Imagination about travel corresponds in Verne to an exploration of closure, and the compatibility between Verne and childhood does not stem from a banal mystique of adventure, but on the contrary from a common delight in the finite, which one also finds in children’s passions for huts and tents; to enclose oneself and to settle, such is the existential dream of childhood and of Verne.

In 2000 I spent a month living in both Paris and Brussels. This was with a view to practicing French so that I could pass my final exams in college. While I was in Paris I did a lot of browsing in book shops and found the book I am reviewing today. Barthes is often discussed in literary theory workshops due to his ‘Death of the Author’, argument. What is more I was drawn in by the cover of the book, a picture of Greta Garbo. I suspected that this was Barthes tackling an early form of film theory, so I snapped up the book, threw it into my luggage and returned to Dublin some weeks later.

When I got home, a good friend of mine saw my copy of Mythologies and asked for a loan. This was in August 2000. He returned it to me before I left Ireland in May of this year. Well, better late than never as they say.

Mythologies is a collection of previously published magazine articles and essays by Barthes that expand upon de Saussure’s theories of signifiers and codified meaning. It is seen as a landmark work in semiotics. Barthes explores how commonly accepted meanings and objects actually mask a series of competing narratives that lie behind our cultural understanding of the world. This he applies generally to French culture and the media particular to that country, but also generally to literature and cinema.

In many respects Barthes prefigures the work of the mad Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, who extrapolates trends in human behaviour or political consciousness from populist movies and famous recent historical events. The chapter titled The Brain of Einstein describes how the mind of a famous scientist, an ephemeral think indelibly linked to the understanding of the man himself, has become objectified in keeping with his status as an avatar of scientific discovery. Einstein’s cerebellum has become a machine, an object to be fought over by museums and hospitals.

In The Poor and the Proletariat Barthes challenges Charlie Chaplin to live up to the proletarian imagery of movies such as Modern Times and overly embrace a political consciousness that emanates from the working classes, as Brecht has done. The Face of Garbo presents the iconic actress as a Platonic Idea of beauty, whereas starlets like Audrey Hepburn are individualized ‘events’.

This conflict between universals and particulars is central to Barthes presentation of myth, a collection of signs and signifiers that define our understanding of the world. The observer of this order of representation Barthes classifies as a mythologist and in the last essay of this collection, Myth Today, he explains the arguments that lie behind his terminology.

Accessible, erudite and very readable, Barthes avoids the self-reflexive jargon of academic philosophy. A most edifying collection of essays.

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