Coffee with Roland Barthes

“Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes.”  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.

I’m headed for McDonald Road Library to pick up Camera Lucida. Although I can barely remember ordering it, I must have, as they have emailed to tell me it’s ready for collection. I reckon it was a year and a half ago (more?) that I added it to my library list on foot of something A-R told me about it. Quite what she said, I cannot remember. 

Have you booked a slot? A lady behind a perspex screen in the hallway awaits my answer. I stand in the porch grappling with a dripping umbrella, my mask hanging off one ear, the tumbled contents of my purse spread across a side table as I try to locate a library card unused since March 2020. Slot? I say it as though it’s a new concept. Maybe she’ll let me in if I feign ignorance. Why does everything have to be so complicated? No slot, no entry. She is cheerful about it. I tell her it’s just a pickup. She takes my card, says for me to stay put. Back she comes with the book, and, to my surprise, Roland Barthes follows her. He doesn’t look at me, but it is clear that he comes with the book.

I take Roland to a nearby café and order coffee, just one. Ten pages in, and I’m struggling with the critical theorist’s words (and company). Since you are here, how about a quick précis on what it’s about, I say to him. You’re looking through your mother’s old photographs, and this is what you write. I don’t get it. Roland is mumbly in his response, his voice is low, heavily accented (of course), he rolls his Rs, and uses his hands for emphasis. I have to lean in sometimes to better hear him. Sorry, can you repeat that please? He is gruff and impatient. Go back to the start of the line, he says, wagging a finger, read that chapter more slowly, faites travailler votre esprit. He has me re-read the line I quoted up front, and this line too: “I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’… I transform myself in advance into an image.” So, you are writing about the purity of the photograph, I say to him. It is really a question, but I decide he might respond better to a statement. He says nothing. I keep talking. I get confused and contradict myself. Or are you saying there is no such thing as a pure photograph? Tell me, just tell me what you mean.

I revert to reading to him from his own work – men enjoy flattery. He leans back in his chair, all ears. “I decide to ‘let drift’ over my lips and in my eyes a faint smile which I mean to be ‘indefinable,’ in which I might suggest, along with the qualities of my nature, my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual: I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing,…” He smiles as I read, as though he’s listening to soothing music.. He continues, however, to say nothing.

I tell him I have 45,000 photos on my phone, a fact he is clearly unimpressed by. I say that sometimes I corral my subject, ask them to strike a pose, a smile, adopt a position, but other times I try to sneak up on them so as to grab something more natural. All of it is ritual. Even the no-pose is a pose. The scowling anti-smile might more truly capture the subject than the practiced pasted smile. Burying one’s face in the crook of one’s neck is as much of a statement as an enthusiastic ‘cheese!’ I’m pleased with myself. Is this what you’re saying?

While I’ve been speaking, Barthes has lit up a Gitanes. He puffs on it and stares out the window, no doubt weighing deep thoughts that I would not understand. You’re not allowed to smoke in cafés here, I tell him. Not since 2006. That’s why there’s no ashtray on the table. He raises his formidable eyebrows. They are thick, much darker than his grey hair, they are shaped in an intelligent arc. All in all, they lend him a quite fabulous air. One Gallic shrug accompanies his heedless flick of ash onto the floor. I’m embarrassed. Besides your blatant breaking of the law, smoking is incredibly bad for your health. A slow smile breaks across his face and he tilts his head to one side, almost as if he is posing for a camera. This – he sucks on the cigarette, lifts his chin and blows a plume of smoke high into the space between us – is a pleasure from which I unapologetically elicit maximum enjoyment because I happen to know my demise will not be caused by nicotine, but by that laundry truck I did not see coming as I crossed the road that afternoon in the Quartier Latin. He shakes his head as though he can’t quite believe it. Soixante-quatre. Another pull on the cigarette. Quel idiot. He smiles. Roland Barthes has a lovely smile, even when it is rueful. Je pleure.

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