Jacques Maritain Center: Ethics Without God?

"Lire les mystiques sans Dieu":

Interpersonal Communication, Mystical Language,
and God, in the Late Roland Barthes*

Marco Maggi

The importance of the theme of communication in today's ethics can not be overestimated{1}. Less frequent, but perhaps decisive, is the attention to the theological assumptions required by a correct foundation of an ethics of human communication. I will approach this issue, so to speak, in a negative way, by means of an analysis of an author, Roland Barthes (1915-1980), who builds a "moral of the sign" grounded on a semiotics, that explicitly does without a theological basis{2}. I will especially focus on the years of his teaching at the Collège de France (1977-1980), because in that period Barthes draws the coherent conclusions descending from his theoretic premises; besides, these developments can now be better understood, thanks to the recent posthumous publication of some preparatory texts for his lectures, that Barthes wrote during those years. I will outline a sort of parable, in the attempt, at least, to exclude some possible solutions to the problem "communication ethics, and God", and to indicate the path of a semiotics open to a transcendency of sense.

1. In search of a mathesis singularis.

In the inaugural lecture of the Chair of Literary Semiotics (Sémiologie Littéraire) at the Collège de France, pronounced in Paris in January 1977, Barthes evokes the three authors who, beginning from the Fifties, inspired his project of a semiotics oriented to the criticism of bourgeois world: Sartre, Brecht, Saussure{3}. These theoretic matrixes influence Barthes' thought all along its evolution. Beginning from the second half of the Sixties, however, his adhesion to some main thesis of deconstructionism causes the explosion of the latent contradiction among so heterogeneous theoretic sources.

The sartrian heritage is represented by the conception of the being of the world (the so-called "en-soi") as an opaque, massive, unintelligible reality. In this conception, there are not any universalia available for the operations of the intellect. One could say that the whole barthesian intellectual journey is a quest for a sign able to express those irreducible individualities -- a quest for a mathesis singularis, as he says in his last book.{4}

Barthes recognizes, of course, a principle of generality in the linguistic code, but he conceives it in a saussurian way, namely as an arbitrarily organized structure that the speaker projects on the surface of being. Nevertheless, since being is conceived (because of the sartrian claim) as having no structure, from Barthes' point of view the linguistic code supplies reality with an intelligibility that does not belong to it, since intelligibility comes from determination. The matter is not trivial, because intelligibility is the condition of communicability, therefore of intersubjectivity. Because of this extraneousness between language and reality, Barthes belongs to the time that George Steiner has called "of the epilogue," that is the age coming after (epì) the age of confidence in the correspondence between word and world (the era of Logos).{5} As I already said, Barthes' semiotics represents an attempt (whose limits, as well as its positive elements, I will try to weigh up in relation to the theme of this conference) to escape from this division.

Where to find a "realistic" sign, then? Barthes firmly excludes that the image could provide for the limits of the word, because it is equally submitted to its own codes and, above all, because, according to him, the so-called "civilization of image" in which we live is, at a closer look, a "logo-iconic civilization," where the images are always "talked" by the linguistic code.{6} We will see that Photography, being a "message without code," can represent an exception to this linguistic imperialism.{7}

2. God, and the sign.

I only mentioned, up till now, the third barthesian mentor, the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Leaving out Barthes' personal interest in theatre, it can be said that Brecht's thought represents to him, above all, an ideological lesson. Barthes' political views have been happily described as a form of "stylized Marxism."{8} He never joined the French Communist Party, but Brecht's influence led him to share a generically Marxist expectation for the liberation of society from alienation.

Nevertheless, Barthes' semiotics evolves in a sense that could put in danger this brechtian need for emancipation from alienation. Critics are accustomed to distinguish a "first" from a "second" Barthes, this one beginning from the second half of the Sixties. Both Barthes, so to speak, agree that alienation is a problem of language. The "first" Barthes, however, thinks that alienation comes from the "second degree meanings" (he calls them "myths") superimposed on the sign by bourgeois ideology, while the "second" Barthes asserts that the sign in itself is an agent of alienation, and the most powerful one.{9} The disappointment for the results of the students' revolution of 1968, who finally spoke the same language of the power they wanted to abolish, played without doubt an important role in Barthes' "conversion": if the revolutionary language itself produces alienation, which language won't be ideological{10}? Nevertheless, the ground of such a radical position is more profound, because it involves theology.

