Roland Barthes Reports from the Sanatorium

A new collection examines how institutions infantilize society

Album: Unpublished Correspondence and Texts, recently published by Columbia University Press, provides an unparalleled look into Roland Barthes’ life of letters. It presents a selection of correspondence, from his adolescence in the 1930s through the height of his career and up to the last years of his life, covering such topics as friendships, intellectual adventures, politics, and aesthetics. It offers an intimate look at Barthes’s thought processes and the everyday reflection behind the composition of his works, as well as a rich archive of epistolary friendships, spanning half a century, among the leading intellectuals of the day. The book also features documents, letters, and postcards reproduced in facsimile; unpublished material; and notes and transcripts from his seminars.

The first English-language publication of Barthes’s letters, Album is a comprehensive testimony to one of the most influential critics and philosophers of the twentieth century and the world of letters in which he lived and breathed. Read an excerpt from Album: Unpublished Correspondence and Texts, “Sketch of a Sanatorium Society”, below.

Sketch of a Sanatorium Society

The facsimile of this text was published in the catalog for the Roland Barthes exhibit at the Centre Georges-Pompidou in 2002 (Seuil-Centre Georges-Pompidou-IMEC, 2002). The original be- longs to the Barthes collection at the BNF.

In a sanatorium society everything conspires to return one to a situation defined and embellished with the attributes of an authentic society. The costs of this accumulation of artifice hardly matter, but first among them is considering as sufficient a society that is, alas, only parasitic. It is above all a matter of dissociating the consciousness of the ill person from the memory of not having been one; the junction of these two states would result in an intolerable strabismus. Hence the cheerful naturalization of the state of disease, and the creation of a triumphant sanatorium society where the consciousness of exile no longer has a place. The malaise of not being social is exhausted through social exercises re-created in the image of those from which one has just been excluded. The appearance of inner freedom is reestablished within a new social conformism imitating the old one. A sanatorium code is postulated; what goes by the name of freedom, what goes by the name of responsibility, restrained by very real chains, is the very means of escape. We know that irresponsibility is never so fully achieved as it is in the innocent process of over-socialization.

The bourgeois sanatorium fosters a puerile society. In the first place, medical authority establishes the rules of paternalism here. We know the ambiguous status of medicine in social consciousness: mocked, disputed, and always obeyed. That contradiction, elsewhere attenuated, makes its full weight felt here at every moment. As both miracle worker and hotelkeeper, the sanatorium doctor, despite himself and his patients, has final authority here, unrelated to pity and independent of the esteem or contempt elicited by the one who holds that authority. The hierarchy of sanatorium society is fixed in a way that seems truly absolute and eternal because its apex is immutable. No play of power, no shift in responsibilities, no change in values is possible here. It would be an understatement to say a patient confronts his disease at every turn; in short, he confronts a certain general, natural, human condition. The doctor is the one who reveals his disease, and, at the same time, is the only one with the power to save him from it. As in any given religious society, the deity both condemns and absolves the sinner. The point is that, between nature and man, there must be a living, conscious, omniscient element that, despite oneself, one must take for omnipotent. Here we can recognize a providentialist state of society; we can say that sanatorium society is a theocratic structure. Obviously, this structure bears no relation to the individual doctor and the degree to which he uses his authority. It is enough that the patient’s irresponsibility is justified by the inevitable existence of a being who knows and does not suffer, whereas he suffers and does not know.

In the second place, there is the gang, the band, the team, whatever you want to call it. One can imagine how common this almost-feudal social condition is in the sanatorium. The homogenous, hierarchized, exclusive company formed within an already-closed environment is solidly sealed in a very different way. Here, the weakest ones look to the strongest ones to defend them against their freedom, and all together they surround and defend one another against the exterior that defines them. The pranks that are the favorite diversion of gangs serve as pretext here for additional warmth and over-socialization in human relationships. Each member of a club accumulates what he knows to be the most winning, most rewarding social attributes; by molding his actions, initiatives, reactions, and opinions according to watchwords of the group (watchwords that are often diffuse, barely verbalized, reduced to a certain esoteric spirit), he saves himself the trouble of adapting. Others create for him, in relation to a “public” that represents the necessary otherness, this salutary automatism. Here again, ritual serves as the standard expedient. We know the liturgical function of laughter among gangs whose profession is the prank. For nothing in the world does a member desert such a group; the joy of being admitted overcomes the illusion of super-sociability.

