A new edition of landmark work.
As this new translation and expansion of a seminal work by the French semiotician and philosopher demonstrates, Barthes (Mourning Diary, 2010, etc.) remains ahead of his time, and our time, more than 30 years after his death. His impact extends well beyond those who actually read his work (as the pivotal role his ideas hold in the latest Jeffrey Eugenides novel, The Marriage Plot, makes plain). His third book, published in 1957, provides a key to that influence, though early translations included around half or less of the 53 essays here (one of them, “Astrology,” receiving its first English translation for American publication). The book has two parts. The first comprises the short essays, translated by Richard Howard, that show the philosopher-critic illuminating the mythic in everyday manifestations of culture ranging from striptease to pro wrestling to red wine to children’s toys (“usually toys of imitation, meant to make child users, not creative children”). Where those pieces can occasionally read like journalism (on a very high intellectual level), the second part, “Myth Today,” which retains the 1972 translation, provides the philosophical underpinnings of meaning as a social construct and myth as man-made, fluid rather than fixed (“there is no fixity in mythical concepts: they can come into being, alter, disintegrate, disappear completely”). For Barthes, so much of what is accepted as reality is simply perception, shaped and even distorted by the social constructs of language, myth and meaning. Amid the high-powered theorizing, some of his pronouncements require no academic explanation: “If God is really speaking through Dr. [Billy] Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid: the Message stuns us by its platitude, its childishness.”
It’s remarkable that essays written more than a half-century ago, on another continent, should seem not merely pertinent but prescient in regard to the course of contemporary American culture.