Roland Barthes’ deeply personal yet universal reflection on grief: Mourning Diary

‘Everyone is extremely nice – and yet I feel entirely alone.’ Roland Barthes

Roland Gérard Barthes (1915–1980) was a French essayist, philosopher and critic: a guru among literary theorists for his influence on structuralism, semiotics and post-structuralism; ‘the most consistently intelligent, important, and useful literary critic to have emerged anywhere’, declared Susan Sontag.

After the death of his father when Barthes was a small child, he was raised by his mother, his grandmother and his aunt in the provinces and later lived in Paris with his mother for over sixty years. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Henriette was the most important person in his life, and yet Barthes’s devotion to her was unknown to even the closest of his friends.

Camera Lucida and grief

Three years after her death in 1977, Barthes published Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, an inquiry into the nature and essence of photography which included an extended meditation on a much-cherished photograph of his mother. As a result of this extended meditation, the book ended up being a kind of eulogy to Henriette, the woman he referred to as ‘my inner law’. However, it clearly failed to relieve Barthes’s grief because after his own absurd death in 1980 (he was hit by a laundry van in Paris), a diary emerged: a diary of mourning in which his unwavering remorse for his mother is displayed unreservedly and nakedly on the page. This became Mourning Diary.

Written as a series of notes on index cards, as was his habit, Mourning Diary shows us how Barthes began reflecting on a new solitude only days after his mother’s death by recording the impact of bereavement as he struggled to live without her. The result is 330 cards that describe the ebb and flow of sadness, and modern society’s dismissal of grief, in ways that are at once intensely personal and entirely universal.

‘We don’t forget,’ writes Barthes, ‘but something vacant settles in us.’

‘Precise and touching memories intersect with spare and at times desperate notes on time, death, and grief.’ Julian Barnes

Mourning Diary, like nearly all of Barthes’s books, is a collection of beginnings, of fugitive and conjectural observations that lap over one another and push forward like successive waves onto a beach.’ New York Times

‘Extraordinarily sensitive and relatable.’ New Yorker

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