Some thoughts on Barthes’ *Mythologies*

I finished Roland Barthes’ Mythologies this week. I don’t recall ever reading this collection of essays before, so I was quite pleased by how current many of them still seemed. Barthes’ had a keen eye for society. What I was stricken by the most were two passages in the lengthy essay on myth that ends the book.


The first bourgeois philosophers pervaded the world with significations, subjected all things to an idea of the rational, and decreed that they were meant for man: bourgeois ideology is of the scientistic or the intuitive kind, it records facts or perceives values, but refuses explanations; the order of the world can be seen as sufficient or ineffable, it is never seen as significant. Finally, the basic idea of a perfectible mobile world, produces the inverted image of an unchanging humanity, characterised by an indefinite repetition of its identity. (142)

I think looking at the history of Western philosophy we can trace this to the Greeks. This being the case, the interesting thing is how resistant to change the discipline has been. We see this now in the increasingly violent reactions to calls for change, such as the backlash Bryan van Norden and Jay Garfield received for their op ed in the New York Times a few years ago.

Philosophy reproduces itself by rejecting any form of radical change, and when it takes up new ideas, it’s only by assimilating them – i.e. by turning them into itself.

The other passage touches on this as well, at least slightly:

The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognised places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. (152)

The Other in Western philosophy is relegated to the margins, or, assimilated. When marginalised, it manifests in the form of a complete rejection of the discourses that matter to the Other. An example of this, to my eye, is dropping any sort of religious connotations from Buddhist thought. This doesn’t happen only to non-Western philosophy though; consider the case of stripping away the theological assumptions in Cartesian philosophy, or taking any sort of ideas without their proper context, really. In assimilation, the Other is included only insofar as its discourses fit within those of the West.

Barthes isn’t talking about philosophy, he’s talking about culture. Nonetheless, philosophy, as practiced in the West at least, is a bourgeois endeavour. It doesn’t surprise then, that the failures of the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois that Barthes can identify in the French society of the 1950s are in some sense reproduced in academia.

Books I’d read in 2019

Putting this list together, I was somewhat surprised by how few books I managed to finish this year. I’m going to blame my PhD for it.

I’m somewhat pleased that just under 50% of the books I’d read for fun were written by women (12/26). There are two books I’d started to read but haven’t quite managed to finish in time. The first is Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, which I’m slowly burning through. I find that after getting stuck into it, I can’t get myself to read more than a few pages at a time – I tend to get lost in them and go back to re-read. That’s okay. The other is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which I’m rather engrossed in, but I just don’t think I’ll finish before midnight tomorrow. That’s okay too.

As far as books for work go, I haven’t read very many from start to finish. This is unfortunate, because usually I’m more than interested in what I’m reading – but I have a huge range of sources to deal with, so I’m reading bits and pieces depending on what I need to write about. So while there are only 11 books on the list, I’d read bits and pieces of many. Not to mention countless journal articles. I think next year I’d like to keep track of the smaller things I read, just to have a clearer picture of my reading habits. I’m also 90% through a half-dozen books that I intend to finish when I find the time to.

Looking back on my reading, the absolute standouts for me were Hustvedt’s Blazing World and What I Loved, Stax’s Swimming Through the Darkness and Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup.

I had the privilege to meet Siri Hustvedt and have dinner with her (and others) at the International Margaret Cavendish Society conference in Trondheim. She’s an incredibly warm, erudite, and funny woman. She was kind about how starstruck I was meeting her, and she came to see my paper. She signed my copy of Blazing World too.

Mike Stax’s book was a bit of an impulse purchase that I’d regretted in the moment after I bought it, and it took me a while to get to it. I think it sat on my bedside table for a solid two years. Once I got to it though, I could hardly put it down. It focuses on the story of a promising young LA musician who suffered a mental break during a spiritual journey to India, went from having a skyrocketing career in music to homelessness in his old age. Likely, it was a result of untreated schizophrenia and drug use, but then, there are too many gaps in the story to really know what happened.

I have a bit of a solid reading stack waiting for me next year. I’m particularly looking forward to Bolaño’s 2666, Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, Catton’s The Luminaries, and Tokarczuk’s Books of Jakob (in Polish, because it’s my only way of not forgetting the language). Now that I’ve written this out, I see they’re all pretty thick, so might be a slow burn kind of year.

Anyhow, without any further ado, here are the books I’d read this year.

