RB and me: an education

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon

As a teenager I was often and intensely bored. No, that is not quite right. As a teenager I was often and intensely afraid. For the adolescent they are really the same thing. One is frightened of being bored, and fed up with being afraid, but most of the time the two feelings are inextricable – adolescence is a time for what Roland Barthes (who was talking about his own childhood and middle age) called ‘panic boredom’.

What I was afraid of or bored by in 1986. Solitude. I had few friends, and none outside of school. Early in the year I’d been slung out of a band that four of us (and somebody’s embarrassingly talented little brother) had started in the previous term, because I could neither sing nor play an instrument and the role of floating strategist or sonic provocateur that I had fantasized for myself was suddenly deemed surplus. Rejection. I was secretly in love with my best friend: his blue eyes and his blue hair, which latter (not to mention flagrant effeminacy) had recently brought my ex-bandmates to a pitch of scorn and fury in the schoolyard. Most evenings at home, I waited for his long gossipy phone calls in an anxious daze, listening to the radio and not touching my homework, wishing he would love me back. Death. My mother had died in the summer of 1985, shortly after I turned sixteen, and now we (my father, my two younger brothers and I) never spoke about her. Dying seemed to be just what my family did, maybe instead of talking to one another – in the past few years, both my grandfathers and a brother of my mother’s had died too. I was sick to death of all this dying, and ashamed of it, but I think I was also bored: by death’s endless dull round and rituals, all the muttered lord-have-mercies.

Mostly, I was bored at school. I’d been the perfect little pupil at primary school, easily cowed by the threat and reality of violence into doing what I was told. But I also had what I suppose was a slightly advanced curiosity about books and knowledge in general – there were approving comments to my mother about what was not at that time called my ‘reading age’, prizes for essay competitions and almost coming top of the class in end-of-year exams, consequent beatings from my classmates and from the teachers when I let them down. I was eager to please, and already unsure what good it would do me.

By sixteen, though, I was free of both the violence and academic expectations. At secondary school I’d slumped into an ordinary teenage lassitude from which the Inter Cert had failed to rouse me – my fair-to-middling results had anyway been beside the point in the summer my mother died. In the months that followed, certain teachers must have made allowances. My Irish teacher, a Brother Hermes, never asked me a question in class again. (I’d previously been a competent Irish scholar, but now rapidly forgot every word.) Others were less forgiving, and as my work rate dwindled the likelihood of humiliation in French or Maths or (a disastrous choice for the Leaving Cert, this) Accounting steadily increased. Towards the end of the first term after my mother’s death, I started getting up early to sneak into the dining room and down a capful or two of whiskey before I faced the embarrassment of double Maths or the extreme tedium inflicted by a history teacher whose sole, mad pedagogical strategy was to dictate long series of numbered factoids and then force us to regurgitate them at the end of the week. This dismal individual was later the only teacher to sneer openly at my wretched Leaving results.

For years, my real education had been going on elsewhere, as to this day I assume it does for everybody; I’m always amazed to meet interesting, creative or successful people who excelled at school, or who were inspired into their present careers by certain teachers whom they fondly recall. At thirteen I’d been belatedly obsessed with David Bowie, whose 1970s records, recent interviews and general mythos led me, as they did and probably do many others, towards the likes of William Burroughs, Jean Genet and Andy Warhol. I realized I’d seen Warhol and Genet on television; they were among the subjects of turn-of-the-decade arts documentaries whom my father had dismissed as ‘madmen’ from behind his Irish Times. I had a vague and thrilling sense that there was a world where art, sex and intellect threw enervated shapes but qualified too as rigorous affronts. All these names and books and artworks arrived trailing big ideas, and Warhol it turned out had even published his Philosophy. (I didn’t yet know it was a phoned-in compendium of blank aperçus.) Slowly, I started to intuit some essential (later ruinous) intimacy between glamour and thought, or between being loved and becoming – though I had the sketchiest sense of what this meant – an intellectual.

