Thursday, July 12, 2007


Exactly half a century ago [when I had just started science and philosophy studies at Sydney University, and was about to meet up with computers for the first time], the Parisian intellectual Roland Barthes wrote a book, entitled Mythologies, that made him famous overnight. In it, he analyzed various phenomena that had acquired the status of myths in French society. At that time, a typical example of a mythical object in France was the new Citroën automobile with stylish lines and hydraulic suspension:

It was referred to by a pair of letters, DS, that looked like a trivial codename. But, when these two letters were pronounced in French, they produced the word déesse, meaning "goddess". And that was exactly how French people looked upon this divine automobile. Barthes wrote: "I believe that the automobile, today, is a rather exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals." Barthes spoke too, in his book, of a less mechanical goddess who, at that same time, was being transformed into a myth in France: Brigitte Bardot.

In Mythologies, Barthes described the Tour de France as a cultural event that had attained mythical proportions, whose stars were like heroes in ancient legends, often moving through fairy-tale landscapes with quaint villages, green fields, mountains and castles.

As a longtime Tour de France fanatic, I've often been intrigued by the fact that we are constantly so fascinated by the stage of the race that is actually taking place at the present moment that we often tend to forget that this historical event has always had a legendary allure. Today's Tour makes us forget about yesterday's. To put it bluntly, each time we witness the Tour, it is as if we are seeing its magic for the first time.

Back in Paris, in a different domain, I used to have a personal "theory" to explain why I was capable, from one day to the next, of setting my eyes [no more than my eyes] upon such-and-such a female, encountered in the street or maybe in the métro, whom I would instantly think of as the most magnificent creature in the universe. I got around to believing that I surely had a deficient visual memory. The image of a new goddess would dominate my sensations simply because all the images of previous angels had been erased. Now, this was really a very bad explanation of what was happening: a little like saying that new sexual encounters are significant simply because we've forgotten all the previous ones. An analysis in terms of myths is more to the point. If I see the Tour de France constantly with new eyes, as if I'm gazing for the first time ever at a superb nymph, this is simply because I'm dealing with mythical phenomena. I'm no longer observing reality. I'm seeing extraordinary things that are happening, primarily, in my imagination. And—to borrow a Gaelic utterance—I never think that its like will ever be there again.

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