Signs of the Times

For Henriette’s Tomb: Barthes, Mourning, Mallarmé

Neil Badmington, Thursday 12 Nov 2015, CEIR Seminar Series


Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes, who would have been one hundred years old last Thursday 12th November, once described the photograph as ‘a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead’. Today, a photograph has emerged of the moment before three gunmen burst into the Bataclan Theatre in Paris last Friday 13th, killing eighty-nine people who were enjoying a gig by the Californian band, Eagles of Death Metal.

Barthes’s ideas about photography stem directly from the death of his mother, Henriette, and are published in Camera Lucida, from 1980. In that remarkable text, Barthes outlines his concepts about the ‘studium’ of a photograph—that which is ‘always coded’, and the ‘punctum’—that which is not; it is that small detail in a photograph that speaks of its ‘truth’, it is what ‘pierces’. Looking at the photograph taken at the Bacalan last Friday evening we can see that the studium—the culturally coded content of the photograph—is apparent in the hair styles of the members of the audience, the clothes they are wearing, their hands aloft in the air making the ‘devil horns’ sign (signifying that they are watching a rock band) and even the way the angle the photograph is taken from. The punctum, for me (and, as Barthes tells us, the punctum is often a very personal reaction), is a man standing alone, to the right of the image—just in shot, near the edge of the photograph itself—who reminds me of one of my friends. I could go into more detail, here, regarding the punctum and my reaction to it, but I won’t out of respect for the people who were there.

Professor Neil Badmington (Cardiff University) gave a paper at the CEIR seminar series a couple of years ago on Camera Lucida and returned last Thursday to discuss a text that Barthes was working on co-currently with his famous book about photography. Mourning Diary is an account of Barthes’s suffering after the death of the woman he had lived with for sixty years, his mother, Henriette, in October 1977. Barthes began the diary on 26 October 1977, and ‘stopped’ (‘completed’ would be an inappropriate word here, implying grief can ever be completed, finished) writing it on 15 September 1979. Written on slips of paper and in fragmented sentences Mourning Diary was only published in 2010 amid much controversy: should such a personal text by a dead writer ever be published?


Stéphane Mallarmé

Mourning Diary is an interrogation into Barthes’s own grief. One passage reads, ‘Don’t say mourning. It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.’ As a text in its own right, Mourning Diary is a fascinating (and revealing) study of how one of the twentieth-century’s greatest thinkers responded to the death of his own mother, but, as Badmington demonstrated, there are ‘intertextual twinklings’ between this work, Barthes’s great unfinished project for a novel Vita Nova and Stéphane Mallarmé’s For Anatole’s Tomb, the poem Mallarmé wrote after the death of his eight-year-old son in October 1879. Both Mourning Diary and For Anatole’s Tomb were written in fragments and published long after the death of their authors (For Anatole’s Tomb was eventually published in 1961) and they were, obviously, written at a time when both writers were consumed by grief. Badmington contends, however, that despite these apparent resonances between the two texts, the influence of For Anatole’s Tomb can be felt in more subtle ways in Barthes’s text, in the margins, the Mourning Diary’s peripheral vision.

In Mallarmé’s poem, for example, he writes:

sick considered dead
already we love this or that object ‘which reminds us of him’
put away

The term ‘put away’, Badmington explains, is pertinent to Barthes’s text when he describes how in the domestic space of mourning he had put away his own mother’s possessions. Both poet and critic, Badmington goes on, also respond to their grief in a similar way: through writing and inscription. In For Anatole’s Tomb, Mallarmé writes about how:

with gift of words I could have made you king you, made you the child of the wk.
instead of the son in us

In Mourning Diary, Barthes, consumed by grief, writes about how:

I transform ‘Work’ in its analytic meaning (the Work of Mourning, the Dream-Work) into the real ‘Work’—of writing.


the ‘Work’ by which (it is said) we emerge from the great crises (love, grief) cannot be liquidated hastily: for me, it is accomplished only in and by writing.

henriette barthes

Henriette Barthes

Through the activity of writing, then, we can begin to make sense of the world and the ‘great crises’ we face. Inscription denies death a victory, Mallarme observes, perhaps echoing Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet, ‘so long lives this, and this gives life to thee’, but the work is, nevertheless, never pure or innocent.

After the death of Henriette, the apartment that Barthes shared with her in Paris, the domestic space, becomes, as Badmington observes, a ‘different kind of cemetery for Barthes’. Where Mallarmé, Badmington insightfully notes, ‘takes readers to the grave in detail, Barthes holds back. He turns away from the grave to the domestic space of mourning’. As Barthes writes:

leaving the apartment for Morocco, I remove the flower left on the spot where maman was ill—and once again the horrible fear (of her death) overwhelms me: cf. Winnicott: how true: the fear of what has happened.

Anatole Mallarme

Anatole Mallarmé

As Paris itself has become a kind of cemetery over the past few days, with flowers lining the streets, let us hope that the mourners, the grievers, and the sufferers of last Friday’s terrorist attack can take some comfort in Barthes’s incredible work: it reminds us that the geo-politics that we see playing out on our screens is just one side of this story. For every political soundbite we hear there will be even more people, in their domestic spaces, putting away their loved one’s things and turning their sufferings into acts of inscription. Barthes’s entire body of work, whist de-mystifying Western ‘myths’, is nevertheless a celebration of our collective Western culture; it is about image, music and text: three modes of representation that the extremists find deeply unsettling. Mourning Diary is a very powerful and unsettling piece of work, but in the words of Eagles of Death Metal, ‘What good’s a heart if it ain’t on your sleeve?’

—Michael John Goodman


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