If memory serves – I have a habit of backdating these epiphanies, and there is no journal de jeunesse – 1986 was the year my reading started to expand beyond a familiar canon of counter-cultural talismans. There had been the Beats, of course, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and a first effort at Sartre: another madman, according to my father. J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition – picked up from the sci-fi section at the Banba book and toy shop in Rathmines, a mile from home – inspired an overheated essay for my Leaving Cert English teacher, but also convinced me I didn’t need to read any other Ballard: an impression that’s still hard to shake. I must have bought Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero early in the summer of 1986, because I remember reading its tale of Californian anomie during our last dreadful holiday with my mother’s family in Kerry, a year after she died. And in the autumn, when two older Canadian cousins, whom I adored, came to visit and found me shyer and more silent than they recalled, the one subject we could still talk about was what I was reading: Tom Wolfe, the essays of Norman Mailer (I spurned the novels, rightly) and a biography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose films I had never seen.

1986 was not the year I discovered Roland Barthes. That had been at least a year earlier, and (allowing for the tricks of memory) possibly two. I’d come to Barthes in the pages of the British music and style press. There was a brief period in the 1980s – anybody now in their forties who was paying attention will treasure or regret the phase – when the New Musical Express, The Face and Blitz were filled with references, gauchely but passionately deployed, to modish French critics and philosophers whose works, at least in that milieu, had not yet acquired the academic label of Theory. In fact, there appeared to be a seamless continuum between the smart journalistic references from the 1970s – Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and the jittery eloquence then possessed by Clive James – and the new (though they were not really new) continental thinkers: Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard. Some of these, I’d later learn, had died since the start of the decade, including Barthes (run over by a laundry van in 1980), a collection of whose essays I found in Rathmines library. Image Music Text was a sampling of his thoughts on advertising, photography, the films of Sergei Eisenstein and the writings of Bertolt Brecht, as well as reflections on certain numinous qualities Barthes discerned in the cultural artefacts before him: the ‘grain’ of a singer’s voice, the ‘obtuseness’ of an image. Or so I was dimly aware, because at fifteen (or sixteen) I could make hardly any sense of the book at all.

I’m not sure what drew me back to Image Music Text, but I read it again at seventeen and was transfixed. It was partly, I suppose, the force of Barthes’s central idea, today rather familiar, that impressed me. We might reduce it to this, as the academic teachers of Theory – I’ve been one, on and mostly off – like to do: much, possibly all, of what we imagine to inhere in Nature is in fact a veiled emanation of Culture. Thus Barthes in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, on the clichés of ‘Italianness’ and the ‘euphoric values’ that attend it (as propagated in an advert for pasta). Or revealing the rhetorical machinery of a newspaper photograph: ‘an object that has been worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms’. All of this was certainly exciting, and I knew there was a book called Mythologies where I might find more of the same. But it was not so much the thought that seduced me, or the profusion of new names (Artaud, Lévi-Strauss, Kristeva), as Barthes’s style, which seemed to reside mainly in his punctuation. Barthes, I’d later learn, has been well served by his English translators (notably, the poet Richard Howard), and they have tended to retain the hedging of parentheses, the sidelong views calmly opened and closed by em-dashes, the colons like stiles that invite one to clamber on over the thought, sometimes two or three in the same sentence. Rapt in this style, I was still not sure I knew what he was doing: I know now that I really didn’t know: but I had found (as Barthes liked to put it) my critic, my thinker, my writer.

If Bowie invented my adolescent ‘I’ – I thought it at the time: I fell hard for his often stated belief that the self was a thing concocted from one’s influences – it was Barthes who nourished my fantasies about who or what I wanted to be as an adult. Image Music Text was an introduction to ways of thinking, looking and reading that would more or less determine what I did with my life for the next decade and a half. I’ve forgotten now who originated the cliché that says nobody nurses youthful ambitions to be a critic, but that was where I set my sights. Barthes seemed to cast all the writers I loved in a new light, from the post-punk hipsters at the NME to the Wilde of ‘The Critic as Artist’ and the disappointed aesthete Cyril Connolly, whose Enemies of Promise I found in my father’s bookcase. All these figures – I knew there were others, as yet unread: Susan Sontag, Kenneth Tynan, John Berger, Gore Vidal – seemed to inhabit some glamorous space between hard thinking and real unstuffy celebrity. I still had the vaguest sense of how one got to that place. Some time in my last year at school, when suddenly choices had to be made, I suggested to my father that I might like to be a journalist, but he looked at me over his paper and told me the whole profession was ‘a racket’.

