How to love better — Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
I originally published a piece about this incredible book one year ago today. It’s been instrumental in helping me learn how to love better; less selfishly; and more completely.
In the slim volume of A Lover’s Discourse, French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes attempts to deconstruct one of the most powerful of human experiences: that of falling in love.
Barthes claims that modern society lacks a language with which to discuss love — a notable change from times past in which it was the sexual, rather than the emotional aspects of love that were considered taboo. This should concern us as, without a system with which to analyse and interpret amorous experience, we are left to practice an unhealthy and unreflective form of love, which can do immense damage to all the parties involved.
The stakes are particularly high: when tended properly, love can blossom into a deep and lasting contentment, or become a source of inexhaustible energy and inspiration. If mistreated, however, love can become a source of intense psychological pain, the cause of suicide, or of wounds so deep that it may leave one permanently disfigured.
As the Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn once put it: “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”
Barthes goal, therefore, is to make love utterable and intelligible once more. In A Lover’s Discourse he seeks to provide readers with ways that they can reflect upon and analyse their own experiences, and so learn to love better.
As a forerunner of post-structuralism, Barthes approach to this task is rather unique. The book is comprised of a number of “fragments”, each a sketch of a particular experience from the point of view of the lover-protagonist — say, the blissful feeling of lying in the arms of a loved one, or the anxiety and seeming suspension of time that accompanies the wait for a lover’s phone call.
After each scene is constructed, Barthes subjects it to a battery of intense deconstructions, bouncing between philosophical, psychological and linguistic perspectives to mine each for insight. This technique can come across as both relentless and stream-of-consciousness, but in such powerful hands, there can be no doubt as to its effectiveness.
Through the analysis of each “fragment”, Barthes develops two meta-themes: first, the role and operation of psychological projection on the part of the protagonist (who constructs an idealised image of the loved being), and second, the manner in which love can become a source of intense personal (and quasi-religious) meaning. These are complex psychological phenomena to be sure, and Barthes does an excellent job at illuminating the processes and dynamics governing each.
The book follows a protagonist through the various stages of a relationship. He is an apt example of someone who loves badly, for he has constructed an idealised image of his lover and consistently mistakes the projections of his psyche for an actual human being. The protagonist is at various times infatuated, deluded, dependent and self-deceitful — though from the opening pages we cannot help but identify with them. The power of Barthes’ prose is such that reader will be reminded of, and often be forced to relive, moments from their own intimate past.
This is in part what makes the book such a rewarding experience; its reading can act as a form of therapy, opening up a space for the reader to probe both positive and painful experiences from their own past. It can also be confronting: as we become witnesses to the traumatic disintegration of the protagonist’s relationship (with all the pain, hurt and confusion that comes along with it) our own negative or unresolved psychological issues can rear their heads once more.
There is a particularly memorable moment at the end of the book, where, in the midst of the relationship’s breakdown, Barthes previously impassive analysis takes a savage turn:
The subject suddenly realises that he is imprisoning the loved object in a net of tyrannies: he has been pitiable, now he becomes monstrous…
Sometimes, in terror, I become aware of this reversal: I who supposed myself to be the pure subject find myself turned into an obtuse thing blindly moving onward, crushing everything beneath his discourse… I have monumentally deceived myself.
The protagonist — who has seemingly been blind to his own shortcomings until this point — has an experience of painful self-awareness. Barthes renders it with such detail that I suspect he must have lived it for himself. For anyone who has loved in this way, mistaking projection for reality and delusion for the purity of love, the power of the realisation is heart-breaking. The psychological issues on the behalf of the protagonist suffocates both the subject of his love and the relationship itself:
The lover’s discourse stifles the other, who finds no place for his own language beneath this massive utterance…
Such a form of love is intensely selfish, for it denies the humanity of the other person involved. The protagonist’s projection is obsessive, unsustainable, and ultimately dangerous to the psychological health of both parties. While such a relationship is alive, its by-products are jealousy, anxiety and dependency, but more crucially, when such a relationship ends, it leads to an intense vacuum of meaning, which can culminate in psychological trauma or the prospect of suicide:
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.
How might we love better, and avoid such an end? In the book’s closing pages Barthes alludes to something like an answer: a love which is inspired by the Eastern philosophies of Zen and Tao; which renounces possession and embraces the transitory nature of all things:
Realising that the difficulties of the amorous relationship originate in his ceaseless desire to appropriate the loved being in one way or another, the subject decides to abandon henceforth all “will-to-possess” in his regard.
While this solution is little more than embryonic, one can hardly demand the author put forward a new, healthier model of love. He has already given us so much.
With A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes has produced a study of love that is nuanced, rich in insight and written with penetrating clarity. While the word count is relatively small, the content is quite dense: Barthes’ style can take some effort to navigate, as can his constant references to literary and philosophical sources such as Goethe, Lacan, Nietzsche, Freud, and Rilke. While one does not need to be previously acquainted with the works of these authors (in part thanks to the explanatory footnotes and referencing), the book still requires a considerable amount of mental effort to work through.
I found the reading difficult for another reason: the plight of the protagonist forced me to confront treasured fantasies about myself and the tyrannies of what I had always assumed to be selfless and “pure” form love. While raw nerves were touched throughout, the experience has enabled me to work through difficult experiences, and has filled me with hope that I might love in a less selfish way in the future.
In spite of the dense style, I would not hesitate to recommend A Lover’s Discourse to anyone who seeks to better understand themselves, or who aspires to shape who they are. The read can be difficult, but for those who dedicate appropriate times and effort will be generously rewarded.
Forty years on from its original publication, A Lover’s Discourse remains a poignant and relevant as ever. It will occupy a welcome place on my bookshelf for years to come.