In fact, from the point of view of the world of irreducible individualities that Barthes inherits from Sartre, a divine principle of universality and sense can not be but the last and most dangerous weapon in the hands of ideology. In the late Sixties, Barthes combines this sartrian assumption with the thesis of the theological foundation of the sign, developed by Derrida and the intellectuals of the review Tel Quel, a group very close to him in those years. According to them, God is the principle of stability that guarantees the correspondence between signified and signifier inside the sign{11}; from their heideggerian point of view, however, this implies a critique of the sign as compromised in the nihilism of Western onto-theology. As far as Barthes is concerned, the sign in itself finally appears to him as another, more subtle form of ideology. To connect steadily a signifier to a signified implies an inadmissible, to his sartrian eyes, idea of a stable nature{12}.

I am going to consider the consequences of the clash, in Barthes' thought, between this critique of the sign (seen as a principle of alienation that annihilates human freedom), on the one hand, and the need for liberation, on the other hand. Before doing this, however, I would like to highlight a possibility, deserted by barthesian etsi Deus non daretur semiotics, but equally open at the decostructionistic crossroads. In George Steiner's words, "deconstruction teaches us that where there is no 'face of God' for the semantic marker to turn to, there can be no transcendent or decidable intelligibility. The break with the postulate of the sacred is the break with any stable, potentially ascertainable meaning of meaning."{13} Barthes' semiotics without God coherently turns into a paradoxical semiotics without the sign; for this reason, the "second" Barthes doesn't use any more the word /semiotics/, but prefers /semiotropics/:{14} an art of keeping the signifier always on the go, in order to obstruct its connection to a stable signified. The tragical (in the original sense of the word){15} epilogue of Barthes' essay could represent a good reason to consider the alternative possibility of a semiotics open to a transcendency of sense.

3. A paradoxical mystique.

Faced to this radical critique of the sign, the need for liberation from alienation, which continues to animate Barthes' thought, can not find satisfaction but outside language. The publication, in November 2002, of his preparatory texts for the first two cycles of lectures that he gave at the Collège de France in 1976-1977 and 1977-1978, sheds new light on this last barthesian stage. The first cycle of lectures is entitled Comment vivre ensemble (How to Live Together), the second one Le Neutre (The Neuter). Barthes joins them in a common project in "social ethics," aimed at the individuation of not-alienated forms of interpersonal communication{16}. Consistently with his assumptions, in these papers Barthes looks for authentic forms of human relationship outside language; in particular, he explores the borderland of mystical language, according to his conviction that, as he says in an interview of 1976, "the great classical mystics go through language, in order to reach beyond language."{17}

The intertext of these two cycles of lectures is interwoven with references to the mystique: Angelus Silesius, Jacob Böhme, Dionysius the Areopagite, Ruysbroeck, Meister Eckhart, Pascal, Swedenborg, the Fathers of the Desert, the Tao, buddhistical mystique{18}. As a matter of fact, mystical language is, according to Barthes, a form of the Neuter, which is, in its turn, a deconstruction of the sign: in the end, Barthes presents mystical language as a not- alienated form of interpersonal communication. /Neuter/ comes from the same word in Latin, ne-uter: neither the one, nor the other; in Barthes' words, the Neuter is "everything that makes the paradigm blow up", namely, everything that deconstructs the sign{19}. As a matter of fact, paradigm is the law of association of signifier and signified. Now, in Barthes' saussurian perspective{20}, the structure of the paradigm is oppositive (for instance, talking about genders of grammatical persons, masculine vs feminine); the Neuter is precisely what de-activates paradigmatical oppositions, and consequently deconstructs the sign. This is also a feature of mystical language, which names its Object by means of negative sentences: "God is neither x, nor y, nor z. . . ." Consequently, Barthes indicates the sign of the mystics as a model for authentic interpersonal communication. The paradoxical aspect of this mystique is that, coherently with Barthes' assumptions, it is a mystique without God.{21} As he writes in the lectures on How to Live Together, he reads the mystics "by abstracting from signified; reading the mystics without God, or God as signifier,"{22} in order to apply their experience to ordinary language. The language that the mystics use to talk about and with God, becomes a model for the interpersonal communication about reality.

