The Timeless Beauty of the Citroën DS, the Car Mythologized by Roland Barthes (1957)

In the postwar Western imagination, modernity took three forms: the rocketship, the jetliner, and the automobile. The first two may have more direct claim to defining the “Space Age,” but only the third lay within reach of the average (or slightly above average) consumer. And at the 1955 Paris Auto Show the world first beheld a car that, aesthetically speaking, might as well have been a spacecraft: the Citroën DS. Pronounced in French like déesse, that language’s word for “goddess,” the car received 80,000 order deposits during the show, a record that stood for six decades until the debut of Tesla’s Model 3 — which, whatever its respectability as a feat of design and engineering, will never have Roland Barthes to extol its beauty.

“Cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals,” writes Barthes in an essay on the DS (which you can read in both English translation and the original French here) that appears in 1957’s Mythologies, many of whose editions bear the car’s image on the cover.

“I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object. It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object.” Possessed of all the features of “one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction: the Déesse is first and foremost a new Nautilus.”

Smoothness, Barthes writes, “is always an attribute of perfection because its opposite reveals a technical and typically human operation of assembling: Christ’s robe was seamless, just as the airships of science-fiction are made of unbroken metal.” Hence his detection, in the unprecedentedly smooth lines of the DS, of “the beginnings of a new phenomenology of assembling, as if one progressed from a world where elements are welded to a world where they are juxtaposed and hold together by sole virtue of their wondrous shape, which of course is meant to prepare one for the idea of a more benign Nature.” Here we have “a humanized art, and it is possible that the Déesse marks a change in the mythology of cars,” raising them from “the bestiary of power” into the realm of the “spiritual and more object-like.”

In the Influx video at the top of the post, British Citroën specialist Matt Damper reads from Barthes’ essay to evoke the distinctive joie de vivre of French car culture in general and classic Citroëns in particular. (It must be said, however, that one of the main “unknown artists” to which the DS owes its unearthly beauty, sculptor turned industrial designer Flaminio Bertoni, hailed from Italy.) “You have to drive it in a completely different way than you drive any other car, really,” says Damper. “It’s that Frenchness: it’s like, ‘We’re right. This is the correct way of building a car. Just get used to it.'” Wired‘s Jack Stewart echoes the sentiment in the video just above, “The 1955 Citroën DS Still Feels Ahead of Its Time.”

Stewart names the “strange semi-automatic gearbox that you have to get used to,” among the innovative or at least unconventional features with which the DS debuted, a list that also included hydraulic suspension (suited to France’s still-shambolic roads) and disc brakes. “That’s just the thing with Citroëns: they’re unforgiving if you don’t know what you’re doing, so you really have to learn how to drive these cars.” Or as Citroëns’s American ad campaign put it, “It takes a special person to drive a special car.” The DS didn’t sell stateside, in part due to its low-powered engine made to dodge French automobile tax structures, but now car-lovers around the world recognize it as one of the great achievements in motoring. The Citroën DS and the prose of Roland Barthes have a deep commonality: only those who understand that they have to approach the object on its own terms will find themselves in the presence of superior craft — albeit of a distinctively Gallic variety.

Below Jay Leno gives you a close up view of his 1971 Citroën DS and its unique suspension system.

Related Content:

An Animated Introduction to Roland Barthes’s Mythologies and How He Used Semiotics to Decode Popular Culture

Hear Roland Barthes Present His 40-Hour Course, La Préparation du roman, in French (1978-80)

178,000 Images Documenting the History of the Car Now Available on a New Stanford Web Site

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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