Friday, March 20, 2009

Roland Barthes's "A Lover's Discourse" (2)

From the chapter monstreux (monstrous):

2. The lover's discourse stifles the other, who finds no place for his own language beneath this massive utterance. It is not that I keep the other from speaking; but I know how to make the pronouns skid: "I speak and you hear me, hence we exist" (Ponge). Sometimes, in terror, I become aware of this reversal: I who supposed myself to be pure subject (subjected subject: fragile, delicate, pitiable) find myself turned into an obtuse thing blindly moving onward, crushing everything beneath his discourse; I who love am undesirable, consigned to the category of the bores: the ones who bear down too hard, who irritate, encroach, complicate, demand, intimidate (or more simply: those who speak). I have monumentally deceived myself. 

(The other is disfigured by his persistent silence, as in those terrible dreams in which a loved person shows up with the lower part of his face quite erased, without any mouth at all; and I, the one who speaks, I too am disfigured: soliloquy makes me into a monster: one huge tongue.

I have not been blown away by A Lover's Discourse, though I have every expectation and eagerness of being blown away, such is my state of receptivity. Much of what it says about love feels derivative, and its constant references to Goethe, Proust, Freud, Winnicott and company make me want to read those original authors instead. Then perseverance uncovers such gems as the one quoted above. The gem of absolute truth. 

To water down Barthes's claim is to lose it completely. It does not matter how we write, with what degree of awareness, knowledge, empathy or irony, or with what devices of style and format--indirection, allusion, pun, indentation, blank space. So long as we speak or write as lovers, so long we stifle the other's voice under our own discourse. Not only is the Dark Lady silenced by Shakespeare's speaking, even the aristocratic Young Man, whom the poet flatters with all manners of obsequies, is rendered speechless by the poet's speech. We think we hear through the poet's art the subtlest depiction of the Young Man, and then we remember that we have not heard from the Young Man at all.

But the poet-lover must keep speaking (I spent half an hour this morning listening to the recording of my readings for my party), to survive as a poet and a lover, even at the cost of disfiguring his beloved and himself. No way around this knife. He might try for friendship, instead of love, for friendship has the deep rich warmth of old oak panelling. But to give up love is to give up sublimity. 

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