At lunch Sunday in the shade and breeze of a large oak beside the cow-punctuated hills that keep the summer air in Bluemont so dry, I gave a friend a copy of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. Rocket Scientist Friend (hereinafter “RSF”), who was eating with us, took the book, turned at random to the article “Steak and Chips,” and read the first paragraph out loud.
“Pure unsubstantiated bullshit,” he reflected.
“Yes,” I said, “Barthes backs up nothing. His observations alone are sufficient.”
“Not for me.”
I thought about Susan Santag’s helpful aphorism: “It is the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding.” Geoff Dyer includes Sontag’s quote in his introduction to the latest English-language edition of Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Dyer points out there that Barthes “offered his provisional findings as if they were the last word.”
When I was ten or twelve, girls charmed me with their paper fortunetellers. Their thumbs and fingers moved a way only fish know, looking up.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 1, 2012
No writer seems more calculated to annoy RSF.
“You’ll hate Barthes,” I promised. “Shall I get you a copy?”
“No,” he said.
According to Dyer, Barthes offered his hypotheses “in the form of linked aphorisms.” Barthes, born before his time, would have loved Twitter!
Mythologies offers bullshit about detergents, the face of Garbo, plastic, and the world of wrestling, among other things. Here’s a sample tweet: “The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.” I’d start a special Twitter list just to make sure I wouldn’t miss Barthes’s forthcoming unsubstantiation.
The stars over fish: silver scars against a thousand kisses.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 2, 2012
Striptease, Einstein’s brain (Barthes started it), the writer on holiday . . . so why didn’t Barthes write anything about the cootie catcher, those playground paper fortunetellers that have been around since the invention of school? Maybe they didn’t have them in Parisian primary schools in the 1920’s.
Something very Barthesian overcame me earlier this year when I considered my state of mind as a schoolboy, when I remembered myself mesmerized by a girl’s undulating cootie catcher.
I can’t remember what the girls would say when they’d move their forefingers and thumbs. I always assumed that they could extend their rhyme or chant or incantation or whatever as long as they needed to in order to offer me the choice of only certain folds. The cootie catcher was a quartered steeple; inside, all was ritual and litany, unfamiliar and (this was my first impression) predetermined. It was my first sense of entering a temple in which what I could see corresponded directly to what I must surrender.
A close a cradle, a field a fold.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 3, 2012
Was it so deliberate? Was she using a magician’s guile or only a nascent instinct, thoughtless as a gland? A girl’s cootie catcher seemed a magic trick reduced to a simple or essential feminine mystery, a mystery I hadn’t felt until I first looked into and touched the cootie catcher’s elaborate folds. The cootie catcher’s measure was a new kind of pleasure, a kind of long foreshadow at sunrise.
The cootie catcher. The web of knowledge – all shapes, colors, letters, numbers – was suspended over me among a girl’s four fingers.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 4, 2012
So I tweeted about it awhile, and I stopped when it seemed to run out of heat. Barthes would have liked that, too. On Twitter, no one expects you to finish what you start.
Against the man's probe, the woman unfolds into more folds. And sometimes I'd stick my finger in the cootie catcher, and look up.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 5, 2012
Barthes didn’t like to finish anything. Dyer again:
Barthes liked “to write beginnings” and multiplied this pleasure by writing books of fragments, of repeated beginnings; he also liked prebeginnings: “introductions, sketches,” . . .
Four pegs stretch a round tent, but my optometrist can't abduce my eye into a corner.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 10, 2012
In Twitter, you can finish a strain of tweets, tweet about some other things, try out some new voices, and then find that you never should have gotten off the can.
I left off with the cootie catcher, and then picked it up again when the urge returned.
The cootie catcher: cardinal knowledge.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 11, 2012
For me (and for many, I guess), Twitter is a working out. I went for months of tweets with not much more than a gull, weeks with just a time of day (noon), and days, most recently, with just the cootie catcher.
If a subject still gives me an urge, I’ll sit and do my business until I finally create what the subject was trying to teach me.
The Copts’ cross, too, in the cootie catcher. (The tree of life, too, in the sentence copse.)
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 12, 2012
It’s not all aphorisms, of course, for me or for Barthes. In the second half of Camera Lucida, particularly, Barthes mixes short, biographical narratives or impressions and sweeping apothegms. Here’s a favorite:
One day, some friends were talking about their childhood memories; they had any number; but I, who had just been looking at my old photographs, had none left. Surrounded by these photographs, I could no longer console myself with Rilke’s line: “Sweet as memory, the mimosas steep the bedroom”: the Photograph does not “steep” the bedroom: no odor, no music, nothing but the exorbitant thing. The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed (that we can sometimes call it mild does not contradict its violence: many say that sugar is mild, but to me sugar is violent, and I call it so.)
The cootie catcher at sea: her four-winded fingers turn the compass's four points into the earth's four corners.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) May 11, 2012
The day before our lunch in Bluemont, I drove to Richmond to take Bethany home from her summer semester of art school. She showed me three pieces of jewelry she had made out of copper or brass, some with silver inlay. (Gold, silver, and precious stones are too costly to learn on, it turns out; the students work wonders with wood, hay, and stubble.) The barrette – the piece I like the best – reminded me immediately of a cootie catcher.
“I wanted to work a little danger into it,” Bethany said.