Bereaved confessions provide context for Roland Barthes's final books
by Roland Barthes
translation by Richard Howard
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Not far into the second part of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes offers a lexical bouquet to the photographer responsible for the sepia print of his late mother, Henriette, at age five, in which floated "something like an essence of the Photograph." What the "unknown photographer of Chennevières-sur-Marne" left behind was "a supererogatory photograph which contained more than what the technical being of photography can reasonably offer." Supererogatory: That strange modifier, obliquely Barthesian to the core, seems at first like little more than a flourish, a bit of writerly lagniappe, but the more you think about it, the more pivotal this pirated theological term becomes. Signifying action that goes beyond the call of duty—excessive purpose, whose significance is all the more compelling for lying outside the strict domain of the meaning of an action—the word crystallizes Barthes's description of his encounter with the "banal" Winter Garden photograph. More than that, with a word it rejiggers the book itself. What book about photography could be more supererogatory than Barthes's Camera Lucida?
I found that word lingering in my mind while reading Mourning Diary. It's impossible not to see the sheaf of notes Barthes started keeping for himself the day after his mother's death in October 1977 as the preparation for Camera Lucida, which appeared in 1980, months before his own death. Plumbed from Barthes's archives, this document of grief is raw matter, unmediated and grippingly direct, everything the canonical study of photography and mourning isn't. (Supererogatory, it ain't.)