For fun:
1. George Martin – A Game if Thrones
2. Sarah Bakewell – At the Existentialist Cafe
3. Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
4. Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities
5. Thomas Piketty – Capital in the 21st Century
6. Guy de Maupassant – the Best Short Stories
7. Italo Calvino – Mr Palomar
8. Judith Butler – Precarious Lives: The Powers of Mourning and Violence
9. Sophie Wahnich – In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution
10. Esther Leslie – Walter Benjamin
11. Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism
12. Siri Hustvedt- The Blazing World
13. Olga Tokarczuk – Podróż Ludzi Księgi
14. Adam Mickiewicz – Pan Tadeusz
15. Fyodor Dostoyevsky- the Brothers Karamazov
16. Angela Davis – Women, Race & Class
17. Bhaskar Sunkara (ed) – the ABCs of Socialism
18. Siri Hustvedt – What I Loved
19. Mike Stax – Swim Through The Darkness
20. Otessa Moshfegh – Homesick for Another World
21. Doris Lessing – the Grass is Singing
22. William Gibson – Neuromancer
23. Stanisław Lem – Solaris
24. Arundathi Roy – the Ministry of Utmost Happiness
25. Mary Norris – Between you and me: confessions of a comma queen
26. Ryu Murakami – In the Miso Soup

For work:
1. Margaret Cavendish – Philosophical and Physical Opinions
2. Margaret Cavendish – Poems, and Fancies
3. David Cunning – Margaret Cavendish
4. Walter Charleton – Natural History of the Passions
5. Walter Charleton – the Ephesian Matron
6. Emily Booth – ‘A Subtle and Mysterious Machine’: the Medical World of Walter Charleston (1619-1707)
7. Laura Linkler – Lucretian Thought in Late Stuart Engletian Thought in Late Stuart England
8. R.W. Sharpless – Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics
9. John Norris – The Theory and Regulation of Love
10. W.J. Mander – The Philosophy of John Norris
11. Inger Mewburn, Katherine Firth, and Shaun Lehmann- How to fix your academic writing trouble

A few excerpts from Malebranche’s *the Search After Truth*

The current chapter I’m writing is focused on Nicolas Malebranche and his English follower John Norris. They’re both a lot of fun to read, but Malebranche in particular has a fun since he doesn’t spare any words to attack those he thinks are not thinking clearly, distracting others from true knowledge, or whose ideas he considers bad.

Portrait of Nicolas Malebranche

So here are a few of the passages I’d enjoyed for reasons other than their scholarly value for my PhD. For a start, here’s Malebranche having a go at the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca:

All this shows that few errors are more dangerous, or more easily communicable, than those with which Seneca’s books are filled. For these errors are refined, suited to man’s nature, and similar to that in which the demon engaged our first parents. They are clad in these books with pompous and splendid ornaments, which gain entry for them into most minds. They enter, grasp, stun, and blind them. But they blind them with a proud blindness, a dazzling blindness, a blindness accompanied by glimmering lights, not a humiliating blindness full of shadows that make one aware that one is blind and force one to admit it to others. When one is struck by this proud blindness, one places oneself among the noble and powerful minds. Even others include us in this class and admire us. Thus, nothing is more contagious than this blindness, because the vanity and sensibility of men, the corruption of their senses and passions, dispose them to search after it, to be struck by it, and excite them to impress others with it.

I do not believe then that one can find an author more appropriate than Seneca for exemplifying the nature of this contagion in an infinity of men whom we call noble and powerful minds, and for showing how strong and vigorous imaginations dominate weak and unenlightened minds – not by the strength or evidence of arguments, which are products of the mind – but by the turn and vivid manner of expression, which depend on strength of imagination. (181)

This is just one of many lengthy attacks against the Stoics (and Seneca in particular). But others don’t escape Malebranche’s ire either. Here are two short passages against Michel de Montaigne:

He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so. And so he became a gentlemanly pedant of quite singular species, rather than a reasonable, judicious, and honest man.

Montaigne’s book contains such obvious proofs of the vanity and pride of its author that it might seem useless to note them here, for one must be quite conceited in order to imagine, as he does, that people would wish to read such a thick book to have some acquaintance with our humors. He must necessarily set himself apart from the common man and regard himself as a quite extraordinary person. (186)

He goes on:

If it is a defect to speak of oneself often, it is an affront, rather a kind of stupidity, to praise oneself all the time as Montaigne does, for this is not only a sin against Christian humility but also an insult to reason. (187)

Part of the text presents an argument against wasting your time with focusing on the wrong kinds of knowledge, since they pollute your mind and take you further away from the kind of knowledge that is really valuable. Among those we should we worry about in particular are some scholars:

The rarest and most ancient histories are the ones that they glory in knowing. They do not know the genealogy of currently reigning princes, but they carefully research those of men who have been dead for four thousand years. They neglect to learn the most common histories of their own time, but they seek a perfect understanding of the fables and fictions of poets. They do not even know their own relatives, but if you wish, they will present many authorities to prove that some Roman citizen was allied with some emperor, or such other things. (297-8)

To be clear, he doesn’t think these things are entirely useless – only if they take us away from those kinds of knowledge that improve us.

