(...) In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, speaking therefore as someone at the recognisable apex of an academic career in his country, he describes himself as ‘un sujet incertain’: in Richard Howard’s translation, ‘a fellow of doubtful nature, whose every attribute is somehow challenged by its opposite’. He goes on to say he has had a university career without the degrees that would normally be required for such a trajectory; that he wanted to work within the fields of literary, lexicological and sociological science but only ever wrote essays, ‘an ambiguous genre in which analysis vies with writing’. And although he was involved from the early days in the development of semiotics, he has little right to represent that discipline, he says, because he was so much inclined to ‘shift its definition’, and to work in the ambit of Tel Quel rather than more academic journals. An impure subject, he finally calls himself, ‘a patently impure fellow’. And then he says something that instantly reveals why it is such a pleasure to read him, and why all these reservations and ambiguities are such unmistakable virtues. For all these reasons, he says, he is not going to linger over the honour of being made a professor at the Collège de France and will concentrate on his joy at the occasion, ‘for an honour can be undeserved, joy never is’. You have only to read a sentence like that to know you have found a friend. And you understand the notion of joy better than you did a moment ago.
Or take a sentence like this one, from Barthes’s first book. He is not talking about a writer or a text or a style or an image or a story, but about … a tense. This is the preterite, the past historic, which in French exists only in written texts. It is, Barthes says,
the ideal instrument for every construction of a world; it is the unreal tense of cosmogonies, myths, history and novels. It presupposes a world which is constructed, elaborated, self-sufficient, reduced to significant lines, and not one which has been sent sprawling before us, for us to take or leave (jeté, étalé, offert). Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter. The world is not unexplained since it is told like a story; each one of its accidents is merely a circumstance, and the preterite is precisely this operative sign whereby the narrator reduces the exploded reality to a slim and pure verb without density, without volume, without spread. (...)
Michael Wood, "Presence of Mind", sobre Carnets du voyage en Chine, de Roland Barthes, ali.