Seven Notes on A Lover’s Discourse While Halfway Through the Book


Habitual marking of quotes is one of those weird habits you pick up when you hang around universities for too long. I still do it, despite being out of the game for the better part of six years now, which means I frequently end up with shelves full of dog-eared books, notebooks filled with hastily scribbled details, and the occasional stray post-it with a quote scrawled across it with the bibliographic details on the back.

Since I don’t really teach classes or write essays anymore, the vast majority of the quotes I mark tend to be because I truly adore the phrasing. There’s a great deal of beauty in theory and criticism, if you look for it. Exquisitely phrased ideas that sucker-punch you the same way a perfectly formed poetic line does, or well-turned phrase in a piece of prose.

I’ve been reading Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse for the last two weeks. It started as a bit of story research, but it reminded me exactly how much I love Barthes’ writing. He’s far better known for being the man behind Death of the Author, but I’ve probably marked more pages in A Lover’s Discourse than any other book I own (which is impressive, since I’ve never actually finished it – my tolerance for non-fiction is surprisingly low regardless of its quality).


Selected quotes I’ve pulled from the book, either because they’re something I want to remember, or cause there’s the beginning of a story in there.

The heart is the organ of desire (the heart swells, weakens, etc., like the sexual organs), as it is held, enchanted, within the domain of the Image-repertoire. What will the world, what will the other do with my desire? That is the anxiety in which are gathered all the hearts movements, all the hearts ‘problems’. (pg 52)


Jealousy is an equation involving three permutable (indeterminable) terms: one is always jealous of two persons at once: I am jealous of the one I love and the one who loves the one I love. The odiosamato (as the Italians call the ‘rival’) is also loved by me: he interests me, intrigues me, appeals to me. (pg 66)


The resistance of the wood varies depending on the place where we drive in the nail: wood is not isotropic. Nor am I; I have my ‘exquisite points.’ The map of these points is known to me alone, and it is according to them that I make my way, avoiding or seeking this or that, depending on externally enigmatic council; I should like a map of moral acupuncture to be distributed preventatively to my new acquaintances (who, moreover, could also utilize it to make me suffer more). (Pg 95)


Despite it’s name, A Lover’s Discourse isn’t really about love. Desire, certainly, but not love. In this respect, it’s a book I find remarkably comforting. It isn’t trying to explain anything. It’s holding forth no mystery. It’s simply trying to unravel the semiotics of desire, the verbal and the non-verbal meanings that are imbued in every exchange.


My favourite quote from the book thus far is this one:

Yet to hide passion totally (or even to hide, more simply, its excess) is inconceivable: not because the human subject is too weak, but because passion is in essence made to be seen: the hiding must be seen: I want you to know that I am hiding something from you, that is the active paradox I must resolve: at one and the same time it must be known and not known: I want you to know that I don’t want to show my feelings: that is the message I address to the other. Larvatus prodeo: I advance pointing to my mask: I set a mask upon my passion, but with a discreet (and wily) finger I designate this mask. Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator… (pg 42-43)

But then, I would love it, wouldn’t I? It jibs so nicely with my favourite themes – masks, love that isn’t really love, the secret suspicion that there is no such thing as authenticity anymore.


This one seemed appropriate, given the season:

The amorous gift is sought out, selected, and purchased in the greatest excitement – the kind of excitement that seems to be of the order of orgasm. Strenuously I calculate whether this object will give pleasure, whether it will disappoint, or whether, on the contrary, seeming too ‘important,’ it will in and of itself betray the delirium — or the snare in which I am caught. The amorous gift is a solemn one: swept away by the devouring metonymy which governs the life of the imagination. I transfer myself inside it altogether… it is for this reason I am mad with excitement, that I rush from shop to shop, stubbornly tracking down the “right” fetish, the brilliant successful fetish which will perfectly suit your desire. (pg 75)

Although, honestly, I think you can sweep the amorous out of it, and it still holds fairly true. I find myself gnawing at this quote time and again, ’cause I find gift-buying enormously traumatic regardless of who I’m buying the gift for. For a guy who makes part of his living with word, I’m capable of being tremendously non-verbal. I’m very good at saying nothing, of locking things down.

I have this annoying tendency to hope gifts will bridge the gap between my head and the outside world. Gifts given and received inevitably become loaded signifiers, ciphers to be unpacked and explored. The prospect of giving gifts becomes nightmarish, because every gift to friend, family, whatever, has a portion of the self transferred inside it.

Giving gifts to people I don’t know well enough to actually invest in the present is a special kind of hell I try to avoid.


It constantly surprises me that I didn’t really stumble over Barthes’ book on desire while I was at uni. Many of the other things he wrote, certainly (eight years of writing-based theory will do that), but I didn’t know A Lover’s Discourse existed until I picked up Anouchka Grose Forrester’s novel Ringing for You. Forrester’s book was phenomenal – a smart mix of late-nineties chick lit and an attempt to write a novel that treated semiotics as a playground. Since I’m pulling quotes from Barthes, I figured I’d do the same with the book that inspired me to seek A Lover’s Discourse out

At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I would read A Lover’s Discourse (the nearest thing to self-help I’ll allow myself). It was dreadful. It talks about the phone a lot, but technology has changed since Roland Barthes’s day. He couldn’t have a clue how things might go, so it’s hardly his fault, but his problems weren’t my problems and I hated him for it. It’s so horrible when you try to find a point of empathy in the world and the only one you can think of fails you. He rabbits on about not being able to go to the toilet or the shape in case the desperately awaited phone call comes and he misses it. I have an ansaphone for that. And 1471. And he goes on about not being able to talk on the phone in case the object of his crush tries to ring and finds him engaged. I have a ‘call waiting’ service on my line. (pg 33-34)

‘Course, Ringing for You was released in 1999. Facebook and Twitter weren’t even a thing back then. People still actually called each other on the phone, rather than the myriad ways we have of bugging one another these days. I find myself wondering if someone’s written an updated version of A Lover’s Discourse that takes into account the myriad ways we have of connecting with each other these days.


According to wikipedia, A Lover’s Discourse was adapted into a Cantonese movie in 2010. I find myself oddly intrigued by this, especially since it seems bizarre that they’d adapt a book of half-written semiotic theory into a narrative.

  3 comments for “Seven Notes on A Lover’s Discourse While Halfway Through the Book

  1. Brendan Carson
    31/12/2012 at 7:21 AM

    And this is why you're important and why what you write is beautiful.

  2. 24/05/2015 at 10:14 PM

    Another great note on love is from the book of Maurice Chevalier is "The crime of loving is forgetting."

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