A Lover's Discourse

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Is this the same Roland Barthes who proselytized a dry, cold-blooded style in Writing Degree Zero? Is this the remote guru of semiology and structuralist rhetoric who announced the demise of the autonomous ego? This latest book by the Frenchman picking up the intellectual torch long carried by Sartre represents an unabashed shift towards a patently sensuous subject (in the sense of topic and psychology) and style.

Barthes couches his new orientation in a method honed in The Pleasure of the Text (1975) and Roland Barthes (1977): an alphabetical organization of fragments, introduced here by a prefatory guide, the first section of which explains the necessity for the book. The next outlines its format, presenting three subheadings: figures, order, and references. Each of the eighty fragments has as its subject a figure (whose first letter relegates its position in the whole) ranging from “to be engulfed” (s’abîmer) to “will-to-possess” (vouloirsaisir). Central and longest among the figures (including Adorable, Waiting, To Write, Gradiva, Scene, and Suicide) stands I-Love-You. Barthes claims not to use “figure” rhetorically—although many figures seem to be rhetorical tropes as well as dramatic stances—but in a “gymnastic” or a “choreographic” sense. He compares the lover to an athlete, an orator, or a statue; the “figure,” an economical affective articulation, he maintains, is the “lover at work.”

Every fragment contains a “figure,” briefly defined, preceded by a title not always identical with it (the title of “To Hide” is “Dark Glasses”), and followed by a text composed of from two to ten numbered paragraphs which bespeak a point (the sentimentality of love is today discredited and is the obscene in love); clarify a word as used in the context of this discourse (“Objects” are objects touched by the beloved); or identify a lover’s experience (when the love affair is over, the lover continues to be anguished by a telephone that does not ring, like an amputee pained by his missing leg).

The “order” of this book is not, Barthes counsels, dialectical, but circular. The fragments refuse to form a syntagmatic chain, refuse to become a “story.” If miscellany rules their arrangement by the arbitrary choice of nomination and alphabetizing, it also prescribes their content, which treats literature, psychoanalysis, music, personal experiences, and history. Their tone varies from anecdotal to aphoristic to argumentative to contemplative.

Third, Barthes categorizes his “references.” That paragon of the Romantic novel, Goethe’s eighteenth century The Sorrows of Young Werther, is most frequently cited. The modern philosopher clearly identifies with the lacrymose hero. Further sources include Plato, Zen, Freud, and Lacan, Christian mystics, Nietzsche, and Schubert. Barthes’ more casual reading occasions the references to (among others) Proust, Flaubert, Gide, Mann, Balzac, and Racine. More personally, demure initials correspond to conversations with friends. With a bow to Renaissance printing, Barthes patterned a wide left margin, enabling the source to be cited directly alongside the borrowing. Footnotes often elaborate with quotations; and a Tabula Gratulatoria concludes the book. Barthes does not mention works of others in order to substantiate his own writing. His sources lose this vestment of authority, reborn as elements of the lover’s discourse. Last but not least, the author’s life infiltrates this telling which is not a story.

The final prefatory statement announces, “So it is a lover who speaks and who says,” emphasizing the discourse, not the lover. Barthes’ shift in orientation does not imply one in fundamental interest. His three recent books’s concern with pleasure, self, and love notwithstanding, Barthes’ “lover” utters such phrases as “I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” For this lover, “orgasm . . . speaks and it says: I-love-you.” He can “fall in love with a sentence” and feels compelled (after Lacan) to identify “I-love-you” as a “holophrase.” He thrills to phonic, syntactic, and narrative voluptousness. Not the average lover this.

It would be unfair and unproductive to reproach Barthes for simulating a lover quite like...

(The entire section is 1834 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Book World. October 29, 1978, p. E6.

Booklist. LXXV, September 1, 1978, p. 15.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, June 15, 1978, p. 669.

Library Journal. CIII, August, 1978, p. 1510.

New Leader. LXI, October 23, 1978, p. 14.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, July 10, 1978, p. 123.