MYTHOLOGIES | Roland Barthes

| quarta-feira, 21 de outubro de 2009
Reading and deciphering myth 127
Myth as stolen language 131
The bourgeoisie as a joint-stock company 137
Myth is depoliticized speech 142
Myth on the Left 145
Myth on the Right 148
Necessity and limits of mythology 156

The World of Wrestling 15
The Romans in Films 26
The Writer on Holiday 29
The 'Blue Blood' Cruise 32
Blind and Dumb Criticism 34
Soap-powders and Detergents 36
The Poor and the Proletariat 39
Operation Margarine 41
Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature 43
The Iconography of the Abbé Pierre 47
Novels and Children 50
Toys 53
The Face of Garbo 56
Wine and Milk 58
Steak and Chips 62
The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat 65
The Brain of Einstein 68
The Jet-man 71
The Blue Guide 74
Ornamental Cookery 78
Neither-Nor Criticism 81
Striptease 84
The New Citroën 88
Photography and Electoral Appeal 91
The Lost Continent 94
Plastic 97
The Great Family of Man 100
The Lady of the Camellias 103
Myth is a type of speech 109
Myth as a semiological system 111
The form and the concept 117
The signification 121
Reading and deciphering myth 127
Myth as stolen language 131
The bourgeoisie as a joint-stock company 137
Myth is depoliticized speech 142
Myth on the Left 145
Myth on the Right 148
Necessity and limits of mythology 156
Translator's Note
The style of Mythologies, which strikes one at first as being highly
poetic and idiosyncratic, later reveals a quasi-technical use of
certain terms. This is in part due to an effort to account for the
phenomena of mass culture by resorting to new models.
First and foremost among such models, as indicated in the Preface,
is linguistics, whose mark is seen not so much in the use of a
specialized vocabulary as in the extension to other fields of words
normally reserved for speech or writing, such as transcription,
retort, reading, univocal (all used in connection with wrestling), or
to decipher (plastics or the 'good French Wine'). The author's
teaching is also associated with a rediscovery of ancient rhetoric,
which provides one of the connotations of the word figure when it
is used in connection with cooking or wrestling.
Spectacle and gesture are often irreplaceable and refer to the
interplay of action, representation and alienation in man and in
society. Other terms belong to philosophical vocabulary, whether
traditional (e.g. substance, which also has echoes of Bachelard and
Hjelmslev), Sartrean/Marxist (e.g. a paradox, a car or a cathedral
are said to be consumed by the public), or recent (e.g. closure,
which heralds the combinative approach of semiology and its
philosophical consequences). Transference connotes the
discoveries of psycho-analysis on the relations between the
abstract and the concrete. There is in addition a somewhat
humorous plea for a reasoned use of neologism (cf. pp. 120-21)
which foreshadows later reflections on the mutual support of
linguistic and social conventions.
Such characteristics have been kept in the hope of retaining some
of the flavour of the original.
Finally, the author's footnotes are indicated by numerals, and the
translator's by asterisks.
Preface to the 1970 edition (Collection 'Points', Le Seuil,
This book has a double theoretical framework: on the one hand, an
ideological critique bearing on the language of so-called massculture;
on the other, a first attempt to analyse semiologically the
mechanics of this language. I had just read Saussure and as a result
acquired the conviction that by treating 'collective representations'
as sign-systems, one might hope to go further than the pious show
of unmasking them and account in detail for the mystification
which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.
It is obvious that the two attitudes which determined the origin of
the book could no longer today be maintained unchanged (this is
why I have made no attempt to bring it up to date). Not because
what brought them about has now disappeared, but because
ideological criticism, at the very moment when the need for it was
again made brutally evident (May '68), has become more
sophisticated, or at least ought to do so. Moreover semiological
analysis, initiated, at least as far as I am concerned, in the final
essay of Mythologies, has developed, become more precise,
complicated and differentiated: it has become the theoretical locus
wherein a certain liberation of 'the significant', in our country and
in the West, may well be enacted. I could not therefore write a new
series of mythologies in the form presented here, which belongs to
the past.
What remains, however, beside the essential enemy (the bourgeois
norm), is the necessary conjunction of these two enterprises: no
denunciation without an appropriate method of detailed analysis,
no semiology which cannot, in the last analysis, be acknowledged
as semioclasm. *
February 1970 - R. B.
* See Translator's Note on neologism.
The following essays were written one each month for about two
years, from 1954 to 1956, on topics suggested by current events. I
was at the time trying to reflect regularly on some myths of French
daily life. The media which prompted these reflections may well
appear heterogeneous (a newspaper article, a photograph in a
weekly, a film, a show, an exhibition), and their subject-matter
very arbitrary: I was of course guided by my own current interests.
The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of
impatience at the sight of the 'naturalness' with which newspapers,
art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even
though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by
history. In short, in the account given of our contemporary
circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at
every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of
what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my
view, is hidden there.
Right from the start, the notion of myth seemed to me to explain
these examples of the falsely obvious. At that time, I still used the
word 'myth' in its traditional sense. But I was already certain of a
fact from which I later tried to draw all the consequences: myth is
a language. So that while concerning myself with phenomena
apparently most unlike literature (a wrestling-match, an elaborate
dish, a plastics exhibition), I did not feel I was leaving the field of
this general semiology of our bourgeois world, the literary aspect
of which I had begun to study in earlier essays. It was only,
however, after having explored a number of current social
phenomena that I attempted to define contemporary myth in
methodical fashion; I have naturally placed this particular essay at
the end of the book, since all it does is systematize topics discussed
Having been written month by month, these essays do not pretend
to show any organic development: the link between them is rather
one of insistence and repetition. For while I don't know whether, as
the saying goes, 'things which are repeated are pleasing', * my
belief is that they are significant. And what I sought throughout
this book were significant features. Is this a significance which I
read into them? In other words, is there a mythology of the
mythologist? No doubt, and the reader will easily see where I
stand. But to tell the truth, I don't think that this is quite the right
way of stating the problem. 'Demystification' - to use a word which
is beginning to show signs of wear - is not an Olympian operation.
What I mean is that I cannot countenance the traditional belief
which postulates a natural dichotomy between the objectivity of
the scientist and the subjectivity of the writer, as if the former were
endowed with a 'freedom' and the latter with a 'vocation' equally
suitable for spiriting away or sublimating the actual limitations of
their situation. What I claim is to live to the full the contradiction
of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth.
1957 - R. B.
* 'Bis repetita placent': a paraphrase, used in French, of Horace's
saying 'Haec decies repetita placebit' (Ars Poetica).
The World of Wrestling
The grandiloquent truth of gestures on life's great occasions.
- Baudelaire
The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess.
Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of
ancient theatres. And in fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle, for
what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky (a
romantic value suited rather to fashionable occasions), it is the
drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in
the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of
the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a
light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.
There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport.
Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble
to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance
of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque. * Of course, there
exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unnecessarily go
to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight; this is of no interest.
True wrestling, wrongly called amateur wrestling, is performed in
second-rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to
the spectacular nature of the contest, like the audience at a
suburban cinema. Then these same people wax indignant because
wrestling is a stage-managed sport (which ought, by the way, to
mitigate its ignominy). The public is completely uninterested in
knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it
abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to
abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what
it thinks but what it sees.
This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and
boxing; it knows that boxing is a jansenist sport, based on a
demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a
boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxingmatch
is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the
spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is
intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested
in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of
certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate
reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to
connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not
interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match
always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is
a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each
moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect
and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a
Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly
through the motions which are expected of him. It is said that judo
contains a hidden symbolic aspect; even in the midst of efficiency,
its gestures are measured, precise but restricted, drawn accurately
but by a stroke without volume. Wrestling, on the contrary, offers
excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. In judo,
a man who is down is hardly down at all, he rolls over, he draws
back, he eludes defeat, or, if the latter is obvious, he immediately
disappears; in wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so,
and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable
spectacle of his powerlessness.
This function of grandiloquence is indeed the same as that of
ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props (masks and
buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a
Necessity. The gesture of the vanquished wrestler signifying to the
world a defeat which, far from disguising, he emphasizes and holds
like a pause in music, corresponds to the mask of antiquity meant
to signify the tragic mode of the spectacle. In wrestling, as on the
stage in antiquity, one is not ashamed of one's suffering, one
knows how to cry, one has a liking for tears.
Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute
clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot.
As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is
overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles. As in the theatre,
each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been
assigned to the contestant. Thauvin, a fifty-year-old with an obese
and sagging body, whose type of asexual hideousness always
inspires feminine nicknames, displays in his flesh the characters of
baseness, for his part is to represent what, in the classical concept
of the salaud, the 'bastard' (the key-concept of any wrestlingmatch),
appears as organically repugnant. The nausea voluntarily
provoked by Thauvin shows therefore a very extended use of
signs: not only is ugliness used here in order to signify baseness,
but in addition ugliness is wholly gathered into a particularly
repulsive quality of matter: the pallid collapse of dead flesh (the
public calls Thauvin la barbaque, 'stinking meat'), so that the
passionate condemnation of the crowd no longer stems from its
judgment, but instead from the very depth of its humours. It will
thereafter let itself be frenetically embroiled in an idea of Thauvin
which will conform entirely with this physical origin: his actions
will perfectly correspond to the essential viscosity of his
It is therefore in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key
to the contest. I know from the start that all of Thauvin's actions,
his treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice, will not fail to
measure up to the first image of ignobility he gave me; I can trust
him to carry out intelligently and to the last detail all the gestures
of a kind of amorphous baseness, and thus fill to the brim the
image of the most repugnant bastard there is: the bastard-octopus.
Wrestlers therefore have a physique as peremptory as those of the
characters of the Commedia dell'Arte, who display in advance, in
their costumes and attitudes, the future contents of their parts: just
as Pantaloon can never be anything but a ridiculous cuckold,
Harlequin an astute servant and the Doctor a stupid pedant, in the
same way Thauvin will never be anything but an ignoble traitor,
Reinières (a tall blond fellow with a limp body and unkempt hair)
the moving image of passivity, Mazaud (short and arrogant like a
cock) that of grotesque conceit, and Orsano (an effeminate teddyboy
first seen in a blue-and-pink dressing-gown) that, doubly
humorous, of a vindictive salope, or bitch (for I do not think that
the public of the Elysée-Montmartre, like Littré, believes the word
salope to be a masculine).
The physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign,
which like a seed contains the whole fight. But this seed
proliferates, for it is at every turn during the fight, in each new
situation, that the body of the wrestler casts to the public the
magical entertainment of a temperament which finds its natural
expression in a gesture. The different strata of meaning throw light
on each other, and form the most intelligible of spectacles.
Wrestling is like a diacritic writing: above the fundamental
meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are
episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of
the fight by means of gestures, attitudes and mimicry which make
the intention utterly obvious. Sometimes the wrestler triumphs
with a repulsive sneer while kneeling on the good sportsman;
sometimes he gives the crowd a conceited smile which forebodes
an early revenge; sometimes, pinned to the ground, he hits the
floor ostentatiously to make evident to all the intolerable nature of
his situation; and sometimes he erects a complicated set of signs
meant to make the public understand that he legitimately
personifies the ever-entertaining image of the grumbler, endlessly
confabulating about his displeasure.
We are therefore dealing with a real Human Comedy, where the
most socially-inspired nuances of passion (conceit, rightfulness,
refined cruelty, a sense of 'paying one's debts') always felicitously
find the clearest sign which can receive them, express them and
triumphantly carry them to the confines of the hall. It is obvious
that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is
genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not
passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling
than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible
representation of moral situations which are usually private. This
emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this
exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of
triumphant classical art. Wrestling is an immediate pantomime,
infinitely more efficient than the dramatic pantomime, for the
wrestler's gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no
transference in order to appear true.
Each moment in wrestling is therefore like an algebra which
instantaneously unveils the relationship between a cause and its
represented effect. Wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of
intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so
perfectly. Some wrestlers, who are great comedians, entertain as
much as a Molière character, because they succeed in imposing an
immediate reading of their inner nature: Armand Mazaud, a
wrestler of an arrogant and ridiculous character (as one says that
Harpagon * is a character), always delights the audience by the
mathematical rigour of his transcriptions, carrying the form of his
gestures to the furthest reaches of their meaning, and giving to his
manner of fighting the kind of vehemence and precision found in a
great scholastic disputation, in which what is at stake is at once the
triumph of pride and the formal concern with truth.
What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of
Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man's suffering
with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers
in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm-lock, a twisted leg)
offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering; like a primitive Pieta, he
exhibits for all to see his face, exaggeratedly contorted by an
intolerable affliction. It is obvious, of course, that in wrestling
reserve would be out of place, since it is opposed to the voluntary
ostentation of the spectacle, to this Exhibition of Suffering which
is the very aim of the fight. This is why all the actions which
produce suffering are particularly spectacular, like the gesture of a
conjuror who holds out his cards clearly to the public. Suffering
which appeared without intelligible cause would not be
understood; a concealed action that was actually cruel would
transgress the unwritten rules of wrestling and would have no more
sociological efficacy than a mad or parasitic gesture. On the
contrary suffering appears as inflicted with emphasis and
conviction, for everyone must not only see that the man suffers,
but also and above all understand why he suffers. What wrestlers
call a hold, that is, any figure which allows one to immobilize the
adversary indefinitely and to have him at one's mercy, has
precisely the function of preparing in a conventional, therefore
intelligible, fashion the spectacle of suffering, of methodically
establishing the conditions of suffering. The inertia of the
vanquished allows the (temporary) victor to settle in his cruelty
and to convey to the public this terrifying slowness of the torturer
who is certain about the outcome of his actions; to grind the face of
one's powerless adversary or to scrape his spine with one's fist with
a deep and regular movement, or at least to produce the superficial
appearance of such gestures: wrestling is the only sport which
gives such an externalized image of torture. But here again, only
the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not wish
for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the
perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a
sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle.
There is another figure, more spectacular still than a hold; it is the
forearm smash, this loud slap of the forearm, this embryonic punch
with which one clouts the chest of one's adversary, and which is
accompanied by a dull noise and the exaggerated sagging of a
vanquished body. In the forearm smash, catastrophe is brought to
the point of maximum obviousness, so much so that ultimately the
gesture appears as no more than a symbol; this is going too far, this
is transgressing the moral rules of wrestling, where all signs must
be excessively clear, but must not let the intention of clarity be
seen. The public then shouts 'He's laying it on!', not because it
regrets the absence of real suffering, but because it condemns
artifice: as in the theatre, one fails to put the part across as much by
an excess of sincerity as by an excess of formalism.
We have already seen to what extent wrestlers exploit the
resources of a given physical style, developed and put to use in
order to unfold before the eyes of the public a total image of
Defeat. The flaccidity of tall white bodies which collapse with one
blow or crash into the ropes with arms flailing, the inertia of
massive wrestlers rebounding pitiably off all the elastic surfaces of
the ring, nothing can signify more clearly and more passionately
the exemplary abasement of the vanquished. Deprived of all
resilience, the wrestler's flesh is no longer anything but an
unspeakable heap spread out on the floor, where it solicits
relentless reviling and jubilation. There is here a paroxysm of
meaning in the style of antiquity, which can only recall the heavily
underlined intentions in Roman triumphs. At other times, there is
another ancient posture which appears in the coupling of the
wrestlers, that of the suppliant who, at the mercy of his opponent,
on bended knees, his arms raised above his head, is slowly brought
down by the vertical pressure of the victor. In wrestling, unlike
judo, Defeat is not a conventional sign, abandoned as soon as it is
understood; it is not an outcome, but quite the contrary, it is a
duration, a display, it takes up the ancient myths of public
Suffering and Humiliation: the cross and the pillory. It is as if the
wrestler is crucified in broad daylight and in the sight of all. I have
heard it said of a wrestler stretched on the ground 'He is dead, little
Jesus, there, on the cross,' and these ironic words revealed the
hidden roots of a spectacle which enacts the exact gestures of the
most ancient purifications.
But what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral
concept: that of justice. The idea of 'paying' is essential to
wrestling, and the crowd's 'Give it to him' means above all else
'Make him pay'. This is therefore, needless to say, an immanent
justice. The baser the action of the 'bastard', the more delighted the
public is by the blow which he justly receives in return. If the
villain - who is of course a coward - takes refuge behind the ropes,
claiming unfairly to have a right to do so by a brazen mimicry, he
is inexorably pursued there and caught, and the crowd is jubilant at
seeing the rules broken for the sake of a deserved punishment.
Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for
indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the
concept of justice, this outermost zone of confrontation where it is
enough to infringe the rules a little more to open the gates of a
world without restraints. For a wrestling-fan, nothing is finer than
the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself
vehemently not on a successful opponent but on the smarting
image of foul play. Naturally, it is the pattern of Justice which
matters here, much more than its content: wrestling is above all a
quantitative sequence of compensations (an eye for an eye, a tooth
for a tooth). This explains why sudden changes of circumstances
have in the eyes of wrestling habitues a sort of moral beauty: they
enjoy them as they would enjoy an inspired episode in a novel, and
the greater the contrast between the success of a move and the
reversal of fortune, the nearer the good luck of a contestant to his
downfall, the more satisfying the dramatic mime is felt to be.
Justice is therefore the embodiment of a possible transgression; it
is from the fact that there is a Law that the spectacle of the
passions which infringe it derives its value.
It is therefore easy to understand why out of five wrestlingmatches,
only about one is fair. One must realize, let it be repeated,
that 'fairness' here is a role or a genre, as in the theatre the rules do
not at all constitute a real constraint; they are the conventional
appearance of fairness. So that in actual fact a fair fight is nothing
but an exaggeratedly polite one: the contestants confront each
other with zeal, not rage; they can remain in control of their
passions, they do not punish their beaten opponent relentlessly,
they stop fighting as soon as they are ordered to do so, and
congratulate each other at the end of a particularly arduous
episode, during which, however, they have not ceased to be fair.
One must of course understand here that all these polite actions are
brought to the notice of the public by the most conventional
gestures of fairness: shaking hands, raising the arms, ostensibly
avoiding a fruitless hold which would detract from the perfection
of the contest.
Conversely, foul play exists only in its excessive signs:
administering a big kick to one's beaten opponent, taking refuge
behind the ropes while ostensibly invoking a purely formal right,
refusing to shake hands with one's opponent before or after the
fight, taking advantage of the end of the round to rush
treacherously at the adversary from behind, fouling him while the
referee is not looking (a move which obviously only has any value
or function because in fact half the audience can see it and get
indignant about it). Since Evil is the natural climate of wrestling, a
fair fight has chiefly the value of being an exception. It surprises
the aficionado, who greets it when he sees it as an anachronism
and a rather sentimental throwback to the sporting tradition ('Aren't
they playing fair, those two'); he feels suddenly moved at the sight
of the general kindness of the world, but would probably die of
boredom and indifference if wrestlers did not quickly return to the
orgy of evil which alone makes good wrestling.
Extrapolated, fair wrestling could lead only to boxing or judo,
whereas true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses
which make it a spectacle and not a sport. The ending of a boxingmatch
or a judo-contest is abrupt, like the full-stop which closes a
demonstration. The rhythm of wrestling is quite different, for its
natural meaning is that of rhetorical amplification: the emotional
magniloquence, the repeated paroxysms, the exasperation of the
retorts can only find their natural outcome in the most baroque
confusion. Some fights, among the most successful kind, are
crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where
the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee's censuring and the
limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant
disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell
wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.
It has already been noted that in America wrestling represents a
sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a
quasipolitical nature, the 'bad' wrestler always being supposed to
be a Red). The process of creating heroes in French wrestling is
very different, being based on ethics and not on politics. What the
public is looking for here is the gradual construction of a highly
moral image: that of the perfect 'bastard'. One comes to wrestling
in order to attend the continuing adventures of a single major
leading character, permanent and multiform like Punch or Scapino,
inventive in unexpected figures and yet always faithful to his role.
The 'bastard' is here revealed as a Molière character or a 'portrait'
by La Bruyère, that is to say as a classical entity, an essence,
whose acts are only significant epiphenomena arranged in time.
This stylized character does not belong to any particular nation or
party, and whether the wrestler is called Kuzchenko (nicknamed
Moustache after Stalin), Yerpazian, Gaspardi, Jo Vignola or
Nollières, the aficionado does not attribute to him any country
except 'fairness' - observing the rules.
What then is a 'bastard' for this audience composed in part, we are
told, of people who are themselves outside the rules of society?
Essentially someone unstable, who accepts the rules only when
they are useful to him and transgresses the formal continuity of
attitudes. He is unpredictable, therefore asocial. He takes refuge
behind the law when he considers that it is in his favour, and
breaks it when he finds it useful to do so. Sometimes he rejects the
formal boundaries of the ring and goes on hitting an adversary
legally protected by the ropes, sometimes he re-establishes these
boundaries and claims the protection of what he did not respect a
few minutes earlier. This inconsistency, far more than treachery or
cruelty, sends the audience beside itself with rage: offended not in
its morality but in its logic, it considers the contradiction of
arguments as the basest of crimes. The forbidden move becomes
dirty only when it destroys a quantitative equilibrium and disturbs
the rigorous reckoning of compensations; what is condemned by
the audience is not at all the transgression of insipid official rules,
it is the lack of revenge, the absence of a punishment. So that there
is nothing more exciting for a crowd than the grandiloquent kick
given to a vanquished 'bastard'; the joy of punishing is at its climax
when it is supported by a mathematical justification; contempt is
then unrestrained. One is no longer dealing with a salaud but with
a salope - the verbal gesture of the ultimate degradation.
Such a precise finality demands that wrestling should be exactly
what the public expects of it. Wrestlers, who are very experienced,
know perfectly how to direct the spontaneous episodes of the fight
so as to make them conform to the image which the public has of
the great legendary themes of its mythology. A wrestler can irritate
or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always accomplishes
completely, by a progressive solidification of signs, what the
public expects of him. In wrestling, nothing exists except in the
absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented
exhaustively. Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all
parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and
full signification, rounded like Nature. This grandiloquence is
nothing but the popular and age-old image of the perfect
intelligibility of reality. What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore
an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised
for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations
and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in
which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without
evasion, without contradiction.
When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a
few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort
of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive,
anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his
wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of
transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious
Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary
ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few
moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which
separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a justice which
is at last intelligible.
* In Molière's L'École des Femmes and Racine's Andromaque.
* In Molière's L'Avare.
The Romans in Films
In Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar, all the characters are wearing
fringes. Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some
oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted,
although there are plenty to be found in Roman history. Those who
have little hair have not been let off for all that, and the hairdresser
- the king-pin of the film - has still managed to produce one last
lock which duly reaches the top of the forehead, one of those
Roman foreheads, whose smallness has at all times indicated a
specific mixture of self-righteousness, virtue and conquest.
What then is associated with these insistent fringes? Quite simply
the label of Roman-ness. We therefore see here the mainspring of
the Spectacle - the sign - operating in the open. The frontal lock
overwhelms one with evidence, no one can doubt that he is in
Ancient Rome. And this certainty is permanent: the actors speak,
act, torment themselves, debate 'questions of universal import',
without losing, thanks to this little flag displayed on their
foreheads, any of their historical plausibility. Their general
representativeness can even expand in complete safety, cross the
ocean and the centuries, and merge into the Yankee mugs of
Hollywood extras: no matter, everyone is reassured, installed in the
quiet certainty of a universe without duplicity, where Romans are
Romans thanks to the most legible of signs: hair on the forehead.
A Frenchman, to whose eyes American faces still have something
exotic, finds comical the combination of the morphologies of these
gangster-sheriffs with the little Roman fringe: it rather looks like
an excellent music-hall gag. This is because for the French the sign
in this case overshoots the target and discredits itself by letting its
aim appear clearly. But this very fringe, when combed on the only
naturally Latin forehead in the film, that of Marlon Brando,
impresses us and does not make us laugh; and it is not impossible
that part of the success of this actor in Europe is due to the perfect
integration of Roman capillary habits with the general morphology
of the characters he usually portrays. Conversely, one cannot
believe in Julius Caesar, whose physiognomy is that of an Anglo-
Saxon lawyer - a face with which one is already acquainted
through a thousand bit parts in thrillers or comedies, and a
compliant skull on which the hairdresser has raked, with great
effort, a lock of hair.
In the category of capillary meanings, here is a sub-sign, that of
nocturnal surprises: Portia and Calpurnia, waken up at dead of
night, have conspicuously uncombed hair. The former, who is
young, expresses disorder by flowing locks: her unreadiness is, so
to speak, of the first degree. The latter, who is middle-aged,
exhibits a more painstaking vulnerability: a plait winds round her
neck and comes to rest on her right shoulder so as to impose the
traditional sign of disorder, asymmetry. But these signs are at the
same time excessive and ineffectual: they postulate a 'nature' which
they have not even the courage to acknowledge fully: they are not
'fair and square'.
Yet another sign in this Julius Caesar: all the faces sweat
constantly. Labourers, soldiers, conspirators, all have their austere
and tense features streaming (with Vaseline). And closeups are so
frequent that evidently sweat here is an attribute with a purpose.
Like the Roman fringe or the nocturnal plait, sweat is a sign. Of
what? Of moral feeling. Everyone is sweating because everyone is
debating something within himself; we are here supposed to be in
the locus of a horribly tormented virtue, that is, in the very locus of
tragedy, and it is sweat which has the function of conveying this.
The populace, upset by the death of Caesar, then by the arguments
of Mark Antony, is sweating, and combining economically, in this
single sign, the intensity of its emotion and the simplicity of its
condition. And the virtuous men, Brutus, Cassius, Casca, are
ceaselessly perspiring too, testifying thereby to the enormous
physiological labour produced in them by a virtue just about to
give birth to a crime. To sweat is to think - which evidently rests
on the postulate, appropriate to a nation of businessmen, that
thought is a violent, cataclysmic operation, of which sweat is only
the most benign symptom. In the whole film, there is but one man
who does not sweat and who remains smooth-faced, unperturbed
and watertight: Caesar. Of course Caesar, the object of the crime,
remains dry since he does not know, he does not think, and so must
keep the firm and polished texture of an exhibit standing isolated
in the courtroom.
Here again, the sign is ambiguous: it remains on the surface, yet
does not for all that give up the attempt to pass itself off as depth.
It aims at making people understand (which is laudable) but at the
same time suggests that it is spontaneous (which is cheating); it
presents itself at once as intentional and irrepressible, artificial and
natural, manufactured and discovered. This can lead us to an ethic
of signs. Signs ought to present themselves only in two extreme
forms: either openly intellectual and so remote that they are
reduced to an algebra, as in the Chinese theatre, where a flag on its
own signifies a regiment; or deeply rooted, invented, so to speak,
on each occasion, revealing an internal, a hidden facet, and
indicative of a moment in time, no longer of a concept (as in the art
of Stanislavsky, for instance). But the intermediate sign, the fringe
of Roman-ness or the sweating of thought, reveals a degraded
spectacle, which is equally afraid of simple reality and of total
artifice. For although it is a good thing if a spectacle is created to
make the world more explicit, it is both reprehensible and deceitful
to confuse the sign with what is signified. And it is a duplicity
which is peculiar to bourgeois art: between the intellectual and the
visceral sign is hypocritically inserted a hybrid, at once elliptical
and pretentious, which is pompously christened 'nature'.
The Writer on Holiday
Gide was reading Bossuet while going down the Congo. This
posture sums up rather well the ideal of our writers 'on holiday', as
photographed by Le Figaro: to add to mere leisure the prestige of a
vocation which nothing can stop or degrade. Here is therefore a
good piece of journalism, highly efficient sociologically, and
which gives us, without cheating, information on the idea which
our bourgeoisie entertains about its writers.
