This is one of the more revealing passages in Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography of Barthes; of the inner life of the man.
“Barthes was quite aware of the slightly comical aspect of their tour (1974), which sometimes seemed like Tintin in the Land of the Soviets - as some of Barthe’s ironic comments point out: Tel Quel and its friends are applauded in the factories of China’ [ though not so much in France]. All these constraints made it impossible to gain any real understanding of the country: “It’s the continual presence, smooth as a tablecloth, of Agency officials that blocks, forbids censors rules out the possibility of Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku.” For the first time, no doubt, even if this had happened on other journeys, such as to the United States (but not so drastically), travel was not a way of freeing him from the burden of everyday life. It did not provide him with the reservoir of things he could write about which the fascinated observation of foreignness could comprise. The weight of ready-made phrases, of a fossilized discourse, of what Barthes called the “bricks” of ideological discourse, literally wall up Being, life, the gaze. The only escape, where possible, lies in day-dreaming, in drifting thoughts, in the pencil as it sketches, and in desire when it fleetingly awakens. Usually, when he was traveling, Barthes was most captivated by chance encounters, by places where his desire led him.
In China Barthes suffered from never being in contact with other people’s bodies. ‘And what can you know about a people, if you don’t know their sex?’ The claustrophobia lay in a huge repression of sexality, one that he found frustrating and incomprehensible. On his return, he opened up to his students about this experience: ‘The body does not seem to be thinking about itself, projecting itself, deciding this or that; there is no role for the body, no hysteria.’ This sense of closure could only be overcome if the usual hermeneutics was turned upside down: bodies, perhaps, were not there to signify anything, nor were differences meant to appear. In the absence of the main signifier (the religious) and of the direct signifier (Eros), the absence of any point of contact and the silence of meaning meaning led to a purely phenomenological reading of what he saw. Since it was not possible to interpret things, he needed to be content with noting behavior, little rituals, surfaces appearances.
In spite of this, there are a few fragile moments of escape in the Travels that set it apart from the notorious report in which Barthes tried to impose some form on his impressions, ‘Alors, la Chine?’ These are moments when individual impulses makes themselves known, when the traveler stand out from the group, when his own thoughts are freed from mere ideas. There are sallies of wit that interrupt the boredom; Barthes sometimes senses the resistance of the Chinese to the prevailing uniformity (in a hairstyle, demeanor); there are times when you would like to see something if you do not succeed -for Barthes was desperately seeking signifiers, but he found only a few, and those he did find (such as children) soon turned out to be void of interest (’I had initially classified the children among the few signifiers, but now they strike me as a real bore.’) Fashion is more or less completely absent, as in any color, and the tea is insipid. Only the ideograms and the food attract his attention; and the poppies of Luo-Yang, and the tigers in the Nanjing Zoo.
He loves the profusion of dishes, their spices, they way they are set out, the cutting up of the meat and the filling of the fish. He loves listing what he has eaten . . . While he is aghast at the socialist realist paintings he is shown, he loves the calligraphy and procures several specimens. Indeed, he contemplates a piece of calligraphy by Mao, he compares it to his own painting: ‘utterly elegant (grassy calligraphy), cursive, impatient, and spacious. Reflections on the ‘frame’; my paintings: also calligraphic blocks; it’s not a scene cut out, it’s a block moving forward.’ His purchases corresponded to the few times when he grew enthusiastic. On their arrival in China, he suggested to his friends that they buy Mao suits, which they had tailor made, and in which they would appear in Pars. The rest of the time he was overwhelmed by fatigue and indifference - ‘Sometimes, I enjoy not being interested’ - when it is not pure distress, a rejection of the whole country or the sense of being at a loss that affected his system and mode of expression: ‘All these notes will probably attest to the failure, in this country, of my writing (in comparison to Japan). In fact, I can’t find anything to note down, to enumerate, to classify. Plynet referred several times in his travel notes to the position adopted by Barthes, always a bit aloof. On he day they visited the Ming tombs, ‘RB stayed in the bus’; in the train to Nanjing, ‘RB sits apart and reads Bouvard and Pecuchet, JK is working on her Chinese, Ph S is playing xiangqi (Chinese chess) with our guide’; and, during a debate between ideologues: ‘RB who seems to be following this discussion distantly states at us like a fish staring at an apple.’ His relief, when they left Beijing on 4 May, was as great as the burden from which he at last felt free. ’Ouf’ he said in Francois Wahl’s ear as the plane started to taxi.”
So far so good, Samoyault provides keen insight into Barthes’ character, what interests him, how and where his attention his drawn, his engagement with life, but then she writes that ‘Barthes followed a position he had thought about at length and chose assent to the country rather than distance. This was an ethical choice, but in this case it did not suit an overall political situation in which China and its people were alienated. In Barthes’ texts, in spite of his reservations, no threat was seen to be hanging over the country, there was no death to be deplored: ‘ Another word comes to mind, a more accurate one: China is peaceful.’ “In those days,” she writes, “ intellectuals took up such radical and sharply defined positions that people were often reduced to ‘choosing their camps’ instead of reflelecting on problems in a more nuanced way. However, it was possible to have more qualified positions, as some of them demonstrated. The truth about the Cultural Revolution had alread been partly disclosed, and that there were many accounts that could have alerted Barthes or led him to seek another truth. In 1971, Smon Leys had already published The Chairman’s New Clothes, in which he spoke of the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Cultural Revolution. Samoyault concludes: “This moment of direct conformation with history was, yet again, a missed opportunity for Barthes.”
Well, yes. 100s of thousands of lives were lost, many remain uncounted; horrendous battles and massacres- even descent into the abyss of cannibalism- unimaginable shifts in ‘official lines’ during which no one could remain ‘neutral’ or silent. One day this, the next its opposite. But in no way were all these lives ‘innocent’ any more than the mass of Americans or those designated to represent them are innocent of the political cataclysms that are shaking their country today. At that moment in history, however, in consideration of all that occurred since the Revolutions, the degeneration of the Party, the obstacles he faced, it is actually difficult to discern what else Chairman Mao might have done to secure lasting and effective government in so vast a country. Retrospectively one could imagine that the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution created an opening for better things to come and that recognition helps to explain the ambiguity with which many Chinese regard Mao to this day.
In China Barthes was out of place, out of time (‘no country for an old man), at least not for his sort; that moment was beyond his interpretative grasp, not even in the fragments, random molecules, brokenness, rupture and cross-fertilizations with which he customarily concerned himself. I read “China is peaceful’ in that sense, the eye of storm.