Roland Barthes, the French cultural critic and literary theorist, had a complex, vexed relation to the United States. His attitude towards other countries was much less equivocal: Japan he idealized as a repository of mythical signs, an exotic alternative to the West. China, which he visited in the 1970s with left-wing friends who admired Mao’s revolution, he found boring, colorless, sexless (returning home, he wrote an article called “Blandness of China”). But America proved more complicated.
In 1967, when he was teaching there for a semester, he wrote to a friend in France that he would wait until they could talk face-to-face to tell him of his “American delirium” –“mon délire américain.” I am interested in what he might have meant. What sort of attitude to America emerges from his writings?
As a Frenchman who came of age intellectually directly after the second World War, he shared the hostility of many French intellectuals to a capitalist, consumer society caught up in the throes of an anti-communist MacCarthyism, but Barthes always tried to resist intellectual orthodoxies. Though he despised American knee-jerk anti-communism and fear of “reds under the bed,” he was also suspicious of his peer’s anti-Americanism. On his first visit to America in 1958, he fell in love with New York City, which many French were inclined to sneer at as an inhuman canyon of skyscrapers with a consumerist culture. “But New York,” he wrote to a friend, “what an admirable city! In a few hours I felt at home there.” New York’s grid of streets and avenues allowed anyone to master it quickly; and he wrote disdainfully of his compatriots’ inclination to think that what was old and smaller scale was necessarily superior. On returning home he even urged his mother to buy modern kitchen appliances.
But during his second visit, in 1967, when teaching in Baltimore, though he still went to New York on weekends, he announced that at bottom he was “against” America, and contrasted it with Japan. America is crude and lacks an “art of living”; it is a pure society of consumption. He wrote admiringly of American hippies, who reverse or invert so many of the basic American values: cleanliness, hard work, conformity, consumerism, clear distinctions between the sexes; but Barthes himself, with his tweed jackets, was scarcely a man with bohemian inclinations: one of the things Barthes especially liked to do in New York was to shop in high-end men’s clothing stores. But he seems to have come to view his infatuation with New York, which he calls “the most stupendous city in the world,” as a kind of craziness, which led him to imagine he would like to visit for longer periods.
Writing about French culture in his Mythologies, a series of brief articles analyzing the concealed meanings of many aspects of French daily life, from ads for detergents to populist politicians, from all-in wrestling to French wine, he occasionally mentions America – criticizing the evangelist Billy Graham’s campaign in France as a form of anti-communism and Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront as politically naive. This book is a thoroughgoing critique of French bourgeois values and assumptions but he never cites America as offering better alternatives, nor, in his critique of America’s lack of an art of living does he praise France, as any American Francophile would be inclined to do. Praise is reserved for what he calls his “imagined” Japan, where he does not know the language and so is protected against the banalities of ordinary life. “Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality” – all of which he felt too keenly in America, perhaps even, sometimes, in New York.
Find out more about Transatlantic Barthes on Wednesday 30 September here.
Jonathan Culler is Class of 1926 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University in Ithaca New York. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, he was Director of Studies in Modern Languages at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and then Université Lecturer in French and Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, before moving to Cornell in 1977. His best known books are Structuralist Poetics, On Deconstruction, and Literary Theory =: A Very Short Introduction. His Theory of the Lyric was published by Harvard Université Press inJune, and a French translation of his Roland Barthes: A Very Short Introduction, has just been published.