What seems above all else to surprise and delight it, then, is its
own broad-mindedness in acknowledging that writers too are the
sort of people who commonly take holidays. 'Holidays' are a recent
social phenomenon, whose mythological development,
incidentally, would be interesting to trace. At first a part of the
school world, they have become, since the advent of holidays with
pay, a part of the proletarian world, or at least the world of
working people. To assert that this phenomenon can henceforth
concern writers, that the specialists of the human soul are also
subjected to the common status of contemporary labour, is a way
of convincing our bourgeois readers that they are indeed in step
with the times: they pride themselves on acknowledging certain
prosaic necessities, they limber up to 'modern' realities through the
lessons of Siegfried and Fourastié.
Needless to say, this proletarianization of the writer is granted only
with parsimony, the more completely to be destroyed afterwards.
No sooner endowed with a social attribute (and holidays are one
such attribute, a very agreeable one), the man of letters returns
straight away to the empyrean which he shares with the
professionals of inspiration. And the 'naturalness' in which our
novelists are eternalized is in fact instituted in order to convey a
sublime contradiction: between a prosaic condition, produced alas
by regrettably materialistic times, and the glamorous status which
bourgeois society liberally grants its spiritual representatives (so
long as they remain harmless).
What proves the wonderful singularity of the writer, is that during
the holiday in question, which he takes alongside factory workers
and shop assistants, he unlike them does not stop, if not actually
working, at least producing. So that he is a false worker, and a
false holiday-maker as well. One is writing his memoirs, another is
correcting proofs, yet another is preparing his next book. And he
who does nothing confesses it as truly paradoxical behaviour, an
avant-garde exploit, which only someone of exceptional
independence can afford to flaunt. One then realizes, thanks to this
kind of boast, that it is quite 'natural' that the writer should write all
the time and in all situations. First, this treats literary production as
a sort of involuntary secretion, which is taboo, since it escapes
human determinations: to speak more decorously, the writer is the
prey of an inner god who speaks at all times, without bothering,
tyrant that he is, with the holidays of his medium. Writers are on
holiday, but their Muse is awake, and gives birth non-stop.
The second advantage of this logorrhea is that, thanks to its
peremptory character, it is quite naturally regarded as the very
essence of the writer. True, the latter concedes that he is endowed
with a human existence, with an old country house, with relatives,
with shorts, with a small daughter, etc.; but unlike the other
workers, who change their essence, and on the beach are no longer
anything but holiday-makers, the writer keeps his writer's nature
everywhere. By having holidays, he displays the sign of his being
human; but the god remains, one is a writer as Louis XIV was
king, even on the commode. Thus the function of the man of letters
is to human labour rather as ambrosia is to bread: a miraculous,
eternal substance, which condescends to take a social form so that
its prestigious difference is better grasped. All this prepares one for
the same idea of the writer as a superman, as a kind of intrinsically
different being which society puts in the window so as to use to the
best advantage the artificial singularity which it has granted him.
The good-natured image of 'the writer on holiday' is therefore no
more than one of these cunning mystifications which the
Establishment practises the better to enslave its writers. The
singularity of a 'vocation' is never better displayed than when it is
contradicted - but not denied, far from it - by a prosaic incarnation:
this is an old trick of all hagiographies. So that this myth of
'literary holidays' is seen to spread very far, much farther than
summer: the techniques of contemporary journalism are devoted
more and more to presenting the writer as a prosaic figure. But one
would be very wrong to take this as an attempt to demystify. Quite
the contrary. True, it may seem touching, and even flattering, that
I, a mere reader, should participate, thanks to such confidences, in
the daily life of a race selected by genius. I would no doubt feel
that a world was blissfully fraternal, in which newspapers told me
that a certain great writer wears blue pyjamas, and a certain young
novelist has a liking for 'pretty girls, reblochon cheese and
lavender-honey'. This does not alter the fact that the balance of the
operation is that the writer becomes still more charismatic, leaves
this earth a little more for a celestial habitat where his pyjamas and
his cheeses in no way prevent him from resuming the use of his
noble demiurgic speech.
To endow the writer publicly with a good fleshly body, to reveal
that he likes dry white wine and underdone steak, is to make even
more miraculous for me, and of a more divine essence, the
products of his art. Far from the details of his daily life bringing
nearer to me the nature of his inspiration and making it clearer, it is
the whole mythical singularity of his condition which the writer
emphasizes by such confidences. For I cannot but ascribe to some
superhumanity the existence of beings vast enough to wear blue
pyjamas at the very moment when they manifest themselves as
universal conscience, or else make a profession of liking reblochon
with that same voice with which they announce their forthcoming
Phenomenology of the Ego. The spectacular alliance of so much
nobility and so much futility means that one still believes in the
contradiction: since it is totally miraculous, each of its terms is
miraculous too; it would obviously lose all interest in a world
where the writer's work was so desacralized that it appeared as
natural as his vestimentary or gustatory functions.
The 'Blue Blood' Cruise
Ever since the Coronation, the French had been pining for fresh
news about royal activities, of which they are extremely fond; the
setting out to sea of a hundred or so royals on a Greek yacht, the
Agamemnon, entertained them greatly. The Coronation of
Elizabeth was a theme which appealed to the emotions and
sentimentalities; the 'Blue Blood' Cruise is a humorous episode:
kings played at being men, as in a comedy by de Flers and
Caillavet; there followed a thousand situations, droll because of
contradictions of the Marie-Antoinette-playing-the-milkmaid type.
Such a feeling of amusement carries a heavy pathological burden:
if one is amused by a contradiction, it is because one supposes its
terms to be very far apart. In other words, kings have a
superhuman essence, and when they temporarily borrow certain
forms of democratic life, it can only be through an incarnation
which goes against nature, made possible through condescension
alone. To flaunt the fact that kings are capable of prosaic actions is
to recognize that this status is no more natural to them than
angelism to common mortals, it is to acknowledge that the king is
still king by divine right.
Thus the neutral gestures of daily life have taken, on the
Agamemnon, an exorbitantly bold character, like those creative
fantasies in which Nature violates its own kingdoms: kings shave
themselves! This touch was reported by our national press as an act
of incredible singularity, as if in doing so kings consented to risk
the whole of their royal status, making thereby, incidentally, a
profession of faith in its indestructible nature. King Paul was
wearing an open-neck shirt and short sleeves, Queen Frederika a
print dress, that is to say one no longer unique but whose pattern
can also be seen on the bodies of mere mortals. Formerly, kings
dressed up as shepherds; nowadays, to wear for a fortnight clothes
from a cheap chain-store is for them the sign of dressing up. Yet
another sign of democracy: to get up at six in the morning. All this
gives us, antiphrastically, information on a certain ideal of daily
life: to wear cuffs, to be shaved by a flunkey, to get up late. By
renouncing these privileges, kings make them recede into the
heaven of dream: their (very temporary) sacrifice determines and
eternalizes the signs of daily bliss.
What is more curious is that this mythical character of our kings is
nowadays secularized, though not in the least exorcized, by
resorting to scientism of a sort. Kings are defined by the purity of
their race (Blue Blood) like puppies, and the ship, the privileged
locus of any 'closure', is a kind of modern Ark where the main
variations of the monarchic species are preserved. To such an
extent that the chances of certain pairings are openly computed.
Enclosed in their floating stud-farm, the thoroughbreds are
sheltered from all mongrel marriages, all is prepared for them
(annually, perhaps?) to be able to reproduce among themselves. As
small in number as pug-dogs on this earth, the ship immobilizes
and gathers them, and constitutes a temporary 'reservation' where
an ethnographic curiosity as well protected as a Sioux territory will
be kept and, with luck, increased.
The two century-old themes are merged, that of the God-King and
that of the King-Object. But this mythological heaven is not as
harmless as all that to the Earth. The most ethereal mystifications,
the 'amusing details' of the 'Blue Blood' Cruise, all this anecdotal
blah with which the national press made its readers drunk is not
proffered without damage: confident in their restored divinity, the
princes democratically engage in politics. The Comte de Paris
leaves the Agamemnon and comes to Paris to 'keep close watch' on
the fortunes of the European Defence Community, and the young
Juan of Spain is sent to the rescue of Spanish Fascism.
Blind and Dumb Criticism
Critics (of books or drama) often use two rather singular
arguments. The first consists in suddenly deciding that the true
subject of criticism is ineffable, and criticism, as a consequence,
unnecessary. The other, which also reappears periodically, consists
in confessing that one is too stupid, too unenlightened to
understand a book reputedly philosophical. A play by Henri
Lefebvre on Kierkegaard has thus provoked in our best critics (and
I am not speaking about those who openly profess stupidity) a
pretended fear of imbecility (the aim of which was obviously to
discredit Lefebvre by relegating him to the ridicule of pure
Why do critics thus periodically proclaim their helplessness or
their lack of understanding? It is certainly not out of modesty: no
one is more at ease than one critic confessing that he understands
nothing about existentialism; no one more ironic and therefore
more self-assured than another admitting shamefacedly that he
does not have the luck to have been initiated into the philosophy of
the Extraordinary; and no one more soldier-like than a third
pleading for poetic ineffability.
All this means in fact that one believes oneself to have such
sureness of intelligence that acknowledging an inability to
understand calls in question the clarity of the author and not that of
one's own mind. One mimics silliness in order to make the public
protest in one's favour, and thus carry it along advantageously from
complicity in helplessness to complicity in intelligence. It is an
operation well known to salons like Madame Verdurin's: * 'I
whose profession it is to be intelligent, understand nothing about it;
now you wouldn't understand anything about it either; therefore, it
can only be that you are as intelligent as I am.'
The reality behind this seasonally professed lack of culture is the
old obscurantist myth according to which ideas are noxious if they
are not controlled by 'common sense' and 'feeling': Knowledge is
Evil, they both grew on the same tree. Culture is allowed on
condition that it periodically proclaims the vanity of its ends and
the limits of its power (see also on this subject the ideas of Mr
Graham Greene on psychologists and psychiatrists); ideally,
culture should be nothing but a sweet rhetorical effusion, an art of
using words to bear witness to a transient moistening of the soul.
Yet this old romantic couple, the heart and the head, has no reality
except in an imagery of vaguely Gnostic origin, in these opiate-like
philosophies which have always, in the end, constituted the
mainstay of strong regimes, and in which one gets rid of
intellectuals by telling them to run along and get on with the
emotions and the ineffable. In fact, any reservation about culture
means a terrorist position. To be a critic by profession and to
proclaim that one understands nothing about existentialism or
Marxism (for as it happens, it is these two philosophies particularly
that one confesses to be unable to understand) is to elevate one's
blindness or dumbness to a universal rule of perception, and to
reject from the world Marxism and existentialism: 'I don't
understand, therefore you are idiots.'
But if one fears or despises so much the philosophical foundations
of a book, and if one demands so insistently the right to understand
nothing about them and to say nothing on the subject, why become
a critic? To understand, to enlighten, that is your profession, isn't
it? You can of course judge philosophy according to common
sense; the trouble is that while 'common sense' and 'feeling'
understand nothing about philosophy, philosophy, on the other
hand, understands them perfectly. You don't explain philosophers,
but they explain you. You don't want to understand the play by
Lefebvre the Marxist, but you can be sure that Lefebvre the
Marxist understands your incomprehension perfectly well, and
above all (for I believe you to be more wily than lacking in culture)
the delightfully 'harmless' confession you make of it.
* In Proust's A la Recherche du Temps perdu.
Soap-powders and Detergents
The first World Detergent Congress (Paris, September 1954) had
the effect of authorizing the world to yield to Omo euphoria: not
only do detergents have no harmful effect on the skin, but they can
even perhaps save miners from silicosis. These products have been
in the last few years the object of such massive advertising that
they now belong to a region of French daily life which the various
types of psycho-analysis would do well to pay some attention to if
they wish to keep up to date. One could then usefully contrast the
psycho-analysis of purifying fluids (chlorinated, for example) with
that of soap-powders (Lux, Persil) or that of detergents (Omo). The
relations between the evil and the cure, between dirt and a given
product, are very different in each case.
Chlorinated fluids, for instance, have always been experienced as a
sort of liquid fire, the action of which must be carefully estimated,
otherwise the object itself would be affected, 'burnt'. The implicit
legend of this type of product rests on the idea of a violent,
abrasive modification of matter: the connotations are of a chemical
or mutilating type: the product 'kills' the dirt. Powders, on the
contrary, are separating agents: their ideal role is to liberate the
object from its circumstantial imperfection: dirt is 'forced out' and
no longer killed; in the Omo imagery, dirt is a diminutive enemy,
stunted and black, which takes to its heels from the fine
immaculate linen at the sole threat of the judgment of Omo.
Products based on chlorine and ammonia are without doubt the
representatives of a kind of absolute fire, a saviour but a blind one.
Powders, on the contrary, are selective, they push, they drive dirt
through the texture of the object, their function is keeping public
order not making war. This distinction has ethnographic
correlatives: the chemical fluid is an extension of the
washerwoman's movements when she beats the clothes, while
powders rather replace those of the housewife pressing and rolling
the washing against a sloping board.
But even in the category of powders, one must in addition oppose
against advertisements based on psychology those based on
psycho-analysis (I use this word without reference to any specific
school). 'Persil Whiteness' for instance, bases its prestige on the
evidence of a result; it calls into play vanity, a social concern with
appearances, by offering for comparison two objects, one of which
is whiter than the other. Advertisements for Omo also indicate the
effect of the product (and in superlative fashion, incidentally), but
they chiefly reveal its mode of action; in doing so, they involve the
consumer in a kind of direct experience of the substance, make him
the accomplice of a liberation rather than the mere beneficiary of a
result; matter here is endowed with value-bearing states.
Omo uses two of these, which are rather novel in the category of
detergents: the deep and the foamy. To say that Omo cleans in
depth (see the Cinéma-Publicité advertisement) is to assume that
linen is deep, which no one had previously thought, and this
unquestionably results in exalting it, by establishing it as an object
favourable to those obscure tendencies to enfold and caress which
are found in every human body. As for foam, it is well known that
it signifies luxury. To begin with, it appears to lack any usefulness;
then, its abundant, easy, almost infinite proliferation allows one to
suppose there is in the substance from which it issues a vigorous
germ, a healthy and powerful essence, a great wealth of active
elements in a small original volume. Finally, it gratifies in the
consumer a tendency to imagine matter as something airy, with
which contact is effected in a mode both light and vertical, which
is sought after like that of happiness either in the gustatory
category (foie gras, entremets, wines), in that of clothing (muslin,
tulle), or that of soaps (filmstar in her bath). Foam can even be the
sign of a certain spirituality, inasmuch as the spirit has the
reputation of being able to make something out of nothing, a large
surface of effects out of a small volume of causes (creams have a
very different 'psychoanalytical' meaning, of a soothing kind: they
suppress wrinkles, pain, smarting, etc.). What matters is the art of
having disguised the abrasive function of the detergent under the
delicious image of a substance at once deep and airy which can
govern the molecular order of the material without damaging it. A
euphoria, incidentally, which must not make us forget that there is
one plane on which Persil and Omo are one and the same: the
plane of the Anglo-Dutch trust Unilever.
The Poor and the Proletariat
Charlie Chaplin's latest gag has been to transfer half of his Soviet
prize into the funds of the Abbé Pierre. At bottom, this amounts to
establishing an identity between the nature of the poor man and
that of the proletarian. Chaplin has always seen the proletarian
under the guise of the poor man: hence the broadly human force of
his representations but also their political ambiguity. This is quite
evident in this admirable film, Modern Times, in which he
repeatedly approaches the proletarian theme, but never endorses it
politically. What he presents us with is the proletarian still blind
and mystified, defined by the immediate character of his needs,
and his total alienation at the hands of his masters (the employers
and the police).
For Chaplin, the proletarian is still the man who is hungry; the
representations of hunger are always epic with him: excessive size
of the sandwiches, rivers of milk, fruit which one tosses aside
hardly touched. Ironically, the food-dispensing machine (which is
part of the employers' world) delivers only fragmented and
obviously flavourless nutriment. Ensnared in his starvation,
Chaplin-Man is always just below political awareness. A strike is a
catastrophe for him because it threatens a man truly blinded by his
hunger; this man achieves an awareness of the working-class
condition only when the poor man and the proletarian coincide
under the gaze (and the blows) of the police. Historically, Man
according to Chaplin roughly corresponds to the worker of the
French Restoration, rebelling against the machines, at a loss before
strikes, fascinated by the problem of bread-winning (in the literal
sense of the word), but as yet unable to reach a knowledge of
political causes and an insistence on a collective strategy.
But it is precisely because Chaplin portrays a kind of primitive
proletarian, still outside Revolution, that the representative force of
the latter is immense. No socialist work has yet succeeded in
expressing the humiliated condition of the worker with so much
violence and generosity. Brecht alone, perhaps, has glimpsed the
necessity, for socialist art, of always taking Man on the eve of
Revolution, that is to say, alone, still blind, on the point of having
his eyes opened to the revolutionary light by the 'natural' excess of
his wretchedness. Other works, in showing the worker already
engaged in a conscious fight, subsumed under the Cause and the
Party, give an account of a political reality which is necessary, but
lacks aesthetic force.
Now Chaplin, in conformity with Brecht's idea, shows the public
its blindness by presenting at the same time a man who is blind and
what is in front of him. To see someone who does not see is the
best way to be intensely aware of what he does not see: thus, at a
Punch and Judy show, it is the children who announce to Punch
what he pretends not to see. For instance, Charlie Chaplin is in a
cell, pampered by the warders, and lives there according to the
ideal of the American petit-bourgeois: with legs crossed, he reads
the paper under a portrait of Lincoln; but his delightfully selfsatisfied
posture discredits this ideal completely, so that it is no
longer possible for anyone to take refuge in it without noticing the
new alienation which it contains. The slightest ensnarements are
thus made harmless, and the man who is poor is repeatedly cut off
from temptation. All told, it is perhaps because of this that
Chaplin-Man triumphs over everything: because he escapes from
everything, eschews any kind of sleeping partner, and never
invests in man anything but man himself. His anarchy, politically
open to discussion, perhaps represents the most efficient form of
revolution in the realm of art.
Operation Margarine
To instil into the Established Order the complacent portrayal of its
drawbacks has nowadays become a paradoxical but
incontrovertible means of exalting it. Here is the pattern of this
newstyle demonstration: take the established value which you want
to restore or develop, and first lavishly display its pettiness, the
injustices which it produces, the vexations to which it gives rise,
and plunge it into its natural imperfection; then, at the last moment,
save it in spite of, or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes.
Some examples? There is no lack of them.
Take the Army; show without disguise its chiefs as martinets, its
discipline as narrow-minded and unfair, and into this stupid
tyranny immerse an average human being, fallible but likeable, the
archetype of the spectator. And then, at the last moment, turn over
the magical hat, and pull out of it the image of an army, flags
flying, triumphant, bewitching, to which, like Sganarelle's wife, *
one cannot but be faithful although beaten (From here to eternity).
Take the Army again: lay down as a basic principle the scientific
fanaticism of its engineers, and their blindness; show all that is
destroyed by such a pitiless rigour: human beings, couples. And
then bring out the flag, save the army in the name of progress,
hitch the greatness of the former to the triumph of the latter (Les
Cyclones, by Jules Roy).
Finally, the Church: speak with burning zeal about its selfrighteousness,
the narrow-mindedness of its bigots, indicate that all
this can be murderous, hide none of the weaknesses of the faith.
And then, in extremis, hint that the letter of the law, however
unattractive, is a way to salvation for its very victims, and so
justify moral austerity by the saintliness of those whom it crushes
(The Living Room, by Graham Greene).
It is a kind of homeopathy: one cures doubts about the Church or
the Army by the very ills of the Church and the Army. One
inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an
essential one. To rebel against the inhumanity of the Established
Order and its values, according to this way of thinking, is an illness
which is common, natural, forgivable; one must not collide with it
head-on, but rather exorcize it like a possession: the patient is
made to give a representation of his illness, he is made familiar
with the very appearance of his revolt, and this revolt disappears
all the more surely since, once at a distance and the object of a
gaze, the Established Order is no longer anything but a
Manichaean compound and therefore inevitable, one which wins
on both counts, and is therefore beneficial. The immanent evil of
enslavement is redeemed by the transcendent good of religion,
fatherland, the Church, etc. A little 'confessed' evil saves one from
acknowledging a lot of hidden evil.
One can trace in advertising a narrative pattern which clearly
shows the working of this new vaccine. It is found in the publicity
for Astra margarine. The episode always begins with a cry of
indignation against margarine: 'A mousse? Made with margarine?
Unthinkable!' 'Margarine? Your uncle will be furious!' And then
one's eyes are opened, one's conscience becomes more pliable, and
margarine is a delicious food, tasty, digestible, economical, useful
in all circumstances. The moral at the end is well known: 'Here you
are, rid of a prejudice which cost you dearly!' It is in the same way
that the Established Order relieves you of your progressive
prejudices. The Army, an absolute value? It is unthinkable: look at
its vexations, its strictness, the always possible blindness of its
chiefs. The Church, infallible? Alas, it is very doubtful: look at its
bigots, its powerless priests, its murderous conformism. And then
common sense makes its reckoning: what is this trifling dross of
Order, compared to its advantages? It is well worth the price of an
immunization. What does it matter, after all, if margarine is just
fat, when it goes further than butter, and costs less? What does it
matter, after all, if Order is a little brutal or a little blind, when it
allows us to live cheaply? Here we are, in our turn, rid of a
prejudice which cost us dearly, too dearly, which cost us too much
in scruples, in revolt, in fights and in solitude.
* In Molière's Médecin malgré lui.
Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature
The whole Dominici trial * was enacted according to a certain idea
of psychology, which happens to be, as luck would have it, that of
the Literature of the bourgeois Establishment. Since material
evidence was uncertain or contradictory, one had to resort to
evidence of a mental kind; and where could one find it, except in
the very mentality of the accusers? The motives and sequence of
actions were therefore reconstituted off-hand but without a shadow
of a doubt; in the manner of those archaeologists who go and
gather old stones all over the excavation site and with their cement,
modern as it is, erect a delicate wayside altar of Sesostris, or else,
who reconstitute a religion which has been dead for two thousand
years by drawing on the ancient fund of universal wisdom, which
is in fact nothing but their own brand of wisdom, elaborated in the
schools of the Third Republic.
The same applies to the 'psychology' of old Dominici. Is it really
his? No one knows. But one can be sure that it is indeed that of the
Presiding Judge of the Assizes or the Public Prosecutor. Do these
two mentalities, that of the old peasant from the Alps and that of
the judiciary, function in the same way? Nothing is less likely. And
yet it is in the name of a 'universal' psychology that old Dominici
has been condemned: descending from the charming empyrean of
bourgeois novels and essentialist psychology, Literature has just
condemned a man to the guillotine. Listen to the Public Prosecutor:
'Sir Jack Drummond, I told you, was afraid. But he knows that in
the end the best may to defend oneself is to attack. So he throws
himself on this fierce-looking man and takes the old man by the
throat. Not a word is spoken. But to Gaston Dominici, the simple
fact that someone should want to hold him down by both shoulders
is unthinkable. It was physically impossible for him to bear this
strength which was suddenly pitted against him.' This is credible
like the temple of Sesostris, like the Literature of M. Genevoix.
Only, to base archaeology or the novel on a 'Why not?' does not
harm anybody. But justice? Periodically, some trial, and not
necessarily fictitious like the one in Camus's The Outsider, comes
to remind you that the Law is always prepared to lend you a spare
brain in order to condemn you without remorse, and that, like
Corneille, it depicts you as you should be, and not as you are.
This official visit of justice to the world of the accused is made
possible thanks to an intermediate myth which is always used
abundantly by all official institutions, whether they are the Assizes
or the periodicals of literary sects: the transparence and
universality of language. The Presiding judge of the Assizes, who
reads Le Figaro, has obviously no scruples in exchanging words
with the old 'uneducated' goatherd. Do they not have in common
the same language, and the clearest there is, French? O wonderful
self-assurance of classical education, in which shepherds, without
embarrassment, converse with judges! But here again, behind the
prestigious (and grotesque) morality of Latin translations and
essays in French, what is at stake is the head of a man.
And yet the disparity of both languages, their impenetrability to
each other, have been stressed by a few journalists, and Giono has
given numerous examples of this in his accounts of the trial. Their
remarks show that there is no need to imagine mysterious barriers,
Kafka-like misunderstandings. No: syntax, vocabulary, most of the
elementary, analytical materials of language grope blindly without
ever touching, but no one has any qualms about it ('Êtes-vous allé
au pont? - Allée? il n'y a pas d'allée, je le sais, j'y suis été'). *
Naturally, everyone pretends to believe that it is the official
language which is common sense, that of Dominici being only one
of its ethnological varieties, picturesque in its poverty. And yet,
this language of the president is just as peculiar, laden as it is with
unreal cliches; it is a language for school essays, not for a concrete
psychology (but perhaps it is unavoidable for most men, alas, to
have the psychology of the language which they have been taught).
These are in actual fact two particular uses of language which
confront each other. But one of them has honours, law and force on
its side.
And this 'universal' language comes just at the right time to lend a
new strength to the psychology of the masters: it allows it always
to take other men as objects, to describe and condemn at one
stroke. It is an adjectival psychology, it knows only how to endow
its victims with epithets, it is ignorant of everything about the
actions themselves, save the guilty category into which they are
forcibly made to fit. These categories are none other than those of
classical comedy or treatises of graphology: boastful, irascible,
selfish, cunning, lecherous, harsh, man exists in their eyes only
through the 'character traits' which label him for society as the
object of a more or less easy absorption, the subject of a more or
less respectful submission. Utilitarian, taking no account of any
state of consciousness, this psychology has nevertheless the
pretension of giving as a basis for actions a preexisting inner
person, it postulates 'the soul': it judges man as a 'conscience'
without being embarrassed by having previously described him as
an object.
Now that particular psychology, in the name of which you can very
well today have your head cut off, comes straight from our
traditional literature, that which one calls in bourgeois style
literature of the Human Document. It is in the name of the human
document that the old Dominici has been condemned, justice and
literature have made an alliance, they have exchanged their old
techniques, thus revealing their basic identity, and compromising
each other barefacedly. Behind the judges, in curule chairs, the
writers (Giono, Salacrou). And on the prosecution side, do we see
a lawyer? No, an 'extraordinary story-teller', gifted with
'undeniable wit' and a 'dazzling verve' (to quote the shocking
testimonial granted to the public prosecutor by Le Monde). Even
the police is here seen practising fine writing (Police
Superintendent: 'Never have I met such a dissembling liar, such a
wary gambler, such a witty narrator, such a wily trickster, such a
lusty septuagenarian, such a self-assured despot, such a devious
schemer, such a cunning hypocrite... Gaston Dominici is an
astonishing quick-change artist playing with human souls, and
animal thoughts... This false patriarch of the Grand'Terre has not
just a few facets, he has a hundred!'). Antithesis, metaphors, flights
of oratory, it is the whole of classical rhetoric which accuses the
old shepherd here. Justice took the mask of Realist literature, of the
country tale, while literature itself came to the court-room to gather
new 'human' documents, and naively to seek from the face of the
accused and the suspects the reflection of a psychology which,
however, it had been the first to impose on them by the arm of the
Only, confronting the literature of repletion (which is always
passed off as the literature of the 'real' and the 'human'), there is a
literature of poignancy; the Dominici trial has also been this type
of literature. There have not been here only writers hungering for
reality and brilliant narrators whose 'dazzling' verve carries off a
man's head; whatever the degree of guilt of the accused, there was
also the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being
judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends
us. We are all potential Dominicis, not as murderers but as
accused, deprived of language, or worse, rigged out in that of our
accusers, humiliated and condemned by it. To rob a man of his
language in the very name of language: this is the first step in all
legal murders.
