The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977)


‘Roland Barthes envied the novel. And he approached his work through what he calls the novelistic, which is writing essays as if they were novels. And I see in his work an incredible over- intellectualizing. This is kind of obvious. It’s his temperament and it’s his mandate. He makes a list of things … he calls them anamneses, moments of narrative or visual interest that he says have no meaning. He just lists them, three pages of them, and they have incredible meaning. Each of them is luminous and speaks volumes. And his immediate dismissal of their possible meaning is like a denial that there’s an unconscious, a denial that he has an unconscious or that he might be able to wander with one of them in an unscripted direction.’ — Wayne Koestenbaum

‘The text which the lover weaves in Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse does not have narrative or purpose but becomes a ‘brazier of meaning’ as the ambiguous signs of the loved one’s behaviour are interpreted. Such behaviour is ‘scriptible’ — is rewritten by the lover as he reads them, just as we rewrite a text in reading it.’ —

‘What Barthes has been writing since The Pleasure of the Text (1973) is in part a kind of rearguard defence against those of his more earnest disciples (the Nouvelle Critique) who erected his brilliant but wayward ideas into full-blown “structuralist” theory. Texts are no longer to be mulled over, pegged out and analyzed according to some abstract (or “meta-linguistic”) scheme of approach. Rather, they offer themselves to the reader as a site of intimate, teasing rapportswhich he can only respond to by bringing his entire sensibility-erotic as well as intellectual-into play. A Lover’s Discourse can be read in a great variety of ways, depending on whether one looks in it for oblique signs and remnants of Barthes’s theoretical interests (still present, though muted), or for the style of offbeat self-communing which has lately come to occupy more of his thought. About one thing the text is clear enough. It represents the choice of a consciously self-dramatising method, the drift of which “renounces examples and rests on the single action of a primary language (no meta-language)”. In other words, the text is an utterance-a piece of first-person love talk-subtly interwoven with themes from Barthes’ reading, his intellectual friendships and passages of thought, but in the end coming down to that encounter with his own desires and image-repertoire.’ — PN Review





‘Essaying Two Lovers’ Discourses’
‘Significant Loss: Roland Barthes’s final books’
‘Notes on A Lover’s Discourse’
A Lover’s Discourse @ tumblr
‘Foucault: A Lover’s Discourse About Madness and the Media’
‘Absence, Desire, and Love in John Donne and Roland Barthes’
‘another lover’s discourse’
‘An Unexpected Return: Barthes’s Lectures at the Collège de France’
‘The Indirect Language of Love: Creole Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse


Expo Roland Barthes @ Centre Pompidou 2002



Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
Hill and Wang

‘Roland Barthes’s most popular and unusual performance as a writer is A Lover’s Discourse, a writing out of the discourse of love. This language—primarily the complaints and reflections of the lover when alone, not exchanges of a lover with his or her partner—is unfashionable. Thought it is spoken by millions of people, diffused in our popular romances and television programs as well as in serious literature, there is no institution that explores, maintains, modifies, judges, repeats, and otherwise assumes responsibility for this discourse . . . Writing out the figures of a neglected discourse, Barthes surprises us in A Lover’s Discourse by making love, in its most absurd and sentimental forms, an object of interest.’ — Jonathan Culler



To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).

I am therefore alarmed by the other’s fatigue: it is the cruelest of all rival objects. How to combat exhaustion? I can see that the other, exhausted, tears of a fragment of this fatigue in order to give it to me. But what am I to do with this bundle of fatigue set down before me? What does this gift mean? Leave me alone? Take care of me? No one answers, for what is given is precisely what does not answer.

Besides intercourse (when the Image-repertoire goes to the devil), there is that other embrace, which is a motionless cradling: we are enchanted, bewitched: we are in the realm of sleep, without sleeping; we are within the voluptous infantilism of sleepiness: this is the moment for telling stories, the moment of the voice which takes me, siderates me, this is the return to the mother (“in the loving calm of your arms,” says a poem set to music by Duparc). In this companionable incest, everything is suspended: time, law, prohibition: nothing is exhausted, nothing is wanted: all desires are abolished, for they seem definitively fulfilled.

