Are you suffering through a Valentine’s Day hangover? Feeling like a tragic loser, waiting for sexts that never come? Don’t worry—here’s a guide to using Roland Barthes’ famous book, A Lover’s Discourse, as literary electroshock therapy for your love life. By Kristen Cochrane.
Roland Barthes was a French theorist whose seminal works dealt with topics like semiotics, literary theory, and visual culture. He famously wrote Mythologies (1957), which you may already know — that exalted book of essays that examined both “low culture” and “high culture,” — something which has become a key aspect of cultural studies, but which was groundbreaking at the time. He wrote prolifically, but Sad Girls like me are fans in particular of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a book of much shorter essays on the nuances of love — everything from jealousy to fetishizing things that your lover owned. Barthes was basically Morrissey, but a more chill version (unlike Morrissey, Barthes didn’t write about how he could kick someone in the eye). Like Morrissey, he always felt like the “lover,” the one who wanted his crush more than they wanted him. Barthes is like a theoretical post-punk prince, waxing poetic about how the aches evoked by a lover’s absence compel us to expel vulnerable and embarrassing utterances, A.K.A. blurt out stupid things in front of our crushes.
A Lover’s Discourse dissects the nuances of loving and being loved in what sounds like modern confessional writing à la Chris Kraus. Reading each section feels like walking into a room where someone is blowing their nose into their comforter, or having a heartbroken friend send you a wall of text where they dwell on what they could have done differently with their ex-partner. On paper, this sounds depressing. In practice (or praxis, for our theory-laden purposes), reading this book is akin to realizing that this is what you needed all along instead of paying your therapist $150 dollars an hour to tell you that you need to be in a relationship with a stable person who meditates.
On that note, I have chosen four of my favorite excerpts — or fragments — from Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse. My accompanying anecdotes deal with the text, my own experiences, and the hours spent listening to strangers and friends mourn the lost affections of their objects of desire.
If this was translated as an episode of The Real Housewives, I would fictionally name it “Hating Your Ex’s Girlfriend”. I’ve always hated the word “ex”. I feel this sense of violation of the beautiful letter “x’. “X” is the affectionate, ending utterance that the British have historically used to sign off a letter, which continues vestigially in texts and messages. Depending on the speaker’s lingering wounds of The Ex (did it get infected? Did it require surgery from a trained professional? Did it heal and leave a barely visible scar?), The Ex is the object you leave out of conversations with your current Object of Desire or partner. If you don’t leave it out, you seem desperate, or you seem to hold on to residual emotions you have for The Ex, and this elicits feelings of discomfort in your current lover.
But when you’re with your lover, The Ex (theirs) is inevitably brought up at some point. Sometimes, positive memories are recounted — which is nice, but you might feel jealous. Unless it turns you on, which is also a normal feeling (look up “cuckhold” to learn more about this fetish). Often, it seems that people just want to catapult their ex-lover into the sky and shoot them with a shotgun. An overpriced therapist will probably be concerned and ask, “why do you want them dead?” when you don’t really want them to violently perish — it’s just a contemporary brand of dark humour that reckons with unresolved trauma and is currently very popular with #Millenials and Gen Zs. Anyway, Barthes delivers a terrific passage that deals exactly with the uncomfortable position of having to listen to your current lover talk about their last love:
“When the love object happens to complain about my rival, disparages him, I don’t know how to reply to this complaint: on the one hand, it is ‘noble’ not to take advantage of a confidence which is useful to me — which seems to ‘reinforce’ my situation; and on the other hand, I am cautious: I know that I occupy the same position as my rival and that, therefore, all psychology, all value set aside, nothing can keep me as well from being, one day, the object of disparagement.”
And what about if you want to speak kindly of the rival, the ex-lover, in an attempt to be diplomatic and not appear like a vindictive, jealous nutter? (Been there, BTW). Barthes continues:
“And sometimes it is I myself who praise my rival to the loved being (in order to be ‘generous’?) against which the loved being, strangely enough (in order to flatter me?), protests.”
When Barthes was alive, he didn’t have Snapchat, Instagram DMs, or FaceTime. It was letters and telephone calls. I can’t tell which media are more painful, but honestly, this passage describing how he would wait sounds just as brutal as waiting for a reply when the Object of Your Desire has you on read:
“I am waiting for an arrival, a return, a promised sign. This can be futile, or immensely pathetic; in Erwartung (Waiting), a woman waits for her lover, at night, in the forest; I am waiting for no more than a telephone call, but the anxiety is the same. Everything is solemn: I have no sense of proportions.”
