The Writer’s Mask

A Lovers DiscourseI’ve been re-reading Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. This is one of those things that happens every couple of years. If you don’t understand the appeal of Barthes, go read Matt Ortile’s Why I ended A Perfectly Fine Relationship, which is cogent and gorgeous and perfectly captures the comfort that settles over me every time I read this book.

This post is more a half-formed set of thoughts, as tends to happen every time I engage with a text on semiotics and literary theory. Especially this book. But god, I love it. Adore it. And it fucks me up every time I read it. In a good way. And a bad way.

Look, it’s complicated.

But I dog-ear the fuck out of my copy every time I read the book, tagging new favourite passages, and yet there’s always something new to be drawn from the experience.There is no book I’ve ever come across that quite captures the feeling of infatuation in quite the sam eway, breaking the experience of wanting down into its component parts, the how and why of what is said and done.

What fascinates me about Barthes’ breakdown of desire is his precision in recognising the duality of conversing with the desired other. The act of focusing language on the individual with twin intent: what it said, and the constant subtext of I desire you. Or, more often, I desire you and do not wish you to know. I wish to speak, and be hidden.

The task of language becomes connect and concealing; each exchange an exquisite agony of revelation and concealment. The task of verbal signs will be to silence, to mask, to deceive; Barthes says. I shall never account, verbally, for the excesses of my sentiment. Having said nothing of the ravages of anxiety, I can always, once it has passed, reassure myself that no-one has guessed anything. The power of language: with my language I can do everything; even and especially say nothing.

And naturally, me being me, I sit there and think: this is true of all writing.

Or, at least, it’s true of mine.

There are writers who deny the notion of deeper meaning in their work. When I write: the shutters are blue, I fucking mean the shutters are blue.

It’s bullshit. It’s always bullshit. Language is an imperfect means of communicating intent, particularly when it comes to fiction. And subtext is a writer’s stock-in-trade, a characters intent lurks beneath everything that’s said and done. No-one is saying exactly what they mean, because that would be dull. There are layers.

There are always layers.

Some may be shallow and some may be deep, and occasionally something is blue simply because you want it to be blue, but writing fiction means directing the reader’s attention. The shutters may be blue, but you chose to describe the shutters.

Layers happen, whether you mean them to or not.

And beneath those layers, there is what the writer really wants: connection; community; acceptance; comprehension.

There is the thing that dug into you and made you want to write, the thing that never gets mentioned in public. The thing that even the writer may not tumble too, when they’re putting words together, until they look back at their string of scenes and sequences and metaphor and think, oh, shit, that’s what I’m doing here.

The thing that’s there, in very story, in every blog post, in every tweet. A longing, a desire, that goes unspoken, but for the fact that it is present in everything that’s written.

All writers love their readers. We wouldn’t do this, otherwise. Every work is a rupture, something that does not want to be spoken leaking into the world because it does not want to be silent.

To borrow from Barthes once more:

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…

Fiction, at the end of the day, is almost always a mask.

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