Yet, within this infantile embrace, the genital unfailingly appears; it cuts off the diffuse sensuality of the incestuous embrace; the logic of desire begins to function, the will-to-possess returns, the adult is superimposed upon the child. I am then two subjects at once: I want maternity and genitality. (The lover might be defined as a child getting an erection: such was the young Eros.)

Any episode of language which stages the absence of the loved object — whatever its cause and its duration — and which tends to transform this absence into an ordeal of abandonment. Then, too, on the telephone the other is always in a situation of departure; the other departs twice over, by voice and by silence: whose turn is it to speak? We fall silent in unison: the crowding of two voids. “I’m going to leave you”, the voice on the telephone says each second.

The amorous gift is sought out, selected, and purchased in the greatest excitement—the kind of excitement which 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. By this object, I give you my All, I touch you with my phallus; it is for this reason that 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.

The amorous subject, according to one contingency or another, feels swept away by the fear of a danger, an injury, an abandonment, a revulsion — a sentiment he expresses under the name of anxiety

Absence can exist only as a consequence of the other: it is the other who leaves, it is I who remain. The other is in a state of perpetual departure, of journeying; the other is by vocation, migrant, fugitive. I — I who love, by converse vocation, am sedentary, motionless, at hand, in expectation, nailed to the spot, in suspense — like a package in some forgotten corner of a railway station. Amorous absence functions in a single direction, expressed by the one who stays, never by the one who leaves: an always present I is constituted only by confrontation with an always absent you: to speak this absence is from the start to propose that the subject’s place and the other’s place cannot permute. It is to say: “I am loved less than I love.” Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the woman: Woman is sedentary, Man hunts, journeys; woman is faithful (she waits), man is fickle (he sails away, he cruises).

A deliberative figure: the amorous subject wonders, not whether he should declare his love to the loved being (this is not a figure of avowal), but to what degree he should conceal the turbulences of his passion: his desires, his distresses; in short, his excesses (in Racinian langauges: his fureur).

As a jealous man, I suffer four times over: because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be subject to a banality: I suffer from being excluded, from being aggressive, from being crazy, and from being common.

‘Am I in love? –Yes, since I’m waiting.’ The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.

Despite the difficulties of my story, despite discomforts, doubts, despairs, despite impulses to be done with it, I unceasingly affirm love, within myself, as a value. Though I listen to all the arguments which the most divergent systems employ to demystify, to limit, to erase, in short to depreciate love, I persist: “I know, I know, but all the same…” I refer the devaluations of a lover to a kind of obscurantist ethic, to a let’s-pretend realism, against which I erect the realism of value: I counter whatever “doesn’t work” in love with the affirmation of what is worthwhile.

To reduce his wretchedness, the subject pins his hope on a method of control which permits him to circumscribe the pleasures afforded by the amorous relation: on the one hand, to keep these pleasures, to take full advantage of them, and on the other hand, to place within a parenthesis of the unthinkable those broad depressive zones which separate such pleasures: “to forget” the loved being outside of the pleasures that being bestows.

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.

My anxieties as to behavior are futile, ever more so, to infinity. If the other, incidentally or negligently, gives the telephone number of a place where he or she can be reached at certain times, I immediately grow baffled: should I telephone or shouldn’t I? (It would do no good to tell me that I can telephone – that is the objective, reasonable meaning of the message – for it is precisely this permission I don’t know how to handle.) What is futile is what apparently has and will have no consequence. But for me, an amorous subject, everything which is new, everything which disturbs, is received not as a fact but in the aspect of a sign which must be interpreted. From the lover’s point of view, the fact becomes consequential because it is immediately transformed into a sign: it is the sign, not the fact, which is consequential (by its aura). If the other has given me this new telephone number, what was that the sign of? Was it an invitation to telephone right away, for the pleasure of the call, or only should the occasion arise, out of necessity? My answer itself will be a sign, which the other will inevitably interpret, thereby releasing, between us, a tumultuous maneuvering of images. Everything signifies: by this proposition, I entrap myself, I bind myself in calculations, I keep myself from enjoyment.

