A PERFECT GIFT FOR THE HOLIDAYS, THIS CLASSIC WAS RECENTLY TRANSLATED BY ANNETTE LAVERS (WHO TRANSLATED IT ALONE IN 1970) AND RICHARD HOWARD. IT WAS PUBLISHED BY FSG EARLIER THIS YEAR
Roland Barthes's cattiness only really stings in context. In Mythologies, calling Audrey Hepburn a “woman as kitten” and remarking on the “good, fleshly body” of André Gide seem like the harshest sass. That's the book's genius: while keeping a cool, ironically journalistic tone throughout, Barthes crafts a critical language (borrowing freely from Freud, de Saussure, and others) that's able to quietly disclose his anger and sense of social justice.
The 53 essays in Mythologies were first published in a monthly periodical, and most are only a couple of pages long. Their economy and magazine-review style are disarming. But a few minutes of reading reveals Barthes’s violence. He forces open the mundane and spills out its contents, exposing the aspects of wrestling, cruises, and drinking that are manipulative, fatalistic, or insane. Then he hurriedly puts it all back together again, leaving the mundane disoriented and somehow off.
That's the point. The last essay in the book, “Myth Today,” is long and academic. It’s also a call to arms. Barthes pressures his readers to recognize the mindless consumption he’s trying to demythologize, and lays bare his own framework. It’s a manual for Resisting the System. Mythologies, and that essay in particular, has become a cornerstone of modern critical thought, even as advertisers have used its ideas to encourage mindless consumption.
Its new translation by Howard and Lavers provides all 53 essays in English for the first time. The language retains Barthes’s lucid diction, which is still impressive after 55 years. Mythologies leads by example, and its combination of style, persuasion, and passion is something to aspire to.