To say that I failed the Leaving Cert would imply that there had been some effort to pass in the first place. (Technically speaking, though I forget the definition, I did not actually fail the thing entire; but I flunked certain subjects spectacularly, so university was out of the question for now.) In that final year, I’d given up almost all pretence at academic work, and it’s a wonder to me now that no teachers seem to have remarked how bad things had got. It is hard to tell at this remove if they were still being kind or simply didn’t notice me any more. As for my classmates, as the exams approached even the most cynical and disengaged seemed to be pulling themselves together. A few braggarts held out and still claimed to be doing no revision, but of course they were lying. I was not, and I knew perfectly well that I was heading for catastrophe. Evenings and weekends passed as they had for years: hours spent listening to music while reading and rereading the NME, blanked out in front of the TV or alternating masturbatory ideals between the sharp-haired models in i-D magazine and fading hopes regarding my friend. The books continued. There was Burroughs’s The Wild Boys, Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie (an oral history of the Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick), Salvador Dalí’s ridiculous Diary of a Genius. At the library I tried reading The Archaeology of Knowledge by Foucault, but found it wholly impenetrable, so began to wonder if Barthes was the only one of those French writers who would matter to me.

I don’t recall much sense of shame at having done so badly in my exams, nor any real disappointment when I failed to get a place on a course in marketing and French – my first choice, a compromise with my father’s insistence on a ‘practical’ degree – or even on everybody’s fall-back option: Arts at University College Dublin. But I don’t think I was exactly relieved either. (That came later: I’m quite sure I would not be alive now, let alone sane or solvent, if I’d studied or tried to study marketing.) I drifted into the obvious recourse of repeating the Leaving, and my father sensibly kept his mouth shut for the moment.

At Rathmines Senior College, which ran a popular repeat-Leaving course, the teachers were sane and humane. There were also girls, which was a challenge; apart from cousins and shop assistants I had not spoken to a girl since the age of twelve. I spent much of the first term in a welter of self-consciousness and the rest absent, after my father was taken ill one day as he cycled home from work. A vague diagnosis (angina) was followed by a stay in hospital and his decision to retire from his job in the civil service. By the time I returned to the school it was nearly Christmas, and in the week before the end of term I found myself in the pub a few doors away, apparently making friends among the smarter, more awkward and artistic of my classmates. Something in me slightly thawed, and I thought for the first time that it might be possible to live, among such people, without hiding who you were and what you wanted. Which is not to say that I was not still uneasy and almost mute. I fell pathetically in love with a girl who was then slowly (weekends at first) turning herself into a goth, and I think she may have practised on me the hauteur that her new look demanded.

The college was (and is, having dropped the ‘Senior’) housed in the old town hall, directly across the street from the clumsily imposing library building. This meant that some of us used to revise, during free periods, in the hushed old reading room upstairs, which meant too that I carried on exploring the library’s collection. I read Kafka for the first time. I read Tristan Tzara’s Seven Dada Manifestos, with their perfectly laconic provocations: ‘Work yourself up and sharpen your wings … Long live the undertakers of the combine! … Punch yourself in the face and drop dead.’ I’d got a taste for literary expressions of spite, so read William Hazlitt’s essay ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’ and Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies: a book-length riposte to John Ruskin’s having accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. There were Umberto Eco’s occasional writings in Travels in Hyperreality: these were obviously indebted to Barthes, and not nearly so ingenious, but the odd essay stuck with me, such as Eco’s musing on the modern impossibility of saying ‘I love you’ except in quotation marks. I’m not sure when I first saw Town Bloody Hall, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of an incendiary debate in 1971 between Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer, but it had turned me right off Mailer and on to Greer, whose The Female Eunuch and The Madwoman’s Underclothes I read in 1988 – I remember reciting aloud to my new friends, at the top of the school’s main stairs, from an essay called ‘Lady, Love Your Cunt’. Reading Greer led me to two classics of 1970s feminism, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Eva Figes’s Patriarchal Attitudes, and thence to Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse (she was famously against it) and Mary Daly, the mystically minded theorist of Gyn/Ecology. In the summer, when exams were over, I read my father’s copy (once more, he mildly disapproved) of Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans. And I finally bought and read Barthes’s Mythologies: discovered in the window of a late-opening second-hand shop while on the way to the school’s end-of-year disco.