Sometimes, by dint of deliberating about “nothing” (as the world sees it), I exhaust myself; then I try, in reaction, to return — like a drowning man who stamps on the floor of the sea — to a spontaneous decision (spontaneity: the great dream: paradise, power, delight): go on, telephone, since you want to! But such recourse is futile: amorous time does not permit the subject to align impulse and action, to make them coincide: I am not the man of mere “acting out” — my madness is tempered, it is not seen; it is right away that I fear consequences, any consequence: it is my fear — my deliberation — which is “spontaneous.

It occasionallly seems to the amorous subject that he is possessed by a demon of language which impels himto injure himself and to expel himself — according to Goethe’s expression — from the paradise which at other moments the amorous relation constitutes for him.

Tonight I came back to the hotel alone; the other has decided to return later on. The anxieties are already here, like the poison already prepared (jealousy, abandonment, restlessness); they merely wait for a little time to pass in order to be able to declare themselves with some propriety. I pick up a book and take a sleeping pill, “calmly.” The silence of this huge hotel is echoing, indifferent, idiotic (faint murmur of draining bathtubs); the furniture and the lamps are stupid; nothing friendly that might warm (“I’m cold, let’s go back to Paris). Anxiety mounts; I observe its progress, like Socrates chatting (as I am reading) and feeling the cold of the hemlock rising in his body; I hear it identify itself moving up, like an inexorable figure, against the background of the things that are here.



p.s. Hey. ** K3@~0%, That switching places thing that happens with old couples is very interesting. Not sure if I like it. I’m not sure why my parents called that room a pantry. I guess it had a lot of shelving, but it was basically a hall between the kitchen and the dining room. I think when the house was built the idea was that servants would dawdle in there. I like the idea of getting scared too, but it almost never gets fleshed out. My dad used to hop trains when he was young, apropos of nothing. RIP jack-o-lantern. What a strange word. I’m going to do a background check. ** David Ehrenstein, My great pleasure, David. ** Steve Erickson, Your report on the new ‘Suspiria’ confirms all my instincts about it. Skip. I saw two guys dressed as Oliver and Hardy, a girl dressed like a French gendarme circa the 1900s wearing a Marie LePen mask, and a green person who I think was either a skinny Hulk or the Jolly Green Giant, and that’s it. ** Kier, Yay, Kier! Virtual Kier, I mean. Hi, pal! I’m good enough. It’s looking very promising for the Black Box thing. At the moment the idea is BB would sponsor it, rent a movie theater, and it would happen in early March while ‘Crowd’ is there, and they want to try to talk me into doing a reading too. But I’ve learned not to do more than cautiously hope until the ink is dried. No, you did actually get sick, ugh, but at least it’s over. Sucks about the no book course, but philosophy has its charms. I tried to find something special to do or watch on Halloween, failed, and ended up pretending it was just another night, which was strangely fine. The 2nd Manoir visit was great. Super extremely crowded, a line for blocks. Gisele completely loved it. There were a few things that were either different or that I didn’t notice the first time, and a few different actors, but it was same-ish and just as great on repeat. I won’t envy your snow, but it’s hard not to. I miss you too! Come back! Or at least I might just see you in your own hood before too, too long. Fingers ultra-crossed, Say hi to Ottar. Massive love, me. ** Sypha, My pleasure. I’m going to crank it today. Ha ha, nice story. I like your parents. ** Shane Christmass, Hi, Shane! Right? I totally agree! ** James Nulick, Yes, I am the ghost of yesterday. Glad Ostrovsky snagged you. Dang, I can even imagine that massive Halloween or I guess at least the backdrop. So awesome, plus a sigh for/from me. Uh, you can try just attaching the video to an email. When I used to have gmail — I don’t anymore, I’m with Outlook — it used to say the file was too big and then offered me a storage option. Or you could use Dropbox or one of those things. Or you could try to IM it to me. Do you have my phone#? Nonetheless, I’ll publicise your question: Everyone, James needs some tech help if anyone can. Him: ‘[D]oes anyone at DCs know how to send a three minute video to either [an] email account, or I could send it from my iPhone to [a] iPhone? I have an 8, so fairly modern.’ Anyone have ideas? ** Love from the greatness of Paris to the equal (at least) greatness of Tokyo inclusive of you. ** Kyler, I guess manic and excited are the same thing kind of? I guess the first term has negative connotations. Anyway, enjoy the zizz. Ouch or argh about your cracked tooth. My tooth or rather toothless gap is A-okay. It barely even hurt, even at the beginning. Oh, right, shit, sorry, spaced. I’ll write to you today. Thanks! ** _Black_Acrylic, I’m happy you took the opportunity to make her acquaintance. Excellent, excellent about the snowballing prep for your masterwork except for the month wait, but it’ll fly by, or I know you’ll make it zoom. ** Misanthrope, That does not sound good about LPS. Hm. This is a weird thing to say,  but does he see a therapist? Therapy helped me. But I was an internally messed up goodie two shoes, so I don’t know. With a mom like his, it’s not a huge surprise, but … I don’t know. Really good luck to him and to you, George. Maybe sort of possibly so about the pot effect thing, but I smoked tons of pot and took lots of acid and all kinds of shit as a teen, and even very young teen, and I didn’t go criminal. So that sounds like kind of a scapegoat. Five years sounds about right. I’ll be ready. I promise. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi. Thanks for the appreciation. It goes both ways. There must be, right? I mean lots of rich stuff right outside your door. ** Right. I thought I would ask you to focus on a great book by Roland Barthes today. Take me up on the offer, won’t you? See you tomorrow.


