Love has been written and sung about since our species first learned to produce language, and its effects on the emotions, the heart, the personality and the body have been studied, recorded, analysed and celebrated from the dawn of history. What interests Barthes more than these however, is the effect of love on the mind, on the intellect, specifically that part of the mind which produces language. For Barthes, love exists as an outpouring of language: “I’m so in love!” “I love you so much!”, “I love him”, “I love her” etc. Love exists, then, in its most developed form, as an ejaculation, as discourse produced by the lover, whether mental or uttered. What Barthes does is to focus on this discourse, but in such a way as to enact it rather than to analyse it.
Language is either transactional – we use it to do things - or descriptive – we use it to describe things. Either way, it is locked into one or other of these two modes. The challenge for Barthes was to liberate language from either of these two ways of being and to give language a third possibility, that of the truly declarative and expressive; a mode in which language expresses meaning not by referring to things, but by virtue of its own structure. In simple structuralist terms, ‘cat’ means cat not because of any inherent relationship between word and object, but because ‘cat’ is not ‘bat’ nor ‘car’ nor ‘cut’, and because we have agreed amongst ourselves that this pattern of sounds, this structure and no other, shall stand for this and not for something else.
In two works from 1977, Barthes attempted to apply his ideas about language to two of the most traditionally conventionalised genres: the autobiography, and the love story. In both these works he reached for a method that would empty language of its content and bring to prominence its form, its structures; to find a mode uninflected by referentiality or utility: a writing degree zero, in which writing is not about something other than itself.
A Lover’s Discourse attempts to create a discourse about love which does not merely describe love or refer to it or analyse, novelise it, but to simulate it, to dramatise it, to recreate it. As Barthes puts it: the description of the lover’s discourse has been replaced by its simulation, and to that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I, in order to stage an utterance, not an analysis. This is not an analysis of love, but a staged utterance. We are to read it as the unmediated thoughts – discourse – of the lover himself.
In attempting to liberate language from its two constraining modes, Barthes has created a highly original structure. Taking as its model the dictionary – another work in which language is not about anything other than itself – the book consists of 80 fragments, each consisting of four elements or layers.
The first layer is what Barthes calls the figure, a gesture, to which all the other elements in the fragment point: No Answer. The second layer is a headword: mutisme/silence, and it is under these headwords that the fragments are arranged alphabetically. The third layer is a sentence which defines the headword and the figure: the amorous subject suffers anxiety because the loved object replies scantily or not at all to his language (discourse or letters). The fourth layer then gives a series of numbered aphorisms in the style of Nietzsche, which in different ways comment on, develop, contradict or exemplify the figure. There is thus a movement within each entry of all the major elements of language: from the phrase and the word, through to the sentence and the aphorism, and ultimately to the text itself.
By organizing the entries in alphabetical order, Barthes avoids the pitfall of editorializing – the arrangement of fragments into some order determined by something outside language, something resembling a narrative arc or personal experience, or more artistic considerations such as pitch or pace. At the same time he also avoids an extra-linguistic ordering according to coincidence or chronology. The alphabet is an ordering system that belongs to language itself. An alphabetical ordering, therefore, maintains the formal purity of the language.
Because language in its purist essence is a structure that only has meaning by reference to itself, each entry includes references to other stretches of language on love, to conversations with friends and lovers, to the great works of European literature on love: The Sorrows of Young Werther, the Symposium, Stendahl’s De l’Amour, Freud, Lacan, Proust and so on. The use Barthes makes of these quotations and the way he illuminates them are one of the highlights of the work. (The only weakness, if we may permit ourselves to be critical of a work so full of wisdom and beauty, is the complete absence of any reference to Shakespeare, surely the wisest and most comprehensive teacher of love in European literature.)
Everywhere, Barthes focuses on the relationship between love and language, the discourse of love. Some examples. Here he is on I-love-you:
I-love-you is without nuance. It suppresses explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples. In a way – exorbitant paradox of language – to say I-love-you is to proceed as if there were no theatre of speech, and this word is always true, has no other referent than its utterance: it is a performative.
On the scene, or lovers’ quarrel:
It is characteristic of the individual remarks in a scene to have no demonstrative, persuasive end, but only an origin and this origin is never anything but immediate: in the scene I cling to what has just been said.
Or on the way we cover the loved being in language in trying to pinpoint exactly what it is we love about that person:
Industrious, indefatigable, the language machine humming inside me – for it runs nicely- fabricates its chain of adjectives. I cover the other with adjectives, I string out his qualities, his qualitas.
Or the meaning of the lovers tautology: “You are adorable because you are adorable, I love you because I love you.”:
Is not tautology that preposterous state in which are to be found, all values being confounded, the glorious end of the logical operation, the obscenity of stupidity, and the explosion of the Nietzschean yes?
In passing, Barthes occasionally drops these shattering epigrams, as if they have no meaning, no significance, no importance:
Orgasm is not spoken, but it speaks, and it says I-love-you.
Cannot friendship be defined as a space with total sonority?
The third person pronoun is a wicked pronoun: it is the pronoun of the non-person, it absents, it annuls.
Since man has existed he has not stopped talking.
Now, in case this sounds like the laying of the dead hand of structuralism on the living pulse of a poetic emotion; if it sounds dry and intellectual, let me assure you that it is anything but. The book is beautiful, playful, full of arresting insights, new ideas, lyrical and tender, witty, sympathetic, moving, sensual, joyous. In short, it is everything you would expect a book about love to be. And if one reads it when one is in love, truthful and accurate to a powerful degree.
The word is not the thing, but a flash in whose light we perceive the thing.