Editors’ Note: This essay draws upon a structure first found in Roland Barthes’ celebrated work of autotheory, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Citations from Barthes are positioned in the left-hand margin, a format imitated by later autotheorists, including the author in other published work. This piece is best viewed on Google Chrome.
[T]he lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.1
“I am loved less than I love.” (13)
Everyone knows that the lover speaks from great solitude. Roland Barthes teaches us as much. Yet the discourse that I speak comes from a solitude more absolute and profound. For, minus a beloved, I have no one to address. Hence a rare subject: the one who loves with no one to love. From this site of debilitating deficit and perplexing paradox, I offer the following fragments. More yearnings than “utterance[s]” (3), they engage with lines from Barthes in the left-hand margin. But do not expect strict fidelity as you read from left to right. For I will inflect his words with affects all my own.
It has taken many accidents, many surprising coincidences (and perhaps many efforts), for me to find the Image which, out of a thousand, suits my desire. (20)
About all these folds of the body, I want to say that they are adorable. Adorable means: this is my desire, insofar as it is unique: “That’s it! That’s it exactly. . . !” (20)
[H]e then realizes he is doomed to wander until he dies, from love to love. (101)
[C]astration has Intermittence as its figure (I agree to leave the other for a while, “without tears,” I assume the grief of the relation, I am able to forget). (16)
I behave as a well-weaned subject; I can feed myself, meanwhile, on other things besides the maternal breast. (14)
[E]very structure is habitable. . . . (46)
In restaurants, once the last service is over, the tables are set again for the next day: same white cloth, same silverware, same salt and pepper shakers: this is the world of site, of replacement. . . . (221-22)
[I]t is the fear of a mourning which has already occurred, at the very origin of love, from the moment when I was first “ravished.” (30)
In reality, it is unimportant that I have no likelihood of being really fulfilled. . . . Only the will to fulfillment shines, indestructible, before me. (55)
Is there, among all the beings I have loved, a common characteristic, just one, however tenuous . . . , which allows me to say: that’s my type! (34)
Game: there were as many chairs as children, minus one; while the children marched around, a lady pounded on a piano; when she stopped, everyone dashed for a chair and sat down, except the clumsiest, the least brutal, or the unluckiest, who remained standing, stupid, de trop: the lover. (45)
To want to be pigeonholed is to want to obtain for life a docile reception. As support, the structure is separated from desire. . . . (46)
Gaudium is “the pleasure the soul experiences when it considers the possession of a present or future good as assured. . . .” Laetitia is a lively pleasure. . . . (50)
Gaudium is what I dream of: to enjoy a lifelong pleasure. But being unable to accede to Gaudium, . . . I dream of falling back on Laetitia. . . . (50)
Like desire, the love letter waits for an answer. . . . (158)
As a child, I didn’t forget: interminable days, abandoned days, when the Mother was working far away. . . . (14)
I—I who love . . . am sedentary, motionless, at hand, in expectation, nailed to the spot, in suspense—like a package in some forgotten corner of a railway station. (13)
[I]sn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent? Isn’t the object always absent? (15)
I take a seat, alone, in a café; people come over and speak to me; I feel that I am sought after, surrounded, flattered. But the other is absent. . . . (17)
[I]n this café, I look at the others who come in, chat, joke, read calmly: they are not waiting. (38)
Confronted with the other’s brilliant originality, I never feel myself to be atopos, but rather classified (like an all-too familiar dossier). (35)
Everything signifies: by this proposition, I entrap myself, I bind myself in calculations, I keep myself from enjoyment. (63)
This morning, I must get off an “important” letter right away— one on which the success of a certain undertaking depends; but instead I write a love letter— which I do not send. (23)
Absence persists—I must endure it. Hence I will manipulate it: transform the distortion of time into oscillation, produce rhythm . . . (. . . the child has made himself a doll out of a spool, throws it away and picks it up again, miming the mother’s departure and return . . .). (16)
I see daylight again . . . because I abandon that love altogether and set out again. . . . (198)
I see myself in the other who loves without being loved, I recognize in him the very gestures of my own unhappiness, but this time it is I myself who am the active agent of this unhappiness. . . . (129-30)
Like a bad concert hall, affective space contains dead spots where the sound fails to circulate. (167)
Now, the affective relation is an exact machine; . . . what is out of phase is immediately de trop: my language is not, strictly speaking, a discard but rather an “overstock”. . . . (167-68)
This “affective contagion,” this induction, proceeds from others, from the language, from books, from friends: no love is original. (Mass culture is a machine for showing desire: here is what must interest you. . . .) (136-37)
The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected. . . . I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.” (119)
I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds, I love only one. The other with whom I am in love designates for me the specialty of my desire. (19)