  1. Shane Christmass

    Horse Crazy just seems like those novels that’s really comfortable. Not sure what that means. Especially all those mixed-up thoughts one has when they’re in a volatile relationship. Fuck this is a good novel. Especially after the book I was previously reading. The Bacheloress by Victor Margieritte. A novel from the French decadent period / 19th century. The author caused a scandal as it was deemed pornographic – which it is not by any standard. Essentially follows a young woman who finds out her fiancé is cheating on her so she burns everything down by leaving him and fucking men and women indiscriminately – oh and smoking heaps of opium of course – because French. Good story but fuck it was dense. Lots of adjective prose and quite philosophical in parts. Like an erotic version of Plato’s Symposium ?.

    You heard the new Ty Segal? Covers album – he does an Amon Duul cover –

    You heard the new Royal Trux tunes? They got a track with Kool Keith!

    I’m still working on this Vape Dick novel…

  2. Corey Heiferman

    I’d really like to take you up on your offer but the road is tough. Basically, I try to read this and I just think of how many times it must’ve been used as a pretext for an older person to sit in a room and talk about sex and romance with a bunch of young people, all while buying into a Ponzi scheme. I was severely let down by the University of Chicago and have come to resent all soft academia, to the point of almost buying into the “CIA bought Iowa Workshop as capitalist propaganda institution” conspiracy theory. What’s your take on soft academia in general and the creative writing industrial complex in particular?

  3. David Ehrenstein

    Barthes’ most popular book and it’s easy to see why. It’s tru that he always wanted to write a novel. The closest he got was the posthumously published “Fragments” — which is most about cruising. “A Lover’s Discourse” approaches the novelistic but at heart it’sa love letter to his boytoy Andre Techine.