* Gaston Dominici, the 80-year-old owner of the Grand 'Terre
farm in Provence, was convicted in 1952 of murdering Sir Jack
Drummond, his wife and daughter, whom he found camping near
his land.
* 'Did you go to the bridge? - A path? There is no path, I know,
I've been there!' Allé = 'gone', allée = a path, but Dominici uses été,
The Iconography of the Abbé Pierre
The myth of the Abbé Pierre has at its disposal a precious asset:
the physiognomy of the Abbé. It is a fine physiognomy, which
clearly displays all the signs of apostleship: a benign expression, a
Franciscan haircut, a missionary's beard, all this made complete by
the sheepskin coat of the worker-priest and the staff of the pilgrim.
Thus are united the marks of legend and those of modernity.
The haircut, for example, half shorn, devoid of affectation and
above all of definite shape, is without doubt trying to achieve a
style completely outside the bounds of art and even of technique, a
sort of zero degree of haircut. One has to have one's hair cut, of
course; but at least, let this necessary operation imply no particular
mode of existence: let it exist, but let it not be anything in
particular. The Abbé Pierre's haircut, obviously devised so as to
reach a neutral equilibrium between short hair (an indispensable
convention if one does not want to be noticed) and unkempt hair (a
state suitable to express contempt for other conventions), thus
becomes the capillary archetype of saintliness: the saint is first and
foremost a being without formal context; the idea of fashion is
antipathetic to the idea of sainthood.
But at this point things get more complicated - unknown to the
Abbé, one hopes - because here as everywhere else, neutrality ends
up by functioning as the sign of neutrality, and if you really wished
to go unnoticed, you would be back where you started. The 'zero'
haircut, then, is quite simply the label of Franciscanism; first
conceived negatively so as not to contradict the appearance of
sainthood, it quickly becomes a superlative mode of signification,
it dresses up the Abbé as Saint Francis. Hence the tremendous
iconographic popularity of this haircut in illustrated magazines and
in films (where Reybaz the actor will have but to adopt it to be
completely identified with the Abbé).
The beard goes through the same mythological routine. True, it can
simply be the attribute of a free man, detached from the daily
conventions of our world and who shrinks from wasting time in
shaving: fascination with charity may well be expected to result in
this type of contempt; but we are forced to notice that ecclesiastical
beards also have a little mythology of their own. For among
priests, it is not due to chance whether one is bearded or not;
beards are chiefly the attribute of missionaries or Capuchins, they
cannot but signify apostleship and poverty. They withdraw their
bearers a little from the secular clergy. Shaven priests are supposed
to be more temporal, bearded ones more evangelical: the wicked
Frolo was beardless, * the good Pere de Foucauld bearded. Behind
a beard, one belongs a little less to one's bishop, to the hierarchy,
to the Church as a political force; one looks freer, a bit of an
independent, more primitive in short, benefiting from the prestige
of the first hermits, enjoying the blunt candour of the founders of
monastic life, the depositories of the spirit against the letter:
wearing a beard means exploring in the same spirit the slums, the
land of the early Britons or Nyasaland.
Naturally, the problem is not to know how this forest of signs has
been able to grow on the Abbé Pierre (although it is indeed
surprising that the attributes of goodness should be like
transferable coins allowing an easy exchange between reality (the
Abbé Pierre of Match) and fiction (the Abbé Pierre of the film) and
that, in short, apostleship should appear from the start ready-made
and fully equipped for the big journey of reconstitutions and
legends). I am only wondering about the enormous consumption of
such signs by the public. I see it reassured by the spectacular
identity of a morphology and a vocation, in no doubt about the
latter because it knows the former, no longer having access to the
real experience of apostleship except through the bric-a-brac
associated with it, and getting used to acquiring a clear conscience
by merely looking at the shop-window of saintliness; and I get
worried about a society which consumes with such avidity the
display of charity that it forgets to ask itself questions about its
consequences, its uses and its limits. And I then start to wonder
whether the fine and touching iconography of the Abbé Pierre is
not the alibi which a sizeable part of the nation uses in order, once
more, to substitute with impunity the signs of charity for the reality
of justice.
* In Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris.
Novels and Children
If we are to believe the weekly Elle, which some time ago
mustered seventy women novelists on one photograph, the woman
of letters is a remarkable zoological species: she brings forth, pellmell,
novels and children. We are introduced, for example, to
Jacqueline Lenoir (two daughters, one novel); Marina Grey (one
son, one novel); Nicole Dutreil (two sons, four novels), etc.
What does it mean? This: to write is a glorious but bold activity;
the writer is an 'artist', one recognizes that he is entitled to a little
bohemianism. As he is in general entrusted - at least in the France
of Elle - with giving society reasons for its clear conscience, he
must, after all, be paid for his services: one tacitly grants him the
right to some individuality. But make no mistake: let no women
believe that they can take advantage of this pact without having
first submitted to the eternal statute of womanhood. Women are on
the earth to give children to men; let them write as much as they
like, let them decorate their condition, but above all, let them not
depart from it: let their Biblical fate not be disturbed by the
promotion which is conceded to them, and let them pay
immediately, by the tribute of their motherhood, for this
bohemianism which has a natural link with a writer's life.
Women, be therefore courageous, free; play at being men, write
like them; but never get far from them; live under their gaze,
compensate for your books by your children; enjoy a free rein for a
while, but quickly come back to your condition. One novel, one
child, a little feminism, a little connubiality. Let us tie the
adventure of art to the strong pillars of the home: both will profit a
great deal from this combination: where myths are concerned,
mutual help is always fruitful.
For instance, the Muse will give its sublimity to the humble tasks
of the home; and in exchange, to thank her for this favour, the
myth of child-bearing will lend to the Muse, who sometimes has
the reputation of being a little wanton, the guarantee of its
respectability, the touching decor of the nursery. So that all is well
in the best of all worlds - that of Elle. Let women acquire selfconfidence:
they can very well have access, like men, to the
superior status of creation. But let men be quickly reassured:
women will not be taken from them for all that, they will remain
no less available for motherhood by nature. Elle nimbly plays a
Molièresque scene, says yes on one side and no on the other, and
busies herself in displeasing no one; like Don Juan between his
two peasant girls, Elle says to women: you are worth just as much
as men; and to men: your women will never be anything but
Man at first seems absent from this double parturition; children and
novels alike seem to come by themselves, and to belong to the
mother alone. At a pinch, and by dint of seeing seventy times
books and kids bracketed together, one would think that they are
equally the fruits of imagination and dream, the miraculous
products of an ideal parthenogenesis able to give at once to
woman, apparently, the Balzacian joys of creation and the tender
joys of motherhood. Where then is man in this family picture?
Nowhere and everywhere, like the sky, the horizon, an authority
which at once determines and limits a condition. Such is the world
of Elle: women there are always a homogeneous species, an
established body jealous of its privileges, still more enamoured of
the burdens that go with them. Man is never inside, femininity is
pure, free, powerful; but man is everywhere around, he presses on
all sides, he makes everything exist; he is in all eternity the
creative absence, that of the Racinian deity: the feminine world of
Elle, a world without men, but entirely constituted by the gaze of
man, is very exactly that of the gynaeceum.
In every feature of Elle we find this twofold action: lock the
gynaeceum, then and only then release woman inside. Love, work,
write, be business-women or women of letters, but always
remember that man exists, and that you are not made like him;
your order is free on condition that it depends on his; your freedom
is a luxury, it is possible only if you first acknowledge the
obligations of your nature. Write, if you want to, we women shall
all be very proud of it; but don't forget on the other hand to
produce children, for that is your destiny. A jesuitic morality: adapt
the moral rule of your condition, but never compromise about the
dogma on which it rests.
French toys: one could not find a better illustration of the fact that
the adult Frenchman sees the child as another self. All the toys one
commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world;
they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of
the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a
homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size.
Invented forms are very rare: a few sets of blocks, which appeal to
the spirit of do-it-yourself, are the only ones which offer dynamic
forms. As for the others, French toys always mean something, and
this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the
myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army,
Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrumentcases,
operating theatres for dolls), School, Hair-Styling (driers for
permanent-waving), the Air Force (Parachutists), Transport (trains,
Citroens, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian
The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult
functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all,
by constituting for him, even before he can think about it, the alibi
of a Nature which has at all times created soldiers, postmen and
Vespas. Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not
find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc. It is not so
much, in fact, the imitation which is the sign of an abdication, as
its literalness: French toys are like a Jivaro head, in which one
recognizes, shrunken to the size of an apple, the wrinkles and hair
of an adult. There exist, for instance, dolls which urinate; they have
an oesophagus, one gives them a bottle, they wet their nappies;
soon, no doubt, milk will turn to water in their stomachs. This is
meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping,
to 'condition' her to her future role as mother. However, faced with
this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only
identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not
invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions
without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into
a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent
the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him readymade:
he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover
anything from start to finish. The merest set of blocks, provided it
is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world:
then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it
matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions
he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He
creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property:
objects now act by themselves, they are no longer an inert and
complicated material in the palm of his hand. But such toys are
rather rare: French toys are usually based on imitation, they are
meant to produce children who are users, not creators.
The bourgeois status of toys can be recognized not only in their
forms, which are all functional, but also in their substances.
Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of
chemistry, not of nature. Many are now moulded from complicated
mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an
appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure,
the sweetness, the humanity of touch. A sign which fills one with
consternation is the gradual disappearance of wood, in spite of its
being an ideal material because of its firmness and its softness, and
the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms
which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too
sharp, the chemical coldness of metal. When the child handles it
and knocks it, it neither vibrates nor grates, it has a sound at once
muffled and sharp. It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does
not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the
floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it
wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by
little the relations between the object and the hand. If it dies, it is in
dwindling, not in swelling out like those mechanical toys which
disappear behind the hernia of a broken spring. Wood makes
essential objects, objects for all time. Yet there hardly remain any
of these wooden toys from the Vosges, these fretwork farms with
their animals, which were only possible, it is true, in the days of
the craftsman. Henceforth, toys are chemical in substance and
colour; their very material introduces one to a coenaesthesis of use,
not pleasure. These toys die in fact very quickly, and once dead,
they have no posthumous life for the child.
The Face of Garbo
Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the
human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when
one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a
philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the
flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years
earlier the face of Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo
still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh
gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition.
It is indeed an admirable face-object. In Queen Christina, a film
which has again been shown in Paris in the last few years, the
make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted
face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the colour,
not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and
compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the
least expressive, are two faintly tremulous wounds. In spite of its
extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted in something
smooth and friable, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral, comes to
resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark
vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance.
Now the temptation of the absolute mask (the mask of antiquity,
for instance) perhaps implies less the theme of the secret (as is the
case with Italian half mask) than that of an archetype of the human
face. Garbo offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the
human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually
undefined, without however leaving one in doubt. It is true that this
film (in which Queen Christina is by turns a woman and a young
cavalier) lends itself to this lack of differentiation; but Garbo does
not perform in it any feat of transvestism; she is always herself,
and carries without pretence, under her crown or her widebrimmed
hats, the same snowy solitary face. The name given to
her, the Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state
of beauty than the essence of her corporeal person, descended from
a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest
light. She herself knew this: how many actresses have consented to
let the crowd see the ominous maturing of their beauty. Not she,
however; the essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to
have any reality except that of its perfection, which was
intellectual even more than formal. The Essence became gradually
obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad hats and
exiles: but it never deteriorated.
And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is
looming: a kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between
the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare,
individual function relating two regions of the face. A mask is but
a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic
harmony. Garbo's face represents this fragile moment when the
cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty,
when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces,
when the clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a
lyricism of Woman.
Viewed as a transition the face of Garbo reconciles two
iconographic ages, it assures the passage from awe to charm. As is
well known, we are today at the other pole of this evolution: the
face of Audrey Hepburn, for instance, is individualized, not only
because of its peculiar thematics (woman as child, woman as
kitten) but also because of her person, of an almost unique
specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it,
but is constituted by an infinite complexity of morphological
functions. As a language, Garbo's singularity was of the order of
the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the
substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.
Wine and Milk
Wine is felt by the French nation to be a possession which is its
very own, just like its three hundred and sixty types of cheese and
its culture. It is a totem-drink, corresponding to the milk of the
Dutch cow or the tea ceremonially taken by the British Royal
Family. Bachelard has already given the 'substantial
psychoanalysis' of this fluid, at the end of his essay on the reveries
on the theme of the will, and shown that wine is the sap of the sun
and the earth, that its basic state is not the moist but the dry, and
that on such grounds the substance which is most contrary to it is
Actually, like all resilient totems, wine supports a varied
mythology which does not trouble about contradictions. This
galvanic substance is always considered, for instance, as the most
efficient of thirst-quenchers, or at least this serves as the major
alibi for its consumption ('It's thirsty weather'). In its red form, it
has blood, the dense and vital fluid, as a very old hypostasis. This
is because in fact its humoral form matters little; it is above all a
converting substance, capable of reversing situations and states,
and of extracting from objects their opposites - for instance,
making a weak man strong or a silent one talkative. Hence its old
alchemical heredity, its philosophical power to transmute and
create ex nihilo.
Being essentially a function whose terms can change, wine has at
its disposal apparently plastic powers: it can serve as an alibi to
dream as well as reality, it depends on the users of the myth. For
the worker, wine means enabling him to do his task with demiurgic
ease ('heart for the work'). For the intellectual, wine has the reverse
function: the local white wine or the beaujolais of the writer is
meant to cut him off from the all too expected environment of
cocktails and expensive drinks (the only ones which snobbishness
leads one to offer him). Wine will deliver him from myths, will
remove some of his intellectualism, will make him the equal of the
proletarian; through wine, the intellectual comes nearer to a natural
virility, and believes he can thus escape the curse that a century
and a half of romanticism still brings to bear on the purely cerebral
(it is well known that one of the myths peculiar to the modern
intellectual is the obsession to 'have it where it matters').
But what is characteristic of France is that the converting power of
wine is never openly presented as an end. Other countries drink to
get drunk, and this is accepted by everyone; in France,
drunkenness is a consequence, never an intention. A drink is felt as
the spinning out of a pleasure, not as the necessary cause of an
effect which is sought: wine is not only a philtre, it is also the
leisurely act of drinking. The gesture has here a decorative value,
and the power of wine is never separated from its modes of
existence (unlike whisky, for example, which is drunk for its type
of drunkenness - 'the most agreeable, with the least painful aftereffects'
- which one gulps down repeatedly, and the drinking of
which is reduced to a causal act).
All this is well known and has been said a thousand times in
folklore, proverbs, conversations and Literature. But this very
universality implies a kind of conformism: to believe in wine is a
coercive collective act. A Frenchman who kept this myth at arm's
length would expose himself to minor but definite problems of
integration, the first of which, precisely, would be that of having to
explain his attitude. The universality principle fully applies here,
inasmuch as society calls anyone who does not believe in wine by
names such as sick, disabled or depraved: it does not comprehend
him (in both senses, intellectual and spatial, of the word).
Conversely, an award of good integration is given to whoever is a
practising wine-drinker: knowing how to drink is a national
technique which serves to qualify the Frenchman, to demonstrate
at once his performance, his control and his sociability. Wine gives
thus a foundation for a collective morality, within which
everything is redeemed: true, excesses, misfortunes and crimes are
possible with wine, but never viciousness, treachery or baseness;
the evil it can generate is in the nature of fate and therefore escapes
penalization, it evokes the theatre rather than a basic temperament.
Wine is a part of society because it provides a basis not only for a
morality but also for an environment; it is an ornament in the
slightest ceremonials of French daily life, from the snack (plonk
and camembert) to the feast, from the conversation at the local cafe
to the speech at a formal dinner. It exalts all climates, of whatever
kind: in cold weather, it is associated with all the myths of
becoming warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images
of shade, with all things cool and sparkling. There is no situation
involving some physical constraint (temperature, hunger, boredom,
compulsion, disorientation) which does not give rise to dreams of
wine. Combined as a basic substance with other alimentary figures,
it can cover all the aspects of space and time for the Frenchman.
As soon as one gets to know someone's daily life fairly well, the
absence of wine gives a sense of shock, like something exotic: M.
Coty, having allowed himself to be photographed, at the beginning
of his seven years' presidency, sitting at home before a table on
which a bottle of beer seemed to replace, by an extraordinary
exception, the familiar litre of red wine, the whole nation was in a
flutter; it was as intolerable as having a bachelor king. Wine is here
a part of the reason of state.
Bachelard was probably right in seeing water as the opposite of
wine: mythically, this is true; sociologically, today at least, less so;
economic and historical circumstances have given this part to milk.
The latter is now the true anti-wine: and not only because of M.
Mendès-France's popularizing efforts (which had a purposely
mythological look as when he used to drink milk during his
speeches in the Chamber, as Popeye eats spinach), but also because
in the basic morphology of substances milk is the opposite of fire
by all the denseness of its molecules, by the creamy, and therefore
soothing, nature of its spreading. Wine is mutilating, surgical, it
transmutes and delivers; milk is cosmetic, it joins, covers, restores.
Moreover, its purity, associated with the innocence of the child, is
a token of strength, of a strength which is not revulsive, not
congestive, but calm, white, lucid, the equal of reality. Some
American films, in which the hero, strong and uncompromising,
did not shrink from having a glass of milk before drawing his
avenging Colt, have paved the way for this new Parsifalian myth.
A strange mixture of milk and pomegranate, originating in
America, is to this day sometimes drunk in Paris, among gangsters
and hoodlums. But milk remains an exotic substance; it is wine
which is part of the nation.
The mythology of wine can in fact help us to understand the usual
ambiguity of our daily life. For it is true that wine is a good and
fine substance, but it is no less true that its production is deeply
involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of the private
distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the
Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a
crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread.
There are thus very engaging myths which are however not
innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is
precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance,
except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an
Steak and Chips
Steak is a part of the same sanguine mythology as wine. It is the
heart of meat, it is meat in its pure state; and whoever partakes of it
assimilates a bull-like strength. The prestige of steak evidently
derives from its quasi-rawness. In it, blood is visible, natural,
dense, at once compact and sectile. One can well imagine the
ambrosia of the Ancients as this kind of heavy substance which
dwindles under one's teeth in such a way as to make one keenly
aware at the same time of its original strength and of its aptitude to
flow into the very blood of man. Full-bloodedness is the raison
d'être of steak; the degrees to which it is cooked are expressed not
in calorific units but in images of blood; rare steak is said to be
saignant (when it recalls the arterial flow from the cut in the
animal's throat), or bleu (and it is now the heavy, plethoric, blood
of the veins which is suggested by the purplish colour - the
superlative of redness). Its cooking, even moderate, cannot openly
find expression; for this unnatural state, a euphemism is needed:
one says that steak is à point, 'medium', and this in truth is
understood more as a limit than as a perfection.
To eat steak rare therefore represents both a nature and a morality.
It is supposed to benefit all the temperaments, the sanguine
because it is identical, the nervous and lymphatic because it is
complementary to them. And just as wine becomes for a good
number of intellectuals a mediumistic substance which leads them
towards the original strength of nature, steak is for them a
redeeming food, thanks to which they bring their intellectualism to
the level of prose and exorcize, through blood and soft pulp, the
sterile dryness of which they are constantly accused. The craze for
steak tartare, for instance, is a magic spell against the romantic
association between sensitiveness and sickliness; there are to be
found, in this preparation, all the germinating states of matter: the
blood mash and the glair of eggs, a whole harmony of soft and life63
giving substances, a sort of meaningful compendium of the images
of pre-parturition.
Like wine, steak is in France a basic element, nationalized even
more than socialized. It figures in all the surroundings of
alimentary life: flat, edged with yellow, like the sole of a shoe, in
cheap restaurants; thick and juicy in the bistros which specialize in
it; cubic, with the core all moist throughout beneath a light charred
crust, in haute cuisine. It is a part of all the rhythms, that of the
comfortable bourgeois meal and that of the bachelor's bohemian
snack. It is a food at once expeditious and dense, it effects the best
possible ratio between economy and efficacy, between mythology
and its multifarious ways of being consumed.
Moreover, it is a French possession (circumscribed today, it is true,
by the invasion of American steaks). As in the case of wine there is
no alimentary constraint which does not make the Frenchman
dream of steak. Hardly abroad, he feels nostalgia for it. Steak is
here adorned with a supplementary virtue of elegance, for among
the apparent complexity of exotic cooking, it is a food which
unites, one feels, succulence and simplicity. Being part of the
nation, it follows the index of patriotic values: it helps them to rise
in wartime, it is the very flesh of the French soldier, the inalienable
property which cannot go over to the enemy except by treason. In
an old film (Deuxième Bureau contre Kommandantur), the maid of
the patriotic curé gives food to the Boche spy disguised as a
French underground fighter: 'Ah, it's you, Laurent! I'll give you
some steak.' And then, when the spy is unmasked: 'And when I
think I gave him some of my steak!' - the supreme breach of trust.
Commonly associated with chips, steak communicates its national
glamour to them: chips are nostalgic and patriotic like steak. Match
told us that after the armistice in Indo-China 'General de Castries,
for his first meal, asked for chips'. And the President of the Indo-
China Veterans, later commenting on this information added: 'The
gesture of General de Castries asking for chips for his first meal
has not always been understood.' What we were meant to
understand is that the General's request was certainly not a vulgar
materialistic reflex, but an episode in the ritual of appropriating the
regained French community. The General understood well our
national symbolism; he knew that la frite, chips, are the alimentary
sign of Frenchness.
The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat
The work of Jules Verne (whose centenary was recently
celebrated) would be a good subject for a structural study: it is
highly thematic. Verne has built a kind of self-sufficient
cosmogony, which has its own categories, its own time, space,
fulfilment and even existential principle.
This principle, it seems to me, is the ceaseless action of secluding
oneself. Imagination about travel corresponds in Verne to an
exploration of closure, and the compatibility between Verne and
childhood does not stem from a banal mystique of adventure, but
on the contrary from a common delight in the finite, which one
also finds in children's passion for huts and tents: to enclose
oneself and to settle, such is the existential dream of childhood and
of Verne. The archetype of this dream is this almost perfect novel:
L'Ile mystérieuse, in which the manchild re-invents the world, fills
it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic
effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe
and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in
Verne had an obsession for plenitude: he never stopped putting a
last touch to the world and furnishing it, making it full with an egglike
fullness. His tendency is exactly that of an eighteenthcentury
encyclopaedist or of a Dutch painter: the world is finite, the world
is full of numerable and contiguous objects. The artist can have no
other task than to make catalogues, inventories, and to watch out
for small unfilled corners in order to conjure up there, in close
ranks, the creations and the instruments of man. Verne belongs to
the progressive lineage of the bourgeoisie: his work proclaims that
nothing can escape man, that the world, even its most distant part,
is like an object in his hand, and that, all told, property is but a
dialectical moment in the general enslavement of Nature. Verne in
no way sought to enlarge the world by romantic ways of escape or
mystical plans to reach the infinite: he constantly sought to shrink
it, to populate it, to reduce it to a known and enclosed space, where
man could subsequently live in comfort: the world can draw
everything from itself; it needs, in order to exist, no one else but
Beyond the innumerable resources of science, Verne invented an
excellent novelistic device in order to make more vivid this
appropriation of the world: to pledge space by means of time,
constantly to unite these two categories, to stake them on a single
throw of the dice or a single impulse, which always come off. Even
vicissitudes have the function of conferring on the world a sort of
elastic state, making its limits more distant, then closer, blithely
playing with cosmic distances, and mischievously testing the
power of man over space and schedules. And on this planet which
is triumphantly eaten by the Vernian hero, like a sort of bourgeois
Antaeus whose nights are innocent and 'restoring', there often
loiters some desperado, a prey to remorse and spleen, a relic from
an extinct Romantic age, who strikingly shows up by contrast the
health of the true owners of the world, who have no other concern
but to adapt as perfectly as possible to situations whose
complexity, in no way metaphysical nor even ethical, quite simply
springs from some provocative whim of geography.
The basic activity in Jules Verne, then, is unquestionably that of
appropriation. The image of the ship, so important in his
mythology, in no way contradicts this. Quite the contrary: the ship
may well be a symbol for departure; it is, at a deeper level, the
emblem of closure. An inclination for ships always means the joy
of perfectly enclosing oneself, of having at hand the greatest
possible number of objects, and having at one's disposal an
absolutely finite space. To like ships is first and foremost to like a
house, a superlative one since it is unremittingly closed, and not at
all vague sailings into the unknown: a ship is a habitat before being
a means of transport. And sure enough, all the ships in Jules Verne
are perfect cubby-holes, and the vastness of their circumnavigation
further increases the bliss of their closure, the perfection of their
inner humanity. The Nautilus, in this regard, is the most desirable
of all caves: the enjoyment of being enclosed reaches its paroxysm
when, from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible
to watch, through a large window-pane, the outside vagueness of
the waters, and thus define, in a single act, the inside by means of
its opposite.
Most ships in legend or fiction are, from this point of view, like the
Nautilus, the theme of a cherished seclusion, for it is enough to
present the ship as the habitat of man, for man immediately to
organize there the enjoyment of a round, smooth universe, of
which, in addition, a whole nautical morality makes him at once
the god, the master and the owner (sole master on board, etc.). In
this mythology of seafaring, there is only one means to exorcize
the possessive nature of the man on a ship; it is to eliminate the
man and to leave the ship on its own. The ship then is no longer a
box, a habitat, an object that is owned; it becomes a travelling eye,
which comes close to the infinite; it constantly begets departures.
The object that is the true opposite of Verne's Nautilus is
Rimbaud's Drunken Boat, the boat which says 'I' and, freed from
its concavity, can make man proceed from a psycho-analysis of the
cave to a genuine poetics of exploration.
The Brain of Einstein
Einstein's brain is a mythical object: paradoxically, the greatest
intelligence of all provides an image of the most up-to-date
machine, the man who is too powerful is removed from
psychology, and introduced into a world of robots; as is well
known, the supermen of science-fiction always have something
reified about them. So has Einstein: he is commonly signified by
his brain, which is like an object for anthologies, a true museum
exhibit. Perhaps because of his mathematical specialization,
superman is here divested of every magical character; no diffuse
power in him, no mystery other than mechanical: he is a superior, a
prodigious organ, but a real, even a physiological one.
Mythologically, Einstein is matter, his power does not
spontaneously draw one towards the spiritual, it needs the help of
an independent morality, a reminder about the scientist's
'conscience' (Science without conscience, * they said...).
Einstein himself has to some extent been a party to the legend by
bequeathing his brain, for the possession of which two hospitals
are still fighting as if it were an unusual piece of machinery which
it will at last be possible to dismantle. A photograph shows him
lying down, his head bristling with electric wires: the waves of his
brain are being recorded, while he is requested to 'think of
relativity'. (But for that matter, what does 'to think of' mean,
exactly?) What this is meant to convey is probably that the
seismograms will be all the more violent since 'relativity' is an
arduous subject. Thought itself is thus represented as an energetic
material, the measurable product of a complex (quasi-electrical)
apparatus which transforms cerebral substance into power. The
mythology of Einstein shows him as a genius so lacking in magic
that one speaks about his thought as of a functional labour
analogous to the mechanical making of sausages, the grinding of
corn or the crushing of ore: he used to produce thought,
continuously, as a mill makes flour, and death was above all, for
him, the cessation of a localized function: 'the most powerful brain
of all has stopped thinking'.
