Give me a Sign! 'A Lover's Discourse' critiqued

Give me a Sign! Gary Butler on 'A Lover's Discourse'

by |

‘Love and Other Disasters’ is our annual Museums at Night event, an opportunity to explore hundreds of Britain’s best cultural institutions after hours. Our event will be a chance to hear readings of short extracts from favourite tales of love, both fiction and non-fiction, poetry or prose. Our interns and staff will be blogging about the pieces they will read out; if you would like to volunteer to read something, or have a piece read out for you, get in touch before Friday (see details below). In this piece, Gary Butler, our Library Assistant, discusses one of his favourite books about being in love, from which he will read an extract on Friday night…

Whether he seeks to prove his love, or to discover if the other loves him, the amorous subject has no sure signs at his disposal.

Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (trans. Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 2002 [1978]

If ‘Love and other disasters’ is the theme for our Museums at Night event, the theme of A Lover’s Discourse (1978) is arguably that disasters of language can befall anyone ‘in love’. Roland Barthes (1915-1980), a public intellectual of a kind that only France seems to produce, describes the lover’s discourse as ‘the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak’ (p.4). Its 230-odd pages are an echo chamber containing every reverberation of love’s internal, and eternal, dialogue.

It is an unusual book. Through 82 alphabetised sections, it takes apart the many states and statements felt and expressed at love’s beginning, middle, and end. He shows, for instance, how comfort, if not complete understanding, can be found in philology and etymology. Classical Greek, for instance, has two words for desire: ‘Pothos, desire for the absent being, and Himéros, the more burning desire for the present being’ (p.15). Charis (from which ‘charismatic’ originates) is defined as ‘the sparkle of the eyes, the body’s luminous beauty, the radiance of the desirable being’ (p.18).

It is a book that fills the reader (or this reader, at least) with the urge to underline, and to remember as much as possible. There is the same quality of truth in its pages as in poetry:

‘What love lays bare in me is energy. Everything I do has a meaning’ (p.23);

‘The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos. I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular image which has miraculously come to correspond to the speciality of my desire’ (p.34);

‘…I think nothing at all of love. I’d be glad to know what it is, but being inside, I see it in existence, not in essence’ (p.59).

Indeed, A Lover’s Discourse is also a repository of the many tales, thoughts, and poems on the problem of love through history, from Goethe to Plato, Lacan to Zen Buddhism. It isn’t an easy read, but then love isn’t easy, either. It is a book on love that helps us not only to love again, but also to love the wisdom found in the many disasters love and its language has thrown us before, and will probably throw us again.

Tickets for our Museums at Night event, ‘Love and Other Disasters’, on Friday 16 May at 10pm. are £5 each, and can be purchased in person at Reception, or by calling 01244 532 350.If you would like to do a reading at the event, or provide an extract to be read out on your behalf please email to be added to the list.