PRINT April 1994

A Clown’s Coat

THE DEMAND FOR LOVE. Thus Roland Barthes captions the odd photograph of his mother holding him. He is perhaps six or seven. He is almost as tall as she, almost too big to be held in this way. The adult Barthes can already be read in his face: the pale skin, the thick blond hair, the anxious, deeply set eyes, the large nose, the full lips. His limbs are attenuated; his feet and hands are delicate. He clings longingly, even desperately to her. His head sweetly touching hers, they both gaze directly into the lens of the camera. Is he demanding love from her, we wonder, or is she demanding it from him?

The author emerges in this image—as he does throughout the pages of his pseudo-autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes—as riven, distant, hard to pin down: he is at once effeminate and boyish, graceful and gawky, a little man and a childish sissy. The picture’s paradoxes, as well as those of the aphorism that accompanies it, render him a kind of cipher, a “degree zero” that keeps the reader guessing: “The Text can recount nothing,” Barthes intones, “it takes my body elsewhere, far from my imaginary person, toward a kind of memoryless speech which is already the speech of the People, of the non-subjective mass (or of the generalized subject).”

The demand for love. In certain ways, Barthes was no help. When I first encountered him, I was still in the closet. I was writing my undergraduate honors thesis. My adviser suggested that the argument of my paper—about the relationship between Modernist art and language—might benefit from the rigorous example of The Elements of Semiology. Barthes’ dense, poetic, sensual prose seduced me; over the next fifteen years I would read every book of his I could find. Yet he offered me no way out of the closet, no comfort in being gay, no hint of his own lust for the young men who had long since lost interest in his aging body. It was not that he never revealed his homosexuality, but that, like most gay men of his generation, he did so elusively, with signals intended only for other queers. More often, however, as D. A. Miller has observed, the author was homophobic, even paranoid, indulging in the very bourgeois delusions he sought to demythologize: “To proclaim yourself something is always to speak at the behest of a vengeful Other, to enter into his discourse, to argue with him, to seek from him a scrap of identity.”

The demand for love. In another, more positive sense, I can see what he meant: the hungry embrace, the large, woeful eyes that speak desire and vulnerability. Of course, men (even when looking at themselves as boys) rarely admit such feelings. But Barthes resisted the socially imposed constraints of masculinity, the tyrannical prohibitions of manhood. As such, he refused to write about himself as phallic, powerful, invulnerable: he saw his heart as a vessel filled with passion and regret, his mind as a sea of contradictions and uncertainty, his sexuality as a war between coquettishness and carnal aggression. So suspicious was he of the writerly ego—the maschismo and bravura of the traditional masculine voice—that he preferred to see the act of writing the self as a form of castration or suicide. Throughout Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, for example, he refers to himself in the third person, as if he were “more or less dead.” The resultant self-portrait is atomized into ever contingent identities and associations: middle class, desocialized, plump, slender, male, female, French, left-handed, intellectual, tubercular. . . .

Barthes splaying of identity suggests the extraordinary extent to which he would resist being “pigeonholed . . . assigned to an (intellectual) site, to residence in a caste (if not in a class).” This resistance resulted in a more pluralistic view of sexuality, where “there will be, for example, only homosexualities, whose plural will baffle any constituted, centered discourse, to the point where it seems . . . virtually pointless to talk about it.” While Barthes’ notion of a multivalent homosexuality would appear to diminish its potency as a political force, this refusal to be pigeonholed—to be neatly named by our enemies, our friends, or even ourselves—holds out the possibility of new and empowering forms of self-definition. By representing ourselves between identities, by embracing the “otherness” that we usually strive to conceal or ignore, by understanding that sexuality is itself always constructed, by accepting the anxieties and confusion that are normally repressed in our search for identity, we open ourselves up to the different and the foreign both around and inside us. “To equalize, democratize, homogenize,” Barthes writes, “. . . all such efforts will never manage to expel ‘the tiniest difference,’ seed of racial intolerance. For that one must pluralize, refine, continuously.”

Rejecting the cruel ideals of high and popular culture (where men learn to view their own imperfect limbs and torsos as inadequate and ugly), Barthes employed a rather extraordinary metaphor for his own body: a “shaggy, raveled . . . clown’s coat.” This coat also reminds us of his pretense to drag: always assuming one identity or another, always in some sort of intellectual disguise. He was the ultimate flaneur: the “I” that he uttered seemed always to evaporate, to blend into the space around him. It is as if he acknowledged, to quote Judith Butler, that the “act which would disclose the true and full content of that ‘I’ . . . [will always produce] a certain radical concealment.” Sadly, though, Barthes’ displacements were not always liberating: while he demonstrated the power of living through multiple identities, the ensuing self-doubts, made worse by his mother’s deteriorating health, left him confused, insecure, and lonely. It is ironic, then, that one of the greatest lessons implied in his writing was one he never fully understood: that men who accept their weaknesses and complexities should be able to ask for, rather than demand, love.