What this machine of genius was supposed to produce was
equations. Through the mythology of Einstein, the world blissfully
regained the image of knowledge reduced to a formula.
Paradoxically, the more the genius of the man was materialized
under the guise of his brain, the more the product of his
inventiveness came to acquire a magical dimension, and gave a
new incarnation to the old esoteric image of a science entirely
contained in a few letters. There is a single secret to the world, and
this secret is held in one word; the universe is a safe of which
humanity seeks the combination: Einstein almost found it, this is
the myth of Einstein. In it, we find all the Gnostic themes: the
unity of nature, the ideal possibility of a fundamental reduction of
the world, the unfastening power of the word, the age-old struggle
between a secret and an utterance, the idea that total knowledge
can only be discovered all at once, like a lock which suddenly
opens after a thousand unsuccessful attempts. The historic equation
E = mc2, by its unexpected simplicity, almost embodies the pure
idea of the key, bare, linear, made of one metal, opening with a
wholly magical ease a door which had resisted the desperate efforts
of centuries. Popular imagery faithfully expresses this:
photographs of Einstein show him standing next to a blackboard
covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity; but
cartoons of Einstein (the sign that he has become a legend) show
him chalk still in hand, and having just written on an empty
blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of, the
world. In this way mythology shows an awareness of the nature of
the various tasks: research proper brings into play clockwork-like
mechanisms and has its seat in a wholly material organ which is
monstrous only by its cybernetic complication; discovery, on the
contrary, has a magical essence, it is simple like a basic element, a
principial substance, like the philosophers' stone of hermetists, tarwater
for Berkeley, or oxygen for Schelling.
But since the world is still going on, since research is proliferating,
and on the other hand since God's share must be preserved, some
failure on the part of Einstein is necessary: Einstein died, it is said,
without having been able to verify 'the equation in which the secret
of the world was enclosed'. So in the end the world resisted; hardly
opened, the secret closed again, the code was incomplete. In this
way Einstein fulfils all the conditions of myth, which could not
care less about contradictions so long as it establishes a euphoric
security: at once magician and machine, eternal researcher and
unfulfilled discoverer, unleashing the best and the worst, brain and
conscience, Einstein embodies the most contradictory dreams, and
mythically reconciles the infinite power of man over nature with
the 'fatality' of the sacrosanct, which man cannot yet do without.
* 'Science without conscience is but the ruin of the Soul' (Rabelais,
Pantagruel II, ch. 8).
The Jet-man
The jet-man is a jet-pilot. Match has specified that he belongs to a
new race in aviation, nearer to the robot than to the hero. Yet there
are in the jet-man several Parsifalian residues, as we shall see
shortly. But what strikes one first in the mythology of the jet-man
is the elimination of speed: nothing in the legend alludes to this
experience. We must here accept a paradox, which is in fact
admitted by everyone with the greatest of ease, and even consumed
as a proof of modernity. This paradox is that an excess of speed
turns into repose. The pilot-hero was made unique by a whole
mythology of speed as an experience, of space devoured, of
intoxicating motion; the jet-man, on the other hand, is defined by a
coenaesthesis of motionlessness ('at 2,000 km per hour, in level
flight, no impression of speed at all'), as if the extravagance of his
vocation precisely consisted in overtaking motion, in going faster
than speed. Mythology abandons here a whole imagery of exterior
friction and enters pure coenaesthesis: motion is no longer the
optical perception of points and surfaces; it has become a kind of
vertical disorder, made of contractions, black-outs, terrors and
faints; it is no longer a gliding but an inner devastation, an
unnatural perturbation, a motionless crisis of bodily consciousness.
No wonder if, carried to such a pitch, the myth of the aviator loses
all humanism. The hero of classical speed could remain a
'gentleman', inasmuch as motion was for him an occasional exploit,
for which courage alone was required: one went faster in bursts,
like a daring amateur, not like a professional, one sought an
'intoxication', one came to motion equipped with an age-old
moralizing which made its perception keener and enabled one to
express its philosophy. It is inasmuch as speed was an adventure
that it linked the airman to a whole series of human roles.
The jet-man, on the other hand, no longer seems to know either
adventure or destiny, but only a condition. Yet this condition is at
first sight less human than anthropological: mythically, the jet-man
is defined less by his courage than by his weight, his diet and his
habits (temperance, frugality, continence). His racial apartness can
be read in his morphology: the anti-G suit of inflatable nylon, the
shiny helmet, introduce the jet-man into a novel type of skin in
which 'even his mother mould not know him'. We are dealing with
a true racial conversion, all the more credible since science-fiction
has already largely substantiated this metamorphosis of species:
everything happens as if there had been a sudden mutation between
the earlier creatures of propeller-mankind and the later ones of jetmankind.
In fact, and in spite of the scientific garb of this new mythology,
there has merely been a displacement of the sacred: after the
hagiographic era (Saints and Martyrs of propeller-aviation) there
follows a monastic period; and what passes at first for mere
dietetic prescriptions soon appears invested with a sacerdotal
significance: continence and temperance, abstention and
withdrawal from pleasures, community life, uniform clothing -
everything concurs, in the mythology of the jet-man, to make
manifest the plasticity of the flesh, its submission to collective
ends (chastely undefined, by the way), and it is this submission
which is offered as a sacrifice to the glamorous singularity of an
inhuman condition. Society eventually recognizes, a propos of the
jet-man, the old theosophical pact, which has always compensated
power by an ascetic life, paid for semi-divinity in the coin of
human 'happiness'. So truly does the situation of the jet-man
comprise the sense of a religious call, that it is itself the reward of
previous austerities, of initiatory proceedings, meant to test the
postulant (passage through the altitude chamber and in the
centrifugal machine). Right down to the Instructor, greying,
anonymous and inscrutable, who is perfectly suited to the part of
the necessary mystagogue. As for endurance, we are definitely told
that, as is the case in all initiations, it is not physical in nature:
triumph in preliminary ordeals is, truth to tell, the fruit of a
spiritual gift, one is gifted for jet-flying as others are called to God.
All this would be commonplace if we were dealing with the
traditional hero, whose whole value was to fly without forgoing his
humanity (like Saint-Exupéry who was a writer, or Lindbergh who
flew in a lounge-suit). But the mythological peculiarity of the jetman
is that he keeps none of the romantic and individualistic
elements of the sacred role, without nevertheless forsaking the role
itself. Assimilated by his name to pure passivity (what is more
inert and more dispossessed than an object expelled in jet form?),
he reintegrates the ritual nevertheless, thanks to the myth of a
fictitious, celestial race, which is said to derive its peculiarities
from its ascetic life, and which effects a kind of anthropological
compromise between humans and Martians. The jet-man is a
reified hero, as if even today men could conceive the heavens only
as populated with semi-objects.
The Blue Guide
The Blue Guide * hardly knows the existence of scenery except
under the guise of the picturesque. The picturesque is found any
time the ground is uneven. We find again here this bourgeois
promoting of the mountains, this old Alpine myth (since it dates
back to the nineteenth century) which Gide rightly associated with
Helvetico-Protestant morality and which has always functioned as
a hybrid compound of the cult of nature and of puritanism
(regeneration through clean air, moral ideas at the sight of
mountain-tops, summit-climbing as civic virtue, etc.). Among the
views elevated by the Blue Guide to aesthetic existence, we rarely
find plains (redeemed only when they can be described as fertile),
never plateaux. Only mountains, gorges, defiles and torrents can
have access to the pantheon of travel, inasmuch, probably, as they
seem to encourage a morality of effort and solitude. Travel
according to the Blue Guide is thus revealed as a labour-saving
adjustment, the easy substitute for the morally uplifting walk. This
in itself means that the mythology of the Blue Guide dates back to
the last century, to that phase in history when the bourgeoisie was
enjoying a kind of new-born euphoria in buying effort, in keeping
its image and essence without feeling any of its ill-effects. It is
therefore in the last analysis, quite logically and quite stupidly, the
gracelessness of a landscape, its lack of spaciousness or human
appeal, its verticality, so contrary to the bliss of travel, which
account for its interest. Ultimately, the Guide will coolly write:
'The road becomes very picturesque (tunnels)': it matters little that
one no longer sees anything, since the tunnel here has become the
sufficient sign of the mountain; it is a financial security stable
enough for one to have no further worry about its value over the
Just as hilliness is overstressed to such an extent as to eliminate all
other types of scenery, the human life of a country disappears to
the exclusive benefit of its monuments. For the Blue Guide, men
exist only as 'types'. In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an
adventurous sailor, the Levantine a light-hearted gardener, the
Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a sentimental
highlander. We find again here this disease of thinking in essences,
which is at the bottom of every bourgeois mythology of man
(which is why we come across it so often). The ethnic reality of
Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat
commedia dell'arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the
real spectacle of conditions, classes and professions. For the Blue
Guide, men exist as social entities only in trains, where they fill a
'very mixed' Third Class. Apart from that, they are a mere
introduction, they constitute a charming and fanciful decor, meant
to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of
If one excepts its wild defiles, fit for moral ejaculations, Spain
according to the Blue Guide knows only one type of space, that
which weaves, across a few nondescript lacunae, a close web of
churches, vestries, reredoses, crosses, altar-curtains, spires (always
octagonal), sculpted groups (Family and Labour), Romanesque
porches, naves and life-size crucifixes. It can be seen that all these
monuments are religious, for from a bourgeois point of view it is
almost impossible to conceive a History of Art which is not
Christian and Roman Catholic. Christianity is the chief purveyor of
tourism, and one travels only to visit churches. In the case of
Spain, this imperialism is ludicrous, for Catholicism often appears
there as a barbaric force which has stupidly defaced the earlier
achievements of Muslim civilization: the mosque at Cordoba,
whose wonderful forest of columns is at every turn obstructed by
massive blocks of altars, or a colossal Virgin (set up by Franco)
denaturing the site which it aggressively dominatesall this should
help the French bourgeois to glimpse at least once in his life that
historically there is also a reverse side to Christianity.
Generally speaking; the Blue Guide testifies to the futility of all
analytical descriptions, those which reject both explanations and
phenomenology: it answers in fact none of the questions which a
modern traveller can ask himself while crossing a countryside
which is real and which exists in time. To select only monuments
suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land and that of its
people, it accounts for nothing of the present, that is, nothing
historical, and as a consequence, the monuments themselves
become undecipherable, therefore senseless. What is to be seen is
thus constantly in the process of vanishing, and the Guide
becomes, through an operation common to all mystifications, the
very opposite of what it advertises, an agent of blindness. By
reducing geography to the description of an uninhabited world of
monuments, the Blue Guide expresses a mythology which is
obsolete for a part of the bourgeoisie itself. It is unquestionable
that travel has become (or become again) a method of approach
based on human realities rather than 'culture': once again (as in the
eighteenth century, perhaps) it is everyday life which is the main
object of travel, and it is social geography, town-planning,
sociology, economics which outline the framework of the actual
questions asked today even by the merest layman. But as for the
Blue Guide, it still abides by a partly superseded bourgeois
mythology, that which postulated (religious) Art as the
fundamental value of culture, but saw its 'riches' and 'treasures'
only as a reassuring accumulation of goods (cf. the creation of
museums). This behaviour expressed a double urge: to have at
one's disposal a cultural alibi as ethereal as possible, and to
maintain this alibi in the toils of a computable and acquisitive
system, so that one could at any moment do the accounts of the
ineffable. It goes without saying that this myth of travel is
becoming quite anachronistic, even among the bourgeoisie, and I
suppose that if one entrusted the preparation of a new guide-book
to, say, the lady-editors at L'Express or the editors of Match, we
would see appearing, questionable as they would still probably be,
quite different countries: after the Spain of Anquetil or Larousse,
would follow the Spain of Siegfried, then that of Fourastié. Notice
how already, in the Michelin Guide, the number of bathrooms and
forks indicating good restaurants is vying with that of 'artistic
curiosities': even bourgeois myths have their differential geology.
It is true that in the case of Spain, the blinkered and old-fashioned
character of the description is what is best suited to the latent
support given by the Guide to Franco. Beside the historical
accounts proper (which are rare and meagre, incidentally, for it is
well known that History is not a good bourgeois), those accounts in
which the Republicans are always 'extremists' looting churches -
but nothing on Guernica - while the good 'Nationalists', on the
contrary, spend their time 'liberating', solely by 'skilful strategic
manoeuvres' and 'heroic feats of resistance', let me mention the
flowering of a splendid myth-alibi: that of the prosperity of the
country. Needless to say, this prosperity is 'statistical' and 'global',
or to be more accurate: 'commercial'. The Guide does not tell us, of
course, how this fine prosperity is shared out: hierarchically,
probably, since they think it fit to tell us that 'the serious and
patient effort of this people has also included the reform of its
political system, in order to achieve regeneration through the loyal
application of sound principles of order and hierarchy.'
* Hachette World Guides, dubbed 'Guide Bleu' in French.
Ornamental Cookery
The weekly Elle (a real mythological treasure) gives us almost
every week a fine colour photograph of a prepared dish: golden
partridges studded with cherries, a faintly pink chicken chaudfroid,
a mould of crayfish surrounded by their red shells, a frothy
charlotte prettified with glacé fruit designs, multicoloured trifle,
The 'substantial' category which prevails in this type of cooking is
that of the smooth coating: there is an obvious endeavour to glaze
surfaces, to round them off, to bury the food under the even
sediment of sauces, creams, icing and jellies. This of course comes
from the very finality of the coating, which belongs to a visual
category, and cooking according to Elle is meant for the eye alone,
since sight is a genteel sense. For there is, in this persistence of
glazing, a need for gentility. Elle is a highly valuable journal, from
the point of view of legend at least, since its role is to present to its
vast public which (market-research tells us) is working-class, the
very dream of smartness. Hence a cookery which is based on
coatings and alibis, and is for ever trying to extenuate and even to
disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs, the brutality of meat or
the abruptness of sea-food. A country dish is admitted only as an
exception (the good family boiled beef), as the rustic whim of
jaded city-dwellers.
But above all, coatings prepare and support one of the major
developments of genteel cookery: ornamentation. Glazing, in Elle,
serves as background for unbridled beautification: chiselled
mushrooms, punctuation of cherries, motifs of carved lemon,
shavings of truffle, silver pastilles, arabesques of glacé fruit: the
underlying coat (and this is why I called it a sediment, since the
food itself becomes no more than an indeterminate bed-rock) is
intended to be the page on which can be read a whole rococo
cookery (there is a partiality for a pinkish colour).
Ornamentation proceeds in two contradictory ways, which we shall
in a moment see dialectically reconciled: on the one hand, fleeing
from nature thanks to a kind of frenzied baroque (sticking shrimps
in a lemon, making a chicken look pink, serving grapefruit hot),
and on the other, trying to reconstitute it through an incongruous
artifice (strewing meringue mushrooms and holly leaves on a
traditional log-shaped Christmas cake, replacing the heads of
crayfish around the sophisticated bechamel which hides their
bodies). It is in fact the same pattern which one finds in the
elaboration of petit-bourgeois trinkets (ashtrays in the shape of a
saddle, lighters in the shape of a cigarette, terrines in the shape of a
This is because here, as in all petit-bourgeois art, the irrepressible
tendency towards extreme realism is countered - or balanced - by
one of the eternal imperatives of journalism for women's
magazines: what is pompously called, at L'Express, having ideas.
Cookery in Elle is, in the same way, an 'idea' - cookery. But here
inventiveness, confined to a fairy-land reality, must be applied
only to garnishings, for the genteel tendency of the magazine
precludes it from touching on the real problems concerning food
(the real problem is not to have the idea of sticking cherries into a
partridge, it is to have the partridge, that is to say, to pay for it).
This ornamental cookery is indeed supported by wholly mythical
economics. This is an openly dream-like cookery, as proved in fact
by the photographs in Elle, which never show the dishes except
from a high angle, as objects at once near and inaccessible, whose
consumption can perfectly well be accomplished simply by
looking. It is, in the fullest meaning of the word, a cuisine of
advertisement, totally magical, especially when one remembers
that this magazine is widely read in small-income groups. The
latter, in fact, explains the former: it is because Elle is addressed to
a genuinely working-class public that it is very careful not to take
for granted that cooking must be economical. Compare with
L'Express, whose exclusively middle-class public enjoys a
comfortable purchasing power: its cookery is real, not magical.
Elle gives the recipe of fancy partridges, L'Express gives that of
salade niçoise. The readers of Elle are entitled only to fiction; one
can suggest real dishes to those of L'Express, in the certainty that
they will be able to prepare them.
Neither-Nor Criticism
We were able to read in one of the first numbers of L'Express (the
daily) the (anonymous) profession of faith of a critic, which was a
superb piece of balanced rhetoric. Its idea was that criticism must
be 'neither a parlour game, nor a municipal service' which means
that it must be neither reactionary nor communist, neither
gratuitous nor political.
We are dealing here with a mechanism based on a double
exclusion largely pertaining to this enumerative mania which we
have already come across several times, and which I thought I
could broadly define as a petit-bourgeois trait. One reckons all the
methods with scales, one piles them up on each side as one thinks
best, so as to appear oneself as an imponderable arbiter endowed
with a spirituality which is ideal and thereby just, like the beam
which is the judge in the weighing.
The faults indispensable to this operation of accountancy consist in
the morality of the terms used. According to an old terrorist device
(one cannot escape terrorism at will), one judges at the same time
as one names, and the word, ballasted by a prior culpability, quite
naturally comes to weigh down one of the scales. For instance,
culture will be opposed to ideologies. Culture is a noble, universal
thing, placed outside social choices: culture has no weight.
Ideologies, on the other hand, are partisan inventions: so, onto the
scales, and out with them! Both sides are dismissed under the stern
gaze of culture (without realizing that culture itself is, in the last
analysis, an ideology). Everything happens as if there were on one
side heavy, defective words (ideology, catechism, militant), meant
to serve for the ignominious game of the scales; and on the other,
light, pure, immaterial words, noble by divine right, sublime to the
point of evading the sordid law of numbers (adventure, passion,
grandeur, virtue, honour), words placed above the sorry
computation of lies. The latter group has the function of
admonishing the former: there are words which are criminal and
there are others which judge them. Needless to say, this fine
morality of the Third Party unavoidably leads to new dichotomy,
quite as simplistic as that which one wanted to expose in the very
name of complexity. True, our world may well be subjected to a
law of alternations; but you can be sure that it is a schism without
Tribunal; no salvation for the judges: they also are well and truly
Besides, it is enough to see which other myths emerge in this
Neither-Nor criticism, to understand on which side it is situated.
Without speaking further on the myth of timelessness which is at
the core of any appeal to an eternal 'culture' ('an art for all time'), I
also find, in our Neither-Nor doctrine, two common expedients of
bourgeois mythology. The first consists in a certain idea of
freedom, conceived as 'the refusal of a priori judgments'. Now a
literary judgment is always determined by the whole of which it is
a part, and the very absence of a system - especially when it
becomes a profession of faith - stems from a very definite system,
which in this case is a very common variety of bourgeois ideology
(or of culture, as our anonymous writer would say). It can even be
said it is when man proclaims his primal liberty that his
subordination is least disputable. One can without fear defy anyone
ever to practise an innocent criticism, free from any systematic
determination: the Neither-Nor brigade themselves are committed
to a system, which is not necessarily the one to which they
proclaim their allegiance. One cannot judge Literature without
some previous idea of Man and History, of Good, Evil, Society,
etc.: even in the simple word adventure, which is used with such
alacrity by our Neither-Nor critics in order to moralize against
those nasty systems which 'don't cause any surprise', what
heredity, what fatality, what routine! Any kind of freedom always
in the end re-integrates a known type of coherence, which is
nothing but a given a priori. So that freedom, for the critic, is not
to refuse the wager (impossible!), it is to make his own wager
obvious or not. *
The second bourgeois symptom in our text is the euphoric
reference to the 'style' of the writer as to an eternal value of
Literature. And yet, nothing can escape being put into question by
History; not even good writing. Style is quite precisely dated as a
critical value, and to make claims in the name of 'style' at the very
time when some important writers have attacked this last
stronghold in the mythology of classicism, is to show thereby a
certain archaism: no, to come back once more to 'style' is not
adventure! Better advised in a subsequent number, L'Express
published a pertinent protest by A. Robbe-Grillet against the
magical appeal to Stendhal ('it reads just like Stendhal'). A certain
union of style and humanity (as in Anatole France, for instance) is
perhaps no longer sufficient as a basis for 'Literature'. It is even to
be feared that 'style', compromised by so many falsely human
works, has finally become something suspect a priori: it is, at any
rate, a value which should only be put to the credit of the writer
awaiting a proper appraisal. This does not mean, naturally, that
Literature can exist without some formal artifice. But, with due
respect to our Neither-Nor critics, who are invariably the adepts of
a bi-partite universe where they would represent divine
transcendence, the opposite of good writing is not necessarily bad
writing: today it is perhaps just writing. Literature has entered a
situation which is difficult, restricted, mortal. It is no longer its
ornaments that it is defending, but its skin: I rather fear that the
new Neither-Nor criticism is one season behind.
* An allusion to Pascal's wager.
Striptease - at least Parisian striptease - is based on a contradiction:
Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped
naked. We may therefore say that we are dealing in a sense with a
spectacle based on fear, or rather on the pretence of fear, as if
eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious terror, whose
ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea of
sex and its conjuration.
It is only the time taken in shedding clothes which makes voyeurs
of the public; but here, as in any mystifying spectacle, the decor,
the props and the stereotypes intervene to contradict the initially
provocative intention and eventually bury it in insignificance: evil
is advertised the better to impede and exorcize it. French striptease
seems to stem from what I have earlier called 'Operation
Margarine', a mystifying device which consists in inoculating the
public with a touch of evil, the better to plunge it afterwards into a
permanently immune Moral Good: a few particles of eroticism,
highlighted by the very situation on which the show is based, are in
fact absorbed in a reassuring ritual which negates the flesh as
surely as the vaccine or the taboo circumscribe and control the
illness or the crime.
There will therefore be in striptease a whole series of coverings
placed upon the body of the woman in proportion as she pretends
to strip it bare. Exoticism is the first of these barriers, for it is
always of a petrified kind which transports the body into the world
of legend or romance: a Chinese woman equipped with an opium
pipe (the indispensable symbol of 'Sininess' *), an undulating vamp
with a gigantic cigarette-holder, a Venetian decor complete with
gondola, a dress with panniers and a singer of serenades: all aim at
establishing the woman right from the start as an object in
disguise. The end of the striptease is then no longer to drag into the
light a hidden depth, but to signify, through the shedding of an
incongruous and artificial clothing, nakedness as a natural vesture
of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly
chaste state of the flesh.
The classic props of the music-hall, which are invariably rounded
up here, constantly make the unveiled body more remote, and force
it back into the all-pervading ease of a well-known rite: the furs,
the fans, the gloves, the feathers, the fishnet stockings, in short the
whole spectrum of adornment, constantly makes the living body
return to the category of luxurious objects which surround man
with a magical decor. Covered with feathers or gloved, the woman
identifies herself here as a stereotyped element of music-hall, and
to shed objects as ritualistic as these is no longer a part of a further,
genuine undressing. Feathers, furs and gloves go on pervading the
woman with their magical virtue even once removed, and give her
something like the enveloping memory of a luxurious shell, for it is
a self-evident law that the whole of striptease is given in the very
nature of the initial garment: if the latter is improbable, as in the
case of the Chinese woman or the woman in furs, the nakedness
which follows remains itself unreal, smooth and enclosed like a
beautiful slippery object, withdrawn by its very extravagance from
human use: this is the underlying significance of the G-String
covered with diamonds or sequins which is the very end of
striptease. This ultimate triangle, by its pure and geometrical
shape, by its hard and shiny material, bars the way to the sexual
parts like a sword of purity, and definitively drives the woman
back into a mineral world, the (precious) stone being here the
irrefutable symbol of the absolute object, that which serves no
Contrary to the common prejudice, the dance which accompanies
the striptease from beginning to end is in no way an erotic element.
It is probably quite the reverse: the faintly rhythmical undulation in
this case exorcizes the fear of immobility. Not only does it give to
the show the alibi of Art (the dances in strip-shows are always
'artistic'), but above all it constitutes the last barrier, and the most
efficient of all: the dance, consisting of ritual gestures which have
been seen a thousand times, acts on movements as a cosmetic, it
hides nudity, and smothers the spectacle under a glaze of
superfluous yet essential gestures, for the act of becoming bare is
here relegated to the rank of parasitical operations carried out in an
improbable background. Thus we see the professionals of
striptease wrap themselves in the miraculous ease which constantly
clothes them, makes them remote, gives them the icy indifference
of skilful practitioners, haughtily taking refuge in the sureness of
their technique: their science clothes them like a garment.
All this, this meticulous exorcism of sex, can be verified a
contrario in the 'popular contests' (sic) of amateur striptease: there,
'beginners' undress in front of a few hundred spectators without
resorting or resorting very clumsily to magic, which
unquestionably restores to the spectacle its erotic power. Here we
find at the beginning far fewer Chinese or Spanish women, no
feathers or furs (sensible suits, ordinary coats), few disguises as a
starting point - gauche steps, unsatisfactory dancing, girls
constantly threatened by immobility, and above all by a 'technical'
awkwardness (the resistance of briefs, dress or bra) which gives to
the gestures of unveiling an unexpected importance, denying the
woman the alibi of art and the refuge of being an object,
imprisoning her in a condition of weakness and timorousness.
And yet, at the Moulin Rouge, we see hints of another kind of
exorcism, probably typically French, and one which in actual fact
tends less to nullify eroticism than to tame it: the compere tries to
give striptease a reassuring pent-bourgeois status. To start with,
striptease is a sport: there is a Striptease Club, which organizes
healthy contests whose winners come out crowned and rewarded
with edifying prizes (a subscription to physical training lessons), a
novel (which can only be Robbe-Grillet's Voyeur), or useful prizes
(a pair of nylons, five thousand francs). Then, striptease is
identified with a career (beginners, semi-professionals,
professionals), that is, to the honourable practice of a specialization
(strippers are skilled workers). One can even give them the
magical alibi of work: vocation; one girl is, say, 'doing well' or
'well on the may to fuelling her promise', or on the contrary 'taking
her first steps' on the arduous path of striptease. Finally and above
all, the competitors are socially situated: one is a salesgirl, another
a secretary (there are many secretaries in the Striptease Club).
Striptease here is made to rejoin the world of the public, is made
familiar and bourgeois, as if the French, unlike the American
public (at least according to what one hears), following an
irresistible tendency of their social status, could not conceive
eroticism except as a household property, sanctioned by the alibi of
weekly sport much more than by that of a magical spectacle: and
this is how, in France, striptease is nationalized.
* See below, p. 121.
The New Citroën
I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great
Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era,
conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in
image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates
them as a purely magical object.
It is obvious that the new Citroën has fallen from the sky inasmuch
as it appears at first sight as a superlative object. We must not
forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of
nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an
absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of
life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a
word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales. The D.S. -
the 'Goddess' - has all the features (or at least the public is
unanimous in attributing them to it at first sight) of one of those
objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the
neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own sciencefiction:
the Déesse is first and foremost a new Nautilus.