I studied English at UCD because Barthes was on the first-year syllabus. I cannot say that I had any great love for English as an academic field or discipline. I still don’t in fact, despite a Ph.D. notionally awarded in the subject and having taught on three universities’ English degrees. Then as now the corralling of literature into strict historical periods and national traditions, the frustrating insistence that poetry and the novel were the preeminent forms of written expression, the dull humanistic charade around fictional characters and literary geniuses (as if either were real people) and the scholarly footling at vast remove from both real life and Art – all of it filled me with boredom and horror. At the end of the 1980s, such aversions qualified me perfectly for a degree in English at UCD.

The Theory Wars, as they have become known, were fought late in Ireland. The controversies over certain philosophical or political readings of literature had raged in the US throughout the 1970s and in the UK in the 1980s, but whether from the relative slowness with which ideas and fashions then travelled in academia or from a sense that teaching English literature in Ireland was already well fraught with aesthetic and political infighting, it was only in 1986 that UCD had hired its first lecturer explicitly to teach the new topic of Theory. What this meant for first-year students was that among the introductions to ‘Anglo-Irish’ literature, Old & Middle English and a course (I think) on literature and the city was a series of lectures on the main currents of Theory. A triumvirate of combative and brilliant teachers – Seamus Deane, Thomas Docherty and Declan Kiberd – introduced us to the history of English as a university subject, its veering between morality and method in the early twentieth century (F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards were the exemplars, respectively) and the later eruption of more or less complementary or antagonistic movements: Marxism, feminism, structuralism and post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and the stirrings of the postcolonial criticism that would dominate English departments in the 1990s. I had emphatically made the right choice of subject, and I began in my first year to imagine that the university must be the place where the world in which I wanted to live was being invented.

I sat in the library and read portions of A Barthes Reader, with its selection of essays from Mythologies that hadn’t made it into the English edition, a number of his writings on literature and photography as systems of signs, and extracts from the later, less methodical and more personal writings. I discovered that his work had taken a particular turn in the mid 1970s: away from the rigours of semiotics – The Fashion System was the summit of this tendency, a rather po-faced critique of clothing as rhetorical array – and towards a more slippery and openly seductive notion of the object under discussion (the ‘text’, as we learned to call it) and how one might go about describing it. In The Pleasure of the Text he had begun to write about literature as if it were actually erotic, at the level of style rather than content. He had written a kind of autobiography and a book about love, no less. And shortly before the end of his life a book about his dead mother, disguised as a study of photography.

I was excited and confused by this ‘new’ Barthes, who seemed to have embraced late in life a set of conventional themes (not to say feelings) that I’d thought, conflicted sentimentalist that I was, one might escape in the bracing air of high Theory. At the same time, there was something consoling in the thought that desire, love and grief – all that I suffered from unexpressed at nineteen – could be transmuted into the language of criticism or philosophy, that you could live suspended between thought and emotion, without ever having to commit to one or the other. But you could also, in this fantasized state to which I aspired and sometimes felt I’d attained, avoid the clichés (as I thought) of both literature and love. I read and reread Susan Sontag’s description, in her introduction to the Reader, of Barthes’s belief that ‘depths are obfuscating, demagogic, that no human essence stirs at the bottom of things, and that freedom lies in staying on the surface, the large glass on which desire circulates—this is the central argument of the modern aesthete position, in the various exemplary forms it has taken over the last hundred years’. Though I’d moved on from Wilde and Huysmans, I was nothing if not the aspirant aesthete – I wanted to be able to assert at the same time my total cynicism about human sincerity and my passion for this or that embodied bit of it.

