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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Seventh Function of Language

A Novel

Laurent Binet; Translated from the French by Sam Taylor






Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so. Roland Barthes walks up Rue de Bièvre. The greatest literary critic of the twentieth century has every reason to feel anxious and upset. His mother, with whom he had a highly Proustian relationship, is dead. And his course on “The Preparation of the Novel” at the Collège de France is such a conspicuous failure it can no longer be ignored: all year, he has talked to his students about Japanese haikus, photography, the signifier and the signified, Pascalian diversions, café waiters, dressing gowns, and lecture-hall seating—about everything but the novel. And this has been going on for three years. He knows, without a doubt, that the course is simply a delaying tactic designed to push back the moment when he must start a truly literary work, one worthy of the hypersensitive writer lying dormant within him and who, in everyone’s opinion, began to bud in his A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, which has become a bible for the under-25s. From Sainte-Beuve to Proust, it is time to step up and take the place that awaits him in the literary pantheon. Maman is dead: he has come full circle since Writing Degree Zero. The time has come.

Politics? Yeah, yeah, we’ll see about that. He can’t really claim to be very Maoist since his trip to China. Then again, no one expects him to be.

Chateaubriand, La Rochefoucauld, Brecht, Racine, Robbe-Grillet, Michelet, Maman. A boy’s love.

I wonder if the area was already full of Vieux Campeur shops back then.

In a quarter of an hour, he will be dead.

I’m sure he ate well, on Rue des Blancs-Manteaux. I imagine people like that serve pretty good food. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes decodes the contemporary myths erected by the middle classes to their own glory. And it was this book that made him truly famous. So, in a way, he owes his fortune to the bourgeoisie. But that was the petite bourgeoisie. The ruling classes who serve the people are a very particular case that merits analysis; he should write an article. Tonight? Why not right away? But no, first he has to organize his slides.

Roland Barthes ups his pace without paying attention to the world around him, despite being a born observer, a man whose job consists of observing and analyzing, who has spent his entire life scrutinizing signs of every kind. He really doesn’t see the trees or the sidewalks or the store windows or the cars on Boulevard Saint-Germain, which he knows like the back of his hand. He is not in Japan anymore. He doesn’t feel the bite of the cold. He barely even hears the sounds of the street. It’s a bit like Plato’s allegory of the cave in reverse: the world of ideas in which he shuts himself away obscures his awareness of the world of the senses. Around him, he sees only shadows.

These reasons I mention to explain Roland Barthes’s anxiety are all well known. But I want to tell you what actually happened. If his mind is elsewhere that day, it’s not only because of his dead mother or his inability to write a novel or even his increasing and, he thinks, irreversible loss of appetite for boys. I’m not saying that he’s not thinking about these things; I have no doubts about the quality of his obsessive neuroses. But, today, there is something else. In the absent gaze of a man lost in his thoughts, the attentive passerby would have recognized that state which Barthes thought he was destined never to feel again: excitement. There is more to him than his mother and boys and his phantom novel. There is the libido sciendi, the lust for learning, and, awoken by it, the flattering prospect of revolutionizing human knowledge and, perhaps, changing the world. Does Barthes feel like Einstein, thinking about his theory as he crosses Rue des Écoles? What is certain is that he’s not really looking where he’s going. He is less than a hundred feet from his office when he is hit by a van. His body makes the familiar, sickening, dull thudding sound of flesh meeting metal, and it rolls over the pavement like a rag doll. Passersby flinch. This afternoon—February 25, 1980—they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very good reason that, until today, no one understands anything about it.


Semiology is a very strange thing. It was Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of linguistics, who first dreamed it up. In his Course in General Linguistics, he proposes imagining “a science that studies the life of signs within society.” Yep, that’s all. For those who wish to tackle this, he adds a few guidelines: “It would form a part of social psychology and, consequently, of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, ‘sign’). It would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since it does not exist yet, no one can say what it will be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of this general science; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics, and the latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts.” I wish Anthony Hopkins would reread this passage for us, enunciating each word as he does so well, so that the whole world could at least grasp all its beauty if not its meaning. A century later, this brilliant intuition, which was almost incomprehensible to his contemporaries when the course was taught in 1906, has lost none of its power or its obscurity. Since then, numerous semiologists have attempted to provide clearer and more detailed definitions, but they have contradicted each other (sometimes without realizing it themselves), got everything muddled up, and ultimately succeeded only in lengthening (and even then, not by much) the list of systems of signs beyond language: the highway code, the international maritime code, and bus and hotel numbers have been added to military ranks and the sign language alphabet … and that’s about it.

