Immersed in the moment: Incidents by Roland Barthes

In his Publisher’s Note to the French edition of Roland Barthes’ Incidents, a collection of essays published shortly after the theorist’s death in 1980, François Wahl suggests that the four very different texts assembled form a coherent whole because each piece “strives to grasp the immediate”. These are not theoretical or critical investigations in any sense, rather, in each text, Barthes is immersed in the moment, observing, reflecting, and recording his reactions. There is an unchecked flow and intimacy, by turns nostalgic, sensual, and melancholic but always tuned to the instance of occurrence: to the incident.

2016-05-19 21.38.01These are works that invite the reader to engage with all five senses, mediated through words and memory–they are not formal pieces but rather take the form of journal entries, diary writing, and fragmented travelogue. Barthes writes people and he writes place, never really entirely at ease with too much of either. Delight, boredom, and sadness filter through his reflections creating an immediacy that is at times startling. He is not writing for posterity, he is writing for himself.

The collection opens with “The Light of the South West”, an evocative essay/memoir, a personal tribute to the south west region of France. He writes about the experience of traveling south from Paris. Passing Angoulème he becomes aware that he is on the “threshold” of the land of his childhood. It is the quality of light that defines the place:

. . . noble and subtle at the same time; it is never grey, never gloomy (even when the sun isn’t shining); it is light-space, defined less by the altered colours of things . . . than by the eminently inhabitable quality it gives to the earth. I can think of no other way to say it: it is a luminous light. You have to see this light (I almost want to say: you have to hear it, hear its musical quality). In autumn, the most glorious season in this land, the light is liquid, radiant, heartbreaking since it is the final beautiful light of the year, illuminating and distinguishing everything it touches. . .

He goes on to turn his attention to the elements of the south west that resonate with different aspects of his childhood, to reflect on the way that memories formed in childhood inform way we remember the places associated with that time, the magical spaces and the difficult times will each carry their own tone, their own qualities.

2016-05-19 21.41.06The title piece is the earliest in the book. Recorded in 1969 when the author was in his mid-50s, “Incidents”, as the name implies, captures moments from an extended stay in Morocco through an incidental series of fragmented encounters and experiences. Here, people form the scenery; with a special attention reserved for young men. Barthes demonstrates a a particular eye for detail (and somewhat of an obsession with hands) in these passing observations, combined with an acute sensitivity for scents and colours. The vibrancy, shades and contrasts of the country come alive. As a reader you become aware of the blinding light, the dark shadows–they are not described, you sense them in the background.

A young black man, wearing a crème de menthe-coloured shirt, almond green pants, orange socks and, obviously, very soft red shoes.

A handsome, mature looking young man, well dressed in a grey suit and a gold bracelt, with delicate clean hands, smoking red Olympic cigarettes, drinking tea, is speaking quite earnestly (some sort of civil servant? One of those who track down files?), and a tiny thread of saliva drips onto his knee. His companion points it out to him.

Some young Moroccans–with girlfriends they can show off in front of–pretending to speak English with exaggerated French accents (a way of hiding the fact without losing face that they will never have a good accent).

The art of living in Marrakesh: a fleeting conversation from open carriage to bicycle; a cigarette given, a meeting arranged, the bicycle turns the corner and slowly disappears.

The Marrakesh soul: wild roses in the mountains of mint.

The third essay, “At Le Palace Tonight . . .” is a tribute to a Paris club in a converted theatre. He describes the ornate detail, the mood and the atmosphere of this place where he seems to almost prefer to be an observer, watching the dancers and the human interactions rather than taking part. And as in the first essay, we find once again a wonderful evocation of light, this time light as informed by the interior of a structure:

Isn’t it the material of modern art today, of daily art, light? In ordinary theatres, the light originates at a distance, directed onto the stage. At Le Palace, the entire theatre is the stage; the light takes up all the space there, inside of which it is alive and plays like one of the actors: an intelligent laser, with a complicated and refined mind, like an exhibitor of abstract figurines, it produces enigmatic shapes, with abrupt changes: circles, rectangles, ellipses, lines, ropes, galaxies, twists.

This collection closes with “Evenings in Paris” a series of journal entries from 1979 that open with words Schopenhauer wrote on a piece of paper before he died: “Well, we’ve escaped very nicely.” The Barthes who comes through in this selection is tired, often impatient with colleagues and irritated by noise. A certain loneliness and dissatisfaction underscore his descriptions of dinners with friends, failed attempts to win the affections of the younger men he covets, and an unresolved mourning for his beloved mother. Most nights he finds himself heading home alone, half despairing, half relieved, to settle into bed in the company of Pascal, Chateaubriand, Dante, or the echoing ghost of Proust. Although he still enjoys longingly watching attractive men, he has little patience for crowds or social functions. This is a heavier, more emotionally intense offering, the intimacy of “the immediate” weighs heavily as Barthes commits his thoughts to paper, unaware in the writing as we are in the reading, that he is nearing the end of his life.

