In Umberto Eco’s 1983 novel, The Name of the Rose, a ratiocinating monk named Baskerville and his assistant team up in search of a missing text—the apocryphal second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, which Baskerville believes will help him solve a series of murders within the walls of the unnamed monastery. A sui generis literary mystery set in fourteenth-century Italy, the novel gave Eco a way to infuse the mainstream attractions of the detective genre with the more obscure delights of a scholarly challenge. As he investigated crimes, Baskerville was at the same time exploring the arcana of signification. Against the odds, the book became a global best-seller.
The Seventh Function of Language, by Laurent Binet, smartly translated from the French by Sam Taylor, owes more than a little to Eco’s novel. Packed with plots and subplots, heady in its play of ideas and its spoofing of “theory,” it likewise offers a trail of bodies, an oddly matched pair of investigators, a missing text, and pages upon pages of elaborate philosophical debate. Binet gives prominent roles and cameos to an array of 1980s intellectual superstars, including Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Noam Chomsky, and Camille Paglia. Indeed, Umberto Eco himself moves with knowing deliberation through several sections of the book, and is at one point described as flashing on “a vision of a poisoned monk.”
The intellectual at the center of the novel, though, is Roland Barthes, the French theorist whose many works include the seminal text “The Death of the Author.” In February 1980, in what we used to think of as verifiable real life, Barthes was struck by a laundry van as he was heading home from lunch with then-future French President François Mitterrand. He died a month later from his injuries. The idea that Mitterrand, a man of the left and an aspirant to the nation’s highest office, would be meeting with the country’s leading intellectual—who was fatally injured immediately afterward—is naturally tantalizing. Binet, who has written a nonfiction book about former President François Hollande, has a keen interest in political machinations. What could Mitterrand and Barthes have been discussing? Surely not Racine.
The “verifiable real life” distinction matters, because The Seventh Function of Language slips with trippy ease among known people and public events and extravagant fictionalizations of the same. Binet is not new to making narrative out of recent history: In 2010 he won the Goncourt Prize for HHhH, his novel about the assassination of Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich. But The Seventh Function of Language is more outlandish and deliberate in its departures from fact. As soon as the news of Barthes’s accident is out, President Giscard d’Estaing, facing an upcoming election against Mitterrand, charges a taciturn officer named Bayard to look into the matter. Visiting Barthes at the hospital, Bayard discovers that the philosopher can no longer speak. He indicates that he has several questions. All Barthes needs to do is nod or shake his head. “Barthes stares at the superintendent with his sad spaniel eyes. He gives a weak nod.” The questioning is dutiful and yields little—until Bayard asks if he had any kind of document on him. “Barthes’s gaze,” he sees, “is suddenly charged with a new intensity.” The game, as they say, is afoot.
Even before the gruff, Gitane-smoking Bayard interviews Barthes’s colleagues—Michel Foucault, Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, and Bernard-Henri Lévy—he realizes that he is in way over his head. He will need an interpreter to parse the language of French intellectuals. Et voilà! After a few fast-moving scenes (Binet is not one for elaborate narrative causality), the superintendent is partnered up with a young semiotics professor named Simon Herzog. Semiotics is, to refresh, the science of signs; it theorizes things and events as belonging within systems of meaning that can be “read.” Herzog—whose initials wink to Sherlock Holmes—will act as the Virgil leading Bayard through the hellish circles of theory.
The pages of The Seventh Function of Language are scattered with forensic and semiotic breadcrumbs, and for those inclined to track them they comprise part of the Barthesian “pleasure of the text.” As do the madly improbable cameos by so many intellectual superstars, who chatter away, or degrade themselves with drugs and alcohol and orgiastic sex, or suffer events and fates unlike anything that is known to have befallen them in real life. But Binet’s aim is not just to send up the egos and abstracted excesses of academia, or to reveal that discourse is subject to manipulation; it is to suggest that the ultimate aim of such manipulation is to wield real political power.
The twists and turns of Binet’s plot are too byzantine to outline here; I refrain more from a fear of creating endless explanatory regress than of divulging any spoilers. But a few major developments do need to be remarked. The first involves that missing document. When Bayard and Simon go to Barthes’s apartment to look around, vigilant Simon notices that the book on Barthes’s desk is linguist Roman Jakobson’s Linguistics and Poetics. Inside, marking a page, he finds a sheet of paper covered with small script. This he replaces without reading. If only he had read it—for the paper is soon stolen, triggering much narrative mayhem, and leading to several dramatic murders.
One of the victims is a young man named Hamed, a lover of Barthes’s. Just before he dies, “while the sirens scream in the distance,” he whispers a last word: “Echo.” Or that’s how Bayard hears it, anyway. But some time later, speaking with, yes, Tzvetan Todorov, he asks the theorist if he can think of any special significance that one word might have had. Not missing a beat, Todorov responds: “Umberto. How is he?”
Echo, Eco. The chase now moves to Bologna, Umberto Eco’s hometown. As the bearded professor gets some page time, various revelations emerge to advance the plot. Vitally, we get an idea of what the sought-after text might reveal: a hitherto unknown supplement to Jakobson’s work on the six functions of language. The English philosopher J.L. Austin has theorized this “seventh function” as the “performative,” while others have called it the “magic” function. Being adept at this function, Eco explains to Bayard, “enables someone, in a much more extensive fashion, to convince anyone else to do anything at all in any situation.” Clearly the possession of such a power would be a game changer on any number of nonacademic—which is to say “real-world”—fronts.
