My attempt to compile a lonely archive out of my dissertation readings has led me back to an unexpected text, Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (Trans. Richard Howard, 1978). Initially, I turned to Barthes in order to mark and gloss his entry for seul/alone, but once inside the lover’s discourse, I became captive and captivated again. So I have begun tracing the solitude and aloneness of the lover within Barthes’s discourse. The text, in fact, opens with Barthes’s claim that “The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.” Whether this solitude tracks an actual affect of loneliness in love remains to be seen, but Barthes’s text offers what appears to be a catalog of lonely times in the life of love. The problem, of course, is that the moments of solitude and “aloneness” occurring in Barthes’s figures may not actually be expressive of an affect of loneliness. In sorting through some of the most prominent figures of the lover alone, I hope to uncover where Barthes may be revealing a lonely lover.
The text is organized around figures, moments in the life of the lover’s desire for the other, arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically. In this way, the induction to love occurs well over half-way through the text and follows “exil/exile”, which describes the lover giving up on – in fact, losing – the lover’s discourse, in the order of entries, and Barthes’s longer description of encounter “rencontre/encounter” appear quite near the end. What this structure does, according to Barthes, is two-fold. First, it mirrors the way that figures appear and acquire signification for the lover. Barthes writes, “No logic links the figures, determines their contiguity: the figures are non-syntagmatic, non-narrative; they are Erinyes; they stir, collide, subside, return, vanish with no more order than the flight of mosquitoes.” Second, the figures are distributional, by which Barthes means that they operate on the same level: “its figures cannot be classified: organized, hierarchized, arranged with a view to an end (a settlement): there are no first figures, no last figures.” In other words, I am already in error to describe the induction and exile as situated oddly and in reverse order near the middle of the text, for they occur throughout the lover’s discourse in bursts and fits.
Reading the text can be a jarring experience initially – especially for one not accustomed to the aphoristic style and dense intertextuality. One through-line is simply to track the narrative of a love affair in order to maintain some footing throughout the structure of the fragments. Another way to through, though, is to keep in mind that for all of its despair, longing, and anxiety, The Lover’s Discourse ultimate affirms the value of love and may even call for a kind of transmutation of love’s perceived preoccupation with possession and narcissism. In her introduction to the Roland Barthes Reader, Susan Sontag provides some useful guidance on this second front writing that Barthes’s view of love “seems fairly platonic after all.” Referring to a passage from the figure “comprendre/to understand”, Sontag explains, “The monologue of A Lover’s Discourse, which obviously draws on a story of disappointment in love, ends in a spiritual vision in the classic Platonic way, in which lower loves are transmuted into higher, more inclusive ones. Barthes avows that he ‘wants to unmask, no longer to interpret, but to make of consciousness itself a drug, and thus accede to a vision of irreducible reality, to the great drama of clarity, to prophetic love.'” There is clearly something to this view despite Barthes’s repeated claims that the lover’s discourse is monological, maniacal, and deeply solipsistic. He returns to these notions of love like a madness, a trauma, or a psychosis, but he also confirms the value of love. He writes, “Despite the difficulties of my story, despite discomforts, doubts, despairs, despite impulses to be done with it, I unceasingly affirm love, within myself, as a value.” As Michael Moriarty points out, “Love has a mystical quality for Barthes, because it is an utterly unique mode of being: as an affirmation, in spite of everything, it is an authentic will to power, but one that has no connection with power in the ordinary sense, because of its very marginality, because it cannot be collectivized, because – outside the relationship at any rate – it does not seek possession or domination; and even within the relationship it can – perhaps – achieve some escape from the desire to appropriate the other person.”***
Not only does it help to read the text as if it were the love story Barthes proclaims it not to be – identifying where in the amorous narrative the figure might most likely appear – it is also impossible for a reader who has been caught as one of these figures not to be seduced into becoming the one speaking the lover’s discourse.* The invitation to do so is inscribed in the opening pages, where Barthes begins (t)his long monologue, “So it is a lover who speaks and who says:” With those words, Barthes invites the reader/lover to (mis)identify themself in the lover’s discourse.
What follows here is less of a response to my re-reading of Barthes’s text than a series of signposts for thinking about this monologue of the lover and the forms of extreme solitude it expresses. At a general level, I am curious about how solitude, “aloneness”, and loneliness are configured within and around romantic love, sexual desire, or amorous attachment. More specifically, though, I am drawn by Barthes’s claim that each figure “bears within it the terror of a suspense.” He writes that the figures “remain suspended: they utter the affect, then break off, their role is filled.” In their suspension, though, there is also a performative effect, and we see this throughout Barthes’s figures. The figure wearing dark glasses in “cacher/to hide” demonstrates this through their paradoxical performance:
“Yet to hide a passion totally (or even to hide, more simply, its excess) is inconceivable: not because the human subject is too weak, but because passion is in essence made to be seen: hiding must be seen: I want you to know that I am hiding something from you, that is the active paradox I must resolve: at one and the same time it must be known and not known: I want you to know that I don’t want to show my feelings: that is the message I address to the other.”