2016-05-20 02.33.11And, because he is recording the ordinariness of the daily encounter of the self with the world, there is the possibility of shock waves that ring down the years with a new intensity in light of the incidents (that word again) that have unsettled Paris in recent years:

The guy who sells Charlie-Hebdo walks by; on the cover in the publication’s idiotic style, there’s a basket of greenish heads that look like lettuces: ‘2 francs the head of a Cambodian’; and, right then, a young Cambodian rushes into the café, sees the cover, is visibly shocked, concerned, and buys a copy: the head of a Cambodian!

Not without a little social commentary, even in a deeply personal journal, Roland Barthes, remains ever relevant down the years.

Reading Incidents is, in itself, a sensuous experience, it is doubly so in this edition from Seagull Books. With a sparkling fresh translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan and illustrated with the evocative photographic images of Bishan Samaddar, this collection of writings becomes one that can, as Barthes himself would have intended, be savoured.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

18 thoughts on “Immersed in the moment: Incidents by Roland Barthes”

  1. I’ve not yet read any Barthes, I think (although I do have his Camera Lucida lurking on the shelves). However, this is such a lovely looking and soundingSeagull book (sigh) that I may have to investigate…. :s

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    1. I’m reading a couple of Barthes’ books right now. He is stunningly readable (he could write about the phone book – probably did). This collection is a nice counterpoint to his essays.

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      1. Excellent review! I am very interested in this book.
        Camera Lucida, The Neutral, and another collection of lectures nearing this time are essential. His most fascinating work, in my opinion, was beginning at this point and was cut short. The earlier works, some contained in Writing Degree Zero and Mythologies (has a wonderful essay with the Eiffel Tower as the focus), are very strong…but, I think I love them most as artifacts of his growing process.

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      2. Thank you!
        I am, I confess, relatively new to Barthes, and I’ve been reading widely across his work. His ability to analyze and reflect upon a subject and pull out interesting observations is, in itself, wonderful to watch. Yet the further he moves (evolves) from structural argument the more organic and immediate his writing becomes and in this collection, which is personal and reflective divorced from any theoretical intent, he touches on the moment of experience with an acute perceptive awareness that arises, presumably, from his own intellectual and academic interests combined with his natural gift as a writer. One wonders where he might have gone with more time.

        I am very much interested in what we can say about being, in maintaining an awareness of that “process of coming into being” (and I noted your Twitter profile) inform what we can know or say about our own experience. The two essay/memoir type pieces here are, to me, especially interesting in this respect.

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      3. You have accurately described his real skills here. Barthes weaves the experiential and theory together in a truly unique way. After his writing, I went straight for Susan Sontag and, recently, Maggie Nelson. Thanks for recognizing the Twitter profile description. It also reflects the Deleuze and Guattari work.


      4. There is something about Brathes’ voice that captivates. I am keen to read more Sontag but I have yet to be convinced that Nelson is my writer. I suspect she might irritate me, if the advice of a few friends can be trusted.


  2. > unaware in the writing as we are in the reading, that he is nearing the end of his life.

    It sounded from early on in your post that he was writing about death. A companion piece to Camera Lucida perhaps? And isn’t it curious that the pictures here aren’t from 1969?

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    1. The four pieces here are very different, none are even as directed as Camera Lucida. The final one where he talks about his mother it is more personal (he talks of “Mam”), but those are actual diary entries that recount dinners, the food eaten, etc and the focus if any, is his realization that the young men he desires relationships with find him too old to be desirable. The photographs are those of an Indian photographer, taken in Morocco and India (Seagull is an awesome Kolkata based publisher where Samaddar is now the editor). I’ll edit later to make that more specific.


      1. The interesting thing about that is that I couldn’t help but wonder what the book offers beyond description? Camera Lucida, as I recall, offers modes of how photographs communicate – does this book just describe?


      2. The unifying feature (and what interests me in terms of essay/memoir writing) is that these are very experiential pieces, there is not an attempt to critique, or theorize in any way. Only the first and third texts read as if they may have been intended as stand alone pieces. The fragments from Morocco resemble observations and mini character sketches one might collect, say, with an eye to writing fiction (something Barthes did entertain prior to his rather early death). If photography comes up at all it is incidental, the decision to present this translation with photographs turns the table on Camera Lucida if you like, offering photographs as a compliment to the mood and feeling of the text. The final result is greater than the sum of its parts so to speak.


  3. a beautiful review of what sounds/looks like a beautiful book. at one point my mind wandered to that other beautiful book about Marrakesh, The Voices of Marrakesh, by Elias Canetti: I try to describe something and when I fall silent, I realize that have have said nothing.

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  4. As beautiful read, as always.

    “Barthes writes people and he writes place, never really entirely at ease with too much of either.” I like the turn of phrase. Piques my interest. I find the excerpt from “At Le Palace Tonight . . .” particularly interesting. Sometimes you want to buy up the entire Seagull collection!

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