This is why it excites interest less by its substance than by the
junction of its components. It is well known that smoothness is
always an attribute of perfection because its opposite reveals a
technical and typically human operation of assembling: Christ's
robe was seamless, just as the airships of science-fiction are made
of unbroken metal. The D.S. 19 has no pretensions about being as
smooth as cake-icing, although its general shape is very rounded;
yet it is the dove-tailing of its sections which interest the public
most: one keenly fingers the edges of the windows, one feels along
the wide rubber grooves which link the back window to its metal
surround. There are in the D.S. the beginnings of a new
phenomenology of assembling, as if one progressed from a world
where elements are welded to a world where they are juxtaposed
and hold together by sole virtue of their wondrous shape, which of
course is meant to prepare one for the idea of a more benign
As for the material itself, it is certain that it promotes a taste for
lightness in its magical sense. There is a return to a certain degree
of streamlining, new, however, since it is less bulky, less incisive,
more relaxed than that which one found in the first period of this
fashion. Speed here is expressed by less aggressive, less athletic
signs, as if it were evolving from a primitive to a classical form.
This spiritualization can be seen in the extent, the quality and the
material of the glass-work. The Déesse is obviously the exaltation
of glass, and pressed metal is only a support for it. Here, the glass
surfaces are not windows, openings pierced in a dark shell; they
are vast walls of air and space, with the curvature, the spread and
the brilliance of soap-bubbles, the hard thinness of a substance
more entomological than mineral (the Citroën emblem, with its
arrows, has in fact become a winged emblem, as if one was
proceeding from the category of propulsion to that of spontaneous
motion, from that of the engine to that of the organism).
We are therefore dealing here with a humanized art, and it is
possible that the Déesse marks a change in the mythology of cars.
Until now, the ultimate in cars belonged rather to the bestiary of
power; here it becomes at once more spiritual and more objectlike,
and despite some concessions to neomania (such as the empty
steering wheel), it is now more homely, more attuned to this
sublimation of the utensil which one also finds in the design of
contemporary household equipment. The dashboard looks more
like the working surface of a modern kitchen than the control-room
of a factory: the slim panes of matt fluted metal, the small levers
topped by a white ball, the very simple dials, the very discreteness
of the nickel-work, all this signifies a kind of control exercised
over motion, which is henceforth conceived as comfort rather than
performance. One is obviously turning from an alchemy of speed
to a relish in driving.
The public, it seems, has admirably divined the novelty of the
themes which are suggested to it. Responding at first to the
neologism (a whole publicity campaign had kept it on the alert for
years), it tries very quickly to fall back on a behaviour which
indicates adjustment and a readiness to use ('You've got to get used
to it'). In the exhibition halls, the car on show is explored with an
intense, amorous studiousness: it is the great tactile phase of
discovery, the moment when visual wonder is about to receive the
reasoned assault of touch (for touch is the most demystifying of all
senses, unlike sight, which is the most magical). The bodywork,
the lines of union are touched, the upholstery palpated, the seats
tried, the doors caressed, the cushions fondled; before the wheel,
one pretends to drive with one's whole body. The object here is
totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of
Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediatized,
actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petitbourgeois
Photography and Electoral Appeal
Some candidates for Parliament adorn their electoral prospectus
with a portrait. This presupposes that photography has a power to
convert which must be analysed. To start with, the effigy of a
candidate establishes a personal link between him and the voters;
the candidate does not only offer a programme for judgment, he
suggests a physical climate, a set of daily choices expressed in a
morphology, a way of dressing, a posture. Photography thus tends
to restore the paternalistic nature of elections, whose elitist essence
has been disrupted by proportional representation and the rule of
parties (the Right seems to use it more than the Left). Inasmuch as
photography is an ellipse of language and a condensation of an
'ineffable' social whole, it constitutes an antiintellectual weapon
and tends to spirit away 'politics' (that is to say a body of problems
and solutions) to the advantage of a 'manner of being', a sociomoral
status. It is well known that this antithesis is one of the
major myths of Poujadism (Poujade on television saying: 'Look at
me: I am like you').
Electoral photography is therefore above all the acknowledgment
of something deep and irrational co-extensive with politics. What
is transmitted through the photograph of the candidate are not his
plans, but his deep motives, all his family, mental, even erotic
circumstances, all this style of life of which he is at once the
product, the example and the bait. It is obvious that what most of
our candidates offer us through their likeness is a type of social
setting, the spectacular comfort of family, legal and religious
norms, the suggestion of innately owning such items of bourgeois
property as Sunday Mass, xenophobia, steak and chips, cuckold
jokes, in short, what we call an ideology. Needless to say the use of
electoral photography presupposes a kind of complicity: a
photograph is a mirror, what we are asked to read is the familiar,
the known; it offers to the voter his own likeness, but clarified,
exalted, superbly elevated into a type. This glorification is in fact
the very definition of the photogenic: the voter is at once expressed
and heroized, he is invited to elect himself, to weigh the mandate
which he is about to give with a veritable physical transference: he
is delegating his 'race'.
The types which are thus delegated are not very varied. First there
is that which stands for social status, respectability, whether
sanguine and well-fed (lists of 'National' parties), or genteel and
insipid (lists of the M.R.P.-the Christian Democrats). Then, the
type of the intellectual (let it be repeated that we are dealing here
with 'signified' types, not actual ones) whether sanctimonious like
the candidate of centre right parties like the Rassemblement
National, or 'searching' like that of the Communists. In the last two
cases, the iconography is meant to signify the exceptional
conjunction of thought and will, reflection and action: the slightly
narrowed eyes allow a sharp look to filter through, which seems to
find its strength in a beautiful inner dream without however
ceasing to alight on real obstacles, as if the ideal candidate had in
this case magnificently to unite social idealism with bourgeois
empiricism. The last type is quite simply that of the 'good-looking
chap', whose obvious credentials are his health and virility. Some
candidates, incidentally, beautifully manage to win on both counts,
appearing for instance as a handsome hero (in uniform) on one side
of the handout, and as a mature and virile citizen on the other,
displaying his little family. For in most cases, the morphological
type is assisted by very obvious attributes: one candidate is
surrounded by his kids (curled and dolledup like all children
photographed in France), another is a young parachutist with
rolled-up sleeves, or an officer with his chest covered with
decorations. Photography constitutes here a veritable blackmail by
means of moral values: country, army, family, honour, reckless
The conventions of photography, moreover, are themselves replete
with signs. A full-face photograph underlines the realistic outlook
of the candidate, especially if he is provided with scrutinizing
glasses. Everything there expresses penetration, gravity, frankness:
the future deputy is looking squarely at the enemy, the obstacle,
the 'problem'. A three-quarter face photograph, which is more
common, suggests the tyranny of an ideal: the gaze is lost nobly in
the future, it does not confront, it soars, and fertilizes some other
domain, which is chastely left undefined. Almost all three-quarter
face photos arc ascensional, the face is lifted towards a
supernatural light which draws it up and elevates it to the realm of
a higher humanity; the candidate reaches the Olympus of elevated
feelings, where all political contradictions are solved: peace and
war in Algeria, social progress and employers' profits, so-called
'free' religious schools and subsidies from the sugar-beet lobby, the
Right and the Left (an opposition always 'superseded'!): all these
coexist peacefully in this thoughtful gaze, nobly fixed on the
hidden interests of Order.
The Lost Continent
A film, The Lost Continent, throws a clear light on the current
myth of exoticism. It is a big documentary on 'the East', the pretext
of which is some undefined ethnographic expedition, evidently
false, incidentally, led by three or four bearded Italians into the
Malay Archipelago. The film is euphoric, everything in it is easy,
innocent. Our explorers are good fellows, who fill up their leisure
time with child-like amusements: they play with their mascot, a
little bear (a mascot is indispensable in all expeditions: no film
about the polar region is without its tame seal, no documentary on
the tropics is without its monkey), or they comically upset a dish of
spaghetti on the deck. Which means that these good people,
anthropologists though they are, don't bother much with historical
or sociological problems. Penetrating the Orient never means more
for them than a little trip in a boat, on an azure sea, in an
essentially sunny country. And this same Orient which has today
become the political centre of the world we see here all flattened,
made smooth and gaudily coloured like an old-fashioned postcard.
The device which produces irresponsibility is clear: colouring the
world is always a means of denying it (and perhaps one should at
this point begin an inquiry into the use of colour in the cinema).
Deprived of all substance, driven back into colour, disembodied
through the very glamour of the 'images', the Orient is ready for the
spiriting away which the film has in store for it. What with the bear
as a mascot and the droll spaghetti, our studio anthropologists will
have no trouble in postulating an Orient which is exotic in form,
while being in reality profoundly similar to the Occident, at least
the Occident of spiritualist thought. Orientals have religions of
their own? Never mind, these variations matter very little
compared to the basic unity of idealism. Every rite is thus made at
once specific and eternal, promoted at one stroke into a piquant
spectacle and a quasi-Christian symbol. And even if Buddhism is
not strictly speaking Christian, does it matter, since it also has nuns
who have their heads shaven (a major theme in the pathos of all
ceremonies of taking the veil), since it has monks who kneel and
confess to their superior, and finally since, as in Seville, the
faithful come and cover with gold the statue of their god? * It is
true that it is always the forms which emphasize best the identity of
all religions; but here this identity, far from unmasking them, gives
them a firm basis instead and credits them all to a higher form of
It is well known that syncretism has always been one of the great
assimilating techniques of the Church. In the seventeenth century,
in this same Orient whose Christian predispositions are shown to
us by The Lost Continent, the Jesuits went very far towards the
oecumemcity of forms: thus were born the Malabar rites, which the
Pope, in fact, eventually condemned. It is this same 'all things are
alike' which is hinted at by our ethnographers: East and West, it is
all the same, they are only different in hue, their essential core is
identical, and that is the eternal postulation of man towards God,
the paltry and contingent character of geographical considerations
compared to this human nature of which Christianity alone holds
the key. Even the legends, all this 'primitive' folklore whose
strangeness seems ostensibly pointed out to us, have as their sole
mission the illustration of 'Nature': the rites, the cultural facts, are
never related to a particular historical order, an explicit economic
or social status, but only to the great neutral forms of cosmic
commonplaces (the seasons, storms, death, etc.). If we are
concerned with fishermen, it is not at all the type of fishing which
is shown; but rather, drowned in a garish sunset and eternalized, a
romantic essence of the fisherman, presented not as a workman
dependent by his technique and his gains on a definite society, but
rather as the theme of an eternal condition, in which man is far
away and exposed to the perils of the sea, and woman weeping and
praying at home. The same applies to refugees, a long procession
of which is shown at the beginning, coming down a mountain: to
identify them is of course unnecessary: they are eternal essences of
refugees, which it is in the nature of the East to produce.
All told, exoticism here shows well its fundamental justification,
which is to deny any identification by History. By appending to
Eastern realities a few positive signs which mean 'native', one
reliably immunizes them against any responsible content. A little
'situating', as superficial as possible, supplies the necessary alibi
and exempts one from accounting for the situation in depth. Faced
with anything foreign, the Established Order knows only two types
of behaviour, which are both mutilating: either to acknowledge it
as a Punch and Judy show, or to defuse it as a pure reflection of the
West. In any case, the main thing is to deprive it of its history. We
see therefore that the 'beautiful pictures' of The Lost Continent
cannot be innocent: it cannot be innocent to lose the continent
which found itself again at Bandoeng.
* This provides us with a fine example of the mystifying power of
music: all the 'Buddhist' scenes are supported by a nondescript
musical treacle, which takes after both American crooning and
Gregorian chant: it is monodic, anyway (the sign of monasticity).
Despite having names of Greek shepherds (Polystyrene, Polyvinyl,
Polyethylene), plastic, the products of which have just been
gathered in an exhibition, is in essence the stuff of alchemy. At the
entrance of the stand, the public waits in a long queue in order to
witness the accomplishment of the magical operation par
excellence: the transmutation of matter. An ideally-shaped
machine, tubulated and oblong (a shape well suited to suggest the
secret of an itinerary) effortlessly draws, out of a heap of greenish
crystals, shiny and fluted dressing-room tidies. At one end, raw,
telluric matter, at the other, the finished, human object; and
between these two extremes, nothing; nothing but a transit, hardly
watched over by an attendant in a cloth cap, half-god, half-robot.
So, more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite
transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made
visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous
substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature.
Plastic remains impregnated throughout with this wonder: it is less
a thing than the trace of a movement.
And as the movement here is almost infinite, transforming the
original crystals into a multitude of more and more startling
objects, plastic is, all told, a spectacle to be deciphered: the very
spectacle of its end-products. At the sight of each terminal form
(suitcase, brush, car-body, toy, fabric, tube, basin or paper), the
mind does not cease from considering the original matter as an
enigma. This is because the quick-change artistry of plastic is
absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels. Hence a
perpetual amazement, the reverie of man at the sight of the
proliferating forms of matter, and the connections he detects
between the singular of the origin and the plural of the effects. And
this amazement is a pleasurable one, since the scope of the
transformations gives man the measure of his power, and since the
very itinerary of plastic gives him the euphoria of a prestigious
free-wheeling through Nature.
But the price to be paid for this success is that plastic, sublimated
as movement, hardly exists as substance. Its reality is a negative
one: neither hard nor deep, it must be content with a 'substantial'
attribute which is neutral in spite of its utilitarian advantages:
resistance, a state which merely means an absence of yielding. In
the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a
disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the
flat hardness of metal; it embodies none of the genuine produce of
the mineral world: foam, fibres, strata. It is a 'shaped' substance:
whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance,
something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever
to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature. But what best
reveals it for what it is is the sound it gives, at once hollow and
flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colours, for it seems capable
of retaining only the most chemicallooking ones. Of yellow, red
and green, it keeps only the aggressive quality, and uses them as
mere names, being able to display only concepts of colours.
The fashion for plastic highlights an evolution in the myth of
'imitation' materials. It is well known that their use is historically
bourgeois in origin (the first vestimentary postiches date back to
the rise of capitalism). But until now imitation materials have
always indicated pretension, they belonged to the world of
appearances, not to that of actual use; they aimed at reproducing
cheaply the rarest substances, diamonds, silk, feathers, furs, silver,
all the luxurious brilliance of the world. Plastic has climbed down,
it is a household material. It is the first magical substance which
consents to be prosaic. But it is precisely because this prosaic
character is a triumphant reason for its existence: for the first time,
artifice aims at something common, not rare. And as an immediate
ronsequence, the age-old function of nature is modified: it is no
longer the Idea, the pure Substance to be regained or imitated: an
artificial Matter, more bountiful than all the natural deposits, is
about to replace her, and to determine the very invention of forms.
A luxurious object is still of this earth, it still recalls, albeit in a
precious mode, its mineral or animal origin, the natural theme of
which it is but one actualization. Plastic is wholly swallowed up in
the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the
sole pleasure of using them. The hierarchy of substances is
abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be
plasticized, and even life itself since, we are told, they are
beginning to make plastic aortas.
The Great Family of Man
A big exhibition of photographs has been held in Paris, the aim of
which was to show the universality of human actions in the daily
life of all the countries of the world: birth, death, work, knowledge,
play, always impose the same types of behaviour; there is a family
of Man.
The Family of Man, such at any rate was the original title of the
exhibition which came here from the United States. The French
have translated it as: The Great Family of Man. So what could
originally pass for a phrase belonging to zoology, keeping only the
similarity in behaviour, the unity of a species, is here amply
moralized and sentimentalized. We are at the outset directed to this
ambiguous myth of the human 'community', which serves as an
alibi to a large part of our humanism.
This myth functions in two stages: first the difference between
human morphologies is asserted, exoticism is insistently stressed,
the infinite variations of the species, the diversity in skins, skulls
and customs are made manifest, the image of Babel is
complacently projected over that of the world. Then, from this
pluralism, a type of unity is magically produced: man is born,
works, laughs and dies everywhere in the same way; and if there
still remains in these actions some ethnic peculiarity, at least one
hints that there is underlying each one an identical 'nature', that
their diversity is only formal and does not belie the existence of a
common mould. Of course this means postulating a human
essence, and here is God re-introduced into our Exhibition: the
diversity of men proclaims his power, his richness; the unity of
their gestures demonstrates his will. This is what the introductory
leaflet confides to us when it states, by the pen of M. André
Chamson, that 'this look over the human condition must somewhat
resemble the benevolent gaze of God on our absurd and sublime
ant-hill'. The pietistic intention is underlined by the quotations
which accompany each chapter of the Exhibition: these quotations
often are 'primitive' proverbs or verses from the Old Testament.
They all define an eternal wisdom, a class of assertions which
escape History: 'The Earth is a Mother who never dies, Eat bread
and salt and speak the truth, etc.' This is the reign of gnomic
truths, the meeting of all the ages of humanity at the most neutral
point of their nature, the point where the obviousness of the truism
has no longer any value except in the realm of a purely 'poetic'
language. Everything here, the content and appeal of the pictures,
the discourse which justifies them, aims to suppress the
determining weight of History: we are held back at the surface of
an identity, prevented precisely by sentimentality from penetrating
into this ulterior zone of human behaviour where historical
alienation introduces some 'differences' which we shall here quite
simply call 'injustices'.
This myth of the human 'condition' rests on a very old
mystification, which always consists in placing Nature at the
bottom of History. Any classic humanism postulates that in
scratching the history of men a little, the relativity of their
institutions or the superficial diversity of their skins (but why not
ask the parents of Emmet Till, the young Negro assassinated by the
Whites what they think of The Great Family of Man?), one very
quickly reaches the solid rock of a universal human nature.
Progressive humanism, on the contrary, must always remember to
reverse the terms of this very old imposture, constantly to scour
nature, its 'laws' and its 'limits' in order to discover History there,
and at last to establish Nature itself as historical.
Examples? Here they are: those of our Exhibition. Birth, death?
Yes, these are facts of nature, universal facts. But if one removes
History from them, there is nothing more to be said about them;
any comment about them becomes purely tautological. The failure
of photography seems to me to be flagrant in this connection: to
reproduce death or birth tells us, literally, nothing. For these
natural facts to gain access to a true language, they must be
inserted into a category of knowledge which means postulating
that one can transform them, and precisely subject their naturalness
to our human criticism. For however universal, they are the signs
of an historical writing. True, children are always born: but in the
whole mass of the human problem, what does the 'essence' of this
process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are
perfectly historical? Whether or not the child is born with ease or
difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother,
whether or not he is threatened by a high mortality rate, whether or
not such and such a type of future is open to him: this is what your
Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of an eternal lyricism
of birth. The same goes for death: must we really celebrate its
essence once more, and thus risk forgetting that there is still so
much we can do to fight it? It is this very young, far too young
power that we must exalt, and not the sterile identity of 'natural'
And what can be said about work, which the Exhibition places
among great universal facts, putting it on the same plane as birth
and death, as if it was quite evident that it belongs to the same
order of fate? That work is an age-old fact does not in the least
prevent it from remaining a perfectly historical fact. Firstly, and
evidently, because of its modes, its motivations, its ends and its
benefits, which matter to such an extent that it will never be fair to
confuse in a purely gestural identity the colonial and the Western
worker (let us also ask the North African workers of the Goutte
d'Or district in Paris what they think of The Great Family of Man).
Secondly, because of the very differences in its inevitability: we
know very well that work is 'natural' just as long as it is 'profitable',
and that in modifying the inevitability of the profit, we shall
perhaps one day modify the inevitability of labour. It is this
entirely historified work which we should be told about, instead of
an eternal aesthetics of laborious gestures.
So that I rather fear that the final justification of all this Adamism
is to give to the immobility of the world the alibi of a 'wisdom' and
a 'lyricism' which only make the gestures of man look eternal the
better to defuse them.
The Lady of the Camellias
They still perform, in some part of the world or other, The Lady of
the Camellias (it had in fact another run in Paris some time ago).
This success must alert us to a mythology of Love which probably
still exists, for the alienation of Marguerite Gautier in relation to
the class of her masters is not fundamentally different from that of
today's petit-bourgeois women in a world which is just as
Yet in fact, the central myth in The Lady of the Camellias is not
Love, it is Recognition. Marguerite loves in order to achieve
recognition, and this is why her passion (in the etymological, not
the libidinal sense) has its source entirely in other people. Armand,
on the other hand (who is the son of a District Collector of Taxes),
gives an example of classical love: bourgeois, descended from
essentialist culture, and one which will live on in Proust's analyses.
This is a segregative love, that of the owner who carries off his
prey; an internalized love, which acknowledges the existence of
the world only intermittently and always with a feeling of
frustration, as if the world were never anything but the threat of
some theft (jealousy, quarrels, misunderstandings, worry, coolness,
irritation, etc.). Marguerite's Love is the perfect opposite of this.
She was first touched to feel herself recognized by Armand, and
passion, to her, was thereafter nothing but the permanent demand
for this recognition; this is why the sacrifice which she grants M.
Duval in renouncing Armand is by no means moral (in spite of the
phraseology used), it is existential; it is only the logical
consequence of the postulate of recognition, a superlative means
(much better than love) of winning recognition from the world of
the masters. And if Marguerite hides her sacrifice and gives it the
mask of cynicism, this can only be at the moment when the
argument really becomes Literature: the grateful and recognizing
gaze of the bourgeois class is here delegated to the reader who in
his turn recognizes Marguerite through the very mistake of her
All this is to say that the misunderstandings which make the plot
progress are not here of a psychological nature (even if the
language in which they are expressed is abusively so): Armand and
Marguerite do not belong socially to the same world and there can
be no question between them of tragedy in the manner of Racine or
subtle flirting in the manner of Marivaux. The conflict is exterior
to them: we do not deal here with one passion divided against itself
but with two passions of different natures, because they come from
different situations in society. Armand's passion, which is
bourgeois in type, and appropriative, is by definition a murder of
the other; and that of Marguerite can only crown her effort to
achieve recognition by a sacrifice which will in its turn constitute
an indirect murder of Armand's passion. A simple social disparity,
taken up and amplified by the opposition of two ideologies of love,
cannot but produce here a hopeless entanglement, a hopelessness
of which Marguerite's death (however cloying it is on the stage) is,
so to speak, the algebraic symbol.
The difference between the two types of love stems of course from
the difference of awareness in the two partners: Armand lives in
the essence of eternal love, Marguerite lives in the awareness of
her alienation, she lives only through it: she knows herself to be,
and in a sense wills herself to be a courtesan. And the behaviour
she adopts in order to adjust consists entirely in behaviour meant to
secure recognition: now she endorses her own legend
exaggeratedly, and plunges into the whirlwind of the typical
courtesan's fife (like those homosexuals whose way of accepting
their condition is to make it obvious), sometimes she makes one
guess at a power to transcend her rank which aims to achieve
recognition less for a 'natural' virtue than for a devotion suited to
her station, as if her sacrifice had the function, not of making
manifest the murder of the courtesan she is, but on the contrary of
flaunting a superlative courtesan, enhanced, without losing
anything of her nature, with a bourgeois feeling of a high order.
Thus we begin to see better the mythological content of this love,
which is the archetype of petit-bourgeois sentimentality. It is a
very particular state of myth, defined by a semi-awareness, or to be
more precise, a parasitic awareness. Marguerite is aware of her
alienation, that is to say she sees reality as an alienation. But she
follows up this awareness by a purely servile behaviour: either she
plays the part which the masters expect from her, or she tries to
reach a value which is in fact a part of this same world of the
masters. In either case, Marguerite is never anything more than an
alienated awareness: she sees that she suffers, but imagines no
remedy which is not parasitic to her own suffering; she knows
herself to be an object but cannot think of any destination for
herself other than that of ornament in the museum of the masters.
In spite of the grotesqueness of the plot, such a character does not
lack a certain dramatic richness: true, it is neither tragic (the fate
which weighs on Marguerite is social, not metaphysical), nor
comic (Marguerite's behaviour stems from her condition, not from
her essence), nor as yet, of course, revolutionary (Marguerite
brings no criticism to bear on her alienation). But at bottom she
would need very little to achieve the status of the Brechtian
character, which is an alienated object but a source of criticism.
What puts this out of her reach - irremediably - is her positive side:
Marguerite Gautier, 'touching' because of her tuberculosis and her
lofty speech, spreads to the whole of her public the contagion of
her blindness: patently stupid, she would have opened their petitbourgeois
eyes. Magniloquent and noble, in one word 'serious', she
only sends them to sleep.
Myth Today
What is a myth, today? I shall give at the outset a first, very simple
answer, which is perfectly consistent with etymology: myth is a
type of speech. 1
Myth is a type of speech
Of course, it is not any type: language needs special conditions in
order to become myth: we shall see them in a minute. But what
must be firmly established at the start is that myth is a system of
communication, that it is a message. This allows one to perceive
that myth cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a
mode of signification, a form. Later, we shall have to assign to this
form historical limits, conditions of use, and reintroduce society
into it: we must nevertheless first describe it as a form.
It can be seen that to purport to discriminate among mythical
objects according to their substance would be entirely illusory:
since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided
it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of
its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there
are formal limits to myth, there are no 'substantial' ones.
Everything, then, can be a myth? Yes, I believe this, for the
universe is infinitely fertile in suggestions. Every object in the
world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open
to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or
not, which forbids talking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, of
course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite
a tree, it is a tree which is decorated, adapted to a certain type of
consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in
short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.
Naturally, everything is not expressed at the same time: some
objects become the prey of mythical speech for a while, then they
disappear, others take their place and attain the status of myth. Are
there objects which are inevitably a source of suggestiveness, as
Baudelaire suggested about Woman? Certainly not: one can
conceive of very ancient myths, but there are no eternal ones; for it
is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone
rules the life and the death of mythical language. Ancient or not,
mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is a
type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from
the 'nature' of things.
Speech of this kind is a message. It is therefore by no means
confined to oral speech. It can consist of modes of writing or of
representations; not only written discourse, but also photography,
cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity, all these can serve as a
support to mythical speech. Myth can be defined neither by its
object nor by its material, for any material can arbitrarily be
endowed with meaning: the arrow which is brought in order to
signify a challenge is also a kind of speech. True, as far as
perception is concerned, writing and pictures, for instance, do not
call upon the same type of consciousness; and even with pictures,
one can use many kinds of reading: a diagram lends itself to
signification more than a drawing, a copy more than an original,
and a caricature more than a portrait. But this is the point: we are
no longer dealing here with a theoretical mode of representation:
we are dealing with this particular image, which is given for this
particular signification. Mythical speech is made of a material
which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for
communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether
pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness, that
one can reason about them while discounting their substance. This
substance is not unimportant: pictures, to be sure, are more
imperative than writing, they impose meaning at one stroke,
without analysing or diluting it. But this is no longer a constitutive
difference. Pictures become a kind of writing as soon as they are
meaningful: like writing, they call for a lexis.
We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean
any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual: a
photograph will be a kind of speech for us in the same way as a
newspaper article; even objects will become speech, if they mean
something. This generic way of conceiving language is in fact
justified by the very history of writing: long before the invention of
our alphabet, objects like the Inca quipu, or drawings, as in
pictographs, have been accepted as speech. This does not mean
that one must treat mythical speech like language; myth in fact
belongs to the province of a general science, coextensive with
linguistics, which is semiology.
Myth as a semiological system
For mythology, since it is the study of a type of speech, is but one
fragment of this vast science of signs which Saussure postulated
some forty years ago under the name of semiology. Semiology has
not yet come into being. But since Saussure himself, and
sometimes independently of him, a whole section of contemporary
research has constantly been referred to the problem of meaning:
psycho-analysis, structuralism, eidetic psychology, some new
types of literary criticism of which Bachelard has given the first
examples, are no longer concerned with facts except inasmuch as
they are endowed with significance. Now to postulate a
signification is to have recourse to semiology. I do not mean that
semiology could account for all these aspects of research equally
well: they have different contents. But they have a common status:
they are all sciences dealing with values. They are not content with
meeting the facts: they define and explore them as tokens for
something else.