“Always together as much as possible,” that secret slogan of every sanatorium society clearly formulates the normative image of the patient who looks after himself, essential to the sanatorium and not to be undermined. In general, sanatorium society is horrified by anything that seems to contest the seriousness or usefulness of its own social structure. Any society closed in upon itself is hostile to friendship. In a manner very much belonging to entities that see themselves as multiple, it condemns the couple for intolerably negating its own usefulness, and is scandalized that one could be happy outside of it. It testifies to the contempt felt by any moral system supposedly based on the common good when it must confront the single and the whole, without questioning whether the asocial nature of sanatorium society does not justify one’s right to act freely there and to reserve the full exercise of one’s sociability for the time when one returns to authentic society. As for the solitary patient, he is a kind of libertine who denies the laws of sanatorium-human-nature. Thus, he is banished and, without flinching before the contradiction, organized sanatorium society excludes him, so that he himself wants to renounce it.

The most liberal form of the sanatorium gang is the cultural club whose guiding principle involves grouping together a certain number of shared noble tastes. Here, the illusion of social interaction is embellished with disinterested motives that can justify any humanist ideology. Sanatorium society thus aims for a philosophical, Platonic structure. Clubs, art and discussion groups, circles, and so-called work teams are endlessly created (because they are endlessly dissolving). The social illusion achieves its height. A gang of pranksters acknowledges a certain self-serving structure through its declared goal, which is diversion; a cultural club claims to be exercising an eternal truth, that is, the natural superiority of culture, a notion that is most often only empty talk here. These clubs compensate for the instability of their purpose and the insufficiency of their means by appealing to the cooperative mystique. But here the sentimental humanist ethic is an empty exercise; aid and benefits are expected more from the method than the purpose, so that idealism too can confuse ends and means (art for art’s sake, action for action’s sake, choice for the sake of choice, etc.). That is because sanatorium society develops more as a community than as a true society. Its members find it enormously helpful to view their time here within a teleological order and not simply a causal one. There is a constant shift from the contingent to transcendent, and interested parties endlessly disguise what is very difficult — because very useless — as providential and finally beneficial. Thus meditation, which may — or may not — result from idleness, is usually presented as the mystical meeting of suffering and truth and not as the conditional result of disease, as a revelation and not as a contingent operation. Or even, inversely (but we can see it is the same thing), the patient will be invited to profit from this interruption by making it a salutary cure for his frivolity. From two sides, physis and antiphysis, there is great pressure to give disease meaning; according to a well-known mechanism, a causality is turned into a finality because the mind finds the idea of meaningless catastrophe intolerable. At all costs, the disease must contribute to the notion of destiny and it must be acknowledged that such a contribution is very generous, capable of dignifying the destiny of an infinite number of “spiritual families.”

Paternalist, feudal, or liberal, bourgeois sanatorium society, through various pretenses, always tends to revert to the irresponsibility of childhood. It is an essentially puerile society, corresponding in its various facets to the bourgeois image of childhood. We know that for most French writers over the last century nothing is as perfect, nothing is as happy, as childhood and there is no human mission more vital than recovering it. This is not the place to recount the history of that myth, from the moment when Descartes and Pascal declared childhood to be a time lost to reason, up until its most baroque expression (Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles) and perhaps beyond. Suffice it to say that the bourgeoisie spontaneously use the sanatorium as a substitute for rediscovered childhood. Once again, here is a place cut off at the roots from the world of serious people. This place lives for itself; it is given over to those who inhabit it, even as it still belongs to an external presence that justifies it (the Doctor). Playing in the hayloft, playing war, playing high society: transposed, all the elements of childhood revisited (a particularly bourgeois myth) are the very ones of sanatorium society. One can object that collectives and clubs are, after all, accidents belonging to any human group. The point is that nowhere else but in childhood and the bourgeois sanatorium does one witness the pretense of such groups attributing to themselves the elements of a complete society, within which the social supposedly has the same restrictive value as in actual society.

Sanatoriums can be great families, no doubt about it. But if one is obliged to spend time there, must he be complicit in such a cheerful familiarization with disease?

June 25, 1947

Excerpted from Roland Barthes’ Album: Unpublished Correspondence and Texts (Columbia University Press). It is available for purchase on the Columbia University Press website here, and on Amazon here.

Roland Barthes (1915–1980) was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. His works include Mythologies, S/Z, A Lover’s Discourse, and Camera Lucida. Barthes’s final seminars, The Neutral: Lecture Course at the College de France (1977–1978) (2005); The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses andSeminars at the Collège de France (1978–1979 and 1979–1980) (2010); and How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces (2012), are also published by Columbia University Press.

Jody Gladding is a poet and author most recently of Translations from Bark Beetle. She has translated thirty works from French, for which she has received grants from the Centre National du Livre and the French-American Foundation Translation Prize.

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