Finally though, he thinks we should be weary of those who try to read too much, and read without properly understanding what they read. In particular, I think he’d dislike the kind of requirements contemporary grad students often face. Consider these this short passage for instance:

There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely. But most books of certain scholars are fabricated only with the help of dictionaries, and they have hardly read the indexes of the books they quote and some commonplaces gathered together from different authors.

In fairness to grad students, I think this passage is even more an indictment of the poor scholarship presented by some super popular “public intellectuals.”

The Search After Truth is a really rich work, so while I know I’ve picked out some passages that are amusing to me because Malebranche is having a go at someone, I’d not like you to think that the whole book or his way of doing philosophy relies on him being a jerk to other thinkers. In many ways he is trying to synthesise Augustinian and Cartesian philosophy. What he takes from Descartes, in particular, is a kind of moral epistemology. He thinks that if we avoid error in our thinking, we can be closer to the absolute good, that is, to God.

All quotations are from Nicolas Malebranche, 1997, The Search After Truth, trans. and ed. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Reading this week: Roy and Pessoa

This week I finished Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and started Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The two texts are very different in many ways. Roy’s book is extremely political while Pessoa’s is introspective. The both made me pause in different ways, and while I’d usually avoid talking about a text I’m still reading, the The Book of Disquiet is having such an effect on me that I’m finding it hard to stop talking about it.

I was excited to pick up Roy’s book since I’d read her previous novel, The God of Small Things (1997), and thought it was extraordinary. I thought the new one was also very good, but I’m more reluctant to talk about it.

It’s not only a very political work, but a very timely one. The novel is set against the background of the complex history of Kashmir as a semi-autonomous, or even independent territory between India and Pakistan, and considers the lives of the people stuck in what seems like a perpetual conflict. I’m reluctant to have too strong an opinion about it because it demands a grasp of context that is beyond mind. And I worry that for many readers the book will be the only context – and given the complexity of the situation, that’s likely not a good thing.

The current troubles in Kashmir aren’t new, but a continuation of a long history that I’m not very close to.

Being familiar mostly with Roy’s fiction and only broadly conscious of her political works and leanings I’d consider her well placed to write a book enmeshed in the history of this particular conflict. And perhaps she has done that well. The success of the book, however, lays in showing the deep roots of the relationship Kashmir has to its neighbours. The intersection of geopolitics, religion, nationalism, and culture forms an abyss the bottom of which is invisible to casual onlookers. Maybe the abyss itself is invisible, given how little attention Western media has given to the current wave of trouble in the region?

In any case, it is this abyss of context that stands before me as a wall over which I can peer, but which stops me from giving in to my tendency to have an opinion. I could climb over it – but the one thing Roy’s book has succeeded at is showing me just how little I understand of the context, so that would be futile.

I mention all of this because I read the book at a point where I’d begun forcing myself to articulate my thoughts on what I read a bit more explicitly (which is also one of the occasions of me reviving the blog as a place to think out loud in public). It’s just my luck then that the first book I pick up is one on which I think articulating my thoughts might be irresponsible.

But it did make me think about the responsibility one has as critic, to bring out the context and to help the reader grasp it. A responsibility I myself hadn’t always been very conscious of, and which I think it is increasingly important to uphold.

Not all works demand such context, perhaps.

This is why Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is a fortunate choice of reading to follow Roy’s book with.

I imagine what I think will change several more times as I read the book and I hope to write some thoughts about it another time. But one thing that I am struck with immediately is how well it sets out its own context. The fragments collected here let us into a world that belonged entirely to Pessoa in his lifetime.

The edition I own (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, ed. Maria José de Lancastre) is a masterwork of literary translation. I could pause on each sentence and try forever to articulate what it is that makes it genius. The words aren’t even Pessoa’s any more – they’re the translator’s. But they leave openings to interpretation, and ultimately here the context isn’t so necessary. The fragmentary nature of the work, the fact most of the fragments are undated and thus impossible to order (no that there is much of a discernible narrative anyhow). This removes all context and lets the reader get lost within the work itself, on its own terms.