Some weeks ago, when the fall semester had not yet begun and I still had free time, I realized that I disliked Roland Barthes but could no longer remember why. This being the case, I sat down at a local coffee shop with an anthology of his essays and a few cups of espresso. It was a productive morning: I remembered not only why I disliked him, and why I find postmodernism, existentialism, and identity-based literary criticism unsatisfactory, but why other people’s dream-journals tend to make for dull reading. Funnily enough, I also ended up with a higher opinion of Barthes than before.
The problem with Barthes is that no matter what topics he writes about, he gives the impression of talking about himself to himself. The reader and the topic he writes about are incidental to him, but are admitted—graciously— for the sake of form. It is an ironic assertion to make about the philosopher who is best known for announcing the death of the author, but in my experience it is mostly writers who have found this concept attractive. Rather suspicious, if you ask me. I don’t know whether Barthes has liberated any readers from despotic authors, but he certainly seems to have liberated authors from the burden of clear expression.
Barthes’s philosophy savors of the world of dreams rather than the world of the senses. Not the dreams that quantitative studies conclude to be normal—these do mostly seem to concern the world of the senses— but those of dreamers who have learned to speak and understand their private language. It has an elusive, incorporeal quality—not like something abstracted from reality, but like something that has never known reality and does not care to know.
It is hard to define what makes Barthes’s writing so peculiar, but the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator goes a long way towards doing so with just four letters: INTJ*. Or, according to Carl Jung’s original typology, which I prefer for its more realistic, nuanced appraisal of the effects of functional preference on an individual’s character—i.e., its pessimism— introverted intuition with a side of thinking. Jung would say that the peculiar quality exemplified by the dreamer and the postmodern philosopher comes from the introverted attitude common to both.
I have observed in the past that this is the primary danger in writing about dreams: writing about yourself to yourself can be alienating to readers, and, unlike in philosophy, there isn’t even the freak chance that someone will make you required reading for undergraduates in 50 years. You’d have to be a Benvenuto Cellini or Michel de Montaigne of dreams to find more than a few dedicated readers.
But to be honest—I rather like Barthes. He may be writing about himself to himself, but he seems to enjoy his own company, and I’ve read enough critics who are intent on turning their studies into their own personal hell to appreciate that. In the future, I may consider reading him again—but if I want to learn about André Gide, or Baudelaire, or any of the other authors he writes about, I will go elsewhere.
*I’m sure a convincing argument could be made for other types, but the system doesn’t interest me enough to spend more energy on the question. Anyway, nobody would deny the introversion, and that’s the part that concerns me here.