Unpacking My Library: A Lover’s Discourse

Tuesday January 24th 2012

Am I in love? – Yes, since I’m waiting.” The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.

– Roland Barthes. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments

Venus with a Mirror by an unknown
Renaissance artist.

If you have ever been heartbroken, here is a book for you.

I’m still brushing off dust, thumbing through old pages and putting my books back on the shelf. Yesterday, I came across an old copy of the French philosopher Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. I haven’t opened it in years and I was surprised to see that I’d annotated it. 

That reminded me of what a useful book it was when I was deep in the moil and madness of love. This is not a book to read if your love life is going fine, but if it’s a disaster, use it like a crutch. Here is a precise, thoughtful anatomy of heartache written like an encyclopaedia. It’s a dissection of the inner dialogue that every lover has: Does she love me? Will he phone? When will it end?

It’s the conversation you have with the mirror when your heart is full to bursting. The book brings a little air into the torrid heat of passion.

Reading Barthes’ words on the most magical, painful human condition, being in love, was like having a very kind uncle take me by the hand and say, it’s all right, you’re not alone, I’ve been there too.

With Venus, the planet of both the lover and the beloved, in that most romantic of signs, Pisces, right now, what better notion to meditate on than love, the deepest romantic love, the kinds that overwhelms you, that sends you into the land of dreamers and poets, full of passion and anguish, pain and joy. 

But also Mars, the planet of sharp, is in Virgo, the sign of criticism, and that fits too, because Barthes slices and dices the state of being in love, analysing each nuance of emotion – jealousy, lust, despair – with a semiotician’s precision. If you are in love and it’s not going quite according to plan, this is the book to read. 

By couching his discussion of love in the language of post-modern criticism instead of poetry, Barthes reduces the pain to bearable bites. The book is divided into short discussions of particular words or phrases – to be engulfed, waiting, to hide, habit, embarrassment, magic, ravishment, union, night and so on – this recalls one particular aspect of love to me – obsession.

Here is Barthes writing about hanging on the telephone:

“.. If the other has given me this new telephone number, what was that the sign of? Was it an invitation to telephone right away, for the pleasure of the call, or only should the occasion arise, out of necessity? My answer itself will be a sign, which the other will inevitably interpret, thereby releasing, between us, a tumultuous maneuvering of images. Everything signifies: by this proposition, I entrap myself, I bind myself in calculations, I keep myself from enjoyment…”

“I bind myself in calculations”– oh the pain of it. I may be pressing A Lover’s Discourse on my next heartbroken client  (who can bear reading a French semiotician).


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