no doubt prone to failure (but that does not make it any less important).

Barthes offers this second, implicit reading of the Neutral after alluding to the fact that he is in the process of mourning for his mother:

It’s this difficult, incredibly strong, and almost unthinkable distance that I call the Neutral, the second Neutral. In the end, its essential form is a protestation … the Neutral is this irreducible No: a No so to speak suspended in front of the hardenings of both faith and certitude and incorruptible by either one.

This ‘No’ is of course a ‘Yes!’, for it is that which says ‘yes’ to life. Or rather, it is nothing as simple as a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ (as if flicking a light switch). It is a vital force, a certain nascence evoked. Seeing things from different sides, from all sides requires a certain neutrality. But, as Barthes suggests, this is not a matter of indifference, rather an ardent, burning activity…

‘Pasolini, in a poem’, Barthes points out, ‘says that the last thing that remains to him is a “desperate vitality” … desperate vitality is the hatred of death. What is it then that sets retreat from arrogance apart from hated death? It’s this difficult, incredibly strong, and almost unthinkable distance that I call the Neutral, the second Neutral’.

‘My God, but then what can be said
in your favour? …’
‘Me? – (nefarious stammering
I didn’t take the aspirin, my trembling voice
that of a sick boy.) –
‘Me? A desperate vitality.’

[Dio mio, ma allora, cos’ha
lei all’attivo?
Io? – (un balbettio, nefando,
non ho preso l’optalidon, mi trema la voce
di ragazzo malato.) –
Io? Una disperata vitalità.]

Pasolini, ‘Vitality’ (Action poétique, no. 71 [October 1977])

See Also:

Parallax, Vol 16, Issue 3, August 2010 – special issue, ‘Yes!’, edited by Gary Peters.