Semiology is a science of forms, since it studies significations
apart from their content. I should like to say one word about the
necessity and the limits of such a formal science. The necessity is
that which applies in the case of any exact language. Zhdanov
made fun of Alexandrov the philosopher, who spoke of 'the
spherical structure of our planet.' 'It was thought until now',
Zhdanov said, 'that form alone could be spherical.' Zhdanov was
right: one cannot speak about structures in terms of forms, and vice
versa. It may well be that on the plane of 'life', there is but a totality
where structures and forms cannot be separated. But science has no
use for the ineffable: it must speak about 'life' if it wants to
transform it. Against a certain quixotism of synthesis, quite
platonic incidentally, all criticism must consent to the ascesis, to
the artifice of analysis; and in analysis, it must match method and
language. Less terrorized by the spectre of 'formalism', historical
criticism might have been less sterile; it would have understood
that the specific study of forms does not in any way contradict the
necessary principles of totality and History. On the contrary: the
more a system is specifically defined in its forms, the more
amenable it is to historical criticism. To parody a well-known
saying, I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from
History, but that a lot brings one back to it. Is there a better
example of total criticism than the description of saintliness, at
once formal and historical, semiological and ideological, in Sartre's
Saint-Genet? The danger, on the contrary, is to consider forms as
ambiguous objects, half-form and halfsubstance, to endow form
with a substance of form, as was done, for instance, by Zhdanovian
realism. Semiology, once its limits are settled, is not a
metaphysical trap: it is a science among others, necessary but not
sufficient. The important thing is to see that the unity of an
explanation cannot be based on the amputation of one or other of
its approaches, but, as Engels said, on the dialectical co-ordination
of the particular sciences it makes use of. This is the case with
mythology: it is a part both of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal
science, and of ideology inasmuch as it is an historical science: it
studies ideas-in-form. 2
Let me therefore restate that any semiology postulates a relation
between two terms, a signifier and a signified. This relation
concerns objects which belong to different categories, and this is
why it is not one of equality but one of equivalence. We must here
be on our guard for despite common parlance which simply says
that the signifier expresses the signified, we are dealing, in any
semiological system, not with two, but with three different terms.
For what we grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the
correlation which unites them: there are, therefore, the signifier,
the signified and the sign, which is the associative total of the first
two terms. Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signify my passion. Do
we have here, then, only a signifier and a signified, the roses and
my passion? Not even that: to put it accurately, there are here only
'passionified' roses. But on the plane of analysis, we do have three
terms; for these roses weighted with passion perfectly and
correctly allow themselves to be decomposed into roses and
passion: the former and the latter existed before uniting and
forming this third object, which is the sign. It is as true to say that
on the plane of experience I cannot dissociate the roses from the
message they carry, as to say that on the plane of analysis I cannot
confuse the roses as signifier and the roses as sign: the signifier is
empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning. Or take a black pebble: I
can make it signify in several ways, it is a mere signifier; but if I
weigh it with a definite signified (a death sentence, for instance, in
an anonymous vote), it will become a sign. Naturally, there are
between the signifier, the signified and the sign, functional
implications (such as that of the part to the whole) which are so
close that to analyse them may seem futile; but we shall see in a
moment that this distinction has a capital importance for the study
of myth as semiological schema.
Naturally these three terms are purely formal, and different
contents can be given to them. Here are a few examples: for
Saussure, who worked on a particular but methodologically
exemplary semiological system - the language or langue - the
signified is the concept, the signifier is the acoustic image (which
is mental) and the relation between concept and image is the sign
(the word, for instance), which is a concrete entity. 3 For Freud, as
is well known, the human psyche is a stratification of tokens or
representatives. One term (I refrain from giving it any precedence)
is constituted by the manifest meaning of behaviour, another, by its
latent or real meaning (it is, for instance, the substratum of the
dream); as for the third term, it is here also a correlation of the first
two: it is the dream itself in its totality, the parapraxis (a mistake in
speech or behaviour) or the neurosis, conceived as compromises,
as economies effected thanks to the joining of a form (the first
term) and an intentional function (the second term). We can see
here how necessary it is to distinguish the sign from the signifier: a
dream, to Freud, is no more its manifest datum than its latent
content: it is the functional union of these two terms. In Sartrean
criticism, finally (I shall keep to these three well-known
examples), the signified is constituted by the original crisis in the
subject (the separation from his mother for Baudelaire, the naming
of the theft for Genet); Literature as discourse forms the signifier;
and the relation between crisis and discourse defines the work,
which is a signification. Of course, this tri-dimensional pattern,
however constant in its form, is actualized in different ways: one
cannot therefore say too often that semiology can have its unity
only at the level of forms, not contents; its field is limited, it knows
only one operation: reading, or deciphering.
In myth, we find again the tri-dimcnsional pattern which I have
just described: the signifier, the signified and the sign. But myth is
a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological
chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological
system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a
concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier
in the second. We must here recall that the materials of mythical
speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals,
objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure
signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees
in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all
come down to the status of a mere language. Whether it deals with
alphabetical or pictorial writing, myth wants to see in them only a
sum of signs, a global sign, the final term of a first semiological
chain. And it is precisely this final term which will become the
first term of the greater system which it builds and of which it is
only a part. Everything happens as if myth shifted the formal
system of the first significations sideways. As this lateral shift is
essential for the analysis of myth, I shall represent it in the
following way, it being understood, of course, that the
spatialization of the pattern is here only a metaphor:
It can be seen that in myth there are two semiological systems, one
of which is staggered in relation to the other: a linguistic system,
the language (or the modes of representation which are assimilated
to it), which I shall call the language-object, because it is the
language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system;
and myth itself, which I shall call metalanguage, because it is a
second language, in which one speaks about the first. When he
reflects on a metalanguage, the semiologist no longer needs to ask
himself questions about the composition of the languageobject, he
no longer has to take into account the details of the linguistic
schema; he will only need to know its total term, or global sign,
and only inasmuch as this term lends itself to myth. This is why the
semiologist is entitled to treat in the same way writing and
pictures: what he retains from them is the fact that they are both
signs, that they both reach the threshold of myth endowed with the
same signifying function, that they constitute, one just as much as
the other, a language-object.
It is now time to give one or two examples of mythical speech. I
shall borrow the first from an observation by Valery. 4 I am a pupil
in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar,
and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego
nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about
this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple
meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the
sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me.
Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it
tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the
rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to
realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that
it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort
of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose
itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.
I conclude that I am faced with a particular, greater, semiological
system, since it is co-extensive with the language: there is, indeed,
a signifier, but this signifier is itself formed by a sum of signs, it is
in itself a first semiological system (my name is lion). Thereafter,
the formal pattern is correctly unfolded: there is a signified (I am a
grammatical example) and there is a global signification, which is
none other than the correlation of the signifier and the signified;
for neither the naming of the lion nor the grammatical example are
given separately.
And here is now another example: I am at the barber's, and a copy
of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a
French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed
on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture.
But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me:
that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour
discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no
better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the
zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors. I am
therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a
signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black
soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a
purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is
a presence of the signified through the signifier.
Before tackling the analysis of each term of the mythical system,
one must agree on terminology. We now know that the signifier
can be looked at, in myth, from two points of view: as the final
term of the linguistic system, or as the first term of the mythical
system. We therefore need two names. On the plane of language,
that is, as the final term of the first system, I shall call the signifier:
meaning (my name is lion, a Negro is giving the French salute); on
the plane of myth, I shall call it: form. In the case of the signified,
no ambiguity is possible: we shall retain the name concept. The
third term is the correlation of the first two: in the linguistic
system, it is the sign; but it is not possible to use this word again
without ambiguity, since in myth (and this is the chief peculiarity
of the latter), the signifier is already formed by the signs of the
language. I shall call the third term of myth the signification. This
word is here all the better justified since myth has in fact a double
function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand
something and it imposes it on us.
The form and the concept
The signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at
the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the
other. As meaning, the signifier already postulates a reading, I
grasp it through my eyes, it has a sensory reality (unlike the
linguistic signifier, which is purely mental), there is a richness in
it: the naming of the lion, the Negro's salute are credible wholes,
they have at their disposal a sufficient rationality. As a total of
linguistic signs, the meaning of the myth has its own value, it
belongs to a history, that of the lion or that of the Negro: in the
meaning, a signification is already built, and could very well be
self-sufficient if myth did not take hold of it and did not turn it
suddenly into an empty, parasitical form. The meaning is already
complete, it postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a
comparative order of facts, ideas, decisions.
When it becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingency behind;
it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only
the letter remains. There is here a paradoxical permutation in the
reading operations, an abnormal regression from meaning to form,
from the linguistic sign to the mythical signifier. If one encloses
quia ego nominor leo in a purely linguistic system, the clause finds
again there a fullness, a richness, a history: I am an animal, a lion, I
live in a certain country, I have just been hunting, they would have
me share my prey with a heifer, a cow and a goat; but being the
stronger, I award myself all the shares for various reasons, the last
of which is quite simply that my name is lion. But as the form of
the myth, the clause hardly retains anything of this long story. The
meaning contained a whole system of values: a history, a
geography, a morality, a zoology, a Literature. The form has put all
this richness at a distance: its newly acquired penury calls for a
signification to fill it. The story of the lion must recede a great deal
in order to make room for the grammatical example, one must put
the biography of the Negro in parentheses if one wants to free the
picture, and prepare it to receive its signified.
But the essential point in all this is that the form does not suppress
the meaning, it only impoverishes it, it puts it at a distance, it holds
it at one's disposal. One believes that the meaning is going to die,
but it is a death with reprieve; the meaning loses its value, but
keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its
nourishment. The meaning will be for the form like an
instantaneous reserve of history, a tamed richness, which it is
possible to call and dismiss in a sort of rapid alternation: the form
must constantly be able to be rooted again in the meaning and to
get there what nature it needs for its nutriment; above all, it must
be able to hide there. It is this constant game of hide-and-seek
between the meaning and the form which defines myth. The form
of myth is not a symbol: the Negro who salutes is not the symbol
of the French Empire: he has too much presence, he appears as a
rich, fully experienced, spontaneous, innocent, indisputable image.
But at the same time this presence is tamed, put at a distance, made
almost transparent; it recedes a little, it becomes the accomplice of
a concept which comes to it fully armed, French imperiality: once
made use of, it becomes artificial.
Let us now look at the signified: this history which drains out of
the form will be wholly absorbed by the concept. As for the latter,
it is determined, it is at once historical and intentional; it is the
motivation which causes the myth to be uttered. Grammatical
exemplarity, French imperiality, are the very drives behind the
myth. The concept reconstitutes a chain of causes and effects,
motives and intentions. Unlike the form, the concept is in no way
abstract: it is filled with a situation. Through the concept, it is a
whole new history which is implanted in the myth. Into the naming
of the lion, first drained of its contingency, the grammatical
example will attract my whole existence: Time, which caused me
to be born at a certain period when Latin grammar is taught;
History, which sets me apart; through a whole mechanism of social
segregation, from the children who do not learn Latin; paedagogic
tradition, which caused this example to be chosen from Aesop or
Phaedrus; my own linguistic habits, which see the agreement of the
predicate as a fact worthy of notice and illustration. The same goes
for the Negro-giving-the-salute: as form, its meaning is shallow,
isolated, impoverished; as the concept of French imperiality, here
it is again tied to the totality of the world: to the general History of
France, to its colonial adventures, to its present difficulties. Truth
to tell, what is invested in the concept is less reality than a certain
knowledge of reality; in passing from the meaning to the form, the
image loses some knowledge: the better to receive the knowledge
in the concept. In actual fact, the knowledge contained in a
mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless
associations. One must firmly stress this open character of the
concept; it is not at all an abstract, purified essence; it is a
formless, unstable, nebulous condensation, whose unity and
coherence are above all due to its function.
In this sense, we can say that the fundamental character of the
mythical concept is to be appropriated: grammatical exemplarity
very precisely concerns a given form of pupils, French imperiality
must appeal to such and such group of readers and not another.
The concept closely corresponds to a function, it is defined as a
tendency. This cannot fail to recall the signified in another
semiological system, Freudianism. In Freud, the second term of the
system is the latent meaning (the content) of the dream, of the
parapraxis, of the neurosis. Now Freud does remark that the
second-order meaning of behaviour is its real meaning, that which
is appropriate to a complete situation, including its deeper level; it
is, just like the mythical concept, the very intention of behaviour.
A signified can have several signifiers: this is indeed the case in
linguistics and psycho-analysis. It is also the case in the mythical
concept: it has at its disposal an unlimited mass of signifiers: I can
find a thousand Latin sentences to actualize for me the agreement
of the predicate, I can find a thousand images which signify to me
French imperiality. This means that quantitively, the concept is
much poorer than the signifier, it often does nothing but re-present
itself. Poverty and richness are in reverse proportion in the form
and the concept: to the qualitative poverty of the form, which is the
repository of a rarefied meaning, there corresponds the richness of
the concept which is open to the whole of History; and to the
quantitative abundance of the forms there corresponds a small
number of concepts. This repetition of the concept through
different forms is precious to the mythologist, it allows him to
decipher the myth: it is the insistence of a kind of behaviour which
reveals its intention. This confirms that there is no regular ratio
between the volume of the signified and that of the signifier. In
language, this ratio is proportionate, it hardly exceeds the word, or
at least the concrete unit. In myth, on the contrary, the concept can
spread over a very large expanse of signifier. For instance, a whole
book may be the signifier of a single concept; and conversely, a
minute form (a word, a gesture, even incidental, so long as it is
noticed) can serve as signifier to a concept filled with a very rich
history. Although unusual in language, this disproportion between
signifier and signified is not specific to myth: in Freud, for
instance, the parapraxis is a signifier whose thinness is out of
proportion to the real meaning which it betrays.
As I said, there is no fixity in mythical concepts: they can come
into being, alter, disintegrate, disappear completely. And it is
precisely because they are historical that history can very easily
suppress them. This instability forces the mythologist to use a
terminology adapted to it, and about which I should now like to
say a word, because it often is a cause for irony: I mean neologism.
The concept is a constituting element of myth: if I want to decipher
myths, I must somehow be able to name concepts. The dictionary
supplies me with a few: Goodness, Kindness, Wholeness,
Humaneness, etc. But by definition, since it is the dictionary which
gives them to me, these particular concepts are not historical. Now
what I need most often is ephemeral concepts, in connection with
limited contingencies: neologism is then inevitable. China is one
thing, the idea which a French petit-bourgeois could have of it not
so long ago is another: for this peculiar mixture of bells, rickshaws
and opium-dens, no other word possible but Sininess. 5 Unlovely?
One should at least get some consolation from the fact that
conceptual neologisms are never arbitrary: they are built according
to a highly sensible proportional rule.
The signification
In semiology, the third term is nothing but the association of the first
two, as we saw. It is the only one which is allowed to be seen in a full
and satisfactory way, the only one which is consumed in actual fact. I
have called it: the signification. We can see that the signification is the
myth itself, just as the Saussurean sign is the word (or more accurately
the concrete unit). But before listing the characters of the signification,
one must reflect a little on the way in which it is prepared, that is, on the
modes of correlation of the mythical concept and the mythical form.
First we must note that in myth, the first two terms are perfectly
manifest (unlike what happens in other semiological systems): one
of them is not 'hidden' behind the other, they are both given here
(and not one here and the other there). However paradoxical it may
seem, myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make
disappear. There is no latency of the concept in relation to the
form: there is no need of an unconscious in order to explain myth.
Of course, one is dealing with two different types of manifestation:
form has a literal, immediate presence; moreover, it is extended.
This stems - this cannot be repeated too often - from the nature of
the mythical signifier, which is already linguistic: since it is
constituted by a meaning which is already outlined, it can appear
only through a given substance (whereas in language, the signifier
remains mental). In the case of oral myth, this extension is linear
(for my name is lion); in that of visual myth, it is multidimensional
(in the centre, the Negro's uniform, at the top, the
blackness of his face, on the left, the military salute, etc.). The
elements of the form therefore are related as to place and
proximity: the mode of presence of the form is spatial. The
concept, on the contrary, appears in global fashion, it is a kind of
nebula, the condensation, more or less hazy, of a certain
knowledge. Its elements are linked by associative relations: it is
supported not by an extension but by a depth (although this
metaphor is perhaps still too spatial): its mode of presence is
The relation which unites the concept of the myth to its meaning is
essentially a relation of deformation. We find here again a certain
formal analogy with a complex semiological system such as that of
the various types of psycho-analysis. Just as for Freud the manifest
meaning of behaviour is distorted by its latent meaning, in myth
the meaning is distorted by the concept. Of course, this distortion
is possible only because the form of the myth is already constituted
by a linguistic meaning. In a simple system like the language, the
signified cannot distort anything at all because the signifier, being
empty, arbitrary, offers no resistance to it. But here, everything is
different: the signifier has, so to speak, two aspects: one full, which
is the meaning (the history of the lion, of the Negro soldier), one
empty, which is the form (for my name is lion; Negro-Frenchsoldier-
saluting-the-tricolour). What the concept distorts is of
course what is full, the meaning: the lion and the Negro are
deprived of their history, changed into gestures. What Latin
exemplarity distorts is the naming of the lion, in all its
contingency; and what French imperiality obscures is also a
primary language, a factual discourse which was telling me about
the salute of a Negro in uniform. But this distortion is not an
obliteration: the lion and the Negro remain here, the concept needs
them; they are half-amputated, they are deprived of memory, not of
existence: they are at once stubborn, silently rooted there, and
garrulous, a speech wholly at the service of the concept. The
concept, literally, deforms, but does not abolish the meaning; a
word can perfectly render this contradiction: it alienates it.
What must always be remembered is that myth is a double system;
there occurs in it a sort of ubiquity: its point of departure is
constituted by the arrival of a meaning. To keep a spatial
metaphor, the approximative character of which I have already
stressed, I shall say that the signification of the myth is constituted
by a sort of constantly moving turnstile which presents alternately
the meaning of the signifier and its form, a language-object and a
metalanguage, a purely signifying and a purely imagining
consciousness. This alternation is, so to speak, gathered up in the
concept, which uses it like an ambiguous signifier, at once
intellective and imaginary, arbitrary and natural.
I do not wish to prejudge the moral implications of such a
mechanism, but I shall not exceed the limits of an objective
analysis if I point out that the ubiquity of the signifier in myth
exactly reproduces the physique of the alibi (which is, as one
realizes, a spatial term): in the alibi too, there is a place which is
full and one which is empty, linked by a relation of negative
identity ('I am not where you think I am; I am where you think I
am not'). But the ordinary alibi (for the police, for instance) has an
end; reality stops the turnstile revolving at a certain point. Myth is
a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being
a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it
always to have an 'elsewhere' at its disposal. The meaning is
always there to present the form; the form is always there to
outdistance the meaning. And there never is any contradiction,
conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never
at the same place. In the same way, if I am in a car and I look at the
scenery through the window, I can at will focus on the scenery or
on the window-pane. At one moment I grasp the presence of the
glass and the distance of the landscape; at another, on the contrary,
the transparence of the glass and the depth of the landscape; but the
result of this alternation is constant: the glass is at once present and
empty to me, and the landscape unreal and full. The same thing
occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its
meaning absent but full. To wonder at this contradiction I must
voluntarily interrupt this turnstile of form and meaning, I must
focus on each separately, and apply to myth a static method of
deciphering, in short, I must go against its own dynamics: to sum
up, I must pass from the state of reader to that of mythologist.
And it is again this duplicity of the signifier which determines the
characters of the signification. We now know that myth is a type of
speech defined by its intention (I am a grammatical example)
much more than by its literal sense (my name is lion); and that in
spite of this, its intention is somehow frozen, purified, eternalized,
made absent by this literal sense (The French Empire? It's just a
fact: look at this good Negro who salutes like one of our own
boys). This constituent ambiguity of mythical speech has two
consequences for the signification, which henceforth appears both
like a notification and like a statement of fact.
Myth has an imperative, buttonholing character: stemming from an
historical concept, directly springing from contingency (a Latin
class, a threatened Empire), it is I whom it has come to seek. It is
turned towards me, I am subjected to its intentional force, it
summons me to receive its expansive ambiguity. If, for instance, I
take a walk in Spain, in the Basque country, 6 I may well notice in
the houses an architectural unity, a common style, which leads me
to acknowledge the Basque house as a definite ethnic product.
However, I do not feel personally concerned, nor, so to speak,
attacked by this unitary style: I see only too well that it was here
before me, without me. It is a complex product which has its
determinations at the level of a very wide history: it does not call
out to me, it does not provoke me into naming it, except if I think
of inserting it into a vast picture of rural habitat. But if I am in the
Paris region and I catch a glimpse, at the end of the rue Gambetta
or the rue Jean-Jaures, of a natty white chalet with red tiles, dark
brown half-timbering, an asymmetrical roof and a wattle-and-daub
front, I feel as if I were personally receiving an imperious
injunction to name this object a Basque chalet: or even better, to
see it as the very essence of basquity. This is because the concept
appears to me in all its appropriative nature: it comes and seeks me
out in order to oblige me to acknowledge the body of intentions
which have motivated it and arranged it there as the signal of an
individual history, as a confidence and a complicity: it is a real
call, which the owners of the chalet send out to me. And this call,
in order to be more imperious, has agreed to all manner of
impoverishments: all that justified the Basque house on the plane
of technology - the barn, the outside stairs, the dove-cote, etc. - has
been dropped; there remains only a brief order, not to be disputed.
And the adhomination is so frank that I feel this chalet has just
been created on the spot, for me, like a magical object springing up
in my present life without any trace of the history which has
caused it.
For this interpellant speech is at the same time a frozen speech: at
the moment of reaching me, it suspends itself, turns away and
assumes the look of a generality: it stiffens, it makes itself look
neutral and innocent. The appropriation of the concept is suddenly
driven away once more by the literalness of the meaning. This is a
kind of arrest, in both the physical and the legal sense of the term:
French imperiality condemns the saluting Negro to be nothing
more than an instrumental signifier, the Negro suddenly hails me
in the name of French imperiality; but at the same moment the
Negro's salute thickens, becomes vitrified, freezes into an eternal
reference meant to establish French imperiality. On the surface of
language something has stopped moving: the use of the
signification is here, hiding behind the fact, and conferring on it a
notifying look; but at the same time, the fact paralyses the
intention, gives it something like a malaise producing immobility:
in order to make it innocent, it freezes it. This is because myth is
speech stolen and restored. Only, speech which is restored is no
longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it
was not put exactly in its place. It is this brief act of larceny, this
moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical
speech its benumbed look.
One last element of the signification remains to be examined: its
motivation. We know that in a language, the sign is arbitrary:
nothing compels the acoustic image tree 'naturally' to mean the
concept tree: the sign, here, is unmotivated. Yet this arbitrariness
has limits, which come from the associative relations of the word:
the language can produce a whole fragment of the sign by analogy
with other signs (for instance one says aimable in French, and not
amable, by analogy with aime). The mythical signification, on the
other hand, is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and
unavoidably contains some analogy. For Latin exemplarity to meet
the naming of the lion, there must be an analogy, which is the
agreement of the predicate; for French imperiality to get hold of
the saluting Negro, there must be identity between the Negro's
salute and that of the French soldier. Motivation is necessary to the
very duplicity of myth: myth plays on the analogy between
meaning and form, there is no myth without motivated form. 7 In
order to grasp the power of motivation in myth, it is enough to
reflect for a moment on an extreme case. I have here before me a
collection of objects so lacking in order that I can find no meaning
in it; it would seem that here, deprived of any previous meaning,
the form could not root its analogy in anything, and that myth is
impossible. But what the form can always give one to read is
disorder itself: it can give a signification to the absurd, make the
absurd itself a myth. This is what happens when commonsense
mythifies surrealism, for instance. Even the absence of motivation
does not embarrass myth; for this absence will itself be sufficiently
objectified to become legible: and finally, the absence of
motivation will become a second-order motivation, and myth will
be re-established.
Motivation is unavoidable. It is none the less very fragmentary. To
start with, it is not 'natural': it is history which supplies its
analogies to the form. Then, the analogy between the meaning and
the concept is never anything but partial: the form drops many
analogous features and keeps only a few: it keeps the sloping roof,
the visible beams in the Basque chalet, it abandons the stairs, the
barn, the weathered look, etc. One must even go further: a
complete image would exclude myth, or at least would compel it to
seize only its very completeness. This is just what happens in the
case of bad painting, which is wholly based on the myth of what is
'filled out' and 'finished' (it is the opposite and symmetrical case of
the myth of the absurd: here, the form mythifies an 'absence', there,
a surplus). But in general myth prefers to work with poor,
incomplete images, where the meaning is already relieved of its
fat, and ready for a signification, such as caricatures, pastiches,
symbols, etc. Finally, the motivation is chosen among other
possible ones: I can very well give to French imperiality many
other signifiers beside a Negro's salute: a French general pins a
decoration on a one-armed Senegalese, a nun hands a cup of tea to
a bed-ridden Arab, a white schoolmaster teaches attentive
piccaninnies: the press undertakes every day to demonstrate that
the store of mythical signifiers is inexhaustible.
The nature of the mythical signification can in fact be well
conveyed by one particular simile: it is neither more nor less
arbitrary than an ideograph. Myth is a pure ideographic system,
where the forms are still motivated by the concept which they
represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its
possibilities for representation. And just as, historically, ideographs
have gradually left the concept and have become associated with
the sound, thus growing less and less motivated, the worn out state
of a myth can be recognized by the arbitrariness of its
signification: the whole of Molière is seen in a doctor's ruff.
Reading and deciphering myth
How is a myth received? We must here once more come back to
the duplicity of its signifier, which is at once meaning and form. I
can produce three different types of reading by focusing on the
one, or the other, or both at the same time. 8
1. If I focus on an empty signifier, I let the concept fill the form of
the myth without ambiguity, and I find myself before a simple
system, where the signification becomes literal again: the Negro
who salutes is an example of French imperiality, he is a symbol for
it. This type of focusing is, for instance, that of the producer of
myths, of the journalist who starts with a concept and seeks a form
for it. 9
2. If I focus on a full signifier, in which I clearly distinguish the
meaning and the form, and consequently the distortion which the
one imposes on the other, I undo the signification of the myth, and
I receive the latter as an imposture: the saluting Negro becomes the
alibi of French imperiality. This type of focusing is that of the
mythologist: he deciphers the myth, he understands a distortion.
3. Finally, if I focus on the mythical signifier as on an inextricable
whole made of meaning and form, I receive an ambiguous
signification: I respond to the constituting mechanism of myth, to
its own dynamics, I become a reader of myths. The saluting Negro
is no longer an example or a symbol, still less an alibi: he is the
very presence of French imperiality.
The first two types of focusing are static, analytical; they destroy
the myth, either by making its intention obvious, or by unmasking
it: the former is cynical, the latter demystifying. The third type of
focusing is dynamic, it consumes the myth according to the very
ends built into its structure: the reader lives the myth as a story at
once true and unreal.
