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Roland Barthes - Lover's Discourse: Fragments

cover   Roland Barthes-
Lover's Discourse: Fragments

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Barthes never attempts to give us a uniform narrative about love. Instead, as the title implies, he provides us with fragments--some of which come from literature and some from his own philisophical musings--of a lover's point of view. Since childhood, we are taught to think of love as a singualar entity. Whether it is God's love, marriage, passion, or patriotism, we are taught to think of love as a unique, and exclusive prize. But as Barthes' points out, love is built upon fragments, many of which are mundane.

The most compelling part of "Lover's Discourse" is Barthe's dissection of the phrase, "I love you" [see below]. Drawing upon literary examples and common sense, Barthes asks us what we mean when we state that we love someone. Do we love what they do for us? Do we love how they make us feel? Do we love the idea of them? Are we in love with love itself? This concept is born out by the protagonist Merseault, in Camus' novel, "A Happy Death". The first thing Merseault says to his lover when she wakes up in the morning is, "hello image".

"Lover's Discourse" extracts love from ideology and examines it under a microscope. We may be confused by what we see, and we may not like it, but the view contains more than a glimmer of reality.

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je-t'-aime / I-love-you

The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to
the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry.

1. Once the first avowal has been made, "I love you" has no meaning whatever; it merely repeats in an enigmatic mode-so blank does it appear-the old message (which may not have been transmitted in these words). I repeat it exclusive of any pertinence; it comes out of the language, it divagates-where?

I could not decompose the expression without laughing. Then there would be "me" on one side, "you" on the other, and in between a joint of reasonable (i.e., lexical) affection. Anyone can feel how much such a decomposition, though conforming to linguistic theory, would disfigure what is flung out in a single impulse. To love does not exist in the infinitive (except by a metalinguistic artifice): the subject and the object come to the word even as it is uttered, and I-love-you must be understood (and read here) in the Hungarian fashion, for instance, for Hungarian uses a single word, szeretlek, as if French, renouncing its splendid analytical quality, were an agglutinative language (and it is, indeed, agglutination which is in question here). This dump is shattered by the slightest syntactical alieralion; it is, so to speak, beyond syntax and yields itself to no structural transformation; it has no equivalent among its substitutes, whose combination might nonetheless produce the same meaning; I can say I-love-you for days on end without perhaps ever being able to proceed to "I love her": I resist making the other pass through a syntax, a predication, a language (the sole Assumption of I-love-you is to apostrophize it, to give it the expansion of a first name: Ariadne, I love you, Dionysus says).

2. l-love-you has no usages. Like a child's word, it enters into no social constraint; it can be a sublime, solemn, trivial word, it can be an erotic, pornographic word. It is a socially irresponsible word.

l-love-you is without nuance. It suppresses explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples. In a way-exorbitant paradox of language-to say l-love-you is to proceed as if there were no theater of speech, and this word is always true (has no other referent than its utterance: it is a performative).

l-love-you has no "elsewhere"-it is the word, of the (maternal, amorous) dyad; in it, no distance, no distortion will split the sign; it is the metaphor of nothing else.

l-love-you is not a sentence: it does not transmit a meaning, but fastens onto a limit situation: "the one where the subject is suspended in a specular relation to the other." It is a holophrase.

(Though spoken billions of times, l-love-you is extra-lexicographical; it is a figure whose definition cannot transcend the heading.)

3. The word (the word-as-sentence) has a meaning only at the moment I utter it; there is no other information in it but its immediate saying: no reservoir, no armory of meaning. Everything is in the speaking of it: it is a "formula," but this formula corresponds to no ritual; the situations in which I say I-love-you cannot be classified: I-love-you is irrepressible and unforeseeable Then to what linguistic order does this odd being, this linguistic feint, belong, too articulated to be no more than an impulse, too phatic to be a sentence? It is neither quite what is uttered (no message is congealed, sorted, mummified within it, ready for dissection) nor quite the uttering itself (the subject does not allow himself to be intimidated by the play of interlocutory sites). We might call it a proffering, which has no scientific place: l-love-you belongs neither in the realm of linguistics nor in that of semiology. Its occasion (the point of departure for speaking it) would be, rather, Music. In the manner of what happens in singing, in the proffering of l-love-you, desire is neither repressed (as in what is uttered) nor recognized (where we did not expect it: as in the uttering itself) but simply: released, as an orgasm. Orgasm is not spoken, but it speaks and it says: I-love-you.