In other words, I was still an adolescent. I was also a remarkably lazy and unproductive student in a manner I assume would be next to impossible today. In my first year I submitted only two of the six essays I was meant to complete, and having been awarded an A for the second one – my father read it and declared my prose style excessively ‘Johnsonian’ – I stopped going to tutorials too, half concluding that my best work was behind me. I think it was then that I recognized a destructive (some might say ‘self-sabotaging’) tendency in myself: a flurry of hard work and success followed by loss of nerve and sullen failure to follow through on my early promise. This had, after all, been the trajectory of my school days. I scraped into the second year – doing a little better in English than in my second subject, Philosophy, but having to re-sit my first-year makeweight, Classical Civilization. By this time I’d surprised myself by making several friends, and though I was still awkward and shy and in no sense the life or soul of anything, I was no longer quite so viciously lonely. I had merely to rid myself of my troublesome virginity and its natural corollary of mawkish adoration, directed so far only at girls who had strictly no interest in me – to be realistic, it’s unlikely there were any who were interested – and I might even have been happy.

In the summer of 1990 my father died, and in some ways life expanded. (The adolescent orphan suffers a thrilling sort of vertigo: liberation may cancel grief, for a time.) He had left enough money to see my brothers and me through college, enough even for me to do a master’s degree. That summer I got a job shelving and cataloguing in the UCD library, and in lunchtimes when my co-workers and I were not drunk or stoned by the campus lake I started reading books about postmodernism and deconstruction. By the time the first term started I was sure in a way I had not been before that I was destined for an academic career. It was the first real decision I’d ever made: the first time I divined it was possible to desire some goal and take steps to reach it. I made sure I was assigned the right tutor for my third year, and developed an odd attitude towards him that was part intellectual crush and part displaced grief and anger towards my father. I worked hard on acquiring what I thought, faced with a tutorial discussion of this or that poem or novel, was the right combination of elaborately unlikely interpretation – I had become convinced that the more paradoxical the reading the better – and casually varied range of intellectual reference. I started to stay late in the library, poring over books by Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricœur, Jacques Lacan and Hélène Cixous. I wrote essays that were tortuous exercises in exposing the hermeneutic and ideological intricacies of my own role as a reader of literature. I delivered these essays on time, turned up to every class and got myself elected as student representative at departmental meetings.

At the end of the year I spent a few days in Paris with a friend, and we sat for hours in a bar at the end of rue Descartes, across the street from the Collège International de Philosophie, where some of my new heroes taught. Later in the evening, outside the Collège de France, I thought I’d found the spot where Barthes was run over in 1980, and we spent some time drunkenly shouting at passersby: ‘Où est le sang de Roland Barthes?’

For a long time I sincerely believed I could not love a woman who was not well acquainted with Barthes’s writing. If this seems a bizarre criterion to apply to a prospective lover – all the more eccentric given my dismal prospects to start with – I think I can see now what I was hoping for. Theory in general, and my specific ambitions, had become a way of keeping the world at bay, an intellectual apparatus by which I thought to defuse potentially explosive emotional situations, or more accurately damp the slow-burning grief and general misery that I was unable to express. That much is obvious. What’s perhaps less clear is how much of desire and love and longing I’d also cathected into this stuff by my early twenties. It’s not that I simply wanted a lover who was super-smart and culturally cynical and much better read than I was; I wanted somebody infinitely sensitive and self-scrutinizing, also just as passive and debilitated as I was before the enigma of the Other. And this ideal relationship was obscurely related to central concepts or turns of thought and phrase in Barthes – a kind of abstracted perversity, lurid but nonviolent; a languid refusal of the role of sexual protagonist; a drifting between word and body, sex and Art, ideas and desire. I’d started to read Barthes as if his books, these works of ‘literary theory’, actually described a psychosexual utopia that was just out of reach. (It may be that this is exactly what they do describe.)

