ad he not been run over by a laundry truck on a Paris street in 1980, Roland Barthes would today be writing about Saddam's moustache, Beckham's crosses, Rollerblades and The Simpsons. Or any other signs that give meaning to our world. Barthes was France's most successful intellectual, and his interests included literature, history, theatre, painting, advertising, design, photography and Moroccan boys. These, north African youth apart, are all collected in a new exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in the city he made his own.
Given the way he helped shape our view of the world, the exhibition is entirely justified. Barthes interrogated the everyday world, moving from formal literary criticism to writing brilliantly on steak and chips, Arcimboldo and the Tour de France. It is a happy accident of homophonics that the most endearing champions of popular culture, in theory and practice, are each pronounced Bart - the professor would have enjoyed consanguinity with The Simpsons. Equally, it is haunting evidence of his legacy that the precise details of the fatal laundry truck still beg to be explained. Barthes had certainly written perceptively on detergents ("dirt is no longer stripped from the surface, but expelled from its most secret cells"). Surely the camion de la blanchisserie must signify something? Was the offending vehicle a Unic a Saviem or a Berliet? Barthes would have wanted to know.
We have no one quite like Roland Barthes: our idea of an intellectual is someone more resembling Jeremy Paxman than this suave Parisian boulevardier. Obsessed with thinking about thinking, Barthes' life was a stylish intellectual adventure. He was also a hedonist, a meticulous dresser, gay, sensitive, sardonic, sociable, gossipy. He made reading a sacrament. A lonely, tubercular youth became a Professor of Pleasure. For Barthes, dealing with a text was an erotic transaction: reading was "jouissance", a word which means both joy and "coming" in the sexual sense. To experience this enjoyable sense of escape, Barthes argued, you need to get in deeper.
But these same texts which engaged him sensually were also "signs". And signs became Roland Barthes' business. He began writing in 1947 in Albert Camus' little magazine Combat, essays subsequently published in 1953 as Le Degre Zero de l'ecriture. "Degre Zero" may be translated as "bottom line". This quest for the essence preoccupied Barthes. When later he wrote about "Etat Zero" he meant neutrality and to Barthes there could never be such a thing. In the modern world everything has meaning and it is the critic's job to chase down that fugitive essence and explain it to the public.
Barthes, who was born in Cherbourg in 1915, effortlessly crossed barriers between the daunting College de France and St Germain's more welcoming Cafe Flore, still in the brainy and bookish afterglow of its Sartre-de Beauvoir period. But Jean-Paul Sartre and Barthes could not have been more different - one a priapic old goat, the other an elegant eagle-nosed, ebony-eyed Antinous. Indeed, the example of Barthes confirms every jealous English prejudice about the French: he managed to be intellectually fastidious and immensely popular. Never, as Nietzsche said, trust a god who can't dance.
The French intellectual tradition made this revolution in perception possible. In the Twenties the historians Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre decided that real history should not concern battles and the politicians, but should be concerned with large patterns of behaviour ("la longue duree") and with the passions and beliefs of individuals ("mentalites"). This led to various histories of private life and studies of the mundane; of these Barthes became a consummate master.
Structuralism, a French term for "interdisciplinary", is an approach to the world that combines the methodologies of litcrit, anthropology, linguistics and Freud. …