90s hunk Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) in Beverly Hills, 90210.
This could be the most pertinent to our times. We don’t wait for that telephone call, wasting our time. We waste our time waiting for texts. “Are they just having a day off and getting stoned into the year 2045? Or did they find a new lover?” Ghosting is now seen as a valid way to dump someone, and being ghosted is a valid reason to book expensive therapy (IMO). After the pain of the Absent Object of your Desire ghosting you, you send neurotic texts to your friends with the accompanying evidence of screenshots. Ghosting and being ghosted is très tragique, but tremendously common. Barthes was brave enough to write about how, throughout his life in the mid 20th century, he was plagued by the same phantoms; the phantoms of waiting.
“I want to understand”
I remember wondering if this guy really liked me or not, so I asked a brutally honest male friend for his advice. “Men,” he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “always go through this brief period where they freak out at the thought of losing their freedom from being single.” I appreciated the emotional labour from this male friend, but I don’t need a degree in psychology to know that this is a generalization. I have, in equal parts, felt freaked out by attention from someone I initially desired, and freaked out the objects of my own desire by appearing too keen. Some people want a continuous series of texts, and some feel that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Others like that middle ground, or somewhere on the spectrum of textual frequency.
Brigitte Bardot in L’ours et la poupée, (1970), Dir. Michel Deville.
But seriously, have you ever been attracted to someone who is “not your type,” like maybe you only desire blond men who appear physically fragile (speaking for a friend…)? But then you meet this laconic bearded guy who looks like he chops trees for a living and you realize it’s game over? He doesn’t talk about feminism and bell hooks all the time like your former lanky, blond lovers, but this guy who deviates from your type is re-igniting your ability to desire. You’ll be YouTube Compilation Video and Chilling with your lover and all of a sudden you’re like, ew, wait, do I even like this person? This is a stranger. That is when you want to understand. And now you can see yourself dating your lumbersexual non-type, which is terrifying, because you were supposed to go backpacking for five months and meet the Norwegian lover of your dreams and raise children while peering at the Northern Lights from your brutalist apartment building in Oslo. Instead, you’re going to keep living in the city you’ve spent so long living in that you hate leaving the house. But you’re staying with your non-type lover because something set off your will to desire. It troubles you because, as Barthes reminds us, desire is perpetually difficult to understand.
The section of A Lover’s Discourse in which Barthes describes this broad phenomenon is opaquely articulated. It’s like he’s written it on the high of being confused by his new Object of Desire, and thus, the aesthetics of his writing reflect that confusion. Basically, the writing style reflects the confusion we feel when that fire in our loins just won’t go away.
The Other’s Body
Oh my god, when I first read this I was like, “okay, so I’m not a total maniac.” I recently projected this feeling onto Dakota Johnson’s body while watching (and sincerely enjoying) Fifty Shades Darker. Her imperfect teeth, that subtle lisp, her small breasts, the way her butt is small but round. When cinematic identification like this occurs, you feel like you’re part of the cinematic text, which was why we were all screaming when Christian Grey did sexy, Dom Daddy things. If you think this is “basic,” please call 1-800-K-Bye.
Monica Vitti in La Notte, (1961), Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni.
On the topic of my gazing unto Dakota Johnson’s body, one of my favourite filmmakers is an Argentinean gay man named Marco Berger. Unbelievably prolific, he tends to focus on queer male subject matter. While auteur theory is archaic, he directs, writes, and edits his own films — so the fact that his films have a distinct auteur signature is not unfounded. The thing I love about his films is that the camera lingers on random parts of the body. It’s not always erotic places either. His camera acts as our (possibly perverted) binoculars to gaze at a young man’s hair-adorned calves. Or his mouth while he talks. Or his hairy chest. This scopophilic tendency, or the pleasure that one derives from looking, like voyeurism, is what often constitutes the cinematic experience. This is why cinema is so intimate; it recalls the way we look at our lover’s body, their face, their armpit hair that is visible with their outstretched arms. It’s people like the impossibly intellectual, self-reflexive, and courageous Barthes who remind us that this is not abnormal, but par for the course of desire.
Plan B, (2009), Dir. Marco Berger.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.