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New Roland Barthes books

May 25, 2012

Well, I almost missed it – although I would not have done so if local bookstores were still in business.  There are two new Roland Barthes translations into English that came out in March:

  • Complete Mythologies – the previous edition was only a translation of part of the book.  This one was translated Richard Howard, who had a Pulitzer for poetry, a PEN Translation award, National Book Award for translation, and a Chevalier of L’Ordre National du Mérite from the French government.  There is a very funny review of it this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine entitled “How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap.”
  • Travels in China.  The review in the Guardian said:  “Rummaging around in deceased writers’ drawers for material they never wanted to publish being a mysteriously uncontroversial enterprise, we are now treated to typed-up versions of Barthes’s notebooks from a three-week voyage to China in 1974, when he was dragged around with other left luminaries to tourist attractions, ballets and factories, dinners and Maoist lectures. Towards the end, he explicitly considers publishing the notebooks ‘as they are’ (thinking of them as a simple record of sights and smells, a “phenomenology”) but then he didn’t. Now, though, he is safely dead, sublimed into academic industry, so his decision obviously cannot be allowed to stand. Barthes in China was semiotically frustrated (everything too obviously meant what it meant, congealed into interchangeable ‘bricks’), often bored (‘trips in the minibus are irritating’), and had migraines. He reports on weather and meals (‘Dish: sheep’’ stomach, etc. Very nice’), and admires young factory workers. The book’s most charming aspect is his little sketches: of hairstyles, or statues, or seating plans, and one tiny caricature of a near-featureless but somehow reassuring Confucius, an apparition perhaps of one whom Barthes wished to meet but didn’t.”

I haven’t read either of these books yet, but hope to do so as soon after Amazon delivers them to my house.  I’m particularly excited by the new edition of Mythologies.


Speaking of China (and otherwise almost completely off-topic) I was annoyed by yet another television appearance of the always tendentious Niall Ferguson – I caught a snippet of a comparison of a Chinese 15th century ship that was compared to Columbus’s Santa Maria.  Ferguson said out loud that the Chinese ship was ten times the size of the Santa Maria, which is true – but the accompanying graphic showed two ships – one of which was a tenth the size in a single dimension – so that the difference in the ships was a thousand-fold.  What is this absolute lack of basic arithmetical skills – didn’t Niall Ferguson argue for scientific education in another forum?  (Yes he did.)

According to that graphic, the Santa Maria would have have a length less than seven meters long – which should have raised alarm bells all around.  Now true, I only glimpsed about a minute of the program, but it left me wondering – when did public television in America descend to the level of Fox News?  (I notice that the same program has attracted negative reviews).

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