4. To l-love-you there are various mundane answers: "I don't love you," "I don't believe a word," "Why do you have to say so?," etc. But the true dismissal is: "There is no answer": I am wiped out more completely if I am rejected not only as the one who demands but also as the speaking subject (as such, I have at least the mastery of the formulas); it is my language, the last resort of my existence, which is denied, not my demand; as for the demand, I can wait, make it again, present it later; but denied the power of questioning, I am "dead," forever. "There is no answer," the Mother makes Franchise say to the young Proustian narrator, who then correctly identifies himself with the "mistress" sent away by her lover's concierge: the Mother is not forbidden, she is foreclosed and I go mad.

5. I love you. -So do I,

So do I is not a perfect answer, for what is perfect can only be formal, and the form here is deficient, in that it does not literally take up the proffering-and it is proper to the proffering to be literal. However, insofar as it is assimilated into the subject's hallucination, this reply is enough to set going a whole discourse of jubilation: jubilation all the more powerful in that it wells up by means of a sudden transformation: Saint-Preux discovers abruptly, after several haughty denials, that Julie loves him. This is the delirious truth which does not come by reasoning, by any slow preparation, but by surprise, awakening (satori), conversion. The Proustian child-asking that his mother sleep in his room-wants to obtain the So-do-I: wants to deliriously, in the fashion of-a madman; and he, too, obtains it by a reversal, by the Father's capricious decision, conceding him the Mother ("Tell Franchise to make up your bed in his room, then, and sleep there tonight").

6. I hallucinate what is empirically impossible: that our two profferings be made at the same time: that one does not follow the other, as if it depended on it. Proffering cannot be double (doubled): only the single flash will do, in which two forces join (separate, divided, they would not exceed some ordinary agreement). For the single flash achieves this unheard-of thing: the abolition of all responsibility. Exchange, gift, and theft (the only known forms of economy) each in its way implies heterogeneous objects and a dislocated time: my desire against something else-and this always requires the time for drawing up the agreement. Simultaneous proffering establishes a movement whose model is socially unknown, unthinkable: neither exchange, nor gift, nor theft, our proffering, welling up in crossed fires, designates an expenditure which relapses nowhere and whose very community abolishes any thought of reservation: we enter each by means of the other into absolute materialism.

7. So-do-I inaugurates a mutation: the old rules fall away, everything is possible-even, then, this: that I give up possessing you.

A revolution, in short-not so far, perhaps, from the political kind: for, in both cases, what I hallucinate is the absolute New: (amorous) reform has no appeal for me. And, to cap the paradox, this pure New is ultimately the most worn-down of stereotypes (just last night, I heard it uttered in a play by Sagan; every other night, on TV, someone says: I love you).

8. -And what if I didn't interpret l-love-you? What if I maintained the proffering on this side of the symptom? -You take your chances: haven't you said hundreds of times how intolerable the lover's suffering is, and his necessity to get out of it? If you want to "recover," you have to believe in the symptoms, and believe that I-love-you is one of them; you have to interpret, i.e., ultimately you have to disparage.

-Then what do we have to think of suffering? How do we have to conceive it? evaluate it? Is suffering necessarily on the side of evil? Doesn't suffering in love have to do only with a reactive, disparaging treatment (one must submit to the prohibition)? Can one, reversing the evaluation, imagine a tragic view of love's suffering, a tragic affirmation of I-love-you? And if (amorous) love were put (put back) under the sign of the Active?