  4. Kleiston

    Haha, I’ve become a gym bunny. I feel like I’m being tortured by that method of like put inside a drying donkey’s skin. I think of the “whorehopper” or that old story by Paul Bowles. Pantry’s are cool, you probably dont know this, as you’ve never worked in an office, but most office kitchens are probably derived of the pantry feature. I think it might also serve as like a snack machine, that way the family is not in the kitchen when they want snacks. Did a big-time geneology thing recently, my family had slaves and servants and then there came a generation of several boys who liked to drink and chase women and poof, there went the old money. I wonder what scares you? You know that everybody has a fear thing? I dont get how you dont see ghosts and stuff all the time. You remind me in that aspect of one of my friends who is like totally I guess like into magic and stuff, but then doesnt believe in anything. Trains are really cool. Funny to think of that Dylan/Guthrie b.s. sometimes, haha. My library is so far. Even though this stuff is deep, it seems a lighter side of Paris and France stick with me, Radiguet and Flaubert, I dont know. Off to the beach! Need to get inspired, want to move to the next level with my writing. I want to write something that says, “Pay me tons of money.” “Or hate this so bad but be totally fascinated by it.” haha. Watched Get Out and A Ghost Story. A Ghost Story I loved. A guy dresses in his autopsy sheet and goes home to live in his old house. Get Out was the boringest movie ever. Bon soir

  5. Bill

    This was an old favorite from my college days. Time to give it another look or three. What a lovely set of illuminating images; did you search for “Lover’s Discourse”, or were there more detailed interventions?

    It’s been over a year since my last gig, so I’m a little anxious about the little one tomorrow:

    We’re just 20 mins of a much, much larger event, so I should just try not to worry about it. We’re just playing a couple old pieces; I haven’t had time to make a new piece in ages, sigh.


  6. Steve Erickson

    I tend to appreciate theory most when it works as literature, which Barthes’ best writing certainly did. A LOVER’S DISCOURSE isn’t exactly a novel, but it’s influenced many. Claire Denis has even said that it inspired LET THE SUN SHINE IN.

    Here’s my interview with music video and film director Joseph Kahn: and my article on British rapper Slowthai: There’s a review of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS in the same new issue of the Brooklyn Rail.

    I should be interviewing Pascal Greggory next Thursday, the day after I see his performance piece THOSE WHO LOVE ME, which is about his relationship with Patrice Chéreau.

    I am volunteering for two hours of calling people in Pennsylvania and asking them to go vote on Sunday. Obviously, I know there are reasons why people don’t vote beyond apathy (working long hours and then facing long lines at the polling station, the government’s very deliberate attempts at voter suppression right now, feeling alienated and unrepresented by both the Democratic and Republican parties) and it’s not going to lead to radical change in the US, but I think it’s extremely important to do so at the moment, although I won’t be telling them who to vote for.

    I didn’t see any “sexy French maid” costumes on Halloween. Maybe people feel guilty about appropriating French culture! The TOP GUN costume was actually fairly elaborate and obviously handmade, with patches sewn onto something that looked like an Air Force uniform but wasn’t. At least the people dressed as gang members weren’t white.

  7. _Black_Acrylic

    The first bit of theory I ever read was at art school in Leeds, when all students were given Barthes’ Mythologies to figure out. It feels like that one plays out as an observational comedy, while A Lover’s Discourse is his great romance.

    I was out this evening for my friend Mickey Mallet’s 50th birthday bash, where he regaled us all with a great performance of his poetry. Mickey doesn’t do social media and none of his work is documented anywhere that I know of, which I think is kind of a shame but he seems quite happy with that. The Dundee art scene was out in force anyway.

  8. alex rose

    hi dennis, x

    sorry i passed your doorstep at Halloween, uuggh

    my job fucked me this week

    yes if boo’s could kill, it be outta boo’s

    why can’t someone kill the yellow king ?

    no new’s here, i email people about my art and im deafened by crickets, stumbled by tumbled weed, the artworld is utterly demented, its gone way back to the borgia, im been waiting 3 weeks for a 1 sentence email reply from my ny gallery and nothing….

    dennis, it’s no wonder the slave boys are are castering themselves

    hahaha, no, that’s wrong, maybe..

    anyway, all is well,sorry, if im cranky, love you and that’s all that is concrete

    alex r, xx

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