If one wishes to connect a mythical schema to a general history, to
explain how it corresponds to the interests of a definite society, in
short, to pass from semiology to ideology, it is obviously at the
level of the third type of focusing that one must place oneself: it is
the reader of myths himself who must reveal their essential
function. How does he receive this particular myth today? If he
receives it in an innocent fashion, what is the point of proposing it
to him? And if he reads it using his powers of reflection, like the
mythologist, does it matter which alibi is presented? If the reader
does not see French imperiality in the saluting Negro, it was not
worth weighing the latter with it; and if he sees it, the myth is
nothing more than a political proposition, honestly expressed. In
one word, either the intention of the myth is too obscure to be
efficacious, or it is too clear to be believed, In either case, where is
the ambiguity?
This is but a false dilemma. Myth hides nothing and flaunts
nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an
inflexion. Placed before the dilemma which I mentioned a moment
ago, myth finds a third way out. Threatened with disappearance if
it yields to either of the first two types of focusing, it gets out of
this tight spot thanks to a compromise-it is this compromise.
Entrusted with 'glossing over' an intentional concept, myth
encounters nothing but betrayal in language, for language can only
obliterate the concept if it hides it, or unmask it if it formulates it.
The elaboration of a second-order semiological system will enable
myth to escape this dilemma: driven to having either to unveil or to
liquidate the concept, it will naturalize it.
We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into
nature. We now understand why, in the eyes of the myth-consumer,
the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest
without however appearing to have an interest in the matter: what
causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is
immediately frozen into something natural; it is not read as a
motive, but as a reason. If I read the Negro-saluting as symbol pure
and simple of imperiality, I must renounce the reality of the
picture, it discredits itself in my eyes when it becomes an
instrument. Conversely, if I decipher the Negro's salute as an alibi
of coloniality, I shatter the myth even more surely by the
obviousness of its motivation. But for the myth-reader, the
outcome is quite different: everything happens as if the picture
naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a
foundation to the signified: the myth exists from the precise
moment when French imperiality achieves the natural state: myth
is speech justified in excess.
Here is a new example which will help understand clearly how the
myth-reader is led to rationalize the signified by means of the
signifier. We are in the month of July, I read a big headline in
VEGETABLES: PRICE DROP BEGINS. Let us quickly sketch
the semiological schema: the example being a sentence, the first
system is purely linguistic. The signifier of the second system is
composed here of a certain number of accidents, some lexical (the
words: first, begins, the [fall]), some typographical (enormous
headlines where the reader usually sees news of world
importance). The signified or concept is what must be called by a
barbarous but unavoidable neologism: governmentality, the
Government presented by the national press as the Essence of
efficacy. The signification of the myth follows clearly from this:
fruit and vegetable prices are falling because the government has
so decided. Now it so happens in this case (and this is on the whole
fairly rare) that the newspaper itself has, two lines below, allowed
one to see through the myth which it had just elaboratedv hether
this is due to self-assurance or honesty. It adds (in small type, it is
true): 'The fall in prices is helped by the return of seasonal
abundance.' This example is instructive for two reasons. Firstly it
conspicuously shows that myth essentially aims at causing an
immediate impression - it does not matter if one is later allowed to
see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the
rational explanations which may later belie it. This means that the
reading of a myth is exhausted at one stroke. I cast a quick glance
at my neighbour's France-Soir: I cull only a meaning there, but I
read a true signification; I receive the presence of governmental
action in the fall in fruit and vegetable prices. That is all, and that
is enough. A more attentive reading of the myth will in no way
increase its power or its ineffectiveness: a myth is at the same time
imperfectible and unquestionable; time or knowledge will not
make it better or worse.
Secondly, the naturalization of the concept, which I have just
identified as the essential function of myth, is here exemplary. In a
first (exclusively linguistic) system, causality would be, literally,
natural: fruit and vegetable prices fall because they are in season.
In the second (mythical) system, causality is artificial, false; but it
creeps, so to speak, through the back door of Nature. This is why
myth is experienced as innocent speech: not because its intentions
are hidden - if they were hidden, they could not be efficacious - but
because they are naturalized.
In fact, what allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that
he does not see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one.
Where there is only an equivalence, he sees a kind of causal
process: the signifier and the signified have, in his eyes, a natural
relationship. This confusion can be expressed otherwise: any
semiological system is a system of values; now the myth-consumer
takes the signification for a system of facts: myth is read as a
factual system, whereas it is but a semiological system.
Myth as stolen language
What is characteristic of myth? To transform a meaning into form.
In other words, myth is always a language-robbery. I rob the Negro
who is saluting, the white and brown chalet, the seasonal fall in
fruit prices, not to make them into examples or symbols, but to
naturalize through them the Empire, my taste for Basque things,
the Government. Are all primary languages a prey for myth? Is
there no meaning which can resist this capture with which form
threatens it? In fact, nothing can be safe from myth, myth can
develop its second-order schema from any meaning and, as we
saw, start from the very lack of meaning. But all languages do not
resist equally well.
Articulated language, which is most often robbed by myth, offers
little resistance. It contains in itself some mythical dispositions, the
outline of a sign-structure meant to manifest the intention which
led to its being used: it is what could be called the expressiveness
of language. The imperative or the subjunctive mode, for instance,
are the form of a particular signified, different from the meaning:
the signified is here my will or my request. This is why some
linguists have defined the indicative, for instance, as a zero state or
degree, compared to the subjunctive or the imperative. Now in a
fully constituted myth, the meaning is never at zero degree, and
this is why the concept can distort it, naturalize it. We must
remember once again that the privation of meaning is in no way a
zero degree: this is why myth can perfectly well get hold of it, give
it for instance the signification of the absurd, of surrealism, etc. At
bottom, it would only be the zero degree which could resist myth.
Language lends itself to myth in another way: it is very rare that it
imposes at the outset a full meaning which it is impossible to
distort. This comes from the abstractness of its concept: the
concept of tree is vague, it lends itself to multiple contingencies.
True, a language always has at its disposal a whole appropriating
organization (this tree, the tree which, etc.). But there always
remains, around the final meaning, a halo of virtualities where
other possible meanings are floating: the meaning can almost
always be interpreted. One could say that a language offers to
myth an open-work meaning. Myth can easily insinuate itself into
it, and swell there: it is a robbery by colonization (for instance: the
fall in prices has started. But what fall? That due to the season or
that due to the government? the signification becomes here a
parasite of the article, in spite of the latter being definite).
When the meaning is too full for myth to be able to invade it, myth
goes around it, and carries it away bodily. This is what happens to
mathematical language. In itself, it cannot be distorted, it has taken
all possible precautions against interpretation: no parasitical
signification can worm itself into it. And this is why, precisely,
myth takes it away en bloc; it takes a certain mathematical formula
(E = mc2), and makes of this unalterable meaning the pure signifier
of mathematicity. We can see that what is here robbed by myth is
something which resists, something pure. Myth can reach
everything, corrupt everything, and even the very act of refusing
oneself to it. So that the more the language-object resists at first,
the greater its final prostitution; whoever here resists completely
yields completely: Einstein on one side, Paris-Match on the other.
One can give a temporal image of this conflict: mathematical
language is a finished language, which derives its very perfection
from this acceptance of death. Myth, on the contrary, is a language
which does not want to die: it wrests from the meanings which
give it its sustenance an insidious, degraded survival, it provokes in
them an artificial reprieve in which it settles comfortably, it turns
them into speaking corpses.
Here is another language which resists myth as much as it can: our
poetic language. Contemporary poetry 10 is a regressive
semiological system. Whereas myth aims at an ultra-signification,
at the amplification of a first system, poetry, on the contrary,
attempts to regain an infra-signification, a pre-semiological state of
language; in short, it tries to transform the sign back into meaning:
its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words,
but the meaning of things themselves. 11 This is why it clouds the
language, increases as much as it can the abstractness of the
concept and the arbitrariness of the sign and stretches to the limit
the link between signifier and signified. The open-work structure
of the concept is here maximally exploited: unlike what happens in
prose, it is all the potential of the signified that the poetic sign tries
to actualize, in the hope of at last reaching something like the
transcendent quality of the thing, its natural (not human) meaning.
Hence the essentialist ambitions of poetry, the conviction that it
alone catches the thing in itself, inasmuch, precisely, as it wants to
be an anti-language. All told, of all those who use speech, poets are
the least formalist, for they are the only ones who believe that the
meaning of the words is only a form, with which they, being
realists, cannot be content. This is why our modern poetry always
asserts itself as a murder of language, a kind of spatial, tangible
analogue of silence. Poetry occupies a position which is the reverse
of that of myth: myth is a semiological system which has the
pretension of transcending itself into a factual system; poetry is a
semiological system which has the pretension of contracting into
an essential system.
But here again, as in the case of mathematical language, the very
resistance offered by poetry makes it an ideal prey for myth: the
apparent lack of order of signs, which is the poetic facet of an
essential order, is captured by myth, and transformed into an empty
signifier, which will serve to signify poetry. This explains the
improbable character of modern poetry: by fiercely refusing myth,
poetry surrenders to it bound hand and foot. Conversely, the rules
in classical poetry constituted an accepted myth, the conspicuous
arbitrariness of which amounted to perfection of a kind, since the
equilibrium of a semiological system comes from the arbitrariness
of its signs.
A voluntary acceptance of myth can in fact define the whole of our
traditional Literature. According to our norms, this Literature is an
undoubted mythical system: there is a meaning, that of the
discourse; there is a signifier, which is this same discourse as form
or writing; there is a signified, which is the concept of literature;
there is a signification, which is the literary discourse. I began to
discuss this problem in Writing Degree Zero, which was, all told,
nothing but a mythology of literary language. There I defined
writing as the signifier of the literary myth, that is, as a form which
is already filled with meaning and which receives from the concept
of Literature a new signification. 12 I suggested that history, in
modifying the writer's consciousness, had provoked, a hundred
years or so ago, a moral crisis of literary language: writing was
revealed as signifier, Literature as signification; rejecting the false
nature of traditional literary language, the writer violently shifted
his position in the direction of an anti-nature of language. The
subversion of writing was the radical act by which a number of
writers have attempted to reject Literature as a mythical system.
Every revolt of this kind has been a murder of Literature as
signification: all have postulated the reduction of literary discourse
to a simple semiological system, or even, in the case of poetry, to a
pre-semiological system. This is an immense task, which required
radical types of behaviour: it is well known that some went as far
as the pure and simple scuttling of the discourse, silence - whether
real or transposed - appearing as the only possible weapon against
the major power of myth: its recurrence.
It thus appears that it is extremely difficult to vanquish myth from
the inside: for the very effort one makes in order to escape its
stranglehold becomes in its turn the prey of myth: myth can
always, as a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to
bear against it. Truth to tell, the best weapon against myth is
perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth:
and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology. Since myth
robs language of something, why not rob myth? All that is needed
is to use it as the departure point for a third semiological chain, to
take its signification as the first term of a second myth. Literature
offers some great examples of such artificial mythologies. I shall
only evoke here Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet. It is what could
be called an experimental myth, a second-order myth. Bouvard and
his friend Pécuchet represent a certain kind of bourgeoisie (which
is incidentally in conflict with other bourgeois strata): their
discourse already constitutes a mythical type of speech; its
language does have a meaning, but this meaning is the empty form
of a conceptual signified, which here is a kind of technological
unsatedness. The meeting of meaning and concept forms, in this
first mythical system, a signification which is the rhetoric of
Bouvard and Pécuchet. It is at this point (I am breaking the process
into its components for the sake of analysis) that Flaubert
intervenes: to this first mythical system, which already is a second
semiological system, he superimposes a third chain, in which the
first link is the signification, or final term, of the first myth. The
rhetoric of Bouvard and Pécuchet becomes the form of the new
system; the concept here is due to Flaubert himself, to Flaubert's
gaze on the myth which Bouvard and Pécuchet had built for
themselves: it consists of their natively ineffectual inclinations,
their inability to feel satisfied, the panic succession of their
apprenticeships, in short what I would very much like to call (but I
see stormclouds on the horizon): bouvard-and-pécuchet-ity. As for
the final signification, it is the book, it is Bouvard and Pécuchet for
us. The power of the second myth is that it gives the first its basis
as a naivety which is looked at. Flaubert has undertaken a real
archaeological restoration of a given mythical speech: he is the
Viollet-le-Duc of a certain bourgeois ideology. But less naive than
Viollet-le-Duc, he has strewn his reconstitution with
supplementary ornaments which demystify it. These ornaments
(which are the form of the second myth) are subjunctive in kind:
there is a semiological equivalence between the subjunctive
restitution of the discourse of Bouvard and Pécuchet and their
ineffectualness. 13
Flaubert's great merit (and that of all artificial mythologies: there
are remarkable ones in Sartre's work), is that he gave to the
problem of realism a frankly semiological solution. True, it is a
somewhat incomplete merit, for Flaubert's ideology, since the
bourgeois was for him only an aesthetic eyesore, was not at all
realistic. But at least'he avoided the major sin in literary matters,
which is to confuse ideological with semiological reality. As
ideology, literary realism does not depend at all on the language
spoken by the writer. Language is a form, it cannot possibly be
either realistic or unrealistic. All it can do is either to be mythical
or not, or perhaps, as in Bouvard and Pécuchet, counter-mythical.
Now, unfortunately, there is no antipathy between realism and
myth. It is well known how often our 'realistic' literature is
mythical (if only as a crude myth of realism) and how our
'literature of the unreal' has at least the merit of being only slightly
so. The wise thing would of course be to define the writer's realism
as an essentially ideological problem. This certainly does not mean
that there is no responsibility of form towards reality. But this
responsibility can be measured only in semiological terms. A form
can be judged (since forms are on trial) only as signification, not as
expression. The writer's language is not expected to represent
reality, but to signify it. This should impose on critics the duty of
using two rigorously distinct methods: one must deal with the
writer's realism either as an ideological substance (Marxist themes
in Brecht's work, for instance) or as a semiological value (the
props, the actors, the music, the colours in Brechtian dramaturgy).
The ideal of course would be to combine these two types of
criticism; the mistake which is constantly made is to confuse them:
ideology has its methods, and so has semiology.
The bourgeoisie as a joint-stock company
Myth lends itself to history in two ways: by its form, which is only
relatively motivated; by its concept, the nature of which is
historical. One can therefore imagine a diachronic study of myths,
whether one submits them to a retrospection (which means
founding an historical mythology) or whether one follows some of
yesterday's myths down to their present forms (which means
founding prospective history). If I keep here to a synchronic sketch
of contemporary myths, it is for an objective reason: our society is
the privileged field of mythical significations. We must now say
Whatever the accidents, the compromises, the concessions and the
political adventures, whatever the technical, economic, or even
social changes which history brings us, our society is still a
bourgeois society. I am not forgetting that since 1789, in France,
several types of bourgeoisie have succeeded one another in power;
but the same status-a certain regime of ownership, a certain order,
a certain ideology - remains at a deeper level. Now a remarkable
phenomenon occurs in the matter of naming this regime: as an
economic fact, the bourgeoisie is named without any difficulty:
capitalism is openly professed. 14 As a political fact, the
bourgeoisie has some difficulty in acknowledging itself: there are
no 'bourgeois' parties in the Chamber. As an ideological fact, it
completely disappears: the bourgeoisie has obliterated its name in
passing from reality to representation, from economic man to
mental man. It comes to an agreement with the facts, but does not
compromise about values, it makes its status undergo a real exnominating
operation: the bourgeoisie is defined as the social class
which does not want to be named. 'Bourgeois', 'petit-bourgeois',
'capitalism', 15 'proletariat' 16 are the locus of an unceasing
haemorrhage: meaning flows out of them until their very name
becomes unnecessary.
This ex-nominating phenomenon is important; let us examine it a
little more closely. Politically, the haemorrhage of the name
'bourgeois' is effected through the idea of nation. This was once a
progressive idea, which has served to get rid of the aristocracy;
today, the bourgeoisie merges into the nation, even if it has, in
order to do so, to exclude from it the elements which it decides are
allogenous (the Communists). This planned syncretism allows the
bourgeoisie to attract the numerical support of its temporary allies,
all the intermediate, therefore 'shapeless' classes. A long-continued
use of the word nation has failed to depoliticize it in depth; the
political substratum is there, very near the surface, and some
circumstances make it suddenly manifest. There are in the
Chamber some 'national' parties, and nominal syncretism here
makes conspicuous what it had the ambition of hiding: an essential
disparity. Thus the political vocabulary of the bourgeoisie already
postulates that the universal exists: for it, politics is already a
representation, a fragment of ideology.
Politically, in spite of the universalistic effort of its vocabulary, the
bourgeoisie eventually strikes against a resisting core which is, by
definition, the revolutionary party. But this party can constitute
only a political richness: in a bourgeois culture, there is neither
proletarian culture nor proletarian morality, there is no proletarian
art; ideologically, all that is not bourgeois is obliged to borrow
from the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois ideology can therefore spread
over everything and in so doing lose its name without risk: no one
here will throw this name of bourgeois back at it. It can without
resistance subsume bourgeois theatre, art and humanity under their
eternal analogues; in a word, it can exnominate itself without
restraint when there is only one single human nature left: the
defection from the name 'bourgeois' is here complete.
True, there are revolts against bourgeois ideology. This is what one
generally calls the avant-garde. But these revolts are socially
limited, they remain open to salvage. First, because they come
from a small section of the bourgeoisie itself, from a minority
group of artists and intellectuals, without public other than the
class which they contest, and who remain dependent on its money
in order to express themselves. Then, these revolts always get their
inspiration from a very strongly made distinction between the
ethically and the politically bourgeois: what the avant-garde
contests is the bourgeois in art or morals - the shopkeeper, the
Philistine, as in the heyday of Romanticism; but as for political
contestation, there is none. 17 What the avant-garde does not
tolerate about the bourgeoisie is its language, not its status. This
does not necessarily mean that it approves of this status; simply, it
leaves it aside. Whatever the violence of the provocation, the
nature it finally endorses is that of 'derelict' man, not alienated
man; and derelict man is still Eternal Man. 18
This anonymity of the bourgeoisie becomes even more marked
when one passes from bourgeois culture proper to its derived,
vulgarized and applied forms, to what one could call public
philosophy, that which sustains everyday life, civil ceremonials,
secular rites, in short the unwritten norms of interrelationships in a
bourgeois society. It is an illusion to reduce the dominant culture to
its inventive core: there also is a bourgeois culture which consists
of consumption alone. The whole of France is steeped in this
anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our theatre, our pulp
literature, our rituals, our justice, our diplomacy, our
conversations, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a
touching wedding, the cooking we dream of, the garments we
wear, everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the
representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the
relations between man and the world. These 'normalized' forms
attract little attention, by the very fact of their extension, in which
their origin is easily lost. They enjoy an intermediate position:
being neither directly political nor directly ideological, they live
peacefully between the action of the militants and the quarrels of
the intellectuals; more or less abandoned by the former and the
latter, they gravitate towards the enormous mass of the
undifferentiated, of the insignificant, in short, of nature. Yet it is
through its ethic that the bourgeoisie pervades France: practised on
a national scale, bourgeois norms are experienced as the evident
laws of a natural order - the further the bourgeois class propagates
its representations, the more naturalized they become. The fact of
the bourgeoisie becomes absorbed into an amorphous universe,
whose sole inhabitant is Eternal Man, who is neither proletarian
nor bourgeois.
It is therefore by penetrating the intermediate classes that the
bourgeois ideology can most surely lose its name. Petit-bourgeois
norms are the residue of bourgeois culture, they are bourgeois
truths which have become degraded, impoverished,
commercialized, slightly archaic, or shall we say, out of date? The
political alliance of the bourgeoisie and the petite-bourgeoisie has
for more than a century determined the history of France; it has
rarely been broken, and each time only temporarily (1848, 1871,
1936). This alliance got closer as time passed, it gradually became
a symbiosis; transient awakenings might happen, but the common
ideology was never questioned again. The same 'natural' varnish
covers up all 'national' representations: the big wedding of the
bourgeoisie, which originates in a class ritual (the display and
consumption of wealth), can bear no relation to the economic
status of the lower middle-class: but through the press, the news,
and literature, it slowly becomes the very norm as dreamed, though
not actually lived, of the petit-bourgeois couple. The bourgeoisie is
constantly absorbing into its ideology a whole section of humanity
which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it except
in imagination, that is, at the cost of an immobilization and an
impoverishment of consciousness. 19 By spreading its
representations over a whole catalogue of collective images for
petit-bourgeois use, the bourgeoisie countenances the illusory lack
of differentiation of the social classes: it is as from the moment
when a typist earning twenty pounds a month recognizes herself in
the big wedding of the bourgeoisie that bourgeois ex-nomination
achieves its full effect.
The flight from the name 'bourgeois' is not therefore an illusory,
accidental, secondary, natural or insignificant phenomenon: it is
the bourgeois ideology itself, the process through which the
bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the
world, History into Nature. And this image has a remarkable
feature: it is upside down. 20 The status of the bourgeoisie is
particular, historical: man as represented by it is universal, eternal.
The bourgeois class has precisely built its power on technical,
scientific progress, on an unlimited transformation of nature:
bourgeois ideology yields in return an unchangeable nature. The
first bourgeois philosophers pervaded the world with
significations, subjected all things to an idea of the rational, and
decreed that they were meant for man: bourgeois ideology is of the
scientistic or the intuitive kind, it records facts or perceives values,
but refuses explanations; the order of the world can be seen as
sufficient or ineffable, it is never seen as significant. Finally, the
basic idea of a perfectible mobile world, produces the inverted
image of an unchanging humanity, characterized by an indefinite
repetition of its identity. In a word, in the contemporary bourgeois
society, the passage from the real to the ideological is defined as
that from an anti-physis to a pseudo-physis.
Myth is depoliticized speech
And this is where we come back to myth. Semiology has taught us
that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural
justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this
process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology. If our society is
objectively the privileged field of mythical significations, it is
because formally myth is the most appropriate instrument for the
ideological inversion which defines this society: at all the levels of
human communication, myth operates the inversion of anti-physis
into pseudo-physis.
What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined,
even if this goes back quite a while, by the way in which men have
produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural
image of this reality. And just as bourgeois ideology is defined by
the abandonment of the name 'bourgeois', myth is constituted by
the loss of the historical quality of things: in it, things lose the
memory that they once were made. The world enters language as a
dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it
comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A
conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it
has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has
removed from things their human meaning so as to make them
signify a human insignificance. The function of myth is to empty
reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or
perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence.
It is now possible to complete the semiological definition of myth
in a bourgeois society: myth is depoliticized speech. One must
naturally understand political in its deeper meaning, as describing
the whole of human relations in their real, social structure, in their
power of making the world; one must above all give an active
value to the prefix de-: here it represents an operational movement,
it permanently embodies a defaulting. In the case of the soldier143
Negro, for instance, what is got rid of is certainly not French
imperiality (on the contrary, since what must be actualized is its
presence); it is the contingent, historical, in one word: fabricated,
quality of colonialism. Myth does not deny things, on the contrary,
its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes
them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it
gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a
statement of fact. If I state the fact of French imperiality without
explaining it, I am very near to finding that it is natural and goes
without saying: I am reassured. In passing from history to nature,
myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts,
it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all
dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately
visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions
because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in
the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean
something by themselves. 21
However, is myth always depoliticized speech? In other words, is
reality always political? Is it enough to speak about a thing
naturally for it to become mythical? One could answer with Marx
that the most natural object contains a political trace, however faint
and diluted, the more or less memorable presence of the human act
which has produced, fitted up, used, subjected or rejected it. 22 The
language-object, which 'speaks things', can easily exhibit this
trace; the metalanguage, which speaks of things, much less easily.
Now myth always comes under the heading of metalanguage: the
dcpoliticization which it carries out often supervenes against a
background which is already naturalized, depoliticized by a
general metalanguage which is trained to celebrate things, and no
longer to 'act them'. It goes without saying that the force needed by
myth to distort its object is much less in the case of a tree than in
the case of a Sudanese: in the latter case, the political load is very
near the surface, a large quantity of artificial nature is needed in
order to disperse it; in the former case, it is remote, purified by a
whole century-old layer of metalanguage. There are, therefore,
strong myths and weak myths; in the former, the political quantum
is immediate, the depoliticization is abrupt; in the latter, the
political quality of the object has faded like a colour, but the
slightest thing can bring back its strength brutally: what is more
natural than the sea? and what more 'political' than the sea
celebrated by the makers of the film The Lost Continent? 23
In fact, metalanguage constitutes a kind of preserve for myth. Men
do not have with myth a relationship based on truth but on use:
they depoliticize according to their needs. Some mythical objects
are left dormant for a time; they are then no more than vague
mythical schemata whose political load seems almost neutral. But
this indicates only that their situation has brought this about, not
that their structure is different. This is the case with our Latingrammar
example. We must note that here mythical speech works
on a material which has long been transformed: the sentence by
Aesop belongs to literature, it is at the very start mythified
(therefore made innocent) by its being fiction. But it is enough to
replace the initial term of the chain for an instant into its nature as
language-object, to gauge the emptying of reality operated by
myth: can one imagine the feelings of a real society of animals on
finding itself transformed into a grammar example, into a
predicative nature! In order to gauge the political load of an object
and the mythical hollow which espouses it, one must never look at
things from the point of view of the signification, but from that of
the signifier, of the thing which has been robbed; and within the
signifier, from the point of view of the language-object, that is, of
the meaning. There is no doubt that if we consulted a real lion, he
would maintain that the grammar example is a strongly
depoliticized state, he would qualify as fully political the
jurisprudence which leads him to claim a prey because he is the
strongest, unless we deal with a bourgeois lion who would not fail
to mythify his strength by giving it the form of a duty.
One can clearly see that in this case the political insignificance of
the myth comes from its situation. Myth, as we know, is a value: it
is enough to modify its circumstances, the general (and precarious)
system in which it occurs, in order to regulate its scope with great
accuracy. The field of the myth is in this case reduced to the
second form of a French lycee. But I suppose that a child
enthralled by the story of the lion, the heifer and the cow, and
recovering through the life of the imagination the actual reality of
these animals, would appreciate with much less unconcern than we
do the disappearance of this lion changcd into a predicate. In fact,
we hold this myth to be politically insignificant only because it is
not meant for us.
Myth on the Left
If myth is depoliticized speech, there is at least one type of speech
which is the opposite of myth: that which remains political. Here
we must go back to the distinction between language-object and
metalanguage. If I am a woodcutter and I am led to name the tree
which I am felling, whatever the form of my sentence, I 'speak the
tree', I do not speak about it. This means that my language is
operational, transitively linked to its object; between the tree and
myself, there is nothing but my labour, that is to say, an action.
This is a political language: it represents nature for me only
inasmuch as I am going to transform it, it is a language thanks to
which I 'act the object'; the tree is not an image for me, it is simply
the meaning of my action. But if I am not a woodcutter, I can no
longer 'speak the tree', I can only speak about it, on it. My
language is no longer the instrument of an 'acted-upon tree', it is
the 'tree-celebrated' which becomes the instrument of my language.
I no longer have anything more than an intransitive relationship
with the tree; this tree is no longer the meaning of reality as a
human action, it is an image-at-one's-disposal. Compared to the
real language of the woodcutter, the language I create is a secondorder
language, a metalanguage in which I shall henceforth not 'act
the things' but 'act their names', and which is to the primary
language what the gesture is to the act. This second-order language
is not entirely mythical, but it is the very locus where myth settles;
for myth can work only on objects which have already received the
mediation of a first language.
