Decrypting Signs of the Times

Murder isn’t the only mystery in this French intellectual thriller

Decrypting Signs of the Times

I spent my first year out of college at the University of Munich, intending to study Kant and Hegel’s literary theory as a preparation for an academic career in comparative literature. Instead, I found myself immersed in French structuralism, and specifically the semiology of Roland Barthes.

This may sound terribly esoteric — and it is.

It becomes a bit more accessible when you put Umberto Eco and his bestselling novel, The Name of the Rose, into that same field. Eco’s friar-detective, William of Baskerville, was able to deduce clues to the mysterious murders in a Benedictine monastery through careful observation of telltale signs.

Eco, whose day job was professor of semiotics (a variation on semiology but referring to the same study of signs) at the University of Bologna, followed it up with a somewhat less accessible novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which is chockablock with esoterica. The “symbology” of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon protagonist is at least a cousin to semiology.

So it was like a blast from the past when I came across a staff pick at Politics and Prose, The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet. This, too, is a murder mystery and deals with the death of that very same Roland Barthes, who was stuck by a laundry van while crossing the street in what was considered a tragic accident or, at worst, suicide.

Barthes was 64 when he was killed in 1980 and at the height of his fame as a literary critic and exponent of structuralism — the notion that reality, including language, follows deep patterns susceptible to study.

Binet — whose debut novel, HHhH, won France’s Prix Goncourt for first novel — has written a tongue-in-cheek satire poking fun not only at structuralism and semiology, but at politics and society in the France of 1980.

Since Binet worked on François Hollande’s presidential campaign, there are clear applications to contemporary French politics as well. Beneath all the fun, however, there is a serious message about the power of language and persuasion that helps explain our own political anomalies, not least the surprising victory of Donald Trump in 2016.

To help guide the reader along in Barthes’ esoteric world, the author introduces Superintendent Jacques Bayard from the domestic intelligence service to investigate the writer’s death. Bayard, who wasn’t even aware there was something called the Collège de France, is as blissfully ignorant of structuralism as any American reader and is a good foil for the intellectual banter of a whole parade of French academics — Michel Foucault, Philippe Sollers, Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and several others (most of whom I read during that year in Munich!).

Bayard is dispatched to investigate because just before his accident Barthes was at a lunch with none other than François Mitterrand, the veteran Socialist who was preparing to challenge Valéry Giscard d’Estaing for the presidency in 1981.

Mitterrand, of course, went on to win that election, becoming the first leftist head of state in France’s Fifth Republic, and won re-election seven years later to extend his tenure as president for a full 14 years. It was an astonishing development as virtually the entire French establishment opposed him.

(Another coincidence that makes this book such a find for me was that I moved to Paris just at this time and stayed there for 11 years of Mitterrand’s presidency.)

Having determined Barthes was murdered to secure a secret document that may threaten national security, Bayard enlists the aid of a young academic to help him cope with the preening intellectualism of Barthes’ colleagues — now all suspects.

Simon Herzog obligingly puts on a display of Sherlockian deduction by correctly reading the signs communicating otherwise hidden facts. Barthes’ most famous book, Mythologies, examines how the most mundane objects — a car, a dress — contain layers of meaning for the observant.

The secret document in question is the titular “seventh function of language,” a thesis originally posited by the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, who is generally credited as one of the founders of structuralism. This ultimate function, never really identified in Jakobson’s writings, is language as an incantation that mysteriously compels its listeners to belief.

Spoiler alert: After many adventures, including several encounters with Umberto Eco himself, Bayard and Herzog come to realize that Mitterrand acquired Barthes’ document, and the seventh function was the key to his winning a crucial presidential debate with Giscard and to his long tenure as president.

Which brings us to Donald Trump and his perplexing ability — despite all his bombast, prevarications, and outright lies — to persuade 63 million American voters to support him. As reporter Salena Zito trenchantly observed during the campaign, the media took Trump literally but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally. Multiple meanings are there, depending on what the observer wants to see.

Binet has some fun at the end hinting that Barack Obama may also have benefited from the seventh function’s mythical powers in his unlikely rise to the top. The novel was originally published in 2015, so Binet could not know that for the second time Americans would elect a president who did not follow the traditional route up the political ladder. The seventh function of language is a fiction, but there are perhaps levels of communication in our politics that could benefit from deeper Barthesian analysis.

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