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This article is taken from PN Review 47, Volume 12 Number 3, January - February 1986.

Sartre-Barthes Nicolas Tredell

The deaths of Sartre and Barthes within weeks of each other in 1980 removed two men who had come to represent major stages in French intellectual culture: Sartre, existentialism and a 'humanized' Marxism; Barthes, structuralism and post-structuralism. Inevitable irony curved round their fame. Sartre had savaged the myth of the 'genius', the 'author with a destiny', and attacked the 'star system' in which he glittered brightly; he had sought to dissolve himself back, conceptually at least, into the human collective, to become 'a whole man, made of all men, worth all of them, and any one of them worth him' (W, 158). Barthes had pronounced the 'author' dead, as cultural institution and as source and semantic guarantor of a text; had worked to disperse the supposedly unified individual subject into a plurality of constitutive discourses; had laid bare the ways in which that monster, bourgeois mythology, turned a constructed culture into a mystifying 'nature'. But both had been 'recuperated' by that mythology as 'authors', as 'geniuses', as - to borrow Giscard d'Estaing's stultifying obituary comment on Sartre - 'great luminaries of our time'. Such eulogies shed no light. But the fact remains that, among a range of remarkable writers and thinkers - Camus, de Beauvoir, Lacan, Althusser, Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault - Sartre and Barthes stood out, and this cannot be explained away as due merely to the machinations of bourgeois - or radical - mythology. It is due primarily to their ability to focus and dramatize, as no others ...


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