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Michelet by Roland Barthes; translated by Richard Howard (Hill & Wang: $14.95; 226 pp.)

March 08, 1987|Annette Smith | Smith, a professor of French at Caltech, is the author of a book on 19th-Century intellectual history and the translator of the poet, Aime Cesaire.

For those of us who read Roland Barthes' "Michelet par lui-meme" shortly after its publication in France in 1954, reading the recent translation by Richard Howard feels like a pilgrimage--a proper phrase in view of the Barthes cult that developed and dominated the literary world for the last 25 years.

Barthes, who died in 1980, remains best known to the general reader as the brilliant structuralist and semiologist of "The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies," "The Fashion System" and "The Empire of Signs." In the mid-60s, literature professors saw in him a modern Saint George undaunted by repeated assaults from the old-fashioned French Sorbonne establishment. Around 1970, Barthes' writing evolved into a more radical phase. He abandoned the unconscious collective meanings he traced, for example, in Racine's tragedies for an approach in which there would be no final "signified" (meaning) lying behind the various "signifiers" that constitute a literary text. "S/Z," Barthes' reading--in actuality his reconstruction--of Balzac's short story "Sarrasine," signals a series of more and more personal, loosely assembled, and hedonistic works, such as "The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes" (by himself) and "A Lover's Discourse."

Albeit less systematic, these later volumes are not much easier to read than those of Barthes' militant phase. But "Michelet" takes us back, somewhat mercifully, to an earlier period when Barthes was both more accessible and more politically committed.

In "Roland Barthes," Barthes writes that Michelet attracted him by founding "an ethnology of France," that is, by his skill in questioning historically the most natural objects, such as faces, food, clothes, complexion. In other words, by prefiguring Barthes' own "mythologies." One can imagine many other reasons for the Michelet/Barthes conjunction, some serious (a common ideology of the left, their love of provincial life styles, perhaps a secret pleasure taken in the vulnerability of women), some trivial (their similar position at the College de France, their frequent migraines). But the most substantial reason is that for someone like Barthes, who challenges the authorial role and who privileges literary form over literary content, Michelet's writings compensate a relative paucity of ideas by a vision of historical objects so personal and visceral it turns history into fiction or poetry.

What Barthes exposes in the 19th-Century historian is the "organized network of personal obsessions" originating in the writer's responses to the basic elements of our physical world. These responses, he believes, structured Michelet's experience, therefore his view of history. Barthes denied the influence of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard whose method comes to mind immediately and acknowledged instead a debt to Sartre's concept that our attitudes toward such physical qualities of matter as viscosity or solidity are revealing of how we come to grips with the basic phenomenon of existence. At any rate, "Michelet" clearly belongs to an era of French criticism which chose "ahistoricity," focusing on the text-as-system and proposing unseen factors as the keys to that system.

Apart from an initial "memorandum" in which Barthes does away with Michelet's ideas in a few lines, a short conclusion, and an appendix, the book is divided into seven sections carved along the grain of Michelet's major themes as Barthes sees them. The first is on Michelet as devourer (also swimmer, walker, victim and eventually inseminator) of history. The second is on Michelet's elaboration of a sort of physics and chemistry of history. The third is on various historical antinomies, such as the sexualized opposition of female Grace (the World-as-Woman, a passive principle) and of Justice (the Just man, the Hero, an active fecundating principle). It is in that section that Barthes introduces one of Michelet's most endearing characters, the Witch, in whom male and female power join.

The next section presents Michelet as a sort of paraschites , an embalmer of the dead, who believes his mission to be the recovery of "the tissues, the humors, not the skeleton of history." Barthes then surveys a series of historical portraits and shows how Michelet constructs the character around some essential physical substance (the "dry" Louis XV, "waxy" Napoleon, the "watery" Pompadour or the Frenchman as "flint") or a morphological type (Marat as toad, Catherine the Great as Minotaur).

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