Roland Barthes (1915–1980) was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. His study of signs, known as semiotics, is inspiring in subverting the dominant bourgeois culture. He dissects the implied meaning of cultural signs by analyzing a signifier and its related signified. For example, a picture of a full, dark bottle is a signifier that relates to a specific signified: a fermented, alcoholic beverage. However, the bourgeoisie relate it to a new signified: the idea of healthy, robust, relaxing experience. His insight on various cultural phenomena reveals the manipulation of the dominant class, highlighting the ideology working behind the surface meaning. In A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, his aim is not so much to debunk the bourgeois hegemony as to reveal the illusion of love. Devoid of sentimentality, this book is a fragmented meditation of an unrequited lover. The predominant theme is that the lover, I, can never truly find the beloved, You, for love itself is doomed to be a fabrication of mass culture and therefore a desire beyond one’s control.
II. Main Ideas in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
A. Lover’s absence (signifier) = femininity (signified)
Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the Woman. It is woman that gives shape to absence and elaborates its fiction. Woman takes on the role of the sedentary, faithful, and waiting while her beloved the role of hunting/journey, fickle, and sailing away (13). The man who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized (14).
Absence becomes an active practice, a creation of a fiction which finds expression in doubts, reproaches, desires and melancholies (14). The reflection on the beloved’s voice and gift is point in case. The absence of the beloved makes both his/her voice and gift sacred and desirable:
The other’s fade-out resides in his voice. The voice supports, evinces, and performs the disappearance of the loved being. I never know the loved being’s voice except when it is dead, remembered, recalled inside my head. It is one of those objects which exist only once they have disappeared (114).
Every object touched by the loved being’s body becomes part of that body, and the subject eagerly attaches himself to it . . . . Every object thus consecrated becomes like the stone of Bologna, which by night gives off the rays it has accumulated during the day (171).
Absence does not wipe out the beloved being; instead, it serves to postpone the other’s death (16). By pondering the beloved’s gift or voice during his absence, he becomes immortal.
The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits (40). Therefore, whoever takes on the feminine role is the one who waits.
B. To be ascetic=blackmail
To impress the loved being by representing his unhappiness, the amorous subject outlines as ascetic behavior of self-punishment (33). That is, the bad humor must be seen, for example, to cut hair short; to conceal eyes behind dark glasses (a way of taking the veil); to devote myself to the study of serious and abstract branch of learning. In a word, I shall signify my mourning in the form of blackmail (33). The main purpose is to provoke the inquiry, “What’s the matter with you?”
By wearing dark glasses, one intends to manifest his passion: I want you to know that I am hiding something from you. What I hide by my language, my body utters. Dark glasses utter the unspeakable sorrow. They are the signs of mask, which connote dignity and stoicism. Dark glasses mask swollen eyes, darkening the sight in order not to be seen. But the hiding is meant to be seen. I want to be both admirable and pathetic, child and adult. I want the grave concern from the beloved, the very posture of blackmail!
The shameful blackmail also signifies that I am missing something in my solitude or nostalgia. Solitude and nostalgia are the external forms of asceticism. In solitude, sadness overcomes me because of the “incredible naturalness of things.” And nostalgia is a sentiment of strangeness, for “I am happy but I am sad” (170).
C. Embrace=return to mother & erection
Embrace is a motionless cradling; we are enchanted, bewitched; we are within the voluptuous infantilism of sleepiness: this is the return to the mother. . . . I am then two subjects at once: I want maternity and genitality. The embraced lover might be defined as a child getting an erection (104).
D. Lover’s date=festivity
The amorous subject experiences every meeting with the loved being as a festival. The Festivity is what is waited for, expected. I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plentitude of satisfactions (117).
E. Amorous sentiment=endurance/fatigue
For reasonable sentiment, everything works out, but nothing lasts. For amorous sentiment, nothing works out but it keeps going on (140).
Once the exaltation has lapsed, I am reduced to the simplest philosophy: that of endurance, which is the natural dimension of fatigue. What is the essence of amorous fatigue? It’s a kind of resigned suffering, a languid persistence, “always bewildered, never discouraged” (141). To be more exact, it is a hunger not to be satisfied, a gaping love (156).
“I am thinking of you”—a common expression in amorous sentiment, embodies amorous fatigue, for it means “I am frequently forgetting you and waking out of that forgetfulness (157). Without forgetting, life itself is not possible. The “thinking of you” means the hunger not to be satisfied; it’s a self-imposed, persistent suffering surrounded by forgetfulness. And I endure the state resignedly.
F. Love at fight sight=hypnosis/animal rape
Love at first sight is a hypnosis; I am fascinated by an image, at first shaken, electrified, stunned, paralyzed (189). It requires the very sign of its suddenness, a scene which makes me irresponsible, subject to fatality, swept away, ravished. The very scene consecrates the object I am going to love (192). Actually, at the first shocking encounter, I discover in the other another myself.
I never fall in love unless I have wanted to; the emptiness I produce in myself is nothing but that interval, when I glance around me, looking for who to love. . . . Love requires a release switch; just as in the case of animal rape, the bait is occasional, but the structure is profound and regular (190).
G. Quarrel scene=perverse orgasm / vomiting
The quarrel between lovers causes amorous anxiety, which is a kind of expenditure tiring the body as harshly as any physical labor (203).
No quarrel scene moves toward an enlightenment or transformation. It is a luxury ---and idle, as inconsequential as a perverse orgasm.
Quarrel scene is nothing less than a Roman style of vomiting----I tickle my uvula, (I rouse myself to contestation), I vomit (a flood of wounding arguments), and then, quite calmly, I begin eating again (207). I keep swallowing and regurgitating my wound. I spin, unwind and weave the lover’s case, and begin all over again (160).
H. Love letter=desire
Love letter is desire itself, because it implicitly waits for an answer, demanding the other to reply (158). The one who would continue speaking lightly and tenderly without being answered would acquire a great mastery: the mastery of the Mother (159). However, affective space contains dead spots where the sound fails to circulate. An unanswered letter equals an unrequited love, and therefore unsatisfied desire.
You are not as free as you suppose yourself to be, even in this sacred matter of love! You are not an autonomous subject creating the pattern of love. You are, in fact, subscribing to the love discourses long existing in human history. This is what Roland Barthes insists---“affective contagion” proceeds from others, from the language, books, friends. No love is original! Mass culture is a machine for showing desire.