The difficulty of starting with a contemporary author, of philosophy, having tall reputation is that they seem not to engage with areas which seem basic or eternal but are the by-products of a generation or two feeding upon those basic or eternal things. It’s the same feeling that I seem to have with certain directors too. Deciding to watch Lynch or Haneke seems a bit difficult at first as compared to picking a Bergman or Tarkovsky movie. The themes or issue that they seem to pick have cultural basis in them which somehow makes it difficult to relate to, not in the sense that one is unable to understand the meaning but rather the difficulty in feeling the true essence. Few movies like Piano Teacher, Lost Highway etc left me a bit unsatisfied in that respect.
Anyhow, what I actually wanted to talk here concerned Roland Barthes. I had the same sort of apprehensions while deciding to start with him. Showing a bit of courage I picked up “Mythologies“, though the thin size of the book also helped the cause. Midway through I am quite delighted what the experience has turned out to be.
The book in its main theme is a critique on how some of the mass culture of current time (actually 1950’s, when the book was written) is at times contradictory to the very essence it wishes to portray.
In the preface Barthes says
The starting point of these reflections was usually the feeling of impatience at the sight of naturalness with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. In short, in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resent seeing nature and history confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in its decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abase which, in my view, is hidden here.
The tone with which he writes is most of the time witty, a bit sarcastic and all the way probing. He starts of by analyzing the world of wrestling, showing its historical biases, parallels to world of theater and dramatics and then quite elaborately rounding it off as a great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat and Justice. He says, “..but what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of paying is essential to wrestling, and the crowds ‘give it to him’ means above all else ‘Make him pay’. This is therefore, needless to say, an immanent justice. The baser the action of the bastard, the more delighted is the public by the blow that he justly receives in return”. And just to be clear he was in no way sarcastic in that.
Then he talks about the misinterpreted or rather misguided use of ‘..one last lock which duly reaches the top of the forehead, one of those Roman foreheads, whose smallness has at all the times indicated a specific mixture of self-righteousness, virtue and conquest‘ in the contemporary Hollywood movies. Then he talks about why a ‘writer on a holiday trip’ or a ‘king wearing open neck shirt and short sleeves’ means when they appear in popular press. And then about ‘Blind and Dumb criticism’ by critics.
I am not even through with one third of the book, but it surely is getting more and more interesting & delightful and is quite easily proving how misplaced my initial apprehensions were.