Such fantasies did not stop me from falling in love with people who had strictly no knowledge of or interest in the kind of books I was reading. And the ones who did had by no means taken things so much to heart. But like many an inarticulate young lover, I thought for a time that seduction was a matter of giving the right book to the right woman. In my case it was Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: a meditation on Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther that catalogues the melancholic lover’s prized ‘image repertoire’ – the scene of waiting, the feeling of being dissolved in the presence of the loved being, the attraction of suicide – and thinly veils the author’s own life as a middle-aged gay man in Paris in the 1970s. This gift was always a prelude to disaster. The first time, the girl in question – she was a French waitress, of all things – left the country within days and never returned. The second, I found the book a month later under the girl’s bed, bearing the distinct imprint of a Doc Marten boot. The unlucky third time, the book was my idea of a Valentine’s Day present, and we split up weeks later. We split up again two years after that, by which time she’d got round to reading A Lover’s Discourse and wishing she’d never met me. Advice to the young: this book is brilliant and cursed.

In the autumn of 1992 I attained what had long been my heart’s desire: I started a Ph.D. in English at Trinity College Dublin. In my last year at UCD, I’d written an M.A. thesis with the awkward and over-reaching title Notes on (towards) the Postmodern and, though the manuscript was so riddled with typos that it was almost rejected, had come out top of my postgraduate class, seemingly destined for further academic supremacy. I knew conventional wisdom said that one should go abroad for the Ph.D., but my third-year tutor had since moved to Trinity as head of department; there was as much continued hero-worship involved in my decision to follow him as timidity at the thought of leaving Dublin to pursue my studies. In his new office we discussed my application, and he casually told me that at UCD my work had been given ‘the benefit of the doubt’. Something stopped me asking what exactly that meant.

It was still unclear what I should actually write about. I submitted a research proposal on a few of my favourite American writers – Gertrude Stein, Donald Barthelme, John Cage – and claimed that my field of interest was the hinterland between the literary and artistic avant-gardes of the twentieth century. But first, so my supervisor said, I had to get to grips with what I meant by ‘avant-garde’, so I began reading the major theorists of Modernism, starting with Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Before long I was happily lost in thickets of theory again – though also in love with the aphoristic elegance of the two Germans – and contemplating instead a thesis on Benjamin’s writings on photography, on the concept of allegory or on the aesthetics of the Sublime. My stated topic sometimes changed from one month to the next. I never stopped reading, and occasionally produced a few pages that convinced the English department I knew (or would soon discover) what I was doing. But as the months and then years passed I gradually lost sight of the task at hand without ever giving up the intense desire to be what it ought to have been clear I was not capable of becoming. Some time in the seven years it took to complete my doctorate, I tried explaining what it might be about to another research student in a bar one night, and all she could think to say was that I spoke about my thesis as if it were being written by somebody else.

It’s more or less accepted among those who’ve tried that a Ph.D. will at some point drive one insane: depression, even outright nervous breakdown, is almost a rite of passage for the aspiring academic. Long hours spent alone with potentially limitless reading lists, an almost total absence (beyond regular supervisions) of supportive audience for what you’re writing, together with the demand that you work at a level as advanced as senior academics without any of their material recompense – all of this seems calculated to crush the spirit. But I can’t really complain that the rigours of an academic apprenticeship were to blame for the comprehensive mess I made of things. Rather, I seem to have drifted away from any clear sense of what I was about, all the while busily attending to minor details: organizing conferences and reading groups, buying scores of books I didn’t need. (Somewhere among them was Incidents: a collection of Barthes’s journals that revealed his erotic adventures in North Africa and his awkward evenings among Parisian hustlers.) Besides which, I seemed on the face of it to be having a very good time. Early in 1994 my brothers and I (at my insistence) sold the family home. Suddenly there was even more money, and it seemed unthinkable it would run out before I finished my thesis and landed a lecturing post. It never once occurred to me to get a regular job to support my studies; I did scraps of teaching and exam invigilation but otherwise burned through my newly acquired capital at a hectic rate. I lived, essentially, as if I were already the person I aspired to be; months passed in which I did nothing but squander my inheritance on books, drink, clothes and manic white nights for which I was only too eager to pay. I felt nothing but scornful pride when gossip reached me that among my fellow research students I’d gained a reputation for arrogance and empty pretension. When a close friend told me how pleased she was to see me finally getting what I’d always wanted, I smothered with another drink the knowledge that I was doing nothing whatever to earn it.

