Owning Roland Barthes

 #151 of 2011 • A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes, translated from the French by Richard Howard. Published by Hill & Wang.


* * *




Two of my friends are currently reading Roland Barthes. One keeps hurling invectives at the page. The other, whom I see almost every day, likes to send out snippets on Twitter, professing her endless love for Barthes’ words, swearing against life itself that this book is hers, it knows her, no other writer could come close to what she tries, in vain, to say about love. This friend asks me, “You remember what he said about absence?” And I itch to rid of the conversation, of her questions, of her testimonials about how fated she and this book are. She offers, “It’s so hard to talk about, no? It’s so personal.” And I itch to rid of the conversation. I think her unworthy, I think her views unworthy, I think her identification with my words unworthy. I think anyone undeserving of this book. I think of everyone who comes to A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments as an intruder to my love affair with it, its captivation of me, my willing enslavement to it. I have known this for four and a half years, perhaps felt it for longer: A Lover’s Discourse is mine.


From the outset, Barthes establishes that “the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.” I deliberately misunderstand today. [Later on, perhaps, perhaps below, I will tell you about how, in loving, I feel myself essentially alone, regardless of words exchanged with another, regardless of having memorized the surprising softness of the skin of the small of his back.] Today, and most days: No one understands, no one will. These words are mine, and mine alone. This is my solitude, and I revel in the possession.



To try to write about love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive subversion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).

When I was seventeen, I loved a man nearly twice my age. (And I still do, yes, I suppose.) We met at a seaside town noted for its cheap beer, its enchantment of strangers, how it cradled the possibilities for writers who want to be more. I was a workshop fellow for Fiction, and the weekend before this three-week sojourn, I wrote in my journal, “I want to kiss someone this summer.” He was a workshop fellow for Poetry. His first piece, a poem about a man named Odd, but poetry was beyond me, and I looked away when the old writers asked us what we thought. My first piece was about a woman who found her brother dead. I do not remember much of it now. I do remember one of the panelists saying, “You do not know what you want to do to these people.”

Two weeks later, in an island off this island, I used his shampoo and we tried not to love in a roomful of people in slumber. He cradled me to his side—my head on the space where shoulder met chest, my hand low on his ribs, my legs tucked beneath his. (To this day, we sleep this way.) He kissed me once, twice, but I thought he had been mistaken.

Three weeks later, I kept silent as other women fawned over him, sweeping hands across his back in bold strokes. Once, he stood from a drinking table and took me with him. “Your eyes. Damn it, those eyes. The length of the room.” I flinched from the clichés he was ready to release, but I nodded, I did.

The end of the three weeks, one of the old writers said of my work, of me, “She is enamored by the secrets of sex, nothing more. She is seventeen.”



Barthes: “Besides intercourse (when the Image-repertoire goes to the devil), there is that other embrace, which is a motionless cradling: we are enchanted, bewitched: we are in the realm of sleep, without sleeping; we are within the voluptuous infantilism of sleepiness: this is the moment for telling stories, the moment of the voice which takes me, siderites me, this is the return to the mother (“in the loving calm of your arms,” says a poem set to music by Duparc). In this companionable incest, everything is suspended: time, law, prohibition: nothing is exhausted, nothing is wanted: all desires are abolished, for they seem definitively fulfilled.



Barthes admits, “. . . my language will always fumble, stammer in order to attempt to express it.” It is a humbling confession. Right now, I want to turn back. Keep what has so far managed to be kept secret still a secret. But I have not talked about this for so long. If Barthes fails to draw these stories out, who will? If I refuse Barthes?



One of the old writers met with my architect, my painter, my poet—to rid of the risk of professing my love too much, let us call him P. One of the old writers met with P., gave him a book. This same writer who accused me of directionless curiosity. P. came home with a book, moss green, wrapped in plastic. He said, “This is about love. I will have to give it back soon.”

