A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (Fragments d’un discours amoureux) by French semiologist Roland Barthes is not a manual about love. A pioneer in the field of semiotics – the formal study of symbols – Barthes’ first book, Writing Degree Zero, “was a literary manifesto that examined the arbitrariness of the constructs of language”. On the other hand, A Lover’s Discourse does not try to teach anything to anyone. Rather, it offers a perspective on what speech forms passionate love might take in a non-dialectic situation. The lover speaks up, but the loved one does not answer.
From Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Charles Baudelaire, Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche to Sigmund Freud, some of the most romantic and influential authors in the history of literature are quoted. This practice presents Barthes’ work as an original collection of literary fragments and structures which refer to the indescribable world of love.
Comment est fait ce livre
La nécessité de ce livre tient dans la considération suivante: que le discours amoureux est aujourd’hui d’une extrême solitude.
The necessity of this book lies in the following consideration: that the discourse of love is today of an extreme solitude.
To understand the particular structure of A Lovers’ Discourse, it is necessary to focus on the protagonist of the story: the unnamed lover. The lover, for Barthes, is the ‘I’ in love who wants to declare their love for their amorous object but does not know how to do it. Love seems ineffable. Words are never quite precise. The lover, though, can still talk around love and produce their love’s discourses that can get them as close as possible to expressing their overwhelming feelings.
Barthes’ Apollonian approach to love, which is something canonically dionysiac, creates scenes animated by quotations and references, which visually make the text like a screenplay.
C’est donc un amoureux qui parle et qui dit:
With this in mind, Barthes decides to proceed fragment by fragment, analyzing the lover’s particular state of mind. A synonym he uses is “figure”. Or, rather, the reader can see them as chapters. Each chapter is a non-dialectic declaration of love. The lover pronounces their love, but the amorous object never responds. In particular, the order of these declarations is absolutely casual, as irrational spurts of love would be. Barthes eventually chooses to trust the simplest of orders: the alphabetical one.
Dans le calme aimant de tes bras
In the loving calm of your arms
For example, a chapter is about the ÉTREINTE (in English stretch or hug). The chapter covers anything to do with hugs in the sphere of unrequited love. First, Barthes offers a definition of “hug” from the perspective of the lover. Secondly, Barthes analyses a series of literary citations about hugs in love, taking inspiration from literary masterworks, conversations with friends, and his own private life.
The romantic influence on the modern lover
Barthes heavily relies on citations from the classic romantic literature of the 19th century. The most significant work he cites is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. There is one particular quote that summarizes the romantic character of Barthes’ citations. Most importantly, it highlights the ineffability onto which sentiments of love always seem to crash. Again, words are never quite precise, and Werther takes this opportunity to complain at one point:
My dear, if a physical excess is considered a force, why won’t an excess of sentiments also be considered as such?
Words might never be quite enough to express the overwhelming feeling of being in love. Yet, by expanding on the vocabulary of speech figures of love, Barthes manages to create a wider breadth of expression. Passionate love continues to be ineffable, its object of desire unreachable. But now there are many more breadths the modern lover can take, trying to speak the many words of love, and through these, their unspeakable needs.