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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