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It’s all over Mao

In "Travels in China", Roland Barthes struggles to find things left to interpret.

Travels in China
Roland Barthes
Polity, 240pp, £16.99

Travels in China collects the diaries that Roland Barthes kept during a three-week tour of the People’s Republic, then in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, during April and May 1974. Barthes travelled there as part of a group from the avant-garde journal Tel Quel, comprising Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva and Marcelin Pleynet, as well as the philosopher and editor François Wahl.

When back in Paris, he published a short, ambiguous and ambivalent essay in Le Monde entitled “Alors, la Chine?” (“So, what about China?”). Upon arrival in the China of the Cultural Revolution, he writes:

We leave behind us then the turbulence of symbols, we approach a vast land, very old and very new, where meaning is discreet to the point of being rare. From that moment on, a new field opens up, one of delicacy, or, better yet (I’ll take a chance with this word, even though I may take it back later): blandness.

While perhaps less directly invested in Maoism – or in the political sphere more generally – than his colleagues at Tel Quel, the journal entries included here make it clear that Barthes took the trip seriously as an opportunity to experience a real-life manifestation of the politics that he, at a safe distance, had espoused.

True to the essay in Le Monde, “blandness” (“fadeur” in the original French) is the right word to describe most of the activities that the group took part in on the self-financed but state agency-guided trip. The itinerary is filled with seemingly endless tours of tombs and collections of traditional art (Barthes writes: “I often wait for the others outside, being unable to look at an objet d’art for long”), an unstinting round of conversations with thoroughly scripted dignitaries (“I lose track, too tired. This seems completely banal to me”), volleyball matches, local operatic performances, tours of factories and communes, and the like.

What is significant, however, and what underwrites the ideas of the essay mentioned above, is what Barthes makes of this pervasive sense of boredom. During a trip to see a Ming tomb in Nanjing, Barthes stays in the car, fed up, while the others tour a set of statues. “Can’t be bothered,” he writes. “I want the city, shops, a café.” And then he continues parenthetically:

I don’t know what it is – and I resist – looking at what presents itself as a priori worth looking at – something that I can’t surprise. Theory of the surprise (cf the incident, the haiku).

A few days later in Luoyang, a rare, off-itinerary encounter with an open-air cinema seems to Barthes an exception that proves the rule about the role of the guides during this trip – and, implicitly, the relationship between authority and contingency in China as a whole: “[I]t’s the continual presence, smooth as a tablecloth, of agency officials that blocks, forbids, censors, rules out the possibility of the surprise, the incident, the haiku.”

At moments, however, it is hard not to feel that Barthes’s theorisation of lived experience of his trip to China isn’t also a kind of euphemistic sublimation of other, more visceral concerns. He repeatedly registers, for instance, a sense that the Chinese look at him without sexual interest: their gaze “is addressed to you neither as to a person, nor even as to a body in so far as eros, but abstractly and essentially to the species”. At a certain point, he seems to give up all hope of a hook-up – and, it follows, for any deep knowledge of his hosts: “And with all this, I won’t have seen the willy of a single Chinese man. And what can you know about a people, if you don’t know their sex?”

Towards the end of the trip, Barthes seems to come to a conclusion about all that he has seen and what it means as far as the relationship between his politics and his aesthetics is concerned:

Personally, I won’t be able to live in this radicalism, in this fanatical monologism, in this obsessive, monomaniac discourse . . . It would be necessary to pay for the revolution with everything I love: “free” discourse exempt from all repetition, and immorality.

Travels in China presents the drama of the leftist semiotician in a world in which there doesn’t seem to be anything left to interpret. We can only speculate how much this trip to China influenced the turn in Barthes’s work that occurred at roughly the same time, as his concentration seemed to move from complex works of structuralist literary theory, such as Writing Degree Zero or S/Z, towards the brilliantly solipsistic exercises of the pseudomemoir Roland Barthes.

In general, this collection calls to mind those many Utopias verging on dystopias in which, all social problems having been solved, society lapses into a stultifying boredom – except that this wasn’t a fantasy of the future but rather an encounter with what existed in the here and now.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?