The life of Roland Barthes will never be serialized on Masterpiece Theater. Born in 1915, he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis as a young man (1934), and spent part of his life in sanatoriums. Barthes’s education was conventional enough: he received a license in the classics from the Sorbonne, participated in the foundation of the Groupe de Théatre Antique, and achieved a graduate degree in Greek tragedy. At one point, Barthes was a pre-med student (his main interest was psychiatric medicine), but he did not complete his medical studies. For the most part, Barthes was an educator; he taught in Rumania, Egypt, and, of course, France. In 1980, four years after being appointed to the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France, Barthes was hit by a van and fatally injured.

Barthes exists for us only as a presence in his books. Today, there are 19 books signed “Roland Barthes” available in English. On Racine was the first available in the States; it appeared in 1964. It didn’t cause much of a stir here, but it did in France after it was published in 1963. Barthes was attacked in 1965 by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard, who answered Sur Ra cine with Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture?

Picard’s attack on the 50-year-old upstart resulted in a new vibrancy for the image of Barthes: remember, this was the 1960’s, those heady days when even a literary slap at the establishment could result in popular acclaim. Barthes answered Picard with the concept of a structuralist “science of literature,” in which the language and levels of meaning would be of real value; the reading room would become a sterile laboratory; fecundity would be limited to a petri dish. The death of the author was heralded, for each reader would have the possibility of constructing his own meaning from the constituent elements of the text. Or, more fundamentally, the death of authority was announced.

But there still remained a difference: the structuralists usually had undergone rigorous academic training and so had internalized the methodologies that they claimed to oppose. Their texts—and those of Barthes are excellent examples—tended to be even more mystifying than those which they were in revolt against, those which they said covered the real nature of writings with a thick frosting of bourgeois ideology. Structuralist writings for the “people” or the “masses”? Hardly.

This paradox is evident in The Grain of the Voice, a collection of interviews with Barthes, and in The Responsibility of Forms, a collection of his essays on “Music, Art, and Representation.” In The Grain of the Voice, an interviewer for a French fashion magazine says this to Barthes about his The Fashion System:

One expects to read incisive commentary . . . or else a sociological analysis. It’s nothing of the kind. Your book is in fact a scientific work, very austere, containing many pages which reminded me (to my annoyance, I admit) of the algebra textbooks and grammatical analyses of my childhood!

Algebra textbooks and grammatical analyses, so far as I know, have never caused people to man the ramparts—or at least not in this century.

Typical of Barthes’s mystifying language and tortured construction is this passage from “Rhetoric of the Image” in The Responsibility of Forms:

The connotators do not fill the entire lexia; reading them does not exhaust it. In other words (and this would be a proposition valid for semiology in general), all the elements of the lexia cannot be transformed into connotators; there still remains in discourse a certain denotation without which, in fact, discourse would not be possible.

Which seems to mean that a language requires explicit meaning. But straight forward formulations just don’t do; Barthes apparently relished textual density.

It is exciting to be at the extreme; it can even be lucrative. In an essay written in 1973, Barthes notes of a favorite artist, “Requichot did not ex hibit his canvases (they are still widely unknown).” He even quotes the then dead painter as having said at some point: “What I make is not made to be seen,” yet Barthes goes on at length, on, about, and around the painter and his works. Why? Because the painter was an outsider.

Barthes became what he opposed: he became the establishment. Certainly, the establishment in which he participated was of a different order than the old guard, but it was no less selective. If Barthes exists today as a presence in his 19 books, the personality which emerges from the interviews, such as those in The Grain of the Voice, cuts a more impressive figure.

The author is not dead. Barthes’s continuing success proves that beyond a doubt. The author—still no less an authority figure—has simply absorbed new attributes, those brought on by the interest in the type of pen that he uses and in his work habits: all of those types of biographical tidbits that structuralism was to get rid of. Obviously, even Barthes couldn’t accept that. Obscurity reaps rewards only in relation to the degree to which it becomes public.

The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980 by Roland Barthes; Hill & Wang; New York.

The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation by Roland Barthes; Hill & Wang; New York.