There is therefore one language which is not mythical, it is the
language of man as a producer: wherever man speaks in order to
transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image,
wherever he links his language to the making of things,
metalanguage is referred to a language-object, and myth is
impossible. This is why revolutionary language proper cannot be
mythical. Revolution is defined as a cathartic act meant to reveal
the political load of the world: it makes the world; and its
language, all of it, is functionally absorbed in this making. It is
because it generates speech which is fully, that is to say initially
and finally, political, and not, like myth, speech which is initially
political and finally natural, that Revolution excludes myth. Just as
bourgeois ex-nomination characterizes at once bourgeois ideology
and myth itself, revolutionary denomination identifies revolution
and the absence of myth. The bourgeoisie hides the fact that it is
the bourgeoisie and thereby produces myth; revolution announces
itself openly as revolution and thereby abolishes myth.
I have been asked whether there are myths 'on the Left'. Of course,
inasmuch, precisely, as the Left is not revolution. Left-wing myth
supervenes precisely at the moment when revolution changes itself
into 'the Left', that is, when it accepts to wear a mask, to hide its
name, to generate an innocent metalanguage and to distort itself
into 'Nature'. This revolutionary ex-nomination may or may not be
tactical, this is no place to discuss it. At any rate, it is sooner or
later experienced as a process contrary to revolution, and it is
always more or less in relation to myth that revolutionary history
defines its 'deviations'. There came a day, for instance, when it was
socialism itself which defined the Stalin myth. Stalin, as a spoken
object, has exhibited for years, in their pure state, the constituent
characters of mythical speech: a meaning, which was the real
Stalin, that of history; a signifier, which was the ritual invocation
to Stalin, and the inevitable character of the 'natural' epithets with
which his name was surrounded; a signified, which was the
intention to respect orthodoxy, discipline and unity, appropriated
by the Communist parties to a definite situation; and a
signification, which was a sanctified Stalin, whose historical
determinants found themselves grounded in nature, sublimated
under the name of Genius, that is, something irrational and
inexpressible: here, depoliticization is evident, it fully reveals the
presence of a myth. 24
Yes, myth exists on the Left, but it does not at all have there the
same qualities as bourgeois myth. Left-wing myth is inessential. To
start with, the objects which it takes hold of are rare - only a few
political notions - unless it has itself recourse to the whole
repertoire of the bourgeois myths. Left-wing myth never reaches
the immense field of human relationships, the very vast surface of
'insignificant' ideology. Everyday life is inaccessible to it: in a
bourgeois society, there are no 'Left-wing' myths concerning
marriage, cooking, the home, the theatre, the law, morality, etc.
Then, it is an incidental myth, its use is not part of a strategy, as is
the case with bourgeois myth, but only of a tactics, or, at the worst,
of a deviation; if it occurs, it is as a myth suited to a convenience,
not to a necessity.
Finally, and above all, this myth is, in essence, poverty-stricken. It
does not know how to proliferate; being produced on order and for
a temporally limited prospect, it is invented with difficulty. It lacks
a major faculty, that of fabulizing. Whatever it does, there remains
about it something stiff and literal, a suggestion of something done
to order. As it is expressively put, it remains barren. In fact, what
can be more meagre than the Stalin myth? No inventiveness here,
and only a clumsy appropriation: the signifier of the myth (this
form whose infinite wealth in bourgeois myth we have just seen) is
not varied in the least: it is reduced to a litany.
This imperfection, if that is the word for it, comes from the nature
of the 'Left': whatever the imprecision of the term, the Left always
defines itself in relation to the oppressed, whether proletarian or
colonized. 25 Now the speech of the oppressed can only be poor,
monotonous, immediate: his destitution is the very yardstick of his
language: he has only one, always the same, that of his actions;
metalanguage is a luxury, he cannot yet have access to it. The
speech of the oppressed is real, like that of the woodcutter; it is a
transitive type of speech: it is quasi-unable to lie; lying is a
richness, a lie presupposes property, truths and forms to spare. This
essential barrenness produces rare, threadbare myths: either
transient, or clumsily indiscreet; by their very being, they label
themselves as myths, and point to their masks. And this mask is
hardly that of a pseudo-physis : for that type of physis is also a
richness of a sort, the oppressed can only borrow it: he is unable to
throw out the real meaning of things, to give them the luxury of an
empty form, open to the innocence of a false Nature. One can say
that in a sense, Left-wing myth is always an artificial myth, a
reconstituted myth: hence its clumsiness.
Myth on the Right
Statistically, myth is on the right. There, it is essential; well-fed,
sleek, expansive, garrulous, it invents itself ceaselessly. It takes
hold of everything, all aspects of the law, of morality, of aesthetics,
of diplomacy, of household equipment, of Literature, of
entertainment. Its expansion has the very dimensions of bourgeois
ex-nomination. The bourgeoisie wants to keep reality without
keeping the appearances: it is therefore the very negativity of
bourgeois appearance, infinite like every negativity, which solicits
myth infinitely. The oppressed is nothing, he has only one
language, that of his emancipation; the oppressor is everything, his
language is rich, multiform, supple, with all the possible degrees of
dignity at its disposal: he has an exclusive right to meta-language.
The oppressed makes the world, he has only an active, transitive
(political) language; the oppressor conserves it, his language is
plenary, intransitive, gestural, theatrical: it is Myth. The language
of the former aims at transforming, of the latter at eternalizing.
Does this completeness of the myths of Order (this is the name the
bourgeoisie gives to itself) include inner differences? Are there, for
instance, bourgeois myths and petit-bourgeois myths? There
cannot be any fundamental differences, for whatever the public
which consumes it, myth always postulated the immobility of
Nature. But there can be degrees of fulfilment or expansion: some
myths ripen better in some social strata: for myth also, there are
The myth of Childhood-as-Poet, for instance, is an advanced
bourgeois myth: it has hardly come out of inventive culture
(Cocteau, for example) and is just reaching consumer culture
(L'Express). Part of the bourgeoisie can still find it too obviously
invented, not mythical enough to feel entitled to countenance it (a
whole part of bourgeois criticism works only with duly mythical
materials). It is a myth which is not yet well run in, it does not yet
contain enough nature: in order to make the ChildPoet part of a
cosmogony, one must renounce the prodigy (Mozart, Rimbaud,
etc.), and accept new norms, those of psychopedagogy,
Freudianism, etc.: as a myth, it is still unripe.
Thus every myth can have its history and its geography; each is in
fact the sign of the other: a myth ripens because it spreads. I have
not been able to carry out any real study of the social geography of
myths. But it is perfectly possible to draw what linguists would call
the isoglosses of a myth, the lines which limit the social region
where it is spoken. As this region is shifting, it would be better to
speak of the waves of implantation of the myth. The Minou Drouet
myth has thus had at least three waves of amplification: (i)
L'Express; (2) Paris-Match, Elle; (3) France-Soir. Some myths
hesitate: will they pass into tabloids, the home of the suburbanite
of private means, the hairdresser's salon, the tube? The social
geography of myths will remain difficult to trace as long as we
lack an analytical sociology of the press. 26 But we can say that its
place already exists.
Since we cannot yet draw up the list of the dialectal forms of
bourgeois myth, we can always sketch its rhetorical forms. One
must understand here by rhetoric a set of fixed, regulated, insistent
figures, according to which the varied forms of the mythical
signifier arrange themselves. These figures are transparent
inasmuch as they do not affect the plasticity of the signifier; but
they are already sufficiently conceptualized to adapt to an
historical representation of the world (just as classical rhetoric can
account for a representation of the Aristotelian type). It is through
their rhetoric that bourgeois myths outline the general prospect of
this pseudo-physis which defines the dream of the contemporary
bourgeois world. Here are its principal figures:
1. The inoculation. I have already given examples of this very
general figure, which consists in admitting the accidental evil of a
class-bound institution the better to conceal its principial evil. One
immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a
small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it against
the risk of a generalized subversion. This liberal treatment would
not have been possible only a hundred years ago. Then, the
bourgeois Good did not compromise with anything, it was quite
stiff. It has bccome much morc supple since: the bourgeoisie no
longer hesitates to acknowledge some localized subversions: the
avant-garde, the irrational in childhood, etc. It now lives in a
balanced economy: as in any sound joint-stock company, the
smaller shares-in law but not in factcompensate the big ones.
2. The privation of History. Myth deprives the object of which it
speaks of all History. 27 In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of
ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the
master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is
to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes
from. Or even better: it can only come from eternity: since the
beginning of time, it has been made for bourgeois man, the Spain
of the Blue Guide has been made for the tourist, and 'primitives'
have prepared their dances with a view to an exotic festivity. We
can see all the disturbing things which this felicitous figure
removes from sight: both determinism and freedom. Nothing is
produccd, nothing is chosen: all one has to do is to possess these
new objects from which all soiling trace of origin or choice has
been removed. This miraculous evaporation of history is another
form of a concept common to most bourgeois myths: the
irresponsibility of man.
3. Identification. The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine
the Other. 28 If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself,
ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. In the
petit-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of confrontation are
reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. The spectacle
or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to
appear in full view, become mirrors. This is because the Other is a
scandal which threatens his essence. Dominici cannot have access
to social existence unless he is previously reduced to the state of a
small simulacrum of the President of the Assizes or the Public
Prosecutor: this is the price one must pay in order to condemn him
justly, since justice is a weighing operation and since scales can
only weigh like against like. There are, in any petit-bourgeois
consciousness, small simulacra of the hooligan, the parricide, the
homosexual, etc., which periodically the judiciary extracts from its
brain, puts in the dock, admonishes and condemns: one never tries
anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of
direction, not of nature, for that's how men are. Sometimes - rarely
- the Other is revealed as irreducible: not because of a sudden
scruple, but because common sense rebels: a man does not have a
white skin, but a black one, another drinks pear juice, not Pernod.
How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a
figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure
object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity,
he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is
chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the
Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place
where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort
of intellectual equilibrium based on recognized places. The petitbourgeois
class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the
bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie,
but lags behind.
4. Tautology. Yes, I know, it's an ugly word. But so is the thing.
Tautology is this verbal device which consists in defining like by
like ('Drama is drama'). We can view it as one of those types of
magical behaviour dealt with by Sartre in his Outline of a Theory
of the Emotions: one takes refuge in tautology as one does in fear,
or anger, or sadness, when one is at a loss for an explanation: the
accidental failure of language is magically identified with what one
decides is a natural resistance of the object. In tautology, there is a
double murder: one kills rationality because it resists one; one kills
language because it betrays one. Tautology is a faint at the right
moment, a saving aphasia, it is a death, or perhaps a comedy, the
indignant 'representation' of the rights of reality over and above
language. Since it is magical, it can of course only take refuge
behind the argument of authority: thus do parents at the end of
their tether reply to the child who keeps on asking for
explanations: 'because that's how it is', or even better: 'just
because, that's all' - a magical act ashamed of itself, which
verbally makes the gesture of rationality, but immediately
abandons the latter, and believes itself to be even with causality
because it has uttered the word which introduces it. Tautology
testifies to a profound distrust of language, which is rejected
because it has failed. Now any refusal of language is a death.
Tautology creates a dead, a motionless world.
5. Neither-Norism. By this I mean this mythological figure which
consists in stating two opposites and balancing the one by the other
so as to reject them both. (I want neither this nor that.) It is on the
whole a bourgeois figure, for it relates to a modern form of
liberalism. We find again here the figure of the scales: reality is
first reduced to analogues; then it is weighed; finally, equality
having been ascertained, it is got rid of. Here also there is magical
behaviour: both parties are dismissed because it is embarrassing to
choose between them; one flees from an intolerable reality,
reducing it to two opposites which balance each other only
inasmuch as they are purely formal, relieved of all their specific
weight. Neither-Norism can have degraded forms: in astrology, for
example, ill-luck is always followed by equal good-luck; they are
always predicted in a prudently compensatory perspective: a final
equilibrium immobilizes values, life, destiny, etc. : one no longer
needs to choose, but only to endorse.
6. The quantification of quality. This is a figure which is latent in
all the preceding ones. By reducing any quality to quantity, myth
economizes intelligence: it understands reality more cheaply. I
have given several examples of this mechanism which bourgeois -
and especially petit-bourgeois - mythology does not hesitate to
apply to aesthetic realities which it deems on the other hand to
partake of an immaterial essence. Bourgeois theatre is a good
example of this contradiction: on the one hand, theatre is presented
as an essence which cannot be reduced to any language and reveals
itself only to the heart, to intuition. From this quality, it receives an
irritable dignity (it is forbidden as a crime of 'lese-essence' to speak
about the theatre scientifically: or rather, any intellectual way of
viewing the theatre is discredited as scientism or pedantic
language). On the other hand, bourgeois dramatic art rests on a
pure quantification of effects: a whole circuit of computable
appearances establishes a quantitative equality between the cost of
a ticket and the tears of an actor or the luxuriousness of a set: what
is currently meant by the 'naturalness' of an actor, for instance, is
above all a conspicuous quantity of effects.
7. The statement of fact. Myths tend towards proverbs. Bourgeois
ideology invests in this figure interests which are bound to its very
essence: universalism, the refusal of any explanation, an
unalterable hierarchy of the world. But we must again distinguish
the language-object from the metalanguage. Popular, ancestral
proverbs still partake of an instrumental grasp of the world as
object. A rural statement of fact, such as 'the weather is fine' keeps
a real link with the usefulness of fine weather. It is an implicitly
technological statement; the word, here, in spite of its general,
abstract form, paves the way for actions, it inserts itself into a
fabricating order: the farmer does not speak about the weather, he
'acts it', he draws it into his labour. All our popular proverbs thus
represent active speech which has gradually solidified into
reflexive speech, but where rcflection is curtailed, reduced to a
statement of fact, and so to speak timid, prudent, and closely
hugging experience. Popular proverbs foresee more than they
assert, they remain the speech of a humanity which is making
itself, not one which is. Bourgeois aphorisms, on the other hand,
belong to metalanguage; they are a second-order language which
bears on objects already prepared. Their classical form is the
maxim. Here the statement is no longer directed towards a world to
be made; it must overlay one which is already made, bury the
traces of this production under a self-evident appearance of
eternity: it is a counter-explanation, the decorous equivalent of a
tautology, of this peremptory because which parents in need of
knowledge hang above the heads of their children. The foundation
of the bourgeois statement of fact is common sense, that is, truth
when it stops on the arbitrary order of him who speaks it.
I have listed these rhetorical figures without any special order, and
there may well be many others: some can become worn out, others
can come into being. But it is obvious that those given here, such
as they are, fall into two great categories, which are like the
Zodiacal Signs of the bourgeois universe: the Essences and the
Scales. Bourgeois ideology continuously transforms the products
of history into essential types. Just as the cuttlefish squirts its ink in
order to protect itself, it cannot rest until it has obscured the
ceaseless making of the world, fixated this world into an object
which can be for ever possessed, catalogued its riches, embalmed
it, and injected into reality some purifying essence which will stop
its transformation, its flight towards other forms of existence. And
these riches, thus fixated and frozen, will at last become
computable: bourgeois morality will essentially be a weighing
operation, the essences will be placed in scales of which bourgeois
man will remain the motionless beam. For the very end of myths is
to immobilize the world: they must suggest and mimic a universal
order which has fixated once and for all the hierarchy of
possessions. Thus, every day and everywhere, man is stopped by
myths, referred by them to this motionless prototype which lives in
his place, stifles him in the manner of a huge internal parasite and
assigns to his activity the narrow limits within which he is allowed
to suffer without upsetting the world: bourgeois pseudo-physis is
in the fullest sense a prohibition for man against inventing himself.
Myths are nothing but this ceaseless, untiring solicitation, this
insidious and inflexible demand that all men recognize themselves
in this image, eternal yet bearing a date, which was built of them
one day as if for all time. For the Nature, in which they are locked
up under the pretext of being eternalized, is nothing but an Usage.
And it is this Usage, however lofty, that they must take in hand and
Necessity and limits of mythology
I must, as a conclusion, say a few words about the mythologist
himself. This term is rather grand and self-assured. Yet one can
predict for the mythologist, if there ever is one, a few difficulties,
in feeling if not in method. True, he will have no trouble in feeling
justified: whatever its mistakes, mythology is certain to participate
in the making of the world. Holding as a principle that man in a
bourgeois society is at every turn plunged into a false Nature, it
attempts to find again under the assumed innocence of the most
unsophisticated relationships, the profound alienation which this
innocence is meant to make one accept. The unveiling which it
carries out is therefore a political act: founded on a responsible
idea of language, mythology thereby postulates the freedom of the
latter. It is certain that in this sense mythology harmonizes with the
world, not as it is, but as it wants to create itself (Brecht had for
this an efficiently ambiguous word: Einverstandnis, at once an
understanding of reality and a complicity with it).
This harmony justifies the mythologist but does not fulfil him: his
status still remains basically one of being excluded. Justified by the
political dimension, the mythologist is still at a distance from it.
His speech is a metalanguage, it 'acts' nothing; at the most, it
unveils - or does it? To whom? His task always remains
ambiguous, hampered by its ethical origin. He can live
revolutionary action only vicariously: hence the self-conscious
character of his function, this something a little stiff and
painstaking, muddled and excessively simplified which brands any
intellectual behaviour with an openly political foundation
('uncommitted' types of literature are infinitely more 'elegant'; they
are in their place in metalanguage).
Also, the mythologist cuts himself off from all the mythconsumers,
and this is no small matter. If this applied to a
particular section of the collectivity, well and good. 29 But when a
myth reaches the entire community, it is from the latter that the
mythologist must become estranged if he wants to liberate the
myth. Any myth with some degree of generality is in fact
ambiguous, because it represents the very humanity of those who,
having nothing, have borrowed it. To decipher the Tour de France
or the 'good French Wine' is to cut oneself off from those who are
entertained or warmed up by them. The mythologist is condemned
to live in a theoretical sociality; for him, to be in society is, at best,
to be truthful: his utmost sociality dwells in his utmost morality.
His connection with the world is of the order of sarcasm.
One must even go further: in a sense, the mythologist is excluded
from this history in the name of which he professes to act. The
havoc which he wreaks in the language of the community is
absolute for him, it fills his assignment to the brim: he must live
this assignment without any hope of going back or any assumption
of payment. It is forbidden for him to imagine what the world will
concretely be like, when the immediate object of his criticism has
disappeared. Utopia is an impossible luxury for him: he greatly
doubts that tomorrow's truths will be he exact reverse of today's
lies. History never ensures the triumph pure and simple of
something over its opposite: it unveils, while making itself,
unimaginable solutions, unforeseeable syntheses. The mythologist
is not even in a Moses-like situation: he cannot see the Promised
Land. For him, tomorrow's positivity is entirely hidden by today's
negativity. All the values of his undertaking appear to him as acts
of destruction: the latter accurately cover the former, nothing
protrudes. This subjective grasp of history in which the potent seed
of the future is nothing but the most profound apocalypse of the
present has been expressed by Saint Just in a strange saying: 'What
constitutes the Republic is the total destruction of what is opposed
to it.' This must not, I think, be understood in the trivial sense of:
'One has to clear the way before reconstructing.' The copula has an
exhaustive meaning: there is for some men a subjective dark night
of history where the future becomes an essence, the essential
destruction of the past.
One last exclusion threatens the mythologist: he constantly runs
the risk of causing the reality which he purports to protect, to
disappear. Quite apart from all speech, the D.S. 19 is a
technologically defined object: it is capable of a certain speed, it
meets the wind in a certain way, etc. And this type of reality
cannot be spoken of by the mythologist. The mechanic, the
engineer, even the user, 'speak the object'; but the mythologist is
condemned to metalanguage. This exclusion already has a name: it
is what is called ideologism. Zhdanovism has roundly condemned
it (without proving, incidentally, that it was, for the time being,
avoidable) in the early Lukacs, in Marr's linguistics, in works like
those of Benichou or Goldmann, opposing to it the reticence of a
reality inaccessible to ideology, such as that of language according
to Stalin. It is true that ideologism resolves the contradiction of
alienated reality by an amputation, not a synthesis (but as for
Zhdanovism, it does not even resolve it): wine is objectively good,
and at the same time, the goodness of wine is a myth here is the
aporia. The mythologist gets out of this as best he can: he deals
with the goodness of wine, not with the wine itself, just as the
historian deals with Pascal's ideology, not with the Pensees in
themselves. 30
It seems that this is a difficulty pertaining to our times: there is as
yet only one possible choice, and this choice can bear only on two
equally extreme methods: either to posit a reality which is entirely
permeable to history, and ideologize; or, conversely, to posit a
reality which is ultimately impenetrable, irreducible, and, in this
case, poetize. In a word, I do not yet see a synthesis between
ideology and poetry (by poetry I understand, in a very general way,
the search for the inalienable meaning of things).
The fact that we cannot manage to achieve more than an unstable
grasp of reality doubtless gives the measure of our present
alienation: we constantly drift between the object and its
demystification, powerless to render its wholeness. For if we
penetrate the object, we liberate it but we destroy it; and if we
acknowledge its full weight, we respect it, but we restore it to a
state which is still mystified. It would seem that we are condemned
for some time yet always to speak excessively about reality. This is
probably because ideologism and its opposite are types of
behaviour which are still magical, terrorized, blinded and
fascinated by the split in the social world. And yet, this is what we
must seek: a reconciliation between reality and men, between
description and explanation, between object and knowledge.
1 Innumerable other meanings of the word 'myth' can be cited
against this. But I have tried to define things, not words.
2 The development of publicity, of a national press, of radio, of
illustrated news not to speak of the survival of a myriad rites of
communication which rule social appearances makes the
development of a semiological science more urgent than ever. In a
single day, how many really non-signifying fields do we cross?
Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that
it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for
semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, sign-boards, clothes, suntan
even, which are so many messages to me.
3 The notion of word is one of the most controversial in linguistics.
I keep it here for the sake of simplicity.
4 Tel Quel, II, p. 191.
5 Or perhaps Sinity? Just as if Latin/latinity = Basque/x, x =
6 I say 'in Spain' because, in France, petit-bourgeois advancement
has caused a whole 'mythical' architecture of the Basque chalet to
7 From the point of view of ethics, what is disturbing in myth is
precisely that its form is motivated. For if there is a 'health' of
language, it is the arbitrariness of the sign which is its grounding.
What is sickening in myth is its resort to a false nature, its
superabundance of significant forms, as in these objects which
decorate their usefulness with a natural appearance. The will to
weigh the signification with the full guarantee of nature causes a
kind of nausea: myth is too rich, and what is in excess is precisely
its motivation. This nausea is like the one I feel before the arts
which refuse to choose between physis and anti-physis, using the
first as an ideal and the second as an economy. Ethically, there is a
kind of baseness in hedging one's bets.
8 The freedom in choosing what one focuscs on is a problem which
does not belong to the province of semiology: it depends on the
concrete situation of the subject.
9 We receive the naming of the lion as a pure example of Latin
grammar because we are, as grown-ups, in a creative position in
relation to it. I shall come back later to the value of the context in
this mythical schema.
10 Classical poetry, on the contrary, would be, according to such
norms, a strongly mythical system, since it imposes on the
meaning one extra signified, which is regularity. The alexandrine,
for instance, has value both as meaning of a discourse and as
signifier of a new whole, which is its poetic signification. Success,
when it occurs, comes from the degree of apparent fusion of the
two systems. It can be seen that we deal in no way with a harmony
between content and form, but with an elegant absorption of one
form into another. By elegance I mean the most economical use of
the means employed. It is because of an age-old abuse that critics
confuse meaning and content. The language is never anything but a
system of forms, and the meaning is a form.
11 We are again dealing here with the meaning, in Sartre's use of
the term, as a natural quality of things, situated outside a
semiological system (Saint-Genet, p. 283).
12 Style, at least as I defined it then, is not a form, it does not
belong to the province of a semiological analysis of Literature. In
fact, style is a substance constantly threatened with formalization.
To start with, it can perfectly well become degraded into a mode of
writing: there is a 'Malraux-type' writing, and even in Malraux
himself. Then, style can also become a particular language, that
used by the writer for himself and for himself alone. Style then
becomes a sort of solipsistic myth, the language which the writer
speaks to himself. It is easy to understand that at such a degree of
solidification, style calls for a deciphering. The works of J. P.
Richard are an example of this necessary critique of styles.
13 A subjunctive form because it is in the subjunctive mode that
Latin expressed 'indirect style or discourse', which is an admirable
instrument for demystification.
14 'The fate of capitalism is to make the worker wealthy,' Paris-
Match tells us.
15 The word 'capitalism' is taboo, not economically, but
ideologically; it cannot possibly enter the vocabulary of bourgeois
representations. Only in Farouk's Egypt could a prisoner be
condemned by a tribunal for 'anti-capitalist plotting' in so many
16 The bourgeoisie never uses the word 'Proletariat', which is
supposed to be a Left-wing myth, except when it is in its interest to
imagine the Proletariat being led astray by the Communist Party.
17 It is remarkable that the adversaries of the bourgeoisie on
matters of ethics or aesthetics remain for the most part indifferent,
or even attached, to its political determinations. Conversely, its
political adversaries neglect to issue a basic condemnation of its
representations: they often go so far as to share them. This
diversity of attacks benefits the bourgeoisie, it allows it to
camouflage its name. For the bourgeoisie should be understood
only as synthesis of its determinations and its representations.
18 There can be figures of derelict man which lack all order
(Ionesco for example). This does not affect in any way the security
of the Essences.
19 To induce a collective content for the imagination is always an
inhuman undertaking, not only because dreaming essentializes life
into destiny, but also because dreams are impoverished, and the
alibi of an absence.
20 'If men and their conditions appear throughout ideology inverted
as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon follows from their
historical vital process...' (Marx, The German Ideology).
21 To the pleasure-principle of Freudian man could be added the
clarity-principle of mythological humanity. All the ambiguity of
myth is there: its clarity is euphoric.
22 Cf. Marx and the example of the cherry-tree, The German
23 Cf. p. 94.
24 It is remarkable that Krushchevism presented itself not as a
political change, but essentially and only as a linguistic conversion.
An incomplete conversion, incidentally, for Krushchev devalued
Stalin, but did not explain him - did not repoliticize him.
25 Today it is the colonized peoples who assume to the full the
ethical and political condition described by Marx as being that of
the proletariat.
26 The circulation of newspapers is an insufficient datum. Other
information comes only by accident. Paris-Match has given -
significantly, as publicity - the composition of its public in terms of
standard of living (Le Figaro, July 12th, 1955): out of each 100
readers living in town, 53 have a car, 49 a bathroom, etc., whereas
the average standard of living in France is reckoned as follows:
car, 22 per cent; bathroom, 13 per cent. That the purchasing power
of the Paris-Match reader is high could have been predicted from
the mythology of this publication.
27 Marx: '...we must pay attention to this history, since ideology
boils down to either an erroneous conception of this history, or to a
complete abstraction from it' (The German Ideology).
28 Marx: '...what makes them representative of the petit-bourgeois
class, is that their minds, their consciousnesses do not extend
beyond the limits which this class has set to its activities' (The
Eighteenth Brumaire). And Gorki: 'the petit-bourgeois is the man
who has preferred himself to all else.'
29 It is not only from the public that one becomes estranged; it is
sometimes also from the very object of the myth. In order to
demystify Poetic Childhood, for instance, I have had, so to speak,
to lack confidence in Minou Drouet the child. I have had to ignore,
in her, under the enormous myth with which she is cumbered,
something like a tender, open, possibility. It is never a good thing
to speak against a little girl.
30 Even here, in these mythologies, I have used trickery: finding it
painful constantly to work on the evaporation of reality, I have
started to make it excessively dense, and to discover in it a
surprising compactness which I savoured with delight, and I have
given a few examples of 'substantial psycho-analysis' about some
mythical objects.

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