9. Whence a new view of I-love-you. Not as a symptom but as an action. I speak so that you may answer, and the scrupulous form (the letter) of the answer will assume an effective value, in the manner of a formula. Hence it is not enough that the other should answer me with a mere signified, however positive ("So do I"): the addressed subject must take the responsibility of formulating, of proffering the I-love-you which I extend: I love you, Pelleas says. -I love you, too, Melisande says. Pelleas's imperious suit (supposing that Melisande's answer was exactly the one he expected, which is probable since he dies immediately afterwards) proceeds from the necessity, for the amorous subject, not only to be loved in return, to know it, to be sure of it, etc. (all operations which do not exceed the level of the signified), but to hear it said in the form which is as affirmative, as complete, as articulated as his own; what I want is to receive full in the face, entirely, literally, without evasion or leakage, the formula, the archetype of love's word: no syntactical subterfuge, no variation: that the two phrases, the two words, should correspond totally, coinciding signifier by signifier (So do I would be just the contrary of a holophrase); what matters is the physical, bodily, labial proffering of the word: open your lips and let it out (be obscene).

What I want, deliriously, is to obtain the word. Magical, mythical? The Beast-held enchanted in his ugliness- loves Beauty; Beauty, obviously, does not love the Beast, but at the end, vanquished (unimportant by what; let us say by the conversations she has with the Beast), she, too, says the magic word: "Je vous aime, la Bete": and immediately, through the sumptuous arpeggio of a harp, a new subject appears. Is this story an archaic one? Then here is another: a man suffers because his wife has left him; he wants her to come back, he wants-specifically- her to say I love you to him, and he, too, runs after the words; finally she says it to him: whereupon he faints dead away: a film made in 1975. And then, once again, the myth: the Flying Dutchman wanders the earth in search of the word; if he obtains it (by an oath of fidelity), he will cease wandering (what matters to the myth is not the rule of fidelity but its proffering, its song).

10. Singular encounter (within the German language): one and the same word (Bejahung) for two affirmations: one, seized upon by psychoanalysis, is doomed to disparagement (the child's first affirmation must be denied so that there may be access to the unconscious); the other, posited by Nietzsche, is a mode of the will-to-power (nothing psychological, and even less of the social in it), the production of difference, the yes of this affirmation becomes innocent (it contains the reaction-formation): this is the amen.

l-love-you is active. It affirms itself as force-against other forces. Which ones? The thousand forces of the world, which are, all of them, disparaging forces (science, doxa, reality, reason, etc.). Or again: against language. Just as the amen is at the limit of language, without collusion with its system, stripping it of its "reactive mantle," so the proffering of love (I-love-you) stands at the limit of syntax, welcomes tautology (I-love-you means I-love-you), rejects the servility of the Sentence (it is merely a holophrase). As proffering, I-love-you is not a sign, but plays against the signs. The one who does not say I-love-you (between whose lips I-love-you is reluctant to pass) is condemned to emit the many uncertain, doubting, greedy signs of love, its indices, its "proofs": gestures, looks, sighs, allusions, ellipses: he must let himself be interpreted; he is dominated by the reactive occasion of love's signs, exiled into the servile world of language in that he does not say everything (the slave is one who has his tongue cut off, who can speak only by looks, expressions, faces).

The "signs" of love feed an enormous reactive literature: love is represented, entrusted to an aesthetic of appearances (it is Apollo, ultimately, who writes every love story). As a counter-sign, I-love-you is on the side of Dionysus: suffering is not denied (nor even complaint, disgust, resentment), but by its proffering, it is not internalized: to say I-love-you (to repeat it) is to expel the reaction-formation, to return it to the deaf and doleful world of signs-of the detours of speech (which, however, I never cease to pass through). As proffering, I-love-you is on the side of expenditure. Those who seek the proffering of the word (lyric poets, liars, wanderers) are subjects of Expenditure: they spend the word, as if it were impertinent (base) that it be recovered somewhere; they are at the extreme limit of language, where language itself (and who else would do so in its place?) recognizes that it is without backing or guarantee, working without a net.

Love's Languor

langueur / languor

Subtle state of amorous desire, experienced in its
dearth, outside of any will-to-possess.

