On October 26, 1977, the day after his mother died, French philosopher and literary theorist Roland Barthes began the “Mourning Diary”—a series of reflections written on small pieces of paper the size of index cards, that he kept through September 15, 1979. Compiled and published posthumously, “Mourning Diary” is Barthes’ final work.
“Mourning Diary” also functions as an accessible introduction to Barthes’ writing, style, and method. Barthes was a pioneering figure of structuralist theory, one of the foundational schools of postwar thought in the West. Structuralism’s claims about the nature of language as a radical network of signification—a structure whose own meaning is self-prescribed—reverberate through the world of literature and cultural theory to this day.
Barthes’ own search for meaning is evident in the notes presented in “Mourning Diary.” Henriette Barthes—to whom he refers as “maman”—lived with her son throughout his adulthood, her death—consequently the loss of Roland’s closest confidant and friend—had a destabilizing effect on his life. As his mourning progresses, Barthes learns to live by himself without his mother’s physical presence, and to cope with the loneliness he feels despite the sympathy of those around him. He continuously contemplates his own imminent death and the uncertainty of time; he writes, “The truth about mourning is quite simply: now that maman is dead, I am faced with death (nothing any longer separates me from it except time.”
His notes are full of moments in which he records being suddenly struck by sadness. In one note, Barthes writes of crying after the rather ordinary experience of shopping, and of hearing the girl behind the counter say, “Voilà,” the word he would use when bringing his mother something as he took care of her. Each bout of grief is more intense than the last, Barthes explains: “At each ‘moment’ of suffering, I believe it to be the very one in for the first time I realize my mourning.” Anyone who has lost a loved one can relate to Barthes’ details of the frequent and unexpected feelings of sorrow that well up during the course of everyday life.
These descriptions of arresting grief are perhaps the most poignant moments in the work, but Barthes’ notes are consistently fluid and thoughtful throughout. Despite the seemingly short, fragmented style of this diary, a constant theme is Barthes’ conflict between his grief and his natural literary mode of expression. Although he writes towards the beginning of his notes, “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature,” he later admits, “No doubt I will be unwell, until I write something having to do with her.” Writing seems to be a necessary part of his grieving process, despite his fear that whatever literature he makes will not live up to the memory of his mother or the intensity of his sadness.
As Barthes explains this inner conflict, “Mourning Diary,” provides a window into the process by which he wrote his last major work, “Camera Lucida,” in which he analyzes the photographs of his mother. Although Barthes’ ‘diary’ seems for the most part intended as an outlet for his private thoughts, he was at least partially conscious of the literary value they might eventually have. At one point he writes, “Who knows? Maybe something valuable in these notes?”
Pervading Barthes’ notes is the spirit of his principle philosophy: any person has the freedom to decipher meaning in any aesthetic. This philosophy has direct bearing on the relationship between Barthes’s depiction of his mother and his idea of literature. “Maman” is presented as an image of perfection throughout his notes: “How maman is present in all I have written: in that there is everywhere a notion of the Sovereign God.” Barthes’s “maman” is always honest and never misrepresents herself, because she is never, as Barthes’ describes, a “pose, deliberate image.” In essence, Barthes’s proffers his mother as the symbol of the pinnacle of truth.
His recording of his mourning process leads to a deeper contemplation on his mother as a real, unimagined figure. These contemplations eventually lead him to realize the necessity of stark truth in literature. Near the end of his diary, Barthes concludes: “Literature = the only region of Nobility (as maman was noble.)”
“Mourning Diary,” is itself a work of literature as Barthes defines it. As Barthes believed that a person, and as such, a reader, has the agency to create his own meaning, so the reader is forced to interpret meaning in these compiled notes that may or may not have been intended for publishing. Despite its brief, fragmentary—and therefore somewhat incomplete—nature “Mourning Diary” nevertheless provides a comprehensive view of Barthes’ understanding of his mother, his grief, and his writing process.
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