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."
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.