Barthes doesn’t think in terms of identity, even less national identity, yet amongst his contemporaries (the ‘French theorists’) his writing seems the most ‘French’. He admits this somewhat paradoxically by devoting sarcastic analyses to ‘Frenchness’ whilst testifying, in the more intimate pages of Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, to a profound attachment to the ‘land’ of his childhood, the ‘light of the South-West’, ways of being and speaking, or of preferring pears to exotic fruit. This book sparked the revisionist reading of Barthes’s intellectual itinerary that would gather momentum after his death: behind the structuralist and fellow-traveller of the avant-garde lurked a conservative writer, a crypto-Gidian explorer of the self. In fact, a benefit of the 1975 commission was to enable Barthes’s return to anthropology. Michelet par lui-même (1954) and Mythologies (1957) had allowed Barthes to explore national identity in historical and anthropological terms, and a custom-made ‘ethnology of France’ (‘Notre France, in the manner of Michelet’) was a persistent project. Although formulated with calculated lightness, the question of Frenchness runs throughout this ‘Barthes by himself’; far from signalling a farewell to politics and ideology, it provided the right frame for a socio-anthropological exploration of France and Barthes’s ‘French’ identity.
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