Roland Barthes’ essay, The Blue Guide, is found in the book of essays, Mythologies. Hachette World Guides, are dubbed ‘Guide Bleu’ in French and Barthes analyses the perspective of the Blue Guide in his essay. The Blue Guides title was acquired by Ernest Benn Limited in the 1930s and no longer has any connection with Hachette (Blue Guides).
Barthes essay references the perspective of the bourgeoisie – it is difficult to draw a directly equivalent term at the time of writing as there has been dramatic social change in the intervening years. However, Barthes was referring to a privileged middle class with the means and time to travel and holiday abroad. We should broaden this perspective to tourism in general in the modern era, since in Britain alone there are around 43m overseas holidays, which is up from 1m in 1950 and 27m in 1994 (Guardian online). A quick search for travel books on Amazon.co.uk, reveals 750,000 titles available. Anecdotally, Barthes’ criticism would most likely apply to many modern travel books?
Barthes’ central argument is that travel books simplify and generalise perspectives on cultures, ‘The ethnic reality of Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat commedia dell Arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes, and professions. For the Blue Guide, men exist as social entities – they constitute a charming and fanciful décor, meant to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of monuments’. In effect, Barthes is warning about the use and misuse of typology.
Secondly, Barthes argues how the guide projects hegemonic interests, ‘Beside the historical accounts proper (which are rare and meagre, incidentally, for it is well-known that History is not a good bourgeois), those accounts in which the Republicans are always ‘extremists’ looting churches – but nothing on Guernica [1937 bombing of Basque town at behest of Spanish National Government] – while the good ‘Nationalists’, on the contrary, spend their time ‘liberating’, solely by ‘skilful strategic manoeuvres’ and ‘heroic feats of resistance’,
While generalisation and simplification is necessary to make sense of the world in short time, Barthes’ essay is a reminder that we should be alert to the filtering and distorting that can be present in the information we receive. Typology by its very nature embodies filters and distortions of a very broad, impossible to meaningfully summarise real world.
American University of Paris [website]. Article on The Blue Guide. Available from: http://www.ac.aup.fr/~ggilbert/theorypages/Barthes.html [accessed 7.7.16]
Barthes R (1972). Mythologies. Translated from the French Mythologies (c) 1957 by Editions du Seuil, Paris.
BBC News [website]. The legacy of Guernica (2007). Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6583639.stm [accessed 7.7.16]
Blue Guides [website]. History of the Blue Guide. Available from: http://www.blueguides.com/our-titles/history-of-the-blue-guides/ [accessed 7.7.16]
The Guardian [online]. A brief history of the package holiday (2013). https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/jun/14/brief-history-package-holidays [accessed 7.7.16]