Walter Benjamin, the inimitable German Philosopher, died on Wednesday September 25th, 1940. 48-years-old, in a Spanish hotel room, and—for fear of deportation into Nazi care, their camps, and his likely extermination, following years of arduous evasion and exile, alone—it was believed he took his own life by an overdose of morphine, an undisputed theory until 2001. Evidence of a sort was brought forth proposing that, in fact, Benjamin had not killed himself but had been, rather, the victim of Stalinist execution.  Quite the novel idea, no?
As French novelist Laurent Binet reminds us, though, in the opening of his new novel, The Seventh Function of Langauge, “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so.”
Roland Barthes—French semiotician, writer, critic, the man who did not predict but proclaim his own death in 1967—was struck by a laundry truck on Monday, February 25th, 1980, after lunch with the socialist presidential candidate François Mitterand, and died on Wednesday, March 26th. These facts are verifiable; there were witnesses and timely reports. To indulge the weighty presumption that the laundry truck was ignorant to the writer’s stature and significance, let alone his name, is both fair and safe, albeit both judgments not free of risk, that is to say: what if the driver did know the man in question was Roland Barthes? What would be the implications? What if it was no accident at all but—rather—an assassination? What would one chance in not, here, hunting down the truth like the Gestapo did Jews? This is the terrain—rife with hill, dale, gutter, ditch, cemetery, guard dogs, and pruning shears—upon which Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language dwells; it asks: where, why, and how do we draw the lines of “truth” in literature? and who gets to ink the letters?
In brief: Barthes—who is given no cogent address or edgewise word in the novel; only a momentary, trancelike ejaculation—is struck by the aforementioned laundry truck, and visited by investigator Jacques Bayard, a superintendent with the French Police intelligence service. While his presence there is at first circumstantial and a matter of departmental procedure—probing every nook and cranny of the forthcoming election between candidates François Mitterand and Valéry Giscard—it is soon revealed that something was stolen from Barthes after the hit. What begins as a hunch—“What he saw in Barthes’s eyes: fear”—is confirmed and later clarified: a document entitled “The Seventh Function of Language,” a continuation of Russian linguist Roman Jakobson’s six functions, and believed to be the most powerful of the set, capable of convincing “anyone else to do anything at all in any situation”, was stolen. In its absence, almost no notable European thinker is exempt from connection or suspicion. (It also seems of no coincidence that the Seventh Function most resembles a divine influence or intervention or power, nor that the American cover artwork wears upon its hatchet the number 777.)
Along the way, Bayard, with hired help from his acting translator of theoretical dialects and jargon, Simon Herzog, in their endeavor to recover the stolen document—whose mystical functionality is wildly uncertain—find themselves mired in not only navigating the lies and doublespeak of the concerned and implicated parties, but infiltrating a dark underbelly of continental intelligentsia, risking their lives time and again in the process. At the center of the novel and the plot around the missing document is a secret society—The Logos Club—with roots that reach back to the Roman Empire, and whose primary entertainments are intellectual duals with stakes more steep than petty shifts in rank or reputation.
Built on a tradition of doubling—in pairs of characters, notable across the many avenues of philosophy, linguistics, and theory: Julia Kristeva and her husband Phillipe Sollers, Jacques Derrida and his opponent John Searle, Gilles Deleuze and his writing partner Felix Guattari, with cameo appearances by Noam Chomsky, his adversary Camille Paglia, auteur Michelangelo Antonioni, and the wonder Monica Vitti—The Seventh Function of Language’s subterranean foundation is the historical reality and veracity of these individuals, and their both comical and grave deviations therefrom. Louis Althusser still strangles his wife, but here it is for cleaning up his desk and throwing away a junk mail envelope. Jacques Lacan—the man who said “I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way, to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail”—is at a dinner party where he “makes a sound like an owl.” Mitterand still wins against Giscard in the 1980 election, but the implications are sinister and profound. It is a metaphorical gesture. As Coleridge wrote, “all metaphors are grounded on an apparent likeness of things essentially different.”