And so Barthes imagines the lover having wept and putting on dark glasses in order to conceal their swollen eyes, “to keep the moral advantage of stoicism, of ‘dignity'”, but simultaneously and contradictorily to draw attention to themself and hopefully provoke the loved one into inquiring about them. Barthes says that this is a risk, a gamble that the loved one will respond and will respond in a way that matches the lover’s desire for their response. But the lover’s discourse does not account for that response – only the performance and the anticipation of the loved one’s arrival. The reader, like the lover, is suspended in this moment of donning the dark glasses. This suspension is partly why Barthes describes lover’s discourse as one of extreme solitude, but I wonder whether and when that solitude might also track the lover’s loneliness.
Perhaps, loneliness is tied to loss and catastrophe. Barthes describes “catastrophe/catastrophe” as a “violent crisis during which the subject, experiencing the amorous situation as a definitive impasse, a trap from which he can never escape, sees himself doomed to total destruction.” Total destruction could certainly be a lonely place. At the outset of the fragment he describes what he calls “two systems of despair”:
“gentle despair, active resignation (“I love you as one must love, in despair”), and violent despair: one day, after some incident, I shut myself in my room and burst into sobs: I am carried away by a powerful tide, asphyxiated with pain; my whole body stiffens and convulses: I see, in a sharp, cold flash, the destruction to which I am doomed. No relation to the insidious and ‘civilized’ depression of amours difficiles; no relation to the fear and trembling of the abandoned subject. This is clear as a catastrophe: ‘I’m done for!’“
Many may relate to this scene of the forlorn lover closeted away and violently sobbing (perhaps medievally swooning). Perhaps you even have a playlist for the asphyxiating, convulsive pain of knowing, “It’s over! It’s all over!” But Barthes compares it to a extreme situation that I do not have the bravado to repeat. Instead, what interests me is his description of this amorous catastrophe as a panic situation. He describes these as, “situations without remainder, without return: I have projected myself into the other with such power that when I am without the other I cannot recover myself, regain myself: I am lost, forever.” As the beginning of love is the discovery “in the other another myself: You like this? So do I! You don’t like that? Neither do I!” So the end of amorous time reveals a lover lost even to themself, annihilated by the discourse of love and its affirmation. Cataloguing the endings of amorous time, he lists several lonely scenes: “suicide, abandonment, disaffection, withdrawal, monastery, travel, etc.” The lover is often described as de trop. In my favorite bit of love-as-solitude Barthes recalls a child’s game:
“Game: there were as many chairs as children, minus one; while the children marched around, a lady pounded on a piano; when she stopped, everyone dashed for a chair and sat down, except the clumsiest, the least brutal, or the unluckiest, who remained standing, stupid, de trop: the lover.”
The lover is too much. But being the one-too-many is the only way the game works. Its structure depends on it. To play the game as it is done in this clip from the Simpson’s would be tantamount to narcissism. Still, to be the one-too-many is to accept that at some point (like, when the music stops) you will not belong to a system, you will be in the solitude of all those others who have also been de trop and maybe felt like you do but cannot possibly know what you are feeling. This, too, its own subtle catastrophe.
“No clergyman attended”: the final words in Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the story of a young man’s suicide provoked by unrequited love, provide the heading for seul/alone. Goethe’s novel makes frequent appearances in A Lover’s Discourse, and in the figure of the lover alone, Barthes turns us from Goethe’s Werther, to Plato’s Symposium, to musings about the medieval mystic, and finally to a selection from the Tao Te Ching. In his commentary contrasting the scene in the Symposium with the plight of the modern lover, Barthes writes:
“The eccentricity of the conversation derives from the fact that this conversation is systematic: what the guests try to produce are not proved remarks, accounts of experiences, but a doctrine: for each of them, Eros is a system. Today, however, there is no system of love: and the several systems which surround the contemporary lover offer him no room (except for an extremely devaluated place): turn as he will toward one or another of the received languages, none answers him, except in order to turn him away from what he loves.”