Rather meager in comparison with the original ambition.

Seen this way, far from being an extension of the domain of linguistics, semiology seems to have been reduced to the study of crude proto-languages, which are much less complex and therefore much more limited than any real language.

But in fact, that’s not the case.

It’s no accident that Umberto Eco, the wise man of Bologna, one of the last great semiologists, referred so often to the key, decisive inventions in the history of humanity: the wheel, the spoon, the book … perfect tools, he said, unimprovable in their effectiveness. And indeed, everything suggests that in reality semiology is one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity and one of the most powerful tools ever forged by man. But as with fire or the atom, people don’t know what the point of it is to begin with, or how to use it.


In fact, a quarter of an hour later, he still isn’t dead. Roland Barthes lies in the gutter, inert, but a hoarse wheeze escapes his body. And while his mind sinks into unconsciousness, probably full of whirling haikus, Racinian alexandrines, and Pascalian aphorisms, he hears—maybe the last thing he will hear, he thinks (he does think, surely)—a distraught man yelling: “He thrrrew himself under my wheels! He thrrrew himself under my wheels!” Where’s that accent from? Around him, the passersby are recovering from the shock, have gathered in a circle and are leaning over what will soon be his corpse, discussing, analyzing, evaluating:

“We should call an ambulance!”

“No point. He’s done for.”

“He thrrrew himself under my wheels—you werrre all witnesses!”

“Doesn’t look too good, does he?”

“Poor guy…”

“We have to find a pay phone. Anyone got some coins?”

“I didn’t even have to time to brrrake!”

“Don’t touch him. We must wait for the ambulance.”

“Let me through! I’m a doctor.”

“Don’t turn him over!”

“I’m a doctor. He’s still alive.”

“Someone should inform his family.”

“Poor guy…”

“I know him!”

“Was it suicide?”

“We have to find out his blood group.”

“He’s a customer of mine. He comes to my bar for a drink every morning.”

“He won’t be coming anymore…”

“Is he drunk?”

“He smells of alcohol.”

“A glass of white, sitting at the bar. Same thing every morning, for years.”

“That doesn’t help us with his blood group…”

“He crrrossed the rrroad without looking!”

“The driver must remain in control of his vehicle at all times. That’s the law here.”

“Don’t worry, man, you’ll be fine. As long as you’ve got good insurance…”

“Yeah, there goes his no-claims bonus, though.”

“Don’t touch him!”

“I’m a doctor!”

“So am I.”

“Look after him, then. I’ll go and call an ambulance.”

“I have to deliverrr my merrrchandise…”

Most of the world’s languages use an apico-alveolar r, known as the rolled r, in contrast to French, which adopted the dorso-velar R about three hundred years ago. There is no rolled r in German or English. Nor in Italian or Spanish. Portuguese, maybe? True, it does sound a little guttural, but the man’s intonation is not nasal or singsong enough; it’s quite monotonous, in fact, so much so that it’s hard to make out the notes of panic.

So he’s probably a Russian.


Born of linguistics and almost doomed to be the runt of the litter, used only for the study of the most rudimentary, limited languages, how at the last possible moment was semiology able to turn itself into a neutron bomb?

By means Barthes was familiar with.

To begin with, semiology was devoted to the study of nonlinguistic systems of communication. Saussure himself told his students: “Language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and in this way is comparable to writing, the sign language alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military signals, et cetera. It is simply the most important of these systems.” This is more or less true, but only if we limit the definition of systems of signs to those designed to communicate explicitly and intentionally. The Belgian linguist Eric Buyssens defines semiology as “the study of communication processes; in other words, means used to influence others and recognized as such by the others in question.”