Sometimes I could not be in that room with him, that room with the picture windows shrouded in cut tarpaulin. Someone else had my rights.

Once, I was waiting, and I took the book with him. At the back cover, a picture of a man, deep-set eyes, black eyebrows, white sweep of hair. In a café, pen held aloft, I would read a passage I will come to own:

‘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.

I read. I resumed my waiting. But I felt those words lying in wait inside me, ready to be hurled, ready to be chanted, ready to be kept deeper—in a car that would soon drive up, in a bedroom whose one window was hidden, in a bed whose sheets I had long insisted be replaced.



My grandfather—my father for ten years, but, ah, that is another story—my grandfather lived miles and seas away. His heart had failed but they tried to make it new. “I want to give you a gift,” he told me. The static on the line. I thought of him swathed in gauze and blankets on a hospital beds. I said, “There is one book I need to have.”

Later, an aunt-messenger came home and handed me a book. Its moss green cover. That man in black-and-white on the back. The lover’s fatal identity, I read. My aunt, who’d tended to my grandfather, told me, “The day after he was released from the hospital, he went to all the bookstores in the area. Hunted this one down. Nothing. A long drive to Borders, and there it was, alone. Waiting. He took it. He gives you his love.”


* * *




In the next four and a half years, I would return to this book, reacquaint myself with fragments already familiar, known by heart. [That phrase, to know by heart!] The marginalia would add up, I found myself wanting of space to write in. Some days, I read only what I wrote. Such nakedness on the page, such unabashed longing for what I ought to have already convinced myself that I have. Dated three years ago: I no longer feel you here. Dated two years ago: Too many kisses I have imagined. Dated one year ago: I am weighed by your pain. Dated three months ago, a rebuke to my once-fervent testimonials: You were such a child, Sasha.

I find myself orchestrating deliberate upheavals. I am not four and a half years the wiser, I am sure, but I feel my heart has extended itself, parts of it grown withered. Barthes dissuades meaning; he encourages one to build on foundations: “. . . to let it be understood that there was no question of a love story (or of the history of a love), to discourage the temptation of meaning.” But how can he lie blind to the fact that when love is at stake, the reader insists on interpretation? How can we stop at the possibility of universality, Barthes, when you know you wrote this for me?

What we have been able to say below about waiting, anxiety, memory is no more than a modest supplement offered to the reader to be made free with, to be added to, subtracted from, and passed on to others . . .

Yes, you have allowed me to build, but you have given me vindication. I think about yellow lights dimming in bars and look across tables—the length of the room—and I recall you. I go home to you and read your story and I echo your story as I have echoed it these past four and a half years, and I echo your stories but I read my stories and it is, a struggle to not cross them out, and so I add little arrow-tails and scribble rewritings, re-crafting, over and over.



Language is a skin: 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.

A year ago, P. and I found a new edition of the book—a new something to own—during a joint venture into a bookstore. “Buy it for me,” he said, “You already have one for yourself.” I wonder, until now, how this book must feel in his hands, calloused, paint-stained.



I have only lent my moss-green copy to two people, and one of them is P. Does he understand—does that other man I once imagined I loved [Oh, Sasha, you were such a child!]—do they understand that when I surrender this book, that surrender is a moment in itself? Did I understand then that I was trying to craft a shared story? Is it fair to use this as a measure? To dare ask them about that footnote, after asking for [wanting] a kiss? Or anyone for that matter? Did you notice? Do you see this? Diderot: “Bring your lips to mine / so that out of my mouth / my soul may pass into yours” (Chanson dans le goût de la romance). Did it make you flutter, dammit?


[Four and a half years ago, I should have known that you hold no prophecies, no, only bad omens. Glorious, celebrated omens of the tragedy of loving—regardless of it being requited. Regardless of it being wrong, right, settled.]

Journal of reverberations (of my words, my joys, my rationalizations, my impulses): who would understand anything in that? Only the Other could write my love story, my novel.