[I]t is my desire I desire, and the loved being is no more than its tool. (31)
Such is amorous fatigue: a hunger not to be satisfied, a gaping love. (156)
[T]he world and I are not interested in the same thing; and to my misfortune, this divided thing is myself; I am not interested . . . in my mind; you are not interested in my heart. (52)
[T]he heart is what remains of me, once all the wit attributed to me and undesired by me is taken away: the heart is what remains to me, and this heart that lies heavy on my heart is heavy with the ebb which has filled it with itself. . . . (52-53)
As with the lover suffering from the loquela: he twiddles his wound. (161)
[T]he “subject” . . . is the one who suffers: where there is a wound, there is a subject. . . . (189)
The pleasure potential of a perversion (in this case, that of the two H.’s: homosexuality and hashish) is always underestimated. . . . [I]t produces a more: I am more sensitive, more perceptive, more loquacious, more amused, etc. . .. Henceforth, it is a goddess, a figure that can be invoked, a means of intercession.6
Yesterday afternoon, hanging out with friends at a local bar, I logged on to a dating app. Soon I started chatting with a young man downtown. After we exchanged a few messages, I invited him to my place. Admittedly, I was skeptical. With a headless picture, his brief profile intimated a certain sketchiness. As it turned out, he was an inexperienced bi-curious man, and I was happy to lend him my expertise. And he, in return, offered me it, almost it.
Although I cast myself as akin to Frankenstein’s creature, that forsaken reader of Goethe’s Werther, my amorous life is, in truth, more episodic than defunct. I had my first significant relationship at twenty, my second around thirty, my third just before forty, and my last one in my late forties. Along the way, I’ve entertained countless men, many of whose names now escape me, sometimes for a night, other times for a few weeks. Each time that an affair came to an end, I tried to forget my departed lover. Now and again, I even swore off love all together. And yet, I stupidly persist.
Perhaps, then, intermittent is more apt than solitary as a descriptor of my amatory life.2 Intermittence is a figure Barthes mentions only in passing. Accepting his gracious invitation to augment his figures (5), I consult the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines intermittent as something “[t]hat . . . ceases for a time; coming at intervals; operating by fits and starts.” The word is thus inherently ambiguous. On the one hand, it describes an activity one occasionally discontinues. On the other hand, it characterizes an action one sporadically resumes. Thus, when it modifies the lover, the term refers to one of two amorous states. Either I’m out of love: I seek a carnal image, a drink, or another sorry substitute. Or I’m in love again: I’m enthralled and satisfied. Always in one state or another, each implying the other, the Intermittent Lover is forever betwixt and between.
I take up residence in the structure that Barthes has prepared for me. Yet I’ll inhabit it with a difference of a decidedly Derridian rather Saussurian sort. To explain, I borrow a Barthesian example but take it in an alternative direction. Barthes’s lover likened a structure to a restaurant table whose accoutrements are replaced with identical items night after night. Despite the structural similarity, I would suggest that a difference nonetheless emerges each time the table welcomes new diners. For example, if I sit at the table in New York rather than in Paris, in this century rather than in the last, differences of place and time have already set the stage for something unprecedented to occur. And if I take a seat alone at a table for two, I may leave the structure unaltered, but the scenario that occurs will be different from the one that would have taken place if someone had joined me. Of course, I can always play Hitchcock’s Miss Lonelyhearts, gesturing to the absent other, but to avoid puzzled glances from fellow diners, I silently rehearse the day’s events, cast a furtive glance at the handsome man at the next table, and chat with the cute server. It is this difference—the Intermittent Lover’s singular experience in the amorous structure—that characterizes my discourse.
This morning, leafing once again through A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, I happened upon two marginalia, both at the end of Agony. One, dated almost two years ago, reads as follows: “I feel the same way.” The other, dated just over a year ago, echoes, “And again.” As I confront the traces of my amorous failure, I recognize that love will always be for me the site of a death that has already transpired. Yet I will not mourn that loss. Instead, I will persevere against all odds. Even though I’ll never be swept off my feet, find my better half, live happily ever after, or embrace any other revolting cliché, I still believe that one day I will relocate the source of my desire.
Whenever I log on to the app, I sift through the profiles first for the fundamental physical elements of my type. Youthfulness and slenderness top the list. But if the man is
older, I’ll insist on thinness. If he’s younger, I’ll accept a few extra pounds around the middle. Unfortunately, today’s online chat didn’t yield the requisite combination. When I first landed on one man’s profile, I detected a certain height-weight disproportion, but he seemed promising enough. The more I solicited personal details, the more he disappointed. Thus, in the end, I bid