Good Mourning

November 10

Struck by the abstract nature of absence; yet it’s so painful, lacerating. Which allows me to understand abstraction somewhat better: it is absence and pain, the pain of absence–perhaps therefore love?

I always get an innate pleasure out of reading Roland Barthes. To be fair, I haven’t read much of his early work in which he lays out his ideas on structuralism, but I did read & briefly obsess over Writing Degree Zero. However, I think it’s the later works, where some sort of self is revealed, that I find most pleasurable. Take the ubiquitous Camera Lucida, a text that, surely, enraptures a large number of readers: Barthes centers his ideas on a photograph of his mother in her youth, the entire text, the ideas, arrive at the reader from this starting point.

There’s an intellectually rigorous, yet somehow still very casual, sense of thought present in the work of Barthes. As a thinker, especially a thinker involved with the Tel Quel group & (eventually) post-structuralism, his writing is also remarkably lucid, simple even. Where Derrida, Deleuze & Guattari, Sollers himself can accurately be described as dense in their thoughts, the words on the page, with Barthes there’s a sense of breathing. Many of his books are also often less than 120 pages.

But this is not a trick– Barthes is not post-structuralism lite, and I don’t think anybody would imply this. But I guess that’s not the point here. A friend sent me a copy of the most recent of Barthes’s work to be translated, Mourning Diary. The book is a series of notes left almost daily by Barthes on note cards after the death of his mother. Barthes was remarkably close to his mother, and the death struck a very heavy blow.

I wanted to read the book because I was feeling kind of depressed and wanted to wallow in some intellectual whining. This is a somewhat ridiculous egotism that one can’t always avoid. By the time my copy of the book arrived, I had mostly escaped from the coldness that I wanted to writhe inside of, but I opened the book anyway. In three sittings I read Barthes’s notes on mourning.

November 21

Always that painful (because enigmatic, incomprehensible) wrench between my ease in talking, in taking an interest, in observing, in living as before, and the impulses of despair. Additional suffering: not to be more “disorganized.” But perhaps then I’m just suffering from a preconception.

The book is certainly a cold zone of affect. There is an articulated, yet self-aware, desperation present in Barthes’s terse notes. He never dwells on the minutiae of actual day to day events, only on the loss of his mother. It’s as if he’s intellectually embarrassed that he’s so upset. But not in a snotty, “I’m above this,” sort of way. Rather, it’s as if he struggles with the fact that his despair, his mourning, makes no sense.

To a degree this is almost beautiful. I say beautiful because it’s demonstrative of a remarkably intelligent man who becomes fractured. It’s demonstrative of a remarkably intelligent man who becomes fractured yet, in the midst of his despair, manages to write some of his most important work (including the aforementioned Camera Lucida).

The “diary” is not a diary, rather, it’s a document. The “diary” is not really something that one can empathize with, despite the fact that often the presentation of a desperate emotional state is easy to connect to. There’s nothing to hold onto here. There is nothing but mourning, occasionally a scattered reference to the world outside of Barthes’s pain, but the outside is kept at a distance.

This is a book that does something in a way completely different from other books, perhaps not even intended to ever become a book, yet still working as a book, and through this work, offering experience.

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  1. Whatisinevidence

      Good Mourning is an album by Alkaline Trio.



  3. stefan michael

      In the past few days I have been re-reading The Pleasure of the Text for the sixth of seventh time; I’ll read it for the tenth and eleventh time with equal surprise and enlightenment. You are right: his clarity should not be confused with simplicity.

  4. Ken Baumann

      Dig Barthes; excellent encounter. Thanks, Mike.

  5. Anonymous

  6. Susana645

      How wonderful that you, M Kitchell, (and some others of us) are led to READ A BOOK when gripped in the hand of despair. And a book written by such a penetrating intelligence, experimental, thoughtful.

      Susan D. Anderson
      The Obsessive Reader

  7. Mattjpinney

      So many of the best works of art were created under emotional stress. thanks for reminding me. I feel as well in my own work, though it’s painting

  8. lorian

      i want to read this right now. i like yr point that he’s ‘intellectually embarrassed’ to be so upset. i know that feeling.

  9. Tom

      I like the comments re Barthes. Wish I could add something here. But am not familiar with his work. However the comments & the main text make me want to reread Derrida’s Work of Mourning. I remember how right on he was about the emotional trench work required in order to arrive at some agreements between inner torment & outer realities in life. First time here and thanks for some good insights.

  10. John Minichillo

      I’ve found the structuralist works more helpful to me as a writer. The post-structuralism maybe more interesting to me as reader/thinker. The ideas in the post-structuralist works are inspiring in a broad way while the structuralism is more useful as toolbox since it exposes specific techniques. For example, the way he explicates a story line by line in S/Z is really enlightening. It shows how the choices of the writer prefigures the experience of the reader. While this should be obvious, seeing it pulled out of each and every line, specifically the way plot is constructed, gives the writer a more objective way to think about a reader’s exp. Would love to go back and spend more time w/ Barthes. Fucking time.

  11. Tom

      Doubtless structuralism offers pragmatic systems that help in the laying out of storylines. A writer needs all the practical toolbox help he can get. And I will read S/Z of which I’ve heard so many good things. Conversely, post-structuralism is not very helpful when writing in anticipation of a reader’s experience. I would liken post-structuralist writing to the tsunami times we now find ourselves in, a time when home & referents are quickly being blown apart and there is no longer a fixed plot line to the narrative of life, the world, writing, etc. Not an easy space in which to write, a space in which discontinuity, loss of origins, hierarchial meltdowns and, in short, the whole inscribed structure of Western thought seems to be following the bobbling boats off the coast of Japan. Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ offers a lot of help in working thru these times, particulary in their Rhizomic approach to writing. But to each his own & we all are at the mercy of Fucking Time.