A Lover’s Discourse—Fragments by Roland Barthes

I had a couple of very intense discussions recently with two people closest to me about the complicated, enigmatic, confusing concept of love—both filial and passionate.

There were two comments, each from a different person, that didn’t sit well with me and that I keep returning to over and over in my mind:

“You can dislike someone but still love that person.”


“You can love someone but feel no affection for that person.”

I did what I always do when I am struggling with something:  I read a book.  Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse is what jumped out at me from my shelves.  Divided into fragments, each chapter of sorts deals with different terms related to love—absence, affirmation, body, languor, tenderness, etc.  The author’s thoughts come from reading Goethe, Plato and Nietzsche, from conversations with friends and from his own life experiences.  Wayne Kostenbaum in the introduction to the translation describes Barthes writing: “Barthes never dissertates.  Barthes never stops to explain.  He is happy to make the lightest of allusions—a lodestone such as “Nietzsche” or “Descartes” in the margins—but to leave the reference unplumbed.”

I will share a few passages that were especially striking to me:

From the fragment entitled “Atopos”:

The atopia of Socrates is linked to Eros (Socrates is courted by Alcibiades) and to the numbfish (Socrates electrifies and benumbs Meno).  The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos.  I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire.  The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (which is the truth of others).

Yet I have loved or will love several times in my life.  Does this mean, then, that my desire, quite special as it may be, is linked to a type?  Does this mean that my desire is classifiable?  Is there, among all the beings that I have loved, a common characteristic, just one, however tenuous (a nose, a skin, a look), which allows me to say: that’s my type!

From the fragment entitled “At Fault”—fautes/faults

Any fissure within Devotion is a fault: that is the rule of Cortezia.  This fault occurs whenever I make any gesture of independence with regard to the loved object; each time I attempt, in order to break my servitude, to “think for myself” (the world’s unanimous advice), I feel guilty.  What am I guilty of, then, is paradoxically lightening the burdern, reducing the exorbitant load of my devotion—in short, “managing” (according to the world); in fact, it is being strong which frightens me, it is control (or its gesticulation) which makes me guilty.

From the fragment entitled “The Ghost Ship”—errance/errantry:

How does a love end?—Then it does end?  To tell the truth, no one—except for the others—ever knows anything about it; a kind of innocence conceals the end of this thing conceived, asserted, lived, according to eternity.  Whatever the loved being becomes, whether he vanishes or moves into the realm of Friendship, in any case I never see him disappear: the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when and how we expect).  This phenomenon results from a constraint in the lover’s discourse: I myself cannot (as an enamored subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative.

From the fragment entitled “Special Days”—fete/festivity:

The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected.  What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.”

For the Lover, the Man-in-the-Moon, the Festivity is a jubilation, not an explosion: I delight in the dinner, the conversation, the tenderness, the secure promise of pleasure: “an ars vivendi over the abyss.”

Barthes’ book of fragments is one that I will dip into over and over again and find something new, fresh, and thought-provoking each time.

Finally, Books, Yo has written a fabulous personal reflection about love in his review of Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc.  Please do take a look at his blog and his fantastic writing.



Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction, Philosophy

8 responses to “A Lover’s Discourse—Fragments by Roland Barthes

  1. “You can dislike someone but still love that person.” – I’ve come across this before and I think it’s an example of emotional immaturity. You cannot dislike someone and love them, because your love has no foundation, no real object. What you feel is simply misdirected, excess emoting; it’s a kind of neediness, or obsessiveness, under a false name.


    • “Emotional immaturity” is exactly the term I used as well. It’s a simplistic, easy way out of exploring any real depth of emotion. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that love is gone or never existed and this statement feels like an avoidance of reality.

      By the way, I really did love your review. Your writing is fantastic, but that particular review resonated with me. Thank you.


  2. If you are simply talking about superficial romantic relationships (and I would argue that Barthes unable to speak beyond that in this book), then I suppose it is impossible to dislike someone and still love them. But, it is essential to be able to dislike someone and love them at the same time in real life, long term relationships—as a child, parent, sibling, friend, and lover. That is not to say that one has to remain in emotionally abusive situations (although they do), but love must be resilient. The threat to love is not dislike, but indifference.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find, personally, that I just can’t have a strong emotion such as love for someone I dislike. There may be specific things a person does that I dislike. But if I don’t like anything about someone, I can’t love them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Those are fascinating quotes, Melissa. “Love” is actually such an all-encompassing term that I feel it covers many states that we struggle to understand. I love those closest to me, yet I define as love sometimes feelings about things and beings I have passing obsessions with – it’s very hard to put into words. And I agree with your shout-out to Books,Yo – always an articulate and very individual take on whatever he happens to be reading.

    As for loving someone you don’t like – even that’s hard to pin down, because I there are people that I love who drive me mad, and I can love and dislike them at the same time as Joe says. But I guess you’re right that there has to be something about them that you don’t dislike. Very complex…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Interesting discussion! I think I’m with Joe on this one. The sentiment he offers at the end could totally come from D H Lawrence BTW: the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. I also agree that the disliking/living combination makes more sense for a non-romantic relationship.

    Liked by 2 people

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