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"Try as I could, I couldn't get past the first sentence."
March 18, 2012 9:31 AM   Subscribe

In June 1979, I left Paris, returning home to San Francisco without saying farewell to Barthes. Why advertise my failure? I left Paris without fulfilling my reason for coming. His letter arrived in October. Barthes explained that he was retiring from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes at the end of the year. If I wished to complete my thesis under his direction, then I would have to have it written and in his hands by the 15th of December. No extension was possible. The date was a deadline. "A vous de jouer," he wrote. "Your move."
- Deadline [pdf] by Stewart Lindh, Roland Barthes' last doctoral student, is an account of how he wrote his Ph.D. thesis.
posted by Kattullus (28 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite

 
Beautiful. I've been in love with Barthes as a thinker and as a romantic concept for twenty years. This is a lovely homage.
posted by artof.mulata at 9:50 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.
posted by candasartan at 9:52 AM on March 18, 2012


I don't know much of Barthes, but it's a very lovely story.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:53 AM on March 18, 2012


Wow.

From the lady on the plane, to the revelation of the last line. Amazing story.

This touches me particularly, because as a former philosophy grad student, I dropped out of sight for a while, stalled on my thesis, and was summoned back by a distinguished professor who believed in me. To hear that even students of Roland Barthes succumbed to discouragement somehow makes my experience feel more universal.
posted by jayder at 9:54 AM on March 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


As someone moving through a rather similar experience right now (the rather troubling merging of mentor and parent) to read of someone else trying to handle it is much appreciated.
posted by sinnesloeschen at 9:55 AM on March 18, 2012


That was lovely. And like jayder said, from the lady on the plane to the last line, it's a remarkable story.

I've always struggled with meeting writing deadlines, in school and, now, professionally. It's never as hard once I start, but the getting started can be a terrific hurtle.
posted by shoesietart at 10:17 AM on March 18, 2012


Loved this. The Wikipedia description of Barthes' death is slightly different, but they certainly could just be two angles of the same reality:

Wikipedia:
On 25 February 1980, after leaving a lunch party held by Francois Mitterrand, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. He got up unaided, laughed heartily, treated the accident as a joke in the jolly way that was peculiarly his own and made his way home on the tram. But, on the eve of 25 March, after Barthes had smoked six after dinner pipes, he went to ascend the stairs, and finally succumbed to the injuries sustained in said accident, he dropped dead, under painful circumstances, on the landing.
"Deadline":
He came on the line. ”Stewart, I have very bad news. Roland has been hit by a truck and is in a coma.”
I do love that both tellings are necessarily dramatic.
posted by brianwhitman at 10:18 AM on March 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


Thank you for posting this.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:21 AM on March 18, 2012


I may well get a tattoo of that last sentence.
posted by mindsound at 10:37 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


That story was just what I needed, in so many ways. Thank you for posting.
posted by mdonley at 11:06 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I close family friend taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, for years this story was told there. Part of the lore, part of the fabric of that place. A story told at parties once the crowd thinned out and the wine was almost gone. Everyone had heard this, or some variation thereof. The part that Lindh left out, the part that many people don't truly believe, is that Barthes was only the first. One by one each of those three professors were also hit by laundry trucks and killed. At first people refused to believe until two other students were hit by laundry trucks, each researching death, each after reading the same dissertation. Over the years it slowly dawned, as more people were killed, that a terrible secret lie beneath the surface of the dissertation's text. It was a secret the shadowy figures who control the Parisian laundry industry would kill to protect. Now the dissertation is buried, no amount of official requests can obtain access. The laundry industry has won, the the terrible secret will remain as such as long as they are watching.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:07 AM on March 18, 2012 [21 favorites]


part of the fabric of that place

Je vois que vous avez faire là.
posted by radagast at 11:12 AM on March 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is so moving. I admit to chills and, nearly, to tears.
posted by jokeefe at 11:14 AM on March 18, 2012


Really a very beautiful and inspiring piece.
posted by thelonius at 11:16 AM on March 18, 2012


Great story, but I wish he'd correct the typos/errors:
It was already December fourteenth 14th... [for style consistency with his other dates].

