“I knew no end to desiring you.”
That is the one quote in Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse that has been imprinted in my mind ever since I came across this brilliant and thought-provoking—yet admittedly difficult to read—masterpiece of a book.
The thing is, I first read that line not in Barthes’ book, but—and this I admit without any ounce of shame—in this 150-peso chick lit, Mr. Write by M.D. Balangue, published by Cosmo Philippines. That quote intrigued me and I promised myself I would find its source and read it.
I often tell people that reading A Lover’s Discourse is hard work. I remember abandoning it for months on end after I read the foreword and its first pages because it was such a trial to read. When I finally finished the damn thing, I realized the payoff is just worth ALL the effort and brainpower.
You see, A Lover’s Discourse reads like an academic text. Barthes is a French philosopher and literary theorist known for his work in the fields of semiotics and structuralism, among others. This unique perspective was not all detrimental to his writing. In fact, it actually made the book even more compelling. (Or maybe Barthes is just one of those gifted writers who create literary gold every single time?)
And before I bore you with all this background information you can easily Google, let me tell you this: A Lover’s Discourse is arguably the best love-story-without-a-story ever told.
Interspersed with excerpts from other literature and some of Barthes’ own personal musings, A Lover’s Discourse explores love by defining and pinpointing all of its nuances, complexities, types, stages, and permutations.
Using the tools of structuralism, Barthes studied love (and desire) as seen in the eyes of the lover: that first time you see your loved one, all sorts of feelings you associate with him (jealousy, sadness, longing, joy, desire), the realization that your love is unrequited, that bittersweet feeling after a love has ended, etc.
This tender and intimate exploration is actually familiar and relatable. This “overthinking” that Barthes does in examining this love phenomenon is actually something we’ve all done when in the throes of love and/or passion:
“What does it mean when he does this? Or says this? Or acts this way? Does he love me? Is my love obvious? Am I worthy of his love? Why doesn’t he love me? Why does he love her?”
Oftentimes, Barthes’ writing is painful to read—heart wrenching in its honesty and refusal to mince words. “Tagos sa puso” in Filipino. But that is just the way love is: messy, complex, and the source of both the ultimate happiness and the worst pain imaginable.
A couple of thought-provoking excerpts from the book:
“The fulfilled lover has no need to write, to transmit to reproduce…”
“I-love-you has no usages. Like a child’s word, it enters into no social constraint, it can be a sublime, solemn, trivial word, it can be an erotic, pornographic word. It is a socially irresponsible word.”
“To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not – this is the beginning of writing.”