This is going to be a rather strange review, because while I have reviewed non-fiction books before, they’ve been biographical in nature (either auto or historical), or journalistic. I think that philosophy books are rather harder to pass comment on, if only because I don’t know that I’m particularly well qualified to form an opinion on what the author is saying. Add to the fact that I’m combining two separate books into one review, so rather than making too much of a comment on the ideas (aside from saying they I enjoyed it and thought they were both very interesting), I think I’m simply going to give a general overview.
I’ve made references to the literary criticism of Roland Barthes before, but I’ll admit that my knowledge is actually fairly patchy, mostly having learned it from talking to friends with Literature degrees. Rather than trying to jump straight into one of his monographs however, I decided to start with the Very Short Introduction dedicated to his work. I’ve not read any of them before, and I was pleasantly surprised; it was actually thoroughly enjoyable. The first half of the book is essentially a short biography of Barthes, which was very interesting. The picture that the book paints is of someone who, though inexorably part of the intelligentsia, refused to be bound by the expectations that this entailed, which means that particularly his place in the French academic and philosophical world was rather fluid. I’ve always assumed that Barthes was exclusively a literary theorist or semiotician, but the book makes perfectly clear that he actually flitted between topics and fields fairly regularly, which means that his corpus is actually quite varied. The second half of the Very Short Introduction is essentially a summary of his bibliography, sorted into chapters on each of the fields, including Semiotics, Literary Criticism, Structuralism, and Mythologies, before closing on Barthes’ legacy after his death.
After reading the Very Short Introduction, I decided to actually read one of Barthes’ works. Mythologies, which is a collection of a number of pieces Barthes wrote critiquing aspects of French culture and the way that modern-day mythologies are constructed by the media and individuals. For example, one of the most memorable is the “bourgeois myth of the writer on holiday”. Barthes takes an image, apparently well-known in France, of the Nobel Laureate André Gide on holiday in rural France, as though Gide’s necessarily needed a holiday in the way that people who actually worked for a living needed a holiday. Barthes points out that the fact that by making Gide appear more in line with the people who were living and working in France and reading Gide’s books, they created a myth of the writer as a working man, essentially demystifying the work of an author and critic who is, as far as I can gather, a fairly good example of the ivory tower of early 20th century literature. Thus, Barthes eviscerates the view, pointing out that it bears as much reality to real life as the mythologies of Olympus do.
He also takes a number of pot-shots at a number of staples of French society such as wine culture and ‘steak and frites’, as well as more cultural institutions, including the Citroen DS, Elle, and the showmanship of wrestling. It’s interesting for the philosophy involved, but also because it gives an insight into aspects of French society during the 1950s and ‘60s in a way that I wouldn’t really have otherwise known. So even if Barthes’ actual philosophy wasn’t fascinating, I’ve definitely taken something away from reading the book. The final part of the book is, rather than case studies, is a discussion on the philosophy of mythologies, which is interesting but quite hard to read. To be honest, I found it quite difficult to read, which isn’t to say it wasn’t worth reading, it just was far less compelling than the case studies that preceded it, and I’m not entirely sure that I took in everything that he was trying to say.
Ultimately, reading the Very Short Introduction was a worthwhile experience at giving the overall flavour of Barthes’ works, and I’ll definitely bear them in mind for the future (as previous attempts to read monographs by philosophers such as Derrida and Nietzsche have been fairly disastrous). Mythologies was also a very interesting and accessible read, in contrast to the rather intimidating depths of his semiotic works, and would be a good casual read for anyone interested in French societal culture.