Theoretical frivolousness

Michael Wood writing about Roland Barthes in the latest edition of the London Review of Books (subscribers-only link):

Two years after Barthes’s death, Chantal Thomas wrote very well of ‘the persistence of a theoretical desire progressively liberated from a concern with seriousness or consequence’. Does that sound frivolous?

Well, does it? I mean, if you absolutely had to choose an adjective to describe the phrase ‘the persistence of a theoretical desire progressively liberated from a concern with seriousness or consequence’, would frivolous be the first to spring to mind? As opposed to incomprehensible, say, or (I'm tempted to suggest) meaningless.

It's unfair, perhaps, to quote two sentences out of context, so here's the whole paragraph in which they appear:

Two years after Barthes’s death, Chantal Thomas wrote very well of ‘the persistence of a theoretical desire progressively liberated from a concern with seriousness or consequence’. Does that sound frivolous? The concept of theoretical desire suggests a project that might be urgent, as well as fun. Barthes himself has a wonderful phrase about theory. ‘To some extent, theory is also a fiction’ – the context is a 1977 discussion of Sartre’s philosophical novels – ‘and it was always in this guise that it tempted me: theory is, as it were, the novel that people enjoyed writing over the last ten years.’ Theory was the novel Barthes enjoyed writing – many critics were busy thinking they were philosophers – and perhaps the only novel he needed to write.

Actually, no, on second thoughts, perhaps frivolous was closer to the mark after all.


4 thoughts on “Theoretical frivolousness

  1. So we gather that “Michael Wood” is really one of those computer algorithms that knows the structure of sentences and which words fall into which category but has no notion of their actual meaning.

  2. Should it not be frivolity rather than frivolousness, at least in theory?

  3. Which I thought you may have made up but which I have to acknowledge you haven't. Darling, make a note of the word "frivolic". I like it. I want to use it more often in conversation.

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