Barthes’s stroke of genius is to not content himself with communication systems but to extend his field of inquiry to systems of meaning. Once you have tasted that freedom, you quickly become bored with anything less: studying road signs or military codes is about as fascinating for a linguist as playing gin rummy would be for a poker player, or checkers for a chess player. As Umberto Eco might say: for communicating, language is perfect; there could be nothing better. And yet, language doesn’t say everything. The body speaks, objects speak, history speaks, individual or collective destinies speak, life and death speak to us constantly in a thousand different ways. Man is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere: in the color of his wife’s coat, in the stripe on the door of his car, in the eating habits of the people in the apartment next door, in France’s monthly unemployment figures, in the banana-like taste of Beaujolais nouveau (it always tastes either like banana or, less often, raspberry. Why? No one knows, but there must be an explanation, and it is semiological), in the proud, stately bearing of the black woman striding ahead of him through the corridors of the metro, in his colleague’s habit of leaving the top two buttons of his shirt undone, in some footballer’s goal celebration, in the way his partner screams when she has an orgasm, in the design of that piece of Scandinavian furniture, in the main sponsor’s logo at this tennis tournament, in the soundtrack to the credits of that film, in architecture, in painting, in cooking, in fashion, in advertising, in interior decor, in the West’s representation of women and men, love and death, heaven and earth, etc. With Barthes, signs no longer need to be signals: they have become clues. A seismic shift. They’re everywhere. From now on, semiology is ready to conquer the world.


Superintendent Bayard reports to the emergency room of Pitié-Salpêtrière, where he is given Roland Barthes’s room number. The case he is investigating can be summarized as follows: a man, sixty-four years old, knocked over by a laundry van, Rue des Écoles, Monday afternoon, while on a pedestrian crossing. The driver of the van, one Yvan Delahov, of Bulgarian nationality, tested positive for alcohol but was below the limit: 0.6 g, while the legal maximum is 0.8. He admitted that he was running late, delivering his shirts. Nevertheless, he claimed that he was not driving at more than 60 kilometers per hour. The victim was unconscious when the ambulance arrived, and had no papers on his person, but he was identified by one of his colleagues, a certain Michel Foucault, a lecturer at the Collège de France and a writer. The man, it turns out, was Roland Barthes, also a lecturer at the Collège de France and a writer.

So far, nothing justified sending an investigator, never mind a superintendent from the Renseignements Généraux, the French police’s intelligence service. Jacques Bayard’s presence is, in truth, down to one detail: when Roland Barthes was run over, on February 25, 1980, he had just eaten lunch with François Mitterrand, on Rue des Blancs-Manteaux.

In theory, there is no link between the lunch and the accident, nor between the Socialist candidate for the following year’s presidential election and some laundry firm’s Bulgarian driver, but it is the habit of Renseignements Généraux to gather information about everything, and especially, during this lead-up to the election campaign, about François Mitterrand. Michel Rocard is more popular in the opinion polls (Sofres survey, January 1980: “Who is the best Socialist candidate?” Mitterrand 20 percent, Rocard 55 percent), but presumably those in high places do not believe that he will dare to cross the Rubicon: the French Socialists believe in following the rules, and Mitterrand has been reelected as leader of the party. Six years ago, he gained 49.19 percent of the vote against Giscard’s 50.81 percent: the smallest margin of defeat recorded in a presidential election since the establishment of universal suffrage. So it’s impossible to dismiss the risk that a left-wing president could be elected for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic; that is why the RG have sent an investigator. Jacques Bayard’s mission consists essentially in verifying whether Barthes drank too much at Mitterrand’s apartment or, better still, whether he took part in a sadomasochistic orgy involving dogs. The Socialist leader has been involved in so few scandals in recent years that one might almost imagine he was deliberately watching his step. The fake kidnapping in the Observatory Gardens has been forgotten. The Francisque medal awarded by the Vichy regime is now taboo. They need something new. Officially, Jacques Bayard’s task is to establish the circumstances of the accident, but he doesn’t need to have spelled out what is expected of him: to find out if there is any way of damaging the Socialist candidate’s credibility by investigating and, if necessary, smearing him.

When Jacques Bayard reaches the hospital room, he discovers a line several yards long outside in the corridor. Everyone is waiting to visit the victim. There are well-dressed old people, badly dressed young people, badly dressed old people, well-dressed young people, people of all kinds, long-haired and short-haired, some North African types, more men than women. While waiting their turn, they talk among themselves, speaking in loud voices, sometimes yelling, or they read books, smoke cigarettes. Bayard is yet to fully appreciate just how famous Barthes is and must be wondering what the hell is going on. As is his prerogative, he walks to the front of the line, says “Police,” and enters the room.