If the extreme solitude of the figures is partially a function of their suspension – their status as figures as an image of the lover’s body caught in motion rather than in the rhetorical sense of the term – here, we see that this solitude is also systematic. Modern love exists outside of any larger system for understanding and has no outlet for the kind of love it wishes to speak. Christianity prompts the lover to sublimate, psychoanalysis informs the lover that his beloved is already lost in a web of signs and transference, and Marxism, Barthes writes, “has nothing to say” on the subject. He continues:
“The lover’s solitude is not a solitude of person (love confides, speaks, tells itself), it is a solitude of system: I am alone in making a system out of it (perhaps because I am ceaselessly flung back on the solipsism of my discourse). A difficult paradox: I can be understood by everyone (love comes from books, its dialect is a common one), but I can be heard (received ‘prophetically’) only by subjects who have exactly and right now the same language I have. Lovers, Alcibiades says, are like those a viper has bitten: ‘They are unwilling, it is said, to speak of their misfortune to anyone except those who have been victims of it as well, as being the only ones in a position to conceive and to excuse all they have dared to say and do in the throes of their pain.”
The paradox of the lover’s confession mirrors the paradox of the lover’s identity. Once we recognize the figures in the lover’s discourse, we become the figure in that discourse rather than one who might answer back to the lover – as a friend, a confessor, a co-conspirator, a counselor, or even an affirmation.*** But the lover’s discourse is also one of extreme solitude because it is a misfit: it neither conforms to the dicta of the world nor challenges them. In this way, Barthes compares the subjectivity of the lover to that of the early mystic:
“Like the early mystic, scarcely tolerated by ecclesiastical society in which he lived, as an amorous subject I neither confront nor contest: quite simply, I have no dialogue: with the instruments of power, of thought, of knowledge, of action, etc.; I am not necessarily ‘depoliticized’: my deviation consists in not being ‘excited.’ In return, society subjects me to a strange, public repression: no censure, no prohibition: I am merely suspended a humanis, far from human things, by a tacit decree of insignificance: I belong to no repertoire, participate in no asylum.”
Barthes’s claim that the lover is simply unrecognized within modern systems finds its fullest expression in a borrowing from the Tae Te Ching, where the “aloneness” of the lover is clearly stated.
Why I am alone:
‘Every man has his wealth,
I alone appear impoverished.
My mind is that of an ignorant man
because it is very slow.
Every man is clear-sighted,
I alone am in darkness.
Every man has a sharp wit,
I alone have a clouded mind
Which floats with the sea, blows with the wind.
Every man has his goal,
I alone have the dull mind of a peasant.
I alone am different from other men,
For I seek to suckle at my Mother’s breast.”
Tao Te Ching
Barthes offers no gloss for this selection, but the images align so nearly with his own figures so as not to demand much more comment.^ But it is worthwhile to recognize in the selection Sontag’s note about how Barthes “enlists ideas in a drama, often a sensual melodrama or a faintly Gothic one.” She writes, “He speaks of the quiver, thrill, or shudder of meaning, of meanings that themselves vibrate, gather, loosen, disperse, quicken, shine, fold, mutate, delay, slide, separate, that exert pressure, crack, rupture, fissure, are pulverized. Barthes offers something like a poetics of thinking, which identifies the meaning of subjects with the very mobility of meaning, with the kinetics of consciousness itself; and liberates the critic as artist.”^^ We can track the mobility of this solitary lover along with their dull mind, which expresses a passivity in its slow movement: “floats with the sea, blows with the wind.”
Elsewhere, the activity of the lover is described in equally contradictory terms of movement and (in)action. One of my favorite threads throughout A Lover’s Discourse is Barthes’s insistence that the lover is fundamentally one who waits (in anticipation, in anxiety, in despair, in glee, etc.). “The lover’s fatal identity,” he writes, “is precisely: I am the one who waits.” The waiting lover is a scene of immense contradiction in terms of solitude/aloneness/loneliness, and Barthe’s “scenography of waiting” sets these out so nicely while also showing how incredibly mobile and active the waiting can be. He writes:
“There is a scenography of waiting: I organize it, manipulate it, cut out a portion of time in which I shall mime the loss of the loved object and provoke all the effects of a minor mourning. This is then acted out as a play.