By the time I left Dublin on the 5th of October 1995 – Trinity proving allergic to Theory, my supervisor had fled for a more welcoming English department in Canterbury – I’d worked my way through twenty thousand pounds in three years and had little to show for it but half a shelf of Beckett first editions, some well made footwear and two unfinished chapters of my thesis. (A calculation has occurred to me for the first time: I’d spent a pound for each word written.) The funding deal my supervisor had made with the University of Kent involved my finishing the thesis in a year and doing a certain amount of teaching. I was absolutely sure I could redeem myself.

I still have a notebook I used during that first year away. It records a lot of practical details to do with moving to Canterbury and living at the university – ‘collect keys … registration … piss-up @ 4pm … see the town!’ – and a two-month gap in the winter when it seems I did no work at all, not even preparing for tutorials. (I was in love, and there were no fewer than eight bars on campus.) But the clearest evidence of the dismal pass to which I had come is legible in the mania for planning that fills the pages with book lists, timetables (‘Up at 8! To work by 9!’) and the titles of articles I was never likely to propose to any scholarly journal, let alone research, never mind write. In fact, it now seemed that I could not actually write at all – in the spring, when I tried, I found I could type no more than a few lines before I lost any sense of the thought or argument at hand. I tried to trick myself into writing by typing up all my notes for the next chapter and laboriously sculpting the whole into serviceable prose, but the result was unreadable. My response, when I was not weeping alone in the middle of the day with frustration and fear, was to scribble new plans in my notebook. I would write a book about Gertrude Stein. I’d apply for a lectureship in Hong Kong, Cyprus or Middlesex. I would give up the Ph.D. and get a job with a left-wing think-tank in London. If I bought the new edition of Microsoft Office, my writing would improve overnight. I should go for more walks, I thought: then I’d feel more alert.

Early in the first term, I’d bought Barthes’s almost-autobiography of 1975, Roland Barthes. Barthes writes of himself: ‘Liking to find, to write beginnings, he tends to multiply this pleasure: that is why he writes fragments: so many beginnings, so many pleasures.’ It did not occur to me that this blithe admission – that much of his writing life consisted of making plans that came to nothing – perfectly described in a more doleful register my present predicament. But I did start to notice something about Barthes that I hadn’t before, or that perhaps had not occurred to me since I was seventeen: he was not really a scholar or a theorist, he was a writer. (Roland Barthes is the book where he finally admits it: ‘To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write.’) And his writing – that is, what I had always loved in his writing – seemed to consist in a refusal or at least evasion of both scholarly convention and polemical force: the whole macho parade of academic mastery and ambition that was beginning, along with other things I could not yet admit, to get me down.

More than this, I realized that my love of Barthes had sparked my academic ambitions but at the same time ensured that I would always be disappointed by the rectitude and responsibility, not to say the strange indifference to style, that the profession demanded. Worse, my teachers at UCD had led me to believe that to be an academic was also to be an intellectual, with all the capacious sense of subject and audience that the word entails, when in fact by the mid 1990s (at least in the UK, where my job prospects lay) the profession had declined to a combination of excessively specialized teaching and administrative fiddling, with bouts of underfunded ‘research’ on the side. I read somewhere that the average academic article was read by just five people. One drunken night I sketched to friends the dream that had got me into the racket in the first place: a fantasy about ideas and desire, about the passionate entanglement of words and things, about real ambition versus its academic shadow – a dream, in fact, about writing. At the time, I hadn’t written a word in over a year.

