Prior to stepping off a curb and being run over by a French laundry truck, Roland Barthes was the proverbial renaissance man. He thought and wrote about a variety of subjects, including semiotics, the study of symbols and signs and meaning. I guess today’s leading practitioner of semiotics would be M. Night Shyamalan. (Ha ha, a little humor there.)
At any rate, I encountered Barthes somewhere along the way in my linguistics coursework (probably from Dr. Maria Tsiapera, my undergrad advisor who could talk for 60 minutes without stopping for air and who made a mean baklava) but it was in the context of Dr. Kuzniar’s German literature course that I connected with a particular Barthes-ism. At one point in my life I intended to study English literature, but eventually I began to wonder about the point of trying to decipher meaning and metaphor hidden in the fiction of long-dead authors.
Barthes, who was a literary critic among his other interests, said that literature is like jazz. One person may create the score, but each time that score is played, the performer adds his own improvisation and interpretation – making each performance a true act of creation, not simply a reproduction. So when you read and dissect a good novel, or a complex film or poem, your act of interpreting the signs, symbols and nuances is an exercise of your own creativity.