How To Mourn

Roland Barthes’ beautiful, private meditation on his mother’s death.

The day after his mother Henriette died in 1977 the French semiotician Roland Barthes began jotting down notes about his grief on slips of paper. “I know now that my mourning will be chaotic,” he wrote eight days after her death. Thirty years after the author’s own death—Barthes was struck by a laundry van in 1980—and more than 40 after the publication of his seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” these notes have been collected and translated, by Richard Howard, and published in the United States as Mourning Diary. The result is not a finished text by Barthes, the annotator Nathalie Léger observes in the American introduction, “but the hypothesis of a book desired by him.”

Encountering Mourning Diary, you can imagine how Barthes might have expanded his observations, made over the course of about two years, into a systematic inquiry into the nature of grief—a kind of mourner’s version of A Lover’s Discourse, his aphoristic book about desire, published the year Henriette died. And yet it is precisely the fragmentary nature of Mourning Diary—its eruptions and silences—that makes it monumental. In its “incomplete” form, the diary mimics the slippery, episodic, repetitive, and inconclusive nature of grief. It offers a rare mirror of a process that is usually private or summoned in reflection. The result is a firsthand account of loss nearly as significant as C.S. Lewis’ haunting account of his wife’s death, A Grief Observed.

There are few writers as suited to writing insightfully about loss as the mature Barthes was. Grief is at once a public and a private experience. One’s inner, inexpressible disruption cannot be fully realized in one’s public persona. As a brilliant explicator of how French culture shapes its self-understanding through shared “signs,” Barthes was primed to notice the social dynamics at play among friends and colleagues responding to his bereavement. As an adult son whose grief for his beloved mother—he lived with her and said she provided his “internalized law”—was unusually acute, he was subject to grief’s most disorienting intensities. The result is a book that powerfully captures, among other things, the shiver of strangeness that a private person experiences in the midst of friends trying to comfort or sustain him in an era that lacks clear-cut rituals or language for loss.

In one of Mourning Diary’s first entries, Barthes describes a friend worrying that he has been “depressed for six months.” (His mother was ill before her death.) It was “said discreetly, as always,” Barthes notes. Yet the statement irritates him: “No, bereavement (depression) is different from sickness. What should I be cured of? To find what condition, what life? If someone is to be born, that person will not be blank, but a moral being, a subject of value—not of integration.” Noting that “signs” fail to convey the private depths of mourning, he comments on the tension between others’ expectant curiosity and the mourner’s own suffering: “Everyone guesses—I feel this—the degree of a bereavement’s intensity. But it’s impossible (meaningless, contradictory signs) to measure how much someone is afflicted.”

But Barthes isn’t just a semiotician here. Mourning Diary is also an exquisite reflection of a specific individual’s loss of his singular mother—we learn a surprising amount about Henriette’s gentle clarity as the book progresses, if mostly through inference. There are entries about specific memories—most poignantly, of his mother crying out, “My Roland! My Roland!” before her death. Barthes exercises a poet’s eye for detail, for the ordinary moment that resonates beyond itself, which he often described as a “laceration.” He writes about taking his mother’s body from Paris to Urt with an undertaker and experiencing briefly “a savor of life.” He observes the strange fact that he can no longer hear her voice in his head—”like a localized deafness.” He describes resentment of the world for callously rushing onward while one is stuck in one’s own sense of diminishment. “Everything began all over again immediately: arrival of manuscripts, requests, people’s stories, each person mercilessly pushing ahead his own little demand. … [N]o sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.” Much of what he observes is unsurprising (“she will never again be here to see it,” he thinks of the first snow), leading him to reflect, too, on “the banality that is in me.” One day, listening to music he used to make fun of (presumably for its sentimentality), he bursts into tears, crying in his apartment.

What emerges is the conundrum of loss, its harsh paradoxes: A vital need for solitude is set against “a no less vital” need for his friends, a period in which one’s armored, sophisticated intellect is set against a visceral anguish. Tellingly, Barthes circles back again and again to the way that his interlocutors subtly want to believe he will soon move past grief’s worst intensities: “Always the same doxa … : Mourning will ripen (in other words, time will make it fall like fruit from the tree).” But it is the actual instability of grief, rather than the false idea of its fruition, that Barthes so penetratingly evokes—just as Lewis, a devout Christian, was uniquely able to capture the crisis of faith a mourner might experience while facing the loss of his beloved. Mourning Diary derives its power from being so frank, so unpolished about this aspect of loss. “What I find utterly terrifying is mourning’s discontinuous character,” Barthes writes. “Part of me keeps a sort of despairing vigil,” he notes, “and at the same time another part struggles to put my most trivial affairs into some kind of order. I experience this as a kind of sickness.”

It is eminently Barthesian that Mourning Diary isn’t a book one reads in a traditional sense but rather a questioning space one enters, imagining what happens in the interstices. Barthes espoused the idea of what he called a “readerly” rather than a “writerly” literature, in which the reader must actively interpret the text, rather than passively follow an explicit explanation or narrative. His mode was one of interrogation more than explication; grief works in a similar way. In this regard, Barthes’ penchant for the aphorism and the fragment had found a particularly apt subject. That these notes were written to himself allowed a less formal and armored version of the author to find a voice in which he could be uncommonly explicit about his feelings (far more so than in Camera Lucida, the meditation on photography that also eulogizes his mother). He writes that he has not been able to speak to anyone about his mother’s having cried out his name. We can only speculate why, as all the connective tissue that another writer—or a later version of these notes—might have supplied is missing.

Yet such lacunae become the very places in the book where the finality of death reverberates with the greatest resonance. Iris Murdoch said once that “the bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.” She meant that there was no way to convey the darkness of loss to those who haven’t felt its cold grip. But the diary that Barthes wrote, most likely not expecting anyone to read it, comes as close as possible to doing so.

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