Jacques Bayard notes immediately: the surprisingly high bed, the tube stuck in the throat, the bruises on the face, the sad look. There are four other people in the room: the younger brother, the editor, the disciple, and some kind of young Arab prince, very chic. The Arab prince is Youssef, a mutual friend of the master and his disciple, Jean-Louis, whom the master considers the most brilliant of his students, or at least the one he feels the greatest affection for. Jean-Louis and Youssef share an apartment in the Thirteenth Arrondissement, where they organize parties that brighten up Barthes’s life. He meets so many people there: students, actresses, lots of celebrities, often the director André Téchiné, sometimes Isabelle Adjani, and always a crowd of young intellectuals. For now, these details do not interest Superintendent Bayard, who is here simply to reconstruct the circumstances of the accident. Barthes regained consciousness after his arrival at the hospital. He declared to his close friends, who rushed to his bedside: “How stupid of me! How stupid!” Despite the multiple contusions and a few broken ribs, his condition did not appear too worrying. But Barthes has an “Achilles’ heel,” as his younger brother puts it: his lungs. He had tuberculosis in his youth, and he is a prodigious cigarette smoker. Result: a chronic respiratory weakness that catches up with him that night: he starts suffocating, has to be intubated. When Bayard arrives, Barthes is awake but no longer able to speak.

Bayard talks quietly to Barthes. He is going to ask him a few questions; all he need do is nod or shake his head to indicate yes or no. Barthes stares at the superintendent with his sad spaniel eyes. He gives a weak nod.

“You were on your way to your place of work when the vehicle hit you, is that correct?” Barthes nods. “Was the vehicle moving quickly?” Barthes tilts his head slowly from side to side, and Bayard understands: he doesn’t know. “Were you distracted?” Yes. “Was your inattention connected to your lunch?” No. “To the course you had to prepare?” A pause. Yes. “Did you meet François Mitterrand at that lunch?” Yes. “Did anything special or unusual happen during that lunch?” A pause. No. “Did you consume alcohol?” Yes. “A lot?” No. “One glass?” Yes. “Two glasses?” Yes. “Three glasses?” A pause. Yes. “Four glasses?” No. “Did you have your papers with you when the accident happened?” Yes. A pause. “Are you sure?” Yes. “You did not have any papers on you when you were found. Is it possible you forgot them, left them at home or somewhere else?” A longer pause. Barthes’s gaze is suddenly charged with a new intensity. He shakes his head. “Do you remember if someone touched you while you were on the ground, before the ambulance arrived?” Barthes seems not to understand or perhaps not to hear the question. He shakes his head again: no. “No, you don’t remember?” Another pause, but this time, Bayard thinks he can identify the expression on the man’s face: it is incredulity. Barthes replies no. “Was there any money in your wallet?” Barthes stares at his interrogator. “Monsieur Barthes, can you hear me? Did you have any money on you?” No. “Did you have anything valuable with you?” No response. Barthes’s gaze is so unwavering that were it not for a strange fire in the back of his eyes one would think him dead. “Monsieur Barthes? Did you have something valuable in your possession? Do you think something might have been stolen from you?” The silence that fills the room is broken only by Barthes’s hoarse breathing in the ventilator tube. There’s another long pause. Slowly, Barthes shakes his head, then looks away.


On his way out of the hospital, Superintendent Bayard thinks: there’s a problem here. It strikes him that what should have been a routine investigation will perhaps not be completely superfluous, after all; that the disappearance of the papers is a curious gray area in what otherwise looks like an ordinary accident; that he will have to interview more people than he’d imagined in order to clear this up; that his investigation should begin on Rue des Écoles, outside the Collège de France (an institution whose existence was entirely unknown to him before today, and whose nature he therefore hasn’t quite grasped); that he will have to start by meeting this Monsieur Foucault, “professor of the history of systems of thoughts” [sic]; that, after this, he will have to interrogate a whole gang of hairy students, plus the accident witnesses, plus the victim’s friends. He is simultaneously baffled and annoyed by this extra work. But he knows what he saw in that hospital room. What he saw in Barthes’s eyes: fear.

Superintendent Bayard, absorbed by his thoughts, pays no attention to the black DS parked on the other side of the boulevard. He gets in his official vehicle, a Peugeot 504, and heads toward the Collège de France.