But I can’t trust him to. Don’t you see? This is what I have come to known: My love story is mine, to create and recreate, to destroy, to hide, to wield—as I see fit. My copy of A Lover’s Discourse has become a depository of confessions and aches and angers. And, yes, of course, of love. I cannot risk sharing my “reverberations” to the people I need to love. There is too much at stake. Dissonance will hurt me. My truths could wound the other, or, worst, not.

This entire unwieldy, near-incoherent, schmaltz-ass of a post? This is nothing. But this is the most exhausted I’ve been, and this is all I could do. I say all these, I share snippets, I tell stories—but I have never handed over my book with all its reverberations to anyone. I let it go once, twice, when the margins were pristine. When all it stood for was “the temptation of meaning.” I cannot let it go now. I cannot let anyone trace the evolution of my heart, perhaps the natural progression—the plateau? the decline? the plateau yet again?—of a love story. There is too much at stake.



I remember spying P. copying this passage to his tattered notebook: “(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.)” And the rush, the joy, the relief, of discovering that he loved the same words I did! Oh, the vindication, the hoping. The slice of disturbed air as I righted the notebook upon hearing him enter the room.


This is what I propose: We run to the bookstores and rescue Roland Barthes. We hate other people for rescuing Roland Barthes, but that’s okay—by the time the selfishness and the greed and the possessiveness rise up, we would have already made love to this book’s margins, we have already held it close to our chests. We keep it in our bags for two years, taking it out while waiting, or at night, alone—or, in a careless betrayal: when the other is asleep. We write, we croon to it. We face all the ugly bits and all the beautiful bits—and there are so very many of them. And we cry sometimes, because we are lonely. And we cry sometimes because the other is asleep and you want to wake him up and read him two pages, three. And we cry sometimes because it is not fair to love the way we do; it is not fair for Barthes to show us how raw we are when we love. And how right he is. And how beautiful the words are and how they make us cry and how they make us love and how they make us want to hate. And we cry for our incoherence, and we cry when we realize that is all there is to it: Your words stolen in the confrontation with this book, your solitude underscored and celebrated in turning leaves.

We hurl invectives at its pages. We love until we’re husks, and then we write about it. And then we write about it some more. And then we read on, and then we read on some more, one more time, and once again.



Barthes asks, “Who will write the history of tears?” What else do I have to lose by admitting now that I might just dare attempt it?

7 thoughts on “Owning Roland Barthes

  1. [Calming myself] [Smoothing my skirt] [Fixing the bob that is my hair] Ehem. I read your tweet at an ungodly hour of 5AM, my consciousness barely in reality, and I was was itching to get my hands on the computer to see what words did you hurl at me in this post. Much love, Sasha. Perhaps, we could think of it this way: Barthes is living in multiple realities, swooning, making love, and hurting countless lovers at the same way. Think Jet Li, in The One. Heh. No, I am not giving up that part where I claim that this book is mine as is yours.

    Love, the friend who is almost always the Other Lover.

    1. Thank you so much, that really means a lot to me.

      And I think I understand feeling like you can’t bear to open this Barthes again–I’ve faltered many times too, especially when reading my marginalia of years ago, talking so very haplessly of love [and knowing that you might just add a scathing retort to your younger self]. But I am glad you plan to read it again. Forgive me for more schmaltz, but I hope it will be rewarding for you, despite–perhaps because of?–what hurting you may encounter.

      1. I came across a quote the other day byut I was having ISP problems with connection. The quote was from Rand’s Fountainhead when Dominique reads books once, then never again, and can’t stand the thought of anyone else reading such beautiful words and defiling them with their reading.Of course I thought of you.

        No page. But it must be early in the book when she is writing about Dominique.

  2. I wish you would write more not just about books but about the life they illumine. I’ve always found you beautiful and this post is a vindication.

  3. You write so beautifully Sasha. I want to pick up this book and read but I’m not sure if my heart is in the right place. I think you need to be in love to read this.


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