Understanding Grief

Hazlitt

The October 29th entry in Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary—a journal he kept to document the elliptical sentences that came to him after his mom’s death,  published after his own—reads: “In taking these notes, I’m trusting myself to the banality that is in me.” What Barthes understands is that grief is boring. He also understands that it is worth trusting the banality of grief because something honest lies in its wrinkles and creases—what I think of, to borrow one of his lines, as “the lineaments of truth.” Mourning holds very little entertainment value. It repeats the same story over and over (and over and over). Barthes writes, “One day, leaving one of my classes, someone said to me with disdain: ‘You talk about Death very flatly.’– As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude!” The terror of death is just how boring it is, how positively certain and flat it is sure to be.

At the same time as Barthes was keeping a private diary—with entries like “An onset of grief. I cry.”—he was also at work on a polished, publication-oriented work, 1980’s Camera Lucida, where he undertook to theorize photography. He ruminates on what still images are, and what they do, and asks a central question: “does photography exist?” In the midst of this theorization, Barthes mourns his mother, Henriette, by describing the countless photographs of her he sifted through during her illness, and which he clung to after her death. Camera Lucida is an extended eulogy for his mother, insofar as it is an offering—some reflections on photography, yes, but also on time and extended sorrow. (That Barthes himself died shortly after its publication lends it elements of the self-penned eulogy, too, not unlike David Bowie’s Blackstar album.)

The pinnacle of Barthes’s theory of photography (it does exist, after all) is formalized—or really, not formalized at all but felt as a wound—in what Barthes calls the Winter Garden photo, which depicts his mom as a young child. A master of the parenthetical aside, Barthes tells his reader that “(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’ … in it, for you, no wound).” In his elegant way Barthes tells us that we just wouldn’t get it, and he’s right. We might look at the Winter Garden photograph and see a young girl, a mere stranger, where Barthes sees the origin of his world.

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