In the entrance hall, he spots a list of course titles: Nuclear Magnetism, Neuropsychology of Development, Sociography of Southeast Asia, Christianity and Gnosis in the Pre-Islamic East … Perplexed, he goes to the faculty room and asks to see Michel Foucault, only to be told that he is busy giving a class.

The lecture hall is packed. Bayard cannot even get in. He is held back by a solid wall of students, who react furiously when he tries to force his way through. Taking pity on him, one explains in a whisper how it works: if you want a seat, you need to arrive two hours before the lecture starts. When the hall is full, you can always fall back on the hall across the corridor, where the lecture is broadcast over speakers. You won’t get to see Foucault, but at least you’ll hear him speak. So Bayard walks over to Lecture Hall B, which is also pretty full, though there are a few empty seats remaining. The audience is a colorful mix: there are young people, old people, hippies, yuppies, punks, goths, Englishmen in tweed waistcoats, Italian girls with plunging necklines, Iranian women in chadors, grandmothers with their little dogs … He sits next to two young male twins dressed as astronauts (though without the helmets). The atmosphere is studious: people scribble in notebooks or listen reverently. From time to time they cough, as if at the theater, but there is no one on the stage. Through the speakers, the superintendent hears a nasal, slightly 1940s-sounding voice; not Chaban-Delmas exactly, more like a mix of Jean Marais and Jean Poiret, only higher-pitched.

“The problem I would like to pose you,” says the voice, “is this: What is the meaning, within an idea of salvation—in other words, within an idea of illumination, an idea of redemption, granted to men on their first baptism—what could be the meaning of the repetition of penitence, or even the repetition of sin?”

Very professorial: Bayard can sense that. He tries to grasp what the voice is talking about, but unfortunately he makes this effort just as Foucault says: “In such a way that the subject moving toward the truth, and attaching itself to it with love, in his own words manifests a truth that is nothing other than the manifestation in it of the true presence of a God who, Himself, can tell only truth, because He never lies, He is completely honest.”

If Foucault had been speaking that day about prison, or power, or archaeology, or green energy, or genealogy, who knows?… But the implacable voice drones on: “Even if, for various philosophers or views of the universe, the world might well turn in one direction or another, in the life of individuals time has only one direction.” Bayard listens without understanding, rocked gently by the tone, which is simultaneously didactic and projected, melodious in its way, underpinned by a sense of rhythm, an extremely precise use of silences and punctuation.

Does this guy earn more than he does?

“Between this system of law that governs actions and relates to a subject of will, and consequently the indefinite repeatability of the error, and the outline of the salvation and perfection that concerns the subjects, which implies a temporal scansion and an irreversibility, there is, I think, no possible integration…”

Yes, without a doubt. Bayard is unable to suppress the bitterness that instinctively makes him detest this voice. The police have to battle people like this for taxpayers’ funds. They’re functionaries, like him, except that he deserves to be remunerated by society for his work. But this Collège de France, what is it exactly? Founded by François I, okay: he read that in the entrance hall. Then what? Courses open to all, but of interest only to work-shy lefties, retired people, lunatics, or pipe-smoking teachers; improbable subjects that he’s never even heard of before … No degrees, no exams. People like Barthes and Foucault paid to spout a load of woolly nonsense. Bayard is already sure of one thing: no one comes here to learn how to do a job. Episteme, my ass.

When the voice wraps up by giving the date and time of next week’s lecture, Bayard returns to Lecture Hall A, elbows his way through the flood of students pouring out through the swing doors, finally enters the lecture hall, and spots a bald, bespectacled man at the very back of the room wearing a turtleneck sweater under his jacket. He looks at once sturdy and slender. He has a determined jaw with a slight underbite and the stately demeanor of those who know that they are valued by the world. His head is perfectly shaved. Bayard joins him on the stage. “Monsieur Foucault?” The big baldy is gathering his notes in the relaxed manner of a teacher whose work is done. He turns welcomingly toward Bayard, aware of what levels of shyness his admirers must sometimes overcome in order to speak to him. Bayard takes out his card. He, too, is well aware of its effect. Foucault stops dead for a second, looks at the card, stares at the policeman, then goes back to his notes. In a theatrical voice, as if for the attention of what’s left of the audience, he declares: “I refuse to be identified by the authorities.” Bayard pretends he hasn’t heard him: “It’s about the accident.”

