LATELY THE POSTHUMOUS CORPUS of Roland Barthes has been growing at a rate that rivals Tupac Shakur’s. (Can a hologram Barthes be far behind?) Recent years have witnessed the publication of lecture notes from his last seminars at the Collège de France (Preparation of the Novel) as well as the journals he kept following the death of his mother (Mourning Diary). The latest addition to his English catalogue is Travels in China, a translation of his notebooks from a three-week trip there in 1974 with a delegation from the French literary review Tel Quel.
In France, the publication of Barthes’s private notebooks and journals (Carnets du voyage en Chine and Journal de deuil both appeared in 2009) spurred a round of contentious debate about the ethics of looting a dead writer’s archives. (Somewhere, no doubt, Max Brod is sighing with sympathy.) It’s not hard to attribute the spate of posthumous publications to the mercenary incentive to squeeze every last drop out of an author with any degree of fame. If we’re feeling a little more charitable, we might also see them as testaments to the desire for more of a distinctive voice and a singular intelligence. Each death of a major intellectual figure seems to prompt a flurry of new publications of old material, much of it scraps, all of it suggesting an inability to accept that no more words will issue from that pen, a kind of disbelief that the author is, at last, really and truly dead.
As an addition to Barthes’s oeuvre, Travels in China is a somewhat tepid offering, with little of the verve his best work displays. But it adds important testimony to the collection of accounts of the now almost-mythic trip undertaken by “Tel Quel and Friends” — the culmination of a period of intense interest in China among the radical French Left — and the book thus has considerable interest.
There they are in the photo, standing in Tiananmen Square: four Westerners in flared trousers, and their two Chinese guides, dressed somberly in black. Only one man, standing confidently in the center, is smiling directly at the camera: Philippe Sollers, novelist, editor, and, for the time being, ardent Maoist. Next to him is Marcelin Pleynet, art critic and poet, holding what appears to be a camera. At one edge of the group, looking offstage, is François Wahl, philosopher and editor at the publishing house Éditions du Seuil. Barthes, the only one in a tie, stands a little behind the others, wearing a slight frown. Behind the lens, we can infer from her absence, is the feminist semiotician Julia Kristeva. (A scheduled sixth member of the delegation, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, pulled out at the last minute. Alas, we are left to wonder what the good doctor would have made of the conversation in a Shanghai hospital where the group was informed, as Barthes tells it, that mental illnesses are “cured by materialist Dialectic.”)
Though less than a household name in the US, Tel Quel (1960–1982), founded by Sollers and Jean-Edern Hallier, was at the center of postwar intellectual life in France. Its contributors included most of the luminaries in the French intellectual firmament, many of whom wo...read more