Mythologies—The Complete Edition, in a New Translation
By Roland Barthes. Translated from the French by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers.
I can’t begin to tell you—or explicate for you in shaded texts—how important Roland Barthes’ work was to me in college. When I was a cocky freshman at Tufts University, I finagled my way into a graduate seminar on Structuralism because I convinced the professor, the great Martin Green, that I was already well-read on the subject—which I was, though my French was much lousier than I let on.
Halfway through the seminar, real-life events intruded on scholarly pursuits. In the winter of 1980, Roland Barthes, at that point still publishing books and papers faster than many professors could catch up with, still deeply engaged in his explorations of how we navigate text, was hit by a laundry truck. He died a month later of related injuries.
I had my intellectual vanities as a college student, but I also had a finely tuned punk side. Roland Barthes let me be pompus and pure at the same time. He was unafraid that popular culture would destroy the academic canon. His criticism was open-minded and open-ended, asking questions and making points without pretension.
This new edition of Mythologies is characterized as “The Complete Edition, in a new translation.” The first part of that is assuredly true, including an entire section that was left out of the first English publication of Mythologies in 1957. The “new translation” part is true enough, but the key issue here is that the essays which “complete” the book are by its original translator Annette Lavers, and the rest of it has been newly translated by Richard Howard, the best-known translator of Barthes (with the possible exception of Lavers), who’s been publishing translations of Barthes since Barthes was still alive.
So there’s no major change in style to be found here. But since I love Howard’s earlier translations of Barthes (particularly New Critical Essays, The Eiffel Towe and The Rustle of Language) so dearly, I’m thrilled to have him back, rather than bothered that a younger, perhaps more contemporaneous translator could have been enlisted for comparison’s sake.
It helps that Howard is an American, and a poet, and clearly as well-read and fearless in his academic and social pursuits as Barthes was. The best Barthes pieces read as smoothly as magazine articles, then grab your mind and heart as their idle musings on cultural icons burst into whole new areas of thought and expression.
Since it first appeared, Mythologies has always been a gateway book for those who are afraid to try uncut modern literary criticism. It’s accessible, it’s loaded with new ideas, and it’s not snotty or superior. Barthes gives himself a very small place in the world as an observer, but gives his thoughts a lot of room to flow. He doesn’t pretend to omniscience or authority, but provokes with a wide range of subject matter—from Racine to Billy Graham, from Einstein to Billy Graham. He discusses Martians, the Tour de France, the “Bourgeois Art of Song,” “shock photos,” plastics, and how the Romans are portrayed on film. He’s especially adept at theater criticism, not in the I-liked-that-play sense but in how modern theater is packaged: he’s annoyed by trends in theater where a director’s style is defined by meaningless “finds”: staging and design conceits which are imaginative but add nothing to the drama. He discusses a photography studio renowned for its portraits of French actors, and how that affects what it means to be an actor in France. And he sets the music hall apart from other theater not as a class or cultural issue but a temporal one: “Whatever the theater, we experience time there as continuous. In the music hall, time is by definition interrupted; it is an immediate time. And this is the meaning of variété, or entertainment.”
I’ve always treasured Roland Barthes because his work begins with an honest curiosity, then forms itself into grander literary theories, rather than vice versa. He develops templates to work out his ideas; he doesn’t arrive with them. He seems genuinely intrigued by theater, by cheap fiction, by monuments and tourist attractions. Those interests inspire deeper thought. There’s nothing dismissive or underhanded in his work.
Mythologies as we’ve known it from the old Lavers edition is so packed with essays and insights that we realize we weren’t missing all that much when the now-restored “Myth Today” section of it was cut in its entirety for that first English edition 55 years ago. It’s a wonderful stand-alone essay, starting with a dictionary definition and getting fascinatingly fuzzier as it proceeds. But it doesn’t provide any major summing-up that illuminates all the smaller essays which comprise the book. They stand alone magnificently, as indeed they did when they were first published independently in journals and magazines. But “Myth Today” is especially valuable is showing that, when so many structuralist and deconstructionist and other literary theories of the mid- and late-20th century have fallen by the wayside, or are hard to apply to the latest literature and new multi-media practices, Barthes’ thoughts still make strong, basic sense. A new edition of his best-known work is a validation, and also keeps him vital and in no fear of being falsely mythologized or outdated himself.