The big baldy shoves his notes in his satchel and exits the stage without a word. Bayard runs after him: “Monsieur Foucault, where are you going? I have to ask you a few questions!” Foucault strides up the steps of the lecture hall. He replies without turning around, loud enough for all the remaining students to be able to hear him: “I refuse to be confined by the authorities!” The audience laughs. Bayard grabs his arm: “I just want you to give me your version of the facts.” Foucault stands still and says nothing. His entire body is tensed. He looks down at the hand gripping his arm as if it were the most serious human rights violation since the Cambodian genocide. Bayard does not loosen his hold. There are murmurs around them. After a minute or so of this, Foucault finally speaks: “My version is that they killed him.” Bayard is not sure he’s understood this correctly.

“Killed him? Killed who?”

“My friend Roland.”

“But he’s not dead!”

“He is already dead.”

From behind his glasses, Foucault stares at his interrogator with the intensity of the shortsighted. And slowly, emphasizing each syllable, as if concluding a long argument whose secret logic he alone knows, he announces:

“Roland Barthes is dead.”

“But who killed him?”

“The system, of course!”

The use of the word system confirms to the policeman exactly what he feared: he’s surrounded by lefties. He knows from experience that this is all they talk about: society’s corruption, the class struggle, the “system” … He waits unenthusiastically for the rest of the speech. Foucault, magnanimously, deigns to enlighten him:

“Roland has been mercilessly mocked in recent years. Because he had the power of understanding things as they are and, paradoxically, inventing them with unprecedented freshness, he was criticized for his jargon, he was pastiched, parodied, caricatured, satirized…”

“Do you know if he had enemies?”

“Of course! Ever since he joined the Collège de France—I brought him here—the jealousy has intensified. All he had were enemies: the reactionaries, the middle classes, the fascists, the Stalinists, and, above all, above all, the rancid old critics who never forgave him!”

“Forgave him for what?”

“For daring to think! For daring to question their outdated bourgeois ideas, for highlighting their vile normative functions, for showing them up for what they really were: prostitutes sullied by idiocy and compromised principles!”

“But who, in particular?

“You want names? Who do you think I am? The Picards, the Pommiers, the Rambauds, the Burniers! They’d have executed him themselves given the chance. Twelve bullets in the Sorbonne courtyard, beneath the statue of Victor Hugo!”

Suddenly, Foucault strides off again and Bayard is caught off-guard. The professor gets a head start of several yards, leaves the lecture hall and races up the stairs. Bayard runs after him, close behind. Their footsteps ring loudly on the stone floors. The policeman calls out: “Monsieur Foucault, who are those people you mentioned?” Foucault, without turning around: “Dogs, jackals, mules, morons, nobodies, but above all, above all, above all! the servants of the established order, the scribes of the old world, the pimps of a dead system of thought who seek to make us breathe the stench of its corpse forever with their obscene sniggers.” Bayard, clinging to the banister: “What corpse?” Foucault, storming up the stairs: “The corpse of the dead system of thought!” Then he laughs sardonically. Trying to find a pen in the pockets of his raincoat while keeping up with the professor, Bayard asks him: “Could you spell Rambaud for me?”


The superintendent enters a bookstore to buy some books but he is unused to such places and struggles to find his way among the aisles. He cannot find any works by Raymond Picard. The bookseller, who seems relatively knowledgeable, mentions in passing that Raymond Picard is dead—something Foucault had omitted to tell him—but that he can order New Criticism or New Fraud? On the other hand, he does have a copy of Enough Decoding! by René Pommier, a disciple of Raymond Picard who lays into structuralist criticism (that, in any case, is how the bookseller sells him the book, which doesn’t get him much further), and most notably, Roland Barthes Made Easy, by Rambaud and Burnier. This is quite a slim book with a green cover, a photograph of Barthes staring out severely from an orange oval. Coming out of the frame, a Crumb-style cartoon character says “hee-hee,” grinning and laughing, mockingly, one hand over his mouth. In fact, I’ve checked, and it is Crumb. But Bayard has never heard of Fritz the Cat, the countercultural cartoon strip and film, in which black people are saxophone-playing crows and the hero is a cat in a turtleneck who, Kerouac-style, smokes joints and fucks anything that moves in Cadillacs, against a backdrop of urban riots and burning Dumpsters. Crumb is famous, though, for the way he drew women, with their big, powerful thighs, their lumberjack shoulders, their breasts like mortar shells, and their mares’ asses. Bayard is no cartoon-strip connoisseur, and does not make the connection. But he buys the book, and the Pommier, too. He doesn’t order the Picard, because at this stage of the investigation dead authors don’t interest him.