This proposal derives from the mentioned theoretic assumptions of Barthes' thought. Since "individuum est ineffabile," a sartrian reality of mere individualities can not be said but with the language of the ineffable. What is more, saussurian linguistics, centered on the concept of the arbitrarity of sign, strengthen, if possible, this view. In the end, under the pressure of a revolt against alienation, it is the sign itself to be refused.

Barthes is lucidly conscious of the limits of this mystique without God, and accepts with resignation its tragical (to be interpreted as said) consequences. First of all, can the universality of human communication be preserved without language? According to Aristotle, language represents to men an access to universality{23}. And I wonder if a single relationship between two persons is possible quite outside language. Anyway, Barthes seems at least conscious that his model of authentic human relationship can not unify mankind as a whole, when he limits the number of participants to his ideal community "to ten, or even to eight"{24}. Here, it seems to me, Barthes re-proposes the refined and elitist model of "civil conversation" born in early modern Europe: Stefano Guazzo, the author of the fortunate treatise Della civil conversazione (1574), writes that the number of people elegantly talking has to be superior to the Graces (three) and inferior to the Muses (nine){25}. What is important, is that this genre of conversation appears after the modern breakdown of the faith of man's original opening to others{26}, as an attempt to preserve it, at least in small circles. More precisely, the late Barthes, also influenced by his political disillusion, proposes a withdrawal from society, in order to generate what he calls a "domestic Utopia,"{27} whose model is his own life with his mother, which was interrupted only by her death.

Secondly, can reasonably the ultimate end of human life be put in the company (independently from its extension) of human persons? Barthes dreams of what he calls a "homeostatic" sociability, having its telos in itself{28}. He says he does not know if it is possible in this world, or only utopical, but recognizes a limit in it: the death of the beloved person. At the beginning of the lectures on The Neuter, pronounced a short time after his mother's death, Barthes raises what he calls his "protest": "I don't care if God exists or not; but what I know, and I will know until the end, is that he should not have created love together with death. The Neuter is this irreducible No: a No like suspended in front of the hardenings of faith and of certainty, and incorruptible by both."{29} This apparently agnostic, "neutral" affirmation is in reality a denial of the existence of the Christian God, whose promise, accomplished in Jesus Christ, is that love is stronger than death. The god whose existence Barthes neither affirms, nor denies, is a god that can not be the ultimate end of human life, because he does not solve the enigma of death. Barthes is sent back to the company of human persons, so vulnerable to death, that only a tragical resignation can accept it as the telos of human life.

4. Garden ecstasies.

I would like to illustrate my interpretation by means of an exegesis of one passage from Barthes' last book, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980), whose augustinian inspiration has not been pointed out by the critics until now.

Camera Lucida describes Photography as the only sign able to represent reality as it is. In fact, beyond the codes that unavoidably affect it (and that Barthes calls studium), according to him Photography is, in its essence, a direct emanation of reality [this is the punctum: through Photography, reality pricks (in Latin, /pungo, is, pupugi, punctum, ere/) the observer]. Now, being reality ineffable, as seen, the prick of the punctum will be in the field of mystical experiences (Barthes uses the word satori, a technical term in oriental mystique){30}.