1. The Satyr says: I want my desire to be satisfied immediately. If I see a sleeping face, parted lips, an open hand, I want to be able to hurl myself upon them. This Satyr -figure of the Immediate- is the very contrary of the Languorous. In languor, I merely wait: "I knew no end to desiring you." (Desire is everywhere, but in the amorous state it becomes something very special: languor.)

2. "and you tell me my other self will you answer me at last I am tired of you I want you I dream of you for you against you answer me your name is a perfume about me your color bursts among the thorns bring back my heart with cool wine make me a coverlet of the morning I suffocate beneath this mask withered shrunken skin nothing exists save desire"

3. ". . . for when I glance at you even an instant, I can no longer utter a word: my tongue thickens to a lump, and beneath my skin breaks out a subtle fire: my eyes are blind, my ears filled with humming, and sweat streams down my body, I am seized by a sudden shuddering; I turnI in a moment more. I feel I shall

4. "My soul, when I embraced Agathon, came to my lips, as if the wretch would leave me and go elsewhere." In amorous languor, something keeps going away; it is as if desire were nothing but this hemorrhage. Such is amorous fatigue: a hunger not to be satisfied, a gaping love. Or again: my entire self is drawn, transferred to the loved object which takes its place: languor would be that exhausting transition from narcissistic libido to object libido. (Desire for the absent being and desire for the present being: languor superimposes the two desires, putting absence within presence. Whence a state of contradiction: this is the "gentle fire.")

The Love Letter

lettre / letter

This figure refers to the special dialectic of the love letter, both blank (encoded) and expressive (charged with longing to signify desire).

1. When Werther (in the Ambassador's employ) writes to Charlotte, his letter follows this outline: 1. What joy to be thinking of you! 2. Here I am in a mundane situation, and without you I feel utterly alone. 3. I have met someone (Fraulein n . . . ) who resembles you and with whom I can speak of you. 4. I keep hoping that we can be reunited. -A single piece of information is varied, in the manner of a musical theme: / am thinking of you.

What does "thinking of you" mean? It means: forgetting "you" (without forgetting, life itself is not possible) and frequently waking out of that forgetfulness. Many things, by association, bring you back into my discourse. "Thinking of you" means precisely this metonymy. For, in itself, such thinking is blank: I do not think you; I simply make you recur (to the very degree that I forget you). It is this form (this rhythm) which I call "thought": / have nothing to tell you, save that it is to you that I tell this nothing:

Why do I turn once again to writing? Beloved, you must not ask such a question, For the truth is, I have nothing to tell you, All the same, your dear hands will hold this note.

2. "As you see," writes the Marquise de Merteuil, "when you write someone, it is for that person and not for yourself, so you must be sure not to say what you think, but rather what will please that person." The Marquise is not in love; what she postulates is a correspondence, i.e., a tactical enterprise to defend positions, make conquests; this enterprise must reconnoiter the positions (the subgroups) of the adverse group, i.e., must articulate the other's image in various points which the letter will try to touch (in this sense, "correspondence" is precisely the word to use, in its mathematical sense). But for the lover the letter has no tactical value: it is purely expressive-at most, flattering (but here flattery is not a matter of self-interest, merely the language of devotion); what I engage in with the other is a relation, not a correspondence: the relation brings together two images. You are everywhere, your image is total, Werther writes to Charlotte, in various ways.

3. Like desire, the love letter waits for an answer; it implicitly enjoins the other to reply, for without a reply the other's image changes, becomes other. This is what the young Freud explains so authoritatively to his fiancee: "Yet I don't want my letters to keep remaining unanswered, and I shall stop writing you altogether if you don't write back. Perpetual monologues apropos of a loved being, which are neither corrected nor nourished by that being, lead to erroneous notions concerning mutual relations, and make us strangers to each other when we meet again, so that we find things different from what, without realizing it, we imagined."

(The one who would accept the "injustices" of communication, the one who would continue speaking lightly, tenderly, without being answered, would acquire a great mastery: the mastery of the Mother.)


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