The superintendent sits in a café, orders a beer, lights a Gitane, and opens Roland Barthes Made Easy. (Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think? I see him at the Sorbon, the bar opposite the Champo, the little arthouse cinema at the bottom of Rue des Écoles. But, in all honesty, I don’t have a clue: you can put him wherever you want.) He reads:

R.B. (in his writing, Roland Barthes calls himself R.B.) appeared in its archaic form twenty-five years ago, in the book entitled Writing Degree Zero. Since then it has, little by little, detached itself from French, from which it is partially descended, forming an autonomous language with its own grammar and vocabulary.

Bayard takes a drag on his Gitane, swallows a mouthful of beer, turns the pages. At the bar, he hears the waiter explain to a customer why France will descend into civil war if Mitterrand is elected.

Lesson one: The basics of conversation.

1—How do you formulate yourself?

French: What is your name?

2—I formulate myself L.

French: My name is William.

Bayard more or less understands the satirical intent and also that in theory he ought to be on the same wavelength as the authors of this pastiche, but he is wary. Why, in “R.B.,” does “William” call himself “L”? It’s a puzzle. Fucking intellectuals.

The waiter to the customer: “When the Communists are in power, everyone with money will leave France and put it somewhere else, somewhere they won’t have to pay taxes and where they’re sure they won’t get caught!”

Rambaud and Burnier:

3—What “stipulation” locks in, encloses, organizes, arranges the economy of your pragma like the occultation and/or exploitation of your egg-zistence?

French: What is your job?

4—(I) expel units of code.

French: I am a typist.

This makes him laugh a little, but he hates what he instinctively perceives as a principle of verbal intimidation. Of course, he knows that this kind of book is not aimed at him, that it’s a book for intellectuals, for those smart-assed parasites to have a good snigger among themselves. Mocking themselves: the last laugh. Bayard is no idiot; he’s already doing a bit of a Bourdieu without even realizing it.

At the bar, the speech continues: “Once all the money’s in Switzerland, we won’t have any capital left to pay wages, and it’ll be civil war. And the Socialists and Commies will have won, just like that!” The waiter stops pontificating for a minute to go and serve someone. Bayard returns to his reading:

5—My discourse finds/completes its own textuality through R.B. in a game of smoke and mirrors.

French: I speak fluent Roland Barthes.

Bayard gets the gist: Roland Barthes’s language is gibberish. But in that case why waste your time reading him? And, more to the point, writing a book about him?

6—The “sublimation” (the integration) of this as (my) code constitutes the “third break” of a doubling of cupido, my desire.

French: I would like to learn this language.

7—Does the R.B. as macrology serve as “fenceage” to the enclosed field of Gallicist interpellation?

French: Is Roland Barthes too difficult for a French person to learn?

8—The scarf of Barthesian style tightens “around” the code as it is confirmed in its repetition/duplication.

French: No, it’s pretty easy. But you have to work at it.

The superintendent’s perplexity increases. He doesn’t know who he hates more: Barthes or the two comics who felt the need to parody him. He puts the book down, stubs out his cigarette. The waiter is back behind the bar. Holding his glass of red, the customer objects: “Yeah, but Mitterrand’ll stop them at the border. And the money will be confiscated.” The waiter scolds the customer, frowning: “You think the rich are idiots? They’ll pay professional smugglers. They’ll organize networks to ship their money out. They’ll cross the Alps and the Pyrenees, like Hannibal! Like during the war! If it’s possible to get Jews over the border, they won’t have any trouble getting bundles of cash over, will they?” The customer does not seem too convinced, but as he obviously doesn’t have a comeback he settles for a nod, then finishes his glass and orders another one. The waiter takes out an open bottle of red and puffs himself up: “Oh yes! Oh yes! Personally, I don’t give a toss. If the pinkos win, I’m out of here. I’ll go and work in Geneva. They won’t get my money, no way. Over my dead body! I don’t work for pinkos! What do you take me for? I don’t work for anyone! I’m free! Like de Gaulle!”