Binet has his fun in this divide of history and fiction, and not without noble cause. Who’s to say that a certain prominent American theorist on gender did not use a strap-on to penetrate the hindquarters of a French police investigator at a party where Michel Foucault was to be found only rooms over pleasuring himself to a poster of a British rock star? Who’s to say the death of Roland Barthes did not alter the election’s outcome? Fidelity to truth is of no worry because the book and its author are not concerned with truth: not Truth as we hear it proclaimed by reporters and pundits, nor as we hear it denounced by their critics, no matter the factual frameworks of the book; and, conversely, not truth in the novelistic, vanilla, literary sense, where poetics supplant facts, rhetoric reality, and the guilty are always found innocent. “Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so,” wrote Georges Bataille.
From Denis Donoghue’s book Metaphor:
“[George Lakoff and Mark Johnson] define a metaphor as ‘understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another’ (their italics). They maintain that ‘human thought processes are largely metaphorical’…The main example of this potency…is ‘the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR.’ Think of what we say in arguing. ‘Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I’ve never won an argument with him. You disagree? Okay, shoot! If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out. He shot down all of my arguments.’”
Binet’s novel realizes what only strong fiction can hope to achieve: it elevates the metaphorical to the actual, and, in doing so, introduces a further, or deeper, or more primordial, urgent, tragic metaphor or, in this case, question: what is the cost of speaking? of writing? of literature? What if we were to invert the sentiment of Rilke’s first letter from his Letters to a Young Poet—would you die were you forbidden to write?—to ask a rather different, more down-to-earth question: would you die for what you have written? for what you will write? Early in the novel, before Barthes succumbs to his injuries, Bayard meets with Foucault who declares, “He is already dead,” and, when asked who it was that killed him, he says, “The system, of course!”
More often than not, a writer tries to bury their sources like bodies. Some dig solitary plots, and some mass graves; some are sloppy with their labors, some diligent and tidy, and some pay their yes-men to foot the shovel for them; but every book has its ghosts, no matter how far down its catacombs. On occasion, writers not only admit their leases, lifts, and thefts, but costume themselves in their cohort’s garb, announcing themselves as one with the dead. And, yet rarer still, are those who know the outcomes of their efforts, and happily raise their habits of allegiance like a flag in surrender.
On November 16th, 1977, (the real) Roland Barthes wrote in his diary, “Now, everywhere, in the street, the café, I see each individual under the aspect of ineluctably having-to-die, which is exactly what it means to be mortal.—And no less obviously, I see them as not knowing this to be so.”
Two weeks earlier, on October 30th, 1977, five days after the death of his mother: “Many others still love me, but from now on my death would kill no one.” There is a lack of superficial clarity in this sentiment: the notion that “from now on”—an unspecified state—his own death would lack significant ramification; the irony being the catalyst of his own plight: the death of his mother, which brought him immense sadness and pain, and essentially dragged his life to a halt. Only three days before that he wrote, “Everyone guesses—I feel this—the degree of a bereavement’s intensity. But it’s impossible (meaningless, contradictory signs) to measure how much someone is afflicted.” Those burdened with a compulsion for gambling know the greatest wager one can make is not their own life but the lives of those they love: their family and friends, their communities; failing oneself is no equal nor rival to failing another: its weight is twofold or more. Lives there dance on the points of fingers lost and kept, the nibs of pens worn down by words, and on sheets of paper torn up like trash, given over to the care of the wind.
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- Journalist Stephen Schwartz contends that Benjamin found himself trapped in a hurricane eye—the Nazis and Soviets still on good terms with agents stationed in Spain, Franco’s secret police rampant across the countryside—and that, ultimately, the evidence of suicide is non-existent: no drugs were found in Benjamin’ system, and the alleged suicide note’s were destroyed by their keeper.
- Barthes’ famous essay “La mort de l’auteur,” published in English as “The Death of the Author,” argued against readings of literature that found their rationales in the author as authority, instead claiming, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”