A Lover’s Discourse came recommended by a very good friend with very good literary taste, so I did not question a thing about the book when I picked it up. I went into it blind. Finding out that it was actually a philosophical treatise on the language we use as lovers was the least jarring of discoveries. Depending on what type of person you are, and what type of relationships you’ve been in, A Lover’s Discourse functions more as a mirror, and it can be a painful and uncomfortable read.
Written by Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, philosopher and linguist, the slim book is really a dictionary of words, scenes and emotions that a lover will go through when interacting with his loved object. Yes, it is peppered with philosophical terms like “loved object,” and sometimes the sentence structure Barthes uses (or, more accurately, employed by translator Richard Howard) can be tedious. But unlike most philosophical texts — which can be a jumble of jargon forming baffling theorems — there are so many recognizable emotions and inner monologues uttered by the lover, that you might find yourself underlining and dog-earring pages while whispering “yes.”
The lover’s neurosis unfolding on these pages is not the same as the one in movies that recites Corinthians 13:4-8. In reality, the lover is not patient, and he is not necessarily kind. In fact, he’s usually Waiting (one of Barthes’ defined terms) by the phone, wracked with Jealousy, wondering if he could ever understand The Unknowable about his loved object, and contemplating Ideas of Suicide. If all this sounds over-dramatic, then you’ve either never loved — whatever that word means, really, especially in the context of Barthes — or you are an equal (and therefore, very, very lucky.)
Barthes charts the glorious beginning of a love affair, maps out the feelings that goes through a lover’s mind when a prospective loved object makes contact — even the slightest touch — and how dissects every interaction is imbued with meaning. He even breaks down the words “I love you.” Reading this actually broke me a little, because it made me wonder what is going through my mind, or my boyfriend’s mind, when we say those words to each other.
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.
Or more to the point,
“I speak so that you may answer.”
The lover is also often caught in an endless cycle of suspicion and blame, wondering if the feelings of his loved object are true. In defining the word Monstrous, Barthes writes about the realization the lover has of himself, “that he is imprisoning the loved object in a net of tyrannies: he has been pitiable, now he becomes monstrous.”
I who love am undesirable, consigned to the category of the bores: the ones who bear down too hard, who irritate, encroach, complicate, demand, intimate (or more simply: those who speak). I have monumentally deceived myself.
As I thumbed through the chapters, seeing so many clear images of myself, I wondered why Barthes never provided any sort of panacea to the lover. After all, for someone who’s so good at pinpointing the symptoms, can’t he also give us a how-to guide?
It wasn’t until close to the end that I finally understood that this wasn’t a book about love; it’s about unrequited love, about not being fully loved back, and even about not loving yourself enough to stop seeking your self-worth in your lover. It’s a cautionary tale; more terrifyingly, it’s a how-to guide to identify what you go through when you are not loved, not the way you yearn to be. In the chapter about Signs — or rather, The Uncertainty of Signs — Barthes writes about how the lover would seek constant approval but have no system of definitions of signs to discover if the other loves him.
I look for signs, but of what? What is the object of my reading? Is it: am I loved (am I loved no longer, am I still loved)? Is it my future that I am trying to read, deciphering in what is inscribed the announcement of what will happen to me…. Isn’t it rather, all things considered, that I remain suspended on this question, whose answer I tirelessly seek in the other’s face: What am I worth?
This is not an easy book to read. Barthes is so good, so articulate, so in my head (in my head) that it pains me to recognize bits of myself in A Lover’s Discourse. I looked up the book after I was done, and this Buzzfeed story came up; the title (“Why I Ended a Perfectly Fine Relationship”) should tell you everything. It’s always a strange thing when the very qualities that make a book phenomenal are the same ones that lead me to say, “You will not enjoy this.”