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On Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and all our mothers’ deaths.

June 21, 2011 \am\30 10:47 am

What it is

Every day for like a horrible long time after his maman died in 1977, Roland Barthes wrote something, often just a dated note on an index card, detailing his mourning experience. He died three years after she. Someone collected the diary and made this book which was published last year.

This collection was as beautiful as it was difficult. I mean, it was much like you’d expect if you’ve experienced death: stages of grief, crippling depression, lulls of nothingness, better days, some distraction, nostalgia, worse days, more crippling depression and so on, but distilled so cleanly I couldn’t read it on my worse days, I could barely read it on my best. It was painful because his insight is so piercing you can read a note and full-on experience his despair:

December 7

Now, from time to time, there unexpectedly rises within me, like a bursting bubble: the realization that she no longer exists, she no longer exists, totally and forever. This is a flat condition, utterly unadjectival–dizzying because meaningless (without any possible interpretation).

A new pain.

How I came to be in possession of it

This book arrived at We Who Are About To Die HQ the way a lot of books do, looking for someone to fulfill its promise: someone to read it and talk about it. I rarely take the free books because I hate to be beholden, and also shipping to the UK is expensive and I feel guilty. But the thing is that I’ve always been attracted to the word mourning.

A secondary impetus was that I have never read Barthes. Maybe this wasn’t a good starting point, probably some of the IMPORTANCE of all of this is lost on me. I don’t care about shit like that. I like that I can talk about Barthes now and act like a pretentious English major like the ones I used to hear about before MFAs became popular.

Barthes wears short shorts

A few weeks before I started reading this book my mom had been visiting me for a month. When I failed to come home last Christmas and went weeks without calling, she did what any mom would do. She used the royal wedding as an excuse to come to London. Man, I was annoyed. Ask my twitter followers, they probably not fondly remember all the mom tweets. She was invasive and judging. I was standoffish and aloof. I reverted to my fifteen-year-old annoying punk self. But as days passed and we explored my city and we rekindled our friendship and we settled into routine, I realized that she showed up at precisely the right time for me. A time in which I needed to be reminded that I am a person, that I can be civilized, that I come from somewhere, from someone.

So when she left, I was in mourning. Obviously not at all comparable to what Barthes must have experienced. I mean, my mom is still alive and nagging, and we were never as close as Barthes and his mom apparently were, supposedly he always lived with her, took care of her, she went everywhere with him, etc., which seems ludicrous to me, but the fuck do I know, he was Barthes.

Still I felt adrift when I dropped her off at the airport, and certainly mom and I don’t know exactly when we’ll see each other again, or what will become of experience-hungry me. Here’s what I tweeted that morning, while smoking a cigarette outside and later making my lone way back home after we hugged and sobbed while some guy with a wistful smile watched and she turned and sort of wobbled through security (bottom up):

Maybe if Barthes were still alive he would have tweeted his feelings and observations? Although I still feel weird when people update Facebook with [family member] died, so sad :( even as I empathize with the urge to connect. Maybe bits of his diary would have been in Wigleaf‘s Top 50 or the Dogzplot Flash Fiction Anthology. Ultimately to Barthes in the seventies, these were probably notes for some greater understanding for himself that he would draw on in future works, and not the fully-formed thought/wisdom nuggets they appear to be in this collection. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re a great thinker. Even your index cards are bulletwounds.


To write these things and exorcise them while mourning I can only imagine as some great therapy, though it doesn’t seem to have helped Barthes any. I mean yeah, he was struck by a laundry van, says Wikipedia (fucked up) but he ‘succumbed to his injuries’ a month later, no doubt because, as he himself says in Mourning Diary, he felt like he had nothing left to live for. But to read these things later and process all that sorrow is terrifying, debilitating, illuminating and unbelievably sad like nothing else. When I think of my mom dying, all my most primal fears are activated, some existential, evolutionary, universal fear comes over me, I feel like a three-year-old, her skirt the only safe place in the fucking big scary world. I am frightened just writing this. It is overwhelming and I need to stop.

We comfort-seeking cowards need to read writing like Barthes’ Mourning Diary to try and face the forever inevitable END OF EVERYTHING which seems impossible but is something regardless. I am happy that aware, knowledge-hungry, sharing people like Barthes and Richard Howard, the book’s collector and translator, exist. I feel like without documentation of our experience we would be so much worse off, though I am not sure how.

November 21

Now I know where Depression comes from: rereading my diary of this summer, I am both “charmed” (lured) and disappointed; hence writing at its best is merely a mockery. Depression comes when, in the depths of despair, I cannot manage to save myself by my attachment to writing.

  1. June 22, 2011 \pm\30 10:46 pm 10:46 pm

    Hi Ani,

    Thanks for taking the time to collect your thoughts and write this. It was an engaging read.

    Is Mourning Diary as sad, sadder, or not as sad as Michael Kimball’s Us?

    And in the first paragraph of FIN, is this “When I think of my mom dying, all my most primal fears are activated, some existential, evolutionary, universal fear comes over me, I feel like a three-year-old, her skirt the only safe place in the fucking big scary world” a reference to Oskar Matzerath from The Tin Drum?

    • June 23, 2011 \am\30 5:02 am 5:02 am

      hi michael! thanks for paying attention to me :)

      i have not read Us but i would say that based on what i know in my head that Us would be sadder because it would involve you in this whole other story for a time whereas barthes’ thing is more like little observations — like if you were a really morbid asshole you could make one of those ‘one-a-day’ calendars with barthes’ notes but instead of feeling like uplifted or laughing or something every morning when you rip off a new page you would need to use it to wipe your snot and tears but i have not read Us so i am just guessing.

      but no the mom’s skirt thing is only a reference to my actual childhood (i have decided my first memory is at three years old during a party at our house i was scared and hid in her dress and i remember the material and the smell of her perfume and how she used to wear this powder on her skin that had tiny gold flecks)


      • June 23, 2011 \pm\30 6:44 pm 6:44 pm

        I only read The Tin Drum once. What a hoot it was. I do remember, though, a part when Oskar — who I think was eternally 3 years old, or maybe 5 — hid under his grandmother’s sprawling dress. He would spend his time under there, in his own world while very much under hers.

        Cool that you have the same kind of memory. I always thought it was an outrageous idea, being small enough to hide under your grandmother’s (or mom’s) dress. It’s so literary and personal. I also think it’s strange that you decided to write about something so similar to what Gunter Grass wrote about. Certain things, I guess, are meant to be written, certain moments that seem to impress writers enough to write about them.

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