Category Archives: Barthes

The scene

The scene is like the Sentence: structurally, there is no obligation for it to stop; no internal constraint exhausts it, because, as in the Sentence, once the core is given (the fact, the decision), the expansions are infinitely renewable. Only some circumstance external to its structure can interrupt the scene: the exhaustion of the two partners (that of only one would not suffice), the arrival of a third party (in Werther, it is Albert), or else the sudden substitution of desire for aggression. Unless these accidents are employed, no partner has the power to check a scene. What means might I have? Silence? It would merely quicken the will to have the scene; I am therefore obliged to answer in order to soothe, to erase. Reasoning? None is of such pure metal as to leave the other partner without something to say. Analysis of the scene itself? To shift from the scene to the metascene merely means opening another scene. Flight? This is the sign of a defection already achieved: the couple is already undone: like love, the scene is always reciprocal. Hence, the scene is interminable, like language itself: it is language itself, taken in its infinity, that ‘perpetual adoration’ which brings matters about in such a way that since man has existed, he has not stopped talking.

– Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (tr. R. Howard)

Total

Soon (or simultaneously) the question is no longer ‘Why don’t you love me?’ but ‘Why do you only love me a little?’ How do you manage to love a little? What does that mean, loving ‘a little’? I live under the regime of too much or not enough; greedy for coincidence as I am, everything which is not total seems parsimonious; what I want is to occupy a site from which quantities are no longer perceived, and from which all accounts are banished.

– Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (tr. R. Howard)

The dark interior of love

I experience alternately two nights, one good, the other bad. To express this, I borrow a mystical distinction [from John of the Cross]: estar a oscuras (to be in the dark) can occur without there being any blame to attach, since I am deprived of the light of causes and effects; estar en tinieblas (to be in the shadows: tenebrae) happens to me when I am blinded by attachment to things and the disorder that emanates from that condition.

Most often I am in the very darkness of my desire; I know not what it takes, good itself is an evil to me, everything resounds, I live between blows, my head ringing: estoy en tinieblas. But sometimes, too, it is another Night: alone, in a posture of meditation (perhaps a role I assign myself?), I think quite calmly about the other, as the other is; I suspend any interpretation; I enter into the night of non-meaning; desire continues to vibrate (the darkness is transluminous), but there is nothing I want to grasp; this is the Night of non-profit, of subtle, invisible expenditure: estoy a oscuras: I am here, sitting simply and calmly in the dark interior of love.

– Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (trans. R. Howard)

Cut!

Humboldt calls the sign’s freedom volubility. I am (inwardly) voluble, because I cannot anchor my discourse: the signs turn ‘in free wheeling’. If I could constrain the sign, submit it to some sanction, I could find rest at last. If only we could put our minds in plaster casts, like our legs! But I cannot keep from thinking, from speaking; no director is there to interrupt the interior movie I keep making of myself, someone to shout, Cut! Volubility is a kind of specific human misery: I am language-mad: no one listens to me, no one looks at me, but (like Schubert’s organ-grinder) I go on talking, turning my hurdy-gurdy.

– Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (trans. R. Howard)

‘I am mad’

I am mad to be in love, I am not mad to be able to say so, I double my image: insane in my own eyes (I know my delirium), simply unreasonable in the eyes of someone else, to whom I quite sanely describe my madness: conscious of this madness, sustaining a discourse upon it.
[…]
   Every lover is mad, we are told. But can we imagine a madman in love? Never — I am entitled only to an impoverished, incomplete, metaphorical madness: love drives me nearly mad, but I do not communicate with the supernatural, there is nothing of the sacred within me; my madness, a mere irrationality, is dim, even invisible; besides, it is entirely recuperated by the culture: it frightens no one. (Yet it is in the amorous state that certain rational subjects suddenly realise that madness is very close at hand, quite possible: a madness in which love itself would founder.)
   For a hundred, years, (literary) madness has been thought to consist in Rimbaud’s Je est un autre: madness is an experience of depersonalisation. For me as an amorous subject, it is quite the contrary: it is becoming a subject, being unable to keep myself from doing so, which drives me mad. I am not someone else: that is what I realise with horror.

– Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (trans. R. Howard)

Under the lamp

What do I think of love? — As a matter of fact, I think nothing at all of love. I’d be glad to know what it is, but being inside, I see it in existence, not in essence. What I want to know (love) is the very substance I employ in order to speak (the lover’s discourse). Reflection is certainly permitted, but since this reflection is immediately absorbed in the mulling over of images, it never turns into reflexivity: excluded from logic (which supposes languages exterior to each other), I cannot claim to think properly. Hence, discourse on love though I may for years at a time, I cannot hope to seize the concept of it except ‘by the tail’: by flashes, formulas, surprises of expression, scattered through the great stream of the Image-repertoire; I am in love’s wrong place, which is its dazzling place: ‘The darkest place, according to a Chinese proverb, is always underneath the lamp’ (Reik).

– Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (trans. R. Howard)

Absence

Sometimes I have no difficulty enduring absence. Then I am ‘normal’: I fall in with the way ‘everyone’ endures the departure of a ‘beloved person’: I diligently obey the training by which I was very early accustomed to be separated from my mother — which nonetheless remained, at its source, a matter of suffering (not to say hysteria). I behave as a well-weaned subject; I can feed myself, meanwhile, on other things besides the maternal breast.
   This endured absence is nothing more or less than forgetfulness. I am, intermittently, unfaithful. This is the condition of my survival; for if I did not forget, I should die. The lover who doesn’t forget sometimes dies of excess, exhaustion, and tension of memory (like Werther).
[...]
   I waken out of this forgetfulness very quickly. In great haste, I reconstitute a memory, a confusion. A (classic) word comes from the body, which expresses the emotion of absence: to sigh: ‘to sigh for the bodily presence’: the two halves of the androgyne sigh for each other, as if each breath, being incomplete, sought to mingle with the other: the image of the embrace, in that it melts the two images into a single one: in amorous absence, I am, sadly, an unglued image that dries, yellows, shrivels.
   (But isn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent? Isn’t the object always absent? — This isn’t the same languor: there are two words: Pothos, desire for the absent being, and Himéros, the more burning desire for the present being.)
   Endlessly I sustain the discourse of the beloved’s absence; actually a preposterous situation; the other is absent as referent, present as allocutory. This singular distortion generates a kind of insupportable present; I am wedged between two tenses, that of the reference and that of the allocution: you have gone (which I lament), you are here (since I am addressing you). Whereupon I know what the present, that difficult tense, is: a pure portion of anxiety.
   Absence persists — I must endure it. Hence I will manipulate it: transform the distortion of time into oscillation, produce rhythm, make an entrance onto the stage of language (language is born of absence: the child has made himself a doll out of a spool, throws it away and picks it up again, miming the mother’s departure and return: a paradigm is created). Absence becomes an active practice, a business (which keeps me from doing anything else); there is a creation of a fiction which has many roles (doubts, reproaches, desires, melancholies). This staging of language postpones the other’s death: a very short interval, we are told, separates the time during which the child still believes his mother to be absent and the time during which he believes her to be already dead. To manipulate absence is to extend this interval, to delay as long as possible the moment when the other might topple sharply from absence into death.
   I take a seat, alone, in a café: people come over and speak to me; I feel that I am sought after, surrounded, flattered. But the other is absent; I invoke the other inwardly to keep me on the brink of this mundane complacency, a temptation. I appeal to the other’s ‘truth’ (the truth of which the other gives me the sensation) against the hysteria of seduction into which I feel myself slipping. I make the other’s absence responsible for my worldliness: I invoke the other’s protection, the other’s return: let the other appear, take me away, like a mother who comes looking for her child, from this worldly brilliance, from this social infatuation, let the other restore to me ‘the religious intimacy, the gravity’ of the lover’s world.
   A Buddhist koan says: ‘The master holds the disciple’s head underwater for a long, long time; gradually the bubbles become fewer; at the last moment, the master pulls the disciple out and revives him: when you have craved truth as you crave air, then you will know what truth is.’
   The absence of the other holds my head underwater; gradually I drown, my air supply gives out: it is by this asphyxia that I reconstitute my ‘truth’ and that I prepare what in love is Intractable.

– Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (trans. R. Howard)