“Bravo, Stewart. Félications,” he write wrote in closing.

Each would ask me questioning questions pertaining to my thesis.

At eleven am, I stood instead inside a telephone booth at the Atrium Cafe ...

A month late later the phone rang in my apartment.
posted by ericb at 11:24 AM on March 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Did not expect to cry reading that.

Thank you.
posted by darkstar at 11:25 AM on March 18, 2012


I find it very strange that he was there in Paris, thesis finished, ready to take the oral exam, and then when the professor died it was a whole year before they re-arranged his oral.
posted by Azara at 11:40 AM on March 18, 2012


"his soft, deep timber"

Balsa?
posted by Hogshead at 12:38 PM on March 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh dear, tears in my eyes. Thanks for sharing.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:54 PM on March 18, 2012


Stewart and I became friends in Paris, and he told me this story. Thanks so much for posting this, and for reminding me that it's never too late.
posted by cyndigo at 4:18 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is a great account of writing any large piece of work for academic purposes she says as she writes a literature review in preparation for comprehensive exams, trapped inside her own particular parentheses.
posted by k8lin at 4:40 PM on March 18, 2012


Sensing that I was deluding myself, that I would never write my thesis, I went to see
a psychoanalyst who surmised that Barthes was the father I had never known, and
that by not writing my thesis I was remaining symbolically attached to him – as his
son.


I was totally weirded out when my therapist suggested a somewhat similar theory regarding my masters thesis that isn't (one month to go and I have...not a lot of pages). Huh.
posted by naoko at 5:00 PM on March 18, 2012


Thanks for posting this.
posted by cribcage at 6:15 PM on March 18, 2012


That's a nice story and all, but it feels a little inauthentic.

If someone was writing a Philosophy Ph.D. like that and an important mentor -- presumably Barthes -- their academic background would find more expresssion in his prose, especially since the title of his thesis was “The Representation of Anonymous Death” -- you'd think that he'd be incapable of apprehending any death after Barthes' serendipitous death.

Under better circumstances, Lindh would have written a more haunting story that spoke of time, distance, loss and death. I'd have expected that he come to some conclusion that anonymous death was impossible, but that's the twentysomething Semiotics acolyte in me, trying to create lessons where they might not exist.

If he was Barthes' 'last student' those events -- the finished dissertation, the dead mentor -- would be traumatic in ways that would force Lindh to write a much more careful account of his experience. Lindh would know that people have launched entire careers with stories like this.
posted by vhsiv at 6:30 PM on March 18, 2012


If he was Barthes' 'last student' those events -- the finished dissertation, the dead mentor -- would be traumatic in ways that would force Lindh to write a much more careful account of his experience. Lindh would know that people have launched entire careers with stories like this.

I read the piece as a very personal, not very polished reminiscence. I googled Lindh, and found his website advertising his services as a writing coach, editor and consultant. I find it somehow refreshing to know that Barthes mentored someone who went his own way and did not cash in on his relationship with Barthes to become a high-flying academic conferencegoer.
posted by jayder at 7:19 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I find it very strange that he was there in Paris, thesis finished, ready to take the oral exam, and then when the professor died it was a whole year before they re-arranged his oral.

I gather that you have never experienced the world of French academia.

- Alumnus, École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris
posted by C^3 at 8:08 PM on March 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


a high-flying academic conferencegoer.

Yeah, there's a lot of cash in going to the MLA.
posted by kenko at 9:19 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Great story, but I wish he'd correct the typos/errors

Wait, is this a grad-school joke? If it's not, I take back my favorite.
posted by goodglovin77 at 1:42 AM on March 19, 2012


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