At the center of Camera Lucida there is a photograph of his mother recently disappeared. It is not shown, because only to the son it could represent (in the sense of making it present again) her. In fact, this is what happens: that photograph [taken in a greenhouse (in French: /jardin d'hiver/, winter garden), when she was a child] gives back to Barthes the irreducible individuality of his mother, realizing "the impossible science of the unique being"{31} -- a mathesis singularis. The Photo of the Greenhouse reminds to Barthes the last days of his mother's life, and the extraordinary relationship he had with her, grounded rather on what elsewhere he calls a "rustle," than on language: ". . . in a sense, I never 'spoke' to her, never 'discoursed' in her presence, for her; we supposed, without saying anything of the kind to each other, that the frivolous insignificance of language, the suspension of images must be the very space of love, its music."{32}

There is a hidden Augustinian source for this passage, the so-called ecstasy of Ostia in the Confessions{33}. Saint Augustine's mother is going to die. A few days before the event, she sits with her son, they alone, in front of a quiet garden. They talk sweetly, trying to express with words the beauties of the heavenly life, when suddenly the divine Wisdom appears and ravishes them in a common ecstasy, presage of the future happiness: "And while we were thus discoursing and panting after it, we arrived to a little touch of it with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and even there we left behind us the first fruits of our spirits enchained unto it; returning from these thoughts to vocal expressions of our mouth, where a word has both beginning and ending."{34}

There is the dream of such an unusual shared ecstasy, in the late Roland Barthes, and the desire to live it into ordinary life. Without God and the promise of the eternal life, however, this dream and this desire have to live together with a tragical resignation before the beloved person's death, and the gloomy wait for one's "total, undialectical" own, perhaps redeemed (but never completely) through the devotion to writing: "Once she was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the superior Life Force (the race, the species). My particularity could never again universalize itself (unless, utopically, by writing, whose project henceforth would become the unique goal of my life). From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death."{35}

In the end, this is the conclusion of Barthes' reflection on Photography, too: together with the "impossible science of the unique being," the Photo of the Greenhouse brings the feeling of the passing of time and the certainty of death{36}. Will we be able, on the contrary, to recognize the trace of Resurrection inscribed in the sign?


* The Author wishes to thank Dr. Fulvio Di Blasi for the kind editorial assistance, and Professor Armando Fumagalli and M. A. Alberto Leone, who agreed to read a first version of this paper.

{1} See Gianfranco Bettetini, Etica della comunicazione, in Carmelo Vigna (ed.), Introduzione all'etica, (Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 2001), 275-302.

{2} The moral question at the basis of barthesian semiotics was first underlined by Gérard Genette, L'envers des signes, in Id., Figures I (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 185-204; see now Claude Coste, Roland Barthes moraliste (Villeneuve-d'Ascq (Nord): Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1998).

{3} "It seemed to me (around 1954) that a science of signs could have activated social criticism, and that Sartre, Brecht and Saussure could have been gathered in this project." (Roland Barthes, Leçon, in Id., OEuvres complètes (Paris: Seuil, 1993-95), t. 3, 810; if not otherwise indicated, translations of texts not available in English are due to the Author of this paper).

{4} Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, transl. by R. Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 8.

{5} George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 94.

{6} Roland Barthes, "La Civilisation de l'image" (1964), in OEuvres complètes, t. 1, 1410-11.

{7} Id., Le Message photographique (1961), in OEuvres complètes, t. 1, 938-48. From this point of view, the application to non-linguistic systems of signs of tools and methods deriving from linguistics is perfectly consistent, although it has the dangerous side-effects shown by Thomas Pavel, Le Mirage linguistique (Paris: Minuit, 1988), chapter 6.

{8} See Claude Bremond - Thomas Pavel, De Barthes à Balzac. Fictions d'un critique. Critiques d'une fiction (Paris: Albin Michel, 1998), part I, chapter I.

