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11 April 2012

Roland Barthes: Mythologies


It was on the recommendation of Susan Sontag, who talked a lot about Barthes, that I bought fifteen
volumes of his work—but the only book I read was Mythologies.  This confession might have displeased
the famous French semiotician, who disliked critics who gave up too soon. Mythologies (Hill and Wang, $28) has been reissued in a “complete” edition translated by Richard Howard, who sometimes seems to have translated the whole of French literature. Part One, the first “determinant,” contains fifty-three short commentaries on stuff Barthes sees or has seen. It might be wrestling matches, it might be toys, it might be steak frites. No example is too petit to be petit bourgeois.

Of Omo, a new washing detergent
he writes:
To say that Omo cleans in depth . . . is to suppose that linen is deep, which nobody had ever supposed,
and what then proceeds to magnify it beyond contestation, to establish it as an object flattering to those obscure impulses of caressing envelopment which are inside every human body. As for foam, its signification of luxuriousness is well known . . .

Of recipes published in a magazine:
Cooking in Elle is . . . a cuisine “of ideas.” But here invention, confined to a magical reality, must apply only to garnishing, for the magazine’s “distinguished” vocation precludes it from dealing with any real problems of alimentation (the real problem is not to stud a partridge with cherries, but to find the partridge, i.e., to pay for it).

And of plastic:
In spite of having Greek shepherds’ names (Polystyrene, Phenoplast, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic, of which the products have just been concentrated in an exhibition, is an essentially alchemical substance.
. . . Thus, more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation.

It is in Part Two, in which Barthes the philosopher attempts to frame a theory around his notes, that, I will frankly confess, he loses me. But the little examples are fun, and very finely observed. What Barthes
didn’t observe, unfortunately, was the laundry van that ran him down and killed him.

- Larry McMurtry

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