The setting represents the interior of a café; we have a rendezvous, I am waiting. In the Prologue, the sole actor of the play (and with reason), I discern and indicate the other’s delay; this delay is as yet only a mathematical, computable entity (I look at my watch several times); the Prologue ends with a brainstorm: I decide to ‘take it badly,’ I release the anxiety of waiting. ACT I now begins; it is occupied by suppositions: was there a misunderstanding as to the time, the place? I try to recall the moment when the rendezvous was made, the details which were supplied. What is to be done (anxiety of behavior)? Try another café? Telephone? But if the other comes during these absences? Not seeing me, the other might leave, etc. ACT II is the act of anger; I address violent reproaches to the absent one: ‘All the same, he (she) could have…” “He (she) knows perfectly well…” Oh, if she (he) could be here, so that I could reproach her (him) for not being here! In Act III, I attain to (I obtain?) anxiety in the pure state: the anxiety of abandonment; I have just shifted in a second from absence to death; the other is as if dead: explosion of grief: I am internally livid. That is the play; it can be shortened by the other’s arrival; if the other arrives in ACT I, the greeting is calm; if the other arrives in ACT II, there is a ‘scene’; if in ACT III, there is recognition, the action of grace: I breathe deeply, like Pelléas emerging from the underground chambers and rediscovering life, the odor of roses.”
I love this scenography because of its evocations of affect and how thought is the thing that supplies all of the action while the other is absent and the lover remains waiting. “Waiting,” Barthes continues later, “is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move.” But we see clearly how the lover – motionless- remains so active. In another section Barthes describes all of the wasted activities of anxiety: the lover who waiting for a phone call cleans their apartment or re-arranges the bookshelves. It is a kind of violation of waiting, the command of the enchantment, but what is the lover to do other than give themself to the anxiety. In an earlier figure Barthes describes both sides of this relation of waiting: “The other is in a condition of perpetual departure, of journeying; the other is, by vocation, migrant, fugitive; I – I who love, by converse vocation, am sedentary, motionless, at hand, in expectation, nailed to the spot, in suspense.” The suspense of the lover waiting is riddled with both action and potential affect. It is a scene of one waiting alone, but depending on the scene, it may not necessarily be a scene of loneliness.
Loneliness does not have its own figure. The lover alone and the lover waiting may be as close as we come with the exception of this final anecdote about a mandarin who fell in love with a courtesan: “‘I shall be yours,’ she told him, ‘when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.’ But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away.” While the courtesan is the one who issues the command, marking the mandarin as lover, one must wonder whether both were not, in fact, waiting and whether that waiting – so near the one-to-be-loved – was not the loneliest of times.
*Matt Ortile offers a playful and enjoyable reading of just such a self-identification in “Why I Ended a Perfectly Fine Relationship.”
**Sontag, Susan. Introduction. A Barthes Reader, Hill and Wang, 1982, xxxiv.
***Moriarty, Michael. Roland Barthes, Stanford University Press, 1991.
****Affirmation is a loaded word in Barthes late writings, coming out of his readings of Nietzsche and filtered through Deleuze, where to affirm is always to affirm one’s difference. On this point, see Moriarty, Roland Barthes.
^The maternal image – especially as it relates to nursing – recurs throughout the text as well. It is one more reminder that the Image-repertoire is not only an unsustainable attempt at replacement and recovery, it is also one that has always already been lost. The maternal image in Barthes’s writing is also interesting because it informs so much of Barthes’s work. As François Dosse writes that Barthes overinvested in the maternal image. Writing about Barthes’s role in the development of structuralism, he quips that “it is useful to juxtapose the mother figure he incarnated with its binary other, structuralism’s sever father figure: Jacques Lacan” (v.I, 72). For his part, Barthes said in a 1977 interview, “We always simulate in the affective relationship, whether amicable or amorous, a certain maternal spaces that is a secure place, the space of a gift.”
Dosse. The History of Structruralism, Trans. Deborah Glassman, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
^^^A final fragment that was ultimately cut from the main body:
“The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” Shakespeare’s Theseus pronounces near the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but they could just as well have found their way into Barthes’s intertextual practice. One more passage that seems to bring the lover’s loneliness to the fore appears at the end of the figure “circonscrire/to circumscribe”:
“This is a lunatic project, for the Image-repertoire is precisely defined by its coalescence (its adhesiveness), or again: its power of association: nothing in the image can be forgotten; an exhausting memory forbids voluntarily escaping love; in short, forbids inhabiting it discreetly, reasonably. I can certainly imagine procedures to obtain the circumscription of my pleasures … but it is a waste of effort: the amorous glue is indissoluble; one must either submit or cut loose: accommodation is impossible (love is neither dialectical nor reformist).
(A melancholy version of the circumscription of pleasures: my life is a ruin: some things remain in place, others are dissolved, collapsed: this is dilapidation, wreckage.)”
Melancholia is also the figure for the pensive, the saturnilian sign. The ruin, the wreckage, and the relic are also fragments: monuments to memory and remainders that can be de trop themselves.