The book that saved me – because it was always going to be a book that saved me, even if books were part of the problem – was Barthes’s Camera Lucida. I’d thought about stealing it from Eason’s at the age of seventeen, when books were things I bought for less than a pound second-hand or spent ages persuading my father I needed. I finally bought it in Paris (in English, from Shakespeare & Co.) in the summer of 1991 and read it on the plane home while fretting about the results of my finals. I loved it, but its real effects came later.

Camera Lucida is probably the most celebrated book ever written on photography, but that is not its true value. Barthes began to plan it after the death of his mother, Henriette, in 1977 – his father had died in the First World War, and he lived with his mother for most of his adult life. The book tries hard at first to advance a theory of photography, albeit one marked by the personal tone that had already entered its author’s style and thought at this stage. Barthes has no interest in the techniques or aesthetics of photography and still less, surprisingly, in its role as nexus or expression of social and political meaning. He wants instead to describe his simple fascination before some instances of the photographer’s art, the way certain details or textures or moods seem to hold his attention, quite unrelated to the ostensible drama the picture records. He calls this element of the image the punctum and finds it in such details as the strapped pumps worn by a young black woman in the early twentieth century, or the bandaged finger of a ‘retarded’ girl in a photograph by Lewis Hine of the same period. In the book’s second half, the punctum becomes time or memory, more especially Barthes’s wavering sense of distance and proximity with regard to the image of his mother, discovered in a photograph of Henriette in a winter garden, aged five. Here, he thinks, he has found the truth of photography, this ‘impossible science of the unique being’ – the image is missing from the book itself, but it incarnates for Barthes all the modesty and gentleness of the person he has lost.

I read Camera Lucida again in 1998. I spent much of that year trying and failing to make sense of two relationships I had lately ruined in quick succession; my state of mind may be gleaned from the fact that I thought I could salvage both at the same time. I had no money except for the pittance that undergraduate teaching brought in – there were sometimes Mars bars for dinner – and I survived, to my shame, because neither of these women had quite given up on me. I’d been diagnosed with depression, and spent an hour a week with a therapist who insisted, to my intense annoyance, that the Ph.D. thesis was psychically speaking a child (perhaps myself, unborn) whom I was trying to give safe passage into the world. My supervisor had gathered together the fragments I’d written over the years, and virtually invented a shape and theme by which they might be worked up into something approximating a thesis. It was not, he admitted, much like any thesis he’d supervised or examined before, but it had, as he put it, a ‘deconstructive’ logic of half-hidden affinities between its disparate chapters. As I set to the painful job of turning pages I’d written years apart and with no sense of structure into aspects of a whole, it seemed clear at least that the thesis had something to do with time, and possibly with loss. There were not many references in it to Barthes, whose writings were by this time hardly fashionable from a strictly academic perspective; he would have seemed an eccentric or dated reference point.

I spent my nights reading and rereading passages from Camera Lucida. I’d become obsessed by the few family photographs I still possessed, and in a kind of homage to Barthes filled the pages of a tiny notebook with descriptions of what I found there: my parents (surprisingly glamorous) crossing O’Connell Bridge some time in the early 1960s; my father silhouetted in the doorway of a bank in the south of France not long after the Second World War; myself looking embarrassed by the bright pink of my new bicycle in 1976; the very last photograph of my parents, taken just weeks before my mother died. (This, I decided, was my equivalent to Barthes’s winter garden photograph.) But the book taught me something other than a way of turning my misery into somewhat self-conscious musings. I started to hear in Barthes’s sentences an expression of vulnerability that had somehow escaped me before. It’s there in the delicate, probing way that he approaches his subject, but it’s mostly to be discovered in the qualities he admires alike in great photographs and snapshots of his mother: kindness, gentleness, reserve and an almost meek refusal of the realm of mere opinion. All of this read now like a lesson in how to write, if one were ever really to write, but as a hint too of what life might be like without the burden of the Ph.D. and all that it had come to symbolize and all that it worked to conceal. As for the thesis itself, I began to see that it could be finished, but only at the cost of the academic career it was meant to guarantee. And on the other side of that realization lay a void I was in no way equipped to face, though it was certainly familiar. After close to a decade of pretended success, I was engaged on the essential task of becoming a failure again.


Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 41 Winter 2010–11