January 20, 2003

Doll

On page 141 of A Lover’s Discourse, in a chapter entitled This Can’t Go On, Roland Barthes writes:

Once the exaltation has lapsed, I am reduced to the simplest philosophy: that of endurance… I am a Daruma Doll, a legless toy endlessly poked and pushed, but finally regaining its balance, assured by an inner balancing pin (But what is my balancing pin? The force of love?). This is what we are told by a folk poem which accompanies these Japanese dolls:

Such is life
Falling over seven times
And getting up eight.

Having read A Lover’s Discourse long ago, I’ve often remembered this poem and have quoted it many times to friends. Today, though, I read it again and was surprised to find I’ve been misquoting it. In my version, the poem ends with getting up six times, not eight, a mistake that reverses its meaning.

The way I always remembered the poem, it was about death, about the final time you fall, the first and last time you fail to get up. Barthes’s version is about some freakish form of endurance. The legless doll is invulnerable; no amount of abuse can knock it down, since abuse is what it was made for. Indeed, if abused in the right way, the doll is indestructible. Its fate is like that of Sisyphus but without all that nasty, backbreaking, spirit-crushing toil.