Bayard tries to remember who Hannibal is and notes mechanically that the little finger on the waiter’s left hand is missing a phalanx. He interrupts the waiter’s speech to order another beer, opens the René Pommier book, counts the word nonsense seventeen times in four pages, and closes it again. In the meantime, the waiter has begun opining on another subject: “No civilized society can get by without the death penalty!” Bayard pays and exits the café, leaving his change on the table.

He passes the statue of Montaigne without seeing it, crosses Rue des Écoles and enters the Sorbonne. Superintendent Bayard understands that he understands nothing, or at least not much, about all this rubbish. What he needs is someone to explain it to him: a specialist, a translator, a transmitter, a tutor. A professor, basically. At the Sorbonne, he asks where he can find the semiology department. The person at reception sharply replies that there isn’t one. In the courtyard outside, he approaches some students in navy-blue sailor coats and boat shoes to ask where he should go to attend a semiology course. Most of them have no idea what it is or have only vaguely heard of it. But, at last, a long-haired young man smoking a joint beneath the statue of Louis Pasteur tells him that for “semio” he has to go to Vincennes. Bayard is no expert when it comes to academia, but he knows that Vincennes is a university swarming with work-shy lefties and professional agitators. Out of curiosity, he asks this young man why he isn’t there. The man is wearing a large turtleneck sweater, a pair of black trousers with the legs rolled up as though he’s about to go mussel fishing, and purple Dr. Martens. He takes a drag on his joint and replies: “I was there until my second second year. But I was part of a Trotskyite group.” This explanation seems to strike him as sufficient, but when he sees from Bayard’s inquiring look that it isn’t, he adds: “Well, there were, uh, a few problems.”

Bayard does not press the matter. He gets back in his 504 and drives to Vincennes. At a red light, he sees a black DS and thinks: “Now, that was a car!”


The 504 joins the ring road at Porte de Bercy, gets off at Porte de Vincennes, goes back up the very long Avenue de Paris, passes the military hospital, refuses to yield to a brand-new blue Fuego driven by some Japanese men, skirts around the chateau, passes the Parc Floral, enters the woods, and parks outside some shack-like buildings that resemble a giant 1970s suburban high school: just about humanity’s worst effort in architectural terms. Bayard, who remembers his distant years spent studying law in the grandeur of Assas, finds this place utterly disorienting: to reach the classrooms, he has to cross a sort of souk run by Africans, step over comatose junkies sprawled on the ground, pass a waterless pond filled with junk, pass crumbling walls covered with posters and graffiti, where he can read: “Professors, students, education officers, ATOS staff: die, bitches!”; “No to closing the food souk”; “No to moving from Vincennes to Nogent”; “No to moving from Vincennes to Marne-la-Vallée”; “No to moving from Vincennes to Savigny-sur-Orge”; “No to moving from Vincennes to Saint-Denis”; “Long live the proletarian revolution”; “Long live the Iranian revolution”; “Maoists = fascists”; “Trotskyites = Stalinists”; “Lacan = cop”; “Badiou = Nazi”; “Althusser = murderer”; “Deleuze = fuck your mother”; “Cixous = fuck me”; “Foucault = Khomeini’s whore”; “Barthes = pro-Chinese social traitor”; “Callicles = SS”; “It is forbidden to forbid forbidding”; “Union de la Gauche = up your ass”; “Come to my place, we’ll read Capital! signed: Balibar” … Students stinking of marijuana accost him aggressively, thrusting thick pamphlets at him: “Comrade, do you know what’s going on in Chile? In El Salvador? Are you concerned about Argentina? And Mozambique? What, you don’t care about Mozambique? Do you know where it is? You want me to tell you about Timor? If not, we’re having a collection for a literacy drive in Nicaragua. Can you buy me a coffee?” Here, he feels less at sea. Back when he was a member of Jeune Nation, he used to beat the crap out of filthy little lefties like these. He throws the tracts in the dried-out pond that serves as a trash can.

Without really knowing how he got there, Bayard ends up at the Culture and Communications department. He scans the list of “course units” displayed on a board in the corridor and finally finds roughly what he came for: Semiology of the Image, a classroom number, a weekly timetable, and the name of a professor—Simon Herzog.

Copyright © 2015 by Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle

Translation copyright © 2017 by Sam Taylor