Historical reversal: it is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental – censured in the name of what is in fact only another morality.
What is love?
What is it, this feeling society teaches us to elevate above all others, this emotion society demands us to believe must be the centre of our lives, and if our lives are not ruled by it, existence isn’t worth a damn?
Love is the point of life, the excitement and the enervation of falling into bubbling love is what we live for, its separate prongs of desire and romance and heavy, heart-wrapped fucking are what we all aspire to, apparently, and what we do, whenever we do anything, is rooted in an angry and hungry need for emotional and sexual satisfacción. As I’m sure you can already guess from the rest of this paragraph, I’ve been reading a book about the way love is experienced in France. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes.
Roland Barthes was, to simplify (dumb down) the list of empty buzzwords listed after his name on Wikipedia, a thinker. These are his thoughts on love, presented as 80 short essays, each on an aspect of the romantic life. Some of these are very obvious suggestions (‘absence’, ‘dedication’, ‘suicide’, ‘letter’, ‘silence’, ’embarrassment’), whilst others are more interpretive (‘fade-out’, ‘flayed’, ‘loquela’, ‘scene’, ‘thus’), but all are argued as central to the lover’s experience and all are treated equally. There is an essay on the phrase “I love you”, and how it only holds meaning in its first utterance between partners, there is a piece on all lovers needing an exterior validation of desire before proceeding with a romance. This second idea crops up again when Barthes discusses romantic rivals, which he writes is an important interaction. Your romantic rival is not your enemy, because though you both seek love from the same partner, you both justify the other’s pursuit of said person, literally emphasising the reasonableness of the desire. (It’s a very French way to think, I suppose.)
Barthes’ writing describes love as something transient and temporary, the book as a whole elevates the experience of falling in love, emphasising the swift cycle of a relationship, and implying – quite heavily – that any relationship that persists for a reasonable period of time is intrinsically unimportant, unregarded. A Lover’s Discourse concerns the discourse of a lover who loves alone, of a lover who does not find companionship or comfort from his desires and his affections, just pleasure and pain, in varying amounts. And that isn’t really what love is, is it?
the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude
Barthes is writing a book ostensibly about the generic personal experience of love, but in reality he has produced something far more personal and gently tragic. Barthes has found that love leads him into “extreme solitude”, but I don’t think that where the vast majority of people feel the journey of love ends. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is the opposite of what most people look for in love. Love is the antithesis of solitude, love is always other people, love is what prevents people from being lonely, right? If love for you is a sad solitude, that surely means either you’re doing love wrong, or there are external forces delegitimising the way you love.
And this is, alas, what my reading of A Lover’s Discourse made apparent. Barthes’ experience of love and desire is not the same one that I have had, as even in liberal, late 20th-century France, the experience of a gay man was not as open and free as the experience of heteronormative romantic relationships. Barthes had no – public – long term partner, and for him, perhaps, love was a source of sadness, of forced loneliness. He didn’t die especially young, so would have seen the majority of his friends and family enter into long term relationships (it’s France, so probably a lot were extra-marital, wuhey!), and for that not to happen to him denied Barthes the experience of many central parts of love. His book, attempting to be a universal piece, deeply fails, because it is overly concerned with the very beginning and the very end of a love affair, whereas continuing love is how many, many people experience the emotion, especially on a day to day level. The voice of the text is distinctly male, very matter of fact and academic, and all generic partners are referred to as ‘he’. This gives a flavour of Tobias Fünke’s The Man Inside Me, and again emphasises Barthes’ own personal life, his writing on love is his writing on homosexual, male, love in a less permissive time (the 1970s).
A Lover’s Discourse is how a man thinks of love, traditionally, it is all courtly gestures and heady desire. The title is a far better indicator of the text as a whole than the way the text speaks about itself, it is the discourse of ‘a lover’, yes, but this is Roland Barthes, the lover, not ‘a lover’, the generic, eternal, impersonal. And poor Roland Barthes, for him love was a series of excitements and disappointments.
Popular knowledge states that it’s better to have have felt the sadnesses of love than to have missed out on its joys, and Barthes agreed. There’s a lot of sadness in A Lover’s Discourse, and much more of it than there is any kind of happiness that isn’t rooted in the temporary. Love doesn’t have to be temporary, love doesn’t have to be something that explodes like a bomb for a handful of weeks then fades into nothing like a whisper against an avalanche. Love can be secure, love can be solid, love can be something one can root a life in, but it wasn’t for Roland Barthes, and his supposedly universal book on the realities of love fails, due to its avoidance of exploring love as most people experience it most days.
There are people who say they fall in love hundreds of times a day, but usually they’re linguistically repressed, horny men who mean they see hundreds of people they want to fuck every day. And that is not what love grows to, what it becomes. Love is not the preserve of the randy, love is not just something that happens with pants off or about to be off, love is about sharing, love is about understanding, love is about empathy.
There is little empathy here, the only lover Barthes’ lover empathises with is his rival, is someone who mirrors his desire. And that’s not very human. That’s not very love.
Barthes’ is a traditionalist, male sexuality with a ‘wild oats’ boisterousness. And I do not believe that those who love are more alone than those who do not. I don’t think Barthes’ love is a very loving love, it is selfish and it is self-important. A Lover’s Discourse feels very personal, and offers interesting perspectives on love as rendered throughout history in literature and philosophy, but Barthes is lying to himself if he thinks his love is a modern love, a new love, for it is a love as old as balls. An interesting read, but a strange one.
And, yes, a deeply autobiographic reading of a book by Roland Barthes was a deliberate act of aggression. The author isn’t dead. Read this and watch him disprove his most famous work.