Part of the power of language, Binet’s novel suggests, rests on its slipperiness, its ability to embody shifting meanings. Bayard and Herzog witness this aspect of language in action when they find themselves attending several nights of spectacle staged by the Logos Club, an ancient secret society premised on gladiatorial debate. Two formidable contestants are given a topic to argue before judges and an audience, and the loser has his or her finger chopped off there on the spot. (The novel, by the way, abounds in suspicious figures with missing digits.) The Logos Club contests offer an obvious nod to scenes in The Name of the Rose in which monks gather to debate subtle tenets of the faith. At a contest in Bologna, the detectives watch as celebrated Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni goes up against an imposing older woman on the topic of intellectuals and power. He loses and his finger is summarily amputated. His partner for the evening, the well-known actress Monica Vitti, must tend to his injury.
These assorted dialectical face-offs give Binet another way to take an angle on theory. He asserts, with Barthes, that everything can be construed as a sign. Meanings are not isolated, but form part of a system, and can therefore be interpreted in diverse ways. Any assertion can be overturned and have its thrust reversed through the agile play of rhetoric. Paradox rules. Describing the debate with Antonioni, Binet writes: “The old woman says that this is the very beauty of the true intellectual: He does not need to want to be revolutionary in order to be revolutionary.” Antonioni, for his part, “snorts contemptuously that she will have to explain that to Heidegger.” There are many, many pages of this sort of thing.
With each section of the novel, Binet ups the improbability factor, and his narrative grows increasingly farcical. The Bologna section, for example, ends at the train station right at the moment of the 1980 terrorist bombing there. Though a number of the characters happen to be present, through one happy coincidence or another they all escape death, even though the incident in fact killed more than 80 people.
The action next moves to Ithaca, New York. Bayard and Herzog attend a major conference on linguistics (which never took place) organized by Jonathan Culler (a literary theorist at Cornell). Among the list of participants who exist in real life—Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roman Jakobson, Julia Kristeva, Paul de Man, Jeffrey Mehlman, Richard Rorty, John Searle, and Gayatri Spivak—is one who does not: Morris J. Zapp, who happens to be the protagonist of David Lodge’s 1975 spoof of academia, Changing Places.
Though Binet makes characters out of any number of the pooh-bahs of literary theory and philosophy, the actions and fates assigned to them bear almost no resemblance to what we know of them. (Though, I should point out, Louis Althusser is described as strangling his wife to death—which is documented in his actual autobiography.) Characters engage in outlandish sexual acts and in several cases meet violent and horrific deaths; they carry on throughout with all of the arbitrariness of signifiers that have been freed from their signifieds. Perhaps, in fact, this is Binet’s point: to play out some of the absurdist implications of a deconstructed universe.
But if it is, he winds up sacrificing much of the tension of the mystery genre in order to keep hitting such an obvious target. And in doing so, he parts company with Eco’s earlier enterprise. By the novel’s midpoint, if not sooner, we find ourselves in the psychological zone where everything is permitted. Effects seem barely answerable to causes, and staged encounters are heaped one upon the next. Inevitably, the mystery we’ve been tracking begins to feel like just one more improbability. The reader feels less and less interested in the narrative vicissitudes, and might well start glazing over in those passages of argumentation in which each thing is revealed to be its opposite.
I’ll leave the climax and resolution for those who persist. It is enough to say that, just as the plot began in the realm of politics—with Barthes and Mitterrand’s luncheon—it ends with the 1981 French presidential election, in which the seventh function of language has apparently allowed a suddenly empowered Mitterrand to carry the day.
How many things can a novel be? Where do we draw our lines, if there even are any lines left? Stylish, devilish, cerebral—setting these obvious and inevitable descriptors aside, what do we have here? Does The Seventh Function of Language, like The Name of the Rose before it, add up to something more than a pumped-up entertainment for the name-dropping set? Is Binet making any larger statement with his transgressive antics?
In interviews, Binet has expressed his interest in creating and subverting artifice, and in mingling materials that have traditionally been kept apart. He has praised Milan Kundera’s narrative feints, and those of Bret Easton Ellis—how they allow invention and the so-called “actual” to cohabit. Ellis, for instance, “borrowed” Jay McInerney’s character Alison Poole and used her in several of his works; Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, freely mingled invented stories with recollections of his own experience. Binet has also discussed his interest in the recently fashionable French movement of “auto-fiction,” which manipulates the real-life materials of autobiography—asserting, in effect, that memory is just another form of narrative creation.
In The Seventh Function of Language, Binet has taken “having it all ways” to a new level. Meanings and designations not only invert and collapse into each other, but the same unhooking of signifier from signified that underwrote so much of “theory” is ridiculed. All in good fun, the critic wants to say—and would, were we not just now all living under the sign of the counterfactual. When the truth status of political pronouncements is no longer subject to formerly accepted checks and balances, how is the novelist bent on playing with the line between “real” and “fake” to ply his trade? His conceit seems less transgressive than redundant. Does the reader have the stomach for an anarchic mirroring of anarchy? The real-world link between rhetorical sleight of hand and power needs, instead, to be explored and exposed.
Amusing and unsettling enough at first, the business becomes less tenable the more wildly Binet spins out his scenarios. To maximize his effects, the novel would have to be half as long, for little is gained by the repetitions. If we’ve seen one famous theorist absurdly jousting with another, we don’t need to see 20 others. It could be that there are in-jokes for the cognoscenti in these encounters, but the audience for these will not be large. To crib from Cyril Connolly, inside every overstuffed novel is a thin novel trying to get out.
One of the bit players in The Seventh Function of Language, encountered at the Ithaca conference, is the translator and theorist Jeffrey Mehlman. Professor Mehlman happens to teach at Boston University, where I also work. I run into him now and again, either on the street or at the occasional gathering, so it was very strange to encounter him, however briefly, in Binet’s pages. When I see him next, I will be most tempted to say, as does Binet at the very outset: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so.”