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Roland Barthes, Mythologies, selected and translated by Annette Lavers. London: Vintage 2000. (First published in France in 1957. First published in the UK by Jonathan Cape 1972)
Polish edition: Mitologie, transl. by Adam Dziadek, introduction by Krzysztof K³osiñski, published by Wydawnictwo KR, Warszawa 2000.
This book review has been written by Dr Anna Tomczak, who teaches British Studies at the University of Bialystok and is a regular contributor to our web pages.
In September 2003, writing a review of Lynda Mugglestone’s book Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol, John Sturrock began with a reference to Barthes’ Mythologies, calling it a “1957 classic of demystification” and using the essay “Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature” as a launching pad for his deliberations on the nature of accent as “a key index to social standing”. (London Review of Books, vol. 25, no17). Mythologies contains fifty-four essays written almost half a century ago, between 1954 and 1956, only twenty-eight of which are included in the English translation.
Fifty years is a long time in the field of academic studies, criticism or journalism. Few books pass the test of time in the sense that they are not only viewed as milestones in the history of human thought but are still considered viable sources of inspiration. Mythologies is one of those few.
Roland Barthes, who died in 1980, was a famous French structuralist critic and a key figure in semiotics - a study of signs. He used a semiotic approach to analyse popular culture treating cultural activities and practices as ‘signs’ through which meaning was generated and communicated. A follower of the great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Barthes not only introduced new concepts to semiotics, such as ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ or ‘two orders of signification’, but also left a substantial body of texts on the experience of reading, the importance of the reader and her/his relation to the text. Among the critic’s most important achievements are: Writing Degree Zero, 1953; The Fashion System, 1967; The Elements of Semiology, 1964; The Pleasure of the Text, 1973; and – the most widely read of all – Mythologies, 1957. In contemporary cultural studies Barthes’ writings are classics.
A quick look at the table of contents of Mythologies may discourage rather than encourage a reader for whom the years 1954-56 (the time of writing) bring to mind the image of a distant past when, generally speaking, life was no fun. The essays on Joseph Mankiewicz’s film Julius Caesar, the face of Greta Garbo, or The Lady of the Camellias seem to promise little to someone for whom these names and titles do not ring a bell. And even if they do, the sound is muted rather than resonant with meaning. Do people know today what Greta Garbo looked like? How many readers can relate to the discussion on purifying liquids as contrasted with soap powders? And who can take interest in what aristocrats were wearing on board a certain Greek yacht Agamemnon?
However, quick looks, other than in the world of peep-shows, are seldom gratifying. True to form, Barthes’ essays have a ‘surface’ as well as a ‘deep’ structure. (He was a structuralist, after all.) “The world of wrestling”, included at the beginning of the collection, is not about wrestling as a sport. Nor is it about some secret ‘underworld’ of professional sportsmen. It is about the excess and exaggeration of gestures, and about wrestlers’ physique and behaviours, which are as predictable as those of the characters from Commedia dell’Arte. In short, it is about wrestling as a spectacle. Because, to use the author’s words, “the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” To think of wrestling as a form of sport, to believe that its essence is competition - is to trust a myth. Wrestling is the “emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior sign.” After all, “[w]hat the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.”
Mythologies has two parts. The first is a collection of short articles/essays on various aspects of popular culture presented as contemporary myths. Subjects range from food and drink (“Wine and Milk”, “Steak and Chips”, “Ornamental Cookery”) to photography, children’s toys, strip-tease, books and films. Wrestling is only one of many manifestations of cultural practices, and together with such phenomena as advertising, film, leisure or travel guides it becomes a subject of interrogation whose purpose is to uncover the true meaning of our everyday activities, artefacts or cultural products. Barthes’ essays (or polemical sketches) aim at the exposition of the myths that surround us and, ultimately, at demystification. The second part, called “Myth today” outlines Barthes’ semiotic theory of myths as messages or “systems of communication” and is much more academic.
Mythologies offers the reader a double pleasure. First of all, it is a revealing as well as a rewarding read. Although the book refers to the France of the 50’s, the examples of popular culture that are analysed by the author can be clearly transposed to the world of today. “The New Citroen” of 1956 may not excite a great passion among present-day motorists, but the following words still ring very true today: “In the exhibition halls, the car on show is explored with an intense, amorous studiousness.[...] The bodywork, the lines of union are touched, the upholstery palpated, the seats tried, the doors caressed, the cushions fondled; before the wheel, one pretends to drive with one’s whole body.”
However, what becomes even more enjoyable and satisfying for the reader is Barthes’ language full of expressive remarks and aphoristic comments. “[T]his bourgeois promoting of the mountains”, “a hybrid compound of the cult of nature and of puritanism”, “this disease of thinking in essences”, “a cultural alibi as ethereal as possible” or “a kind of frenzied baroque” are just a sample of Barthes’ uniquely brilliant and pleasurably thought-provoking phrases. We can also learn from the book that “to sweat is to think – which evidently rests on the postulate [...] that thought is a violent, cataclysmic operation, of which sweat is only the most benign symptom” and that “toys [...] reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc.” Moreover, “[t]here is a single secret to the world, and this secret is held in one word; the universe is a safe of which humanity seeks a combination” whereas “ideally, culture should be nothing but a sweet rhetorical effusion, an art of using words to bear witness to a transient moistening of the soul.” Is it possible that these are only myths? ....