{9} Two parallel passages, one from the Elements of Semiology of 1965 (just before the new trend in Barthes' semiotics), the other from the quoted Inaugural Lecture of 1977, can meaningfully represent this shift: "As far as language is concerned, Jakobson has pointed out that the speaker enjoys, in combining linguistic units, a freedom which increases as he passes from the phoneme to the sentence: the freedom to construct paradigms of phonemes is nil, since the code is here established by the language; the freedom to group phonemes into monemes is limited, for there are 'laws' for governing the creation of words; the freedom to combine several 'words' into a sentence is real, although circumscribed by the syntax and in some cases by submission to certain stereotypes; the freedom to combine sentences is the greatest of all, for it no longer admits of constraints at the level of syntax (the constraints regarding the mental coherence of the discourse are no longer of a linguistic order)." (Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, transl. by A. Lavers and C. Smith (London: Cape, 19692 (1967)), 69-70). "Not only phonemes, words, and syntactical articulations, since they can not be combined in whatever way, are let out on bail; on the contrary, all the fabric of language is fixed by a thick net of rules, compulsions, oppressions, repressions, that are massive and shaded at the rhetorical level, subtle and sharp at the grammatical one." (Leçon, 809).

{10} See Algirdas-Julien Greimas, Roland Barthes: una biografia da costruire, in Mitologie di Roland Barthes. I Testi e gli Atti (Convegno di Reggio Emilia, 13-14 aprile 1984), ed. by P. Fabbri and I. Pezzini (Parma: Pratiche, 1986), 305-09.

{11} Real Presences, 119-120.

{12} A barthesian critique of the concept of human nature in the essay "La grande famille des hommes", in Roland Barthes, Mythologies, in OEuvres complètes, t. 1, 669-671.

{13} Real Presences, 132.

{14} Leçon, 812.

{15} See Gianfranco Marrone, Il sistema di Barthes (Milano: Bompiani, 1994), 45-7 et passim.

{16} See Roland Barthes, Comment vivre ensemble. Simulations romanesques de quelques espaces quotidiens. Notes de cours et de séminaires au Collège de France, 1976-1977, ed. by Cl. Coste (Paris: Seuil / IMEC, 2002), 222.

{17} Id., Un Grand rhétoricien des figures érotiques, in OEuvres complètes, t. 3, 441.

{18} See Carlo Ossola, "Leçons de la 'Leçon'", in Roland Barthes au Collège de France 1977-1980, ed. by N. Léger (Paris: Éditions de l'IMEC, 2002), 17-33: 27-28.

{19} Id., Le Neutre. Notes de cours au Collège de France 1977-1978, ed. by Th. Clerc (Paris: Seuil / IMEC, 2002), 31.

{20} Barthes claims his persistent faithfulness to saussurian main assumptions in Le Neutre, 31.

{21} See Philippe Roger, "'Une fidélité particulière l'infini' (de Barthes et des mystiques)", in Barthes après Barthes. Une actualité en questions. Actes du Colloque International de Pau, 22-24 novembre 1990, ed. by C. Coquio and R. Salado (Pau: Publications de l'Université de Pau, 1993), 37-41.

{22} Comment vivre ensemble, 43.

{23} See Aristotle, Politics, I, 2 1253 a 2-18.

{24} Comment vivre ensemble, 178.

{25} Stefano Guazzo, La civil conversazione, ed. by A. Quondam (Modena: Franco Cosimo Panini, 1993), I, 175; I, 268.

{26} See Francesco Botturi, Pluralismo sociale e virtù politica, digital version at the address http://helios.unive.it/~cise/convegni.html#4.

{27} Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola, in OEuvres complètes, t. 2, 1102.

{28} Comment vivre ensemble, 83-84.

{29} Le Neutre, 40.

{30} Camera Lucida, 109.

{31} Ibid., 71.

{32} Ibid., 72.

{33} Saint Augustine, Confessions IX 10, 23-24.

{34} Ibid., IX 10, 24, transl. by W. Watts (London - Cambridge, Mass.: William Heinemann Ltd. - Harvard University Press, 1946), II, 49 and 51.

{35} Camera Lucida, 72. Barthes will devote his last two cycles of lectures at the Collège de France (1978-79 and 1979-80, in press) to the theme "The Preparation of the Novel."

{36} "In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe." (Camera Lucida, 96).