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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

barthes - the amateur mandarin

I’m reading Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography of Roland Barthes. I’ve learned that when Barthes published The degree zero of writing in the fifties, he had not yet read Blanchot or Artaud, or even – so he told a reviewer – heard of Georges Bataille. Barthes was 36.
Somehow, being an aging hulk myself, I find this a beautiful anecdote. Firstly, because it rather undermines those who are searching for influences by Blanchot or Bataille in Barthes early work – and don’t we all like to see an academicus ocassionally slip on a banana peel? – but more because, secondly, it speaks to reading outside the classroom. The classroom, in the intellectual world created by the post world war II boom in colleges, has become the site of our primal reading, and sometimes our only reading of the “great books”. It is a phrase I have heard all too often – “I read that in class”. In my mind, this is matched with another phrase, usually about something in history – say Watergate: “that happened before I was born.” As if the knowable extent of the world began when a person was born. Both speak to a sort of intellectual shrinkage.


What I like is what Ralph Ellison called the old man at Chehaw Station – the amateur who is a knower, beyond all credentialing. Barthes of course went on to read Bataille and Blanchot and the rest of them. The shock of the new was not subsumed in the canon of the old as his career unfolded – and this is why his work, to me, is that of an amateur mandarin. 

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