Mythologies: The Complete Edition, in a New Translation

  • Roland Barthes; translated by Richard Howard
  • Hill and Wang
  • 288 pp.

A masterfully rendered translation of the French literary theorist’s essays from the mid-50s.

Reviewed by Laura Kart Noell

Milk: the iconic symbol of nourishment and health. Picture those “Got Milk?” ads featuring joyful celebrities adorned with fake milk moustaches. What could be more pure, more healthful, more American than milk? Drinking milk takes us back to the unselfconscious world of the child whose pure pleasure in the creamy beverage is broadcast by a white daub on the upper lip. Drinking milk is not just good for us; it’s American. In France, on the other hand, observed Roland Barthes in the mid-1950s, wine is the iconic beverage; French “society labels sick, infirm, or vicious anyone who does not believe in wine.” Wine belongs to every class and walk of life; workers and intellectuals are united by the “varied mythology” of wine. For the French, Barthes insists, “milk remains an exotic substance; wine is the national drink.”

Roland Barthes, one of the grandpères of French Theory (the theory that, depending on your point of view, revolutionized or ruined the study of the humanities in American universities), was always interested in the message behind the message or under the message or implicit in the message rather than in the surface meaning of the message itself. In 53 magazine essays on popular culture published between 1954 and 1956, Barthes sought to undermine the pieties of French petit bourgeois culture as manifested in the mass media and politics. Synthesizing elements of existentialism, Freudian theory, Marxism and the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, Barthes sought to show that the myths of popular culture laid a glossy veneer over the more complex and often ugly realities of French society.

Collected into a book called Mythologies in 1957, about half of the essays were translated and published in English under the same title in 1970. Now Richard Howard has published a new translation including all 53. Howard, well-known as a poet in English and a translator of French, was a friend of Barthes and has translated others of his works. The translation is masterful, channeling Barthes’ wit, his sometimes startling coinages, and his dense and abstract theorizing into an English language that is not naturally receptive to French theory.

The essays are topical and occasionally dated. Barthes himself, in a preface to the 1970 edition, wrote that the method of analysis in the essays had itself become somewhat passé, not because it was no longer applicable to cultural criticism but because ideas that seemed shockingly new in the mid-1950s had become widely accepted and refined by 1970. Just as a contemporary reader of Shakespeare may be startled to recognize all those clichés in the texts of the plays, the same reader of Barthes essays may be forgiven for sometimes wondering what all the fuss is about.

Many of the topics that he wrote about are as current today as they were nearly 60 years ago, topics like sports, advertising for soap and detergent, food and recipes, celebrities, movies and film stars. “In France,” wrote Barthes in 1954, “you’re not an actor if you haven’t been photographed by Harcourt Studios.” In May 2012, the central corridors of the shopping mall at Les Halles in Paris were draped with banner-size portraits of celebrities photographed by Harcourt Studios. These black and white glamour shots evoke 1940s and 1950s film idols, “smooth, sleek, pumiced by the grace and aerated by the Harcourt Studios glow.”

Those glossy surfaces are a recurrent theme in Mythologies. Ordinary people, writes Barthes, have legs and need to walk, whereas in the Harcourt studio headshots, the idealized “actor, rid of the too-fleshly envelope of his profession, rejoins his ritual essence as hero, as human archetype.” Barthes goes behind and under the image to uncover the unacknowledged realities of physical human limitations and of economic oppression.

In “Ornamental Cuisine,” he analyzes the recipes and pictures of food in Elle magazine, observing that “here invention, confined to a magical reality, must apply only to garnishing, for the magazine’s ‘distinguished’ vocation precludes it from dealing with any real problems of alimentation (the real problem is not to stud a partridge with cherries, but to find the partridge, i.e., to pay for it).” The role of Elle “is to offer its huge working class public … the answer to everyone’s dream of chic; hence a cuisine of surfaces and alibis, which consistently endeavors to attenuate or even to disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs, the brutality of meats, or the abruptness of shellfish.”

While Barthes insists on the importance of the literal and seeing things as they are rather than as we would like them to be, his language often drifts off into the metaphorical and the abstract. A phrase like “the brutality of meats” reminds readers that birds must be slaughtered to produce glazed pheasants, but it’s hard to know exactly how we are to discover “the abruptness of shellfish.”

Howard has faithfully translated Barthes’ often idiosyncratic metaphors and language. In “The Tour de France as Epic,” Barthes describes the Tour as an epic battle “with only four movements: to lead, to follow, to escape, to collapse.” “To collapse,” he argues, “prefigures abandon, it is always horrifying and saddens the public like a disaster: on Mont Ventoux, certain collapses have assumed a ‘Hiroshimatic’ character.” The word “Hiroshimatic” is an Anglicization of Barthes own coinage “hiroshimatique.”

I was taken aback by the implied analogy between the devastation of Hiroshima and the demands of the Tour de France, no matter how intense they may be. Is Barthes suggesting that in the mythic view of the Tour, the failure of an athlete is equivalent to nuclear holocaust, or is he lazily relying on a clever coinage to summarize his own view of the race? If I admit that I have doubts and questions about Barthes’ method, he would slap me down as one of those critics who thinks of herself as “of sufficiently sure intelligence for the admission of incomprehension,” an advocate of “the old obscurantist myth which holds that an idea is noxious if it is not controlled by ‘common sense’ and ‘feeling.’ “

For Barthes, common sense is the enemy, a bourgeois defense against critical theory. Common sense is simplistic; theory is rich and complex. He probably wouldn’t like me to tell you that his once radical ideas about popular culture now seem to be common sense, regrettably freighted with leaden lumps of obscure and confusing theory, but I will.

Laura Kart Noell has been a student of myth and mythology for more than 20 years. She was staying near Les Halles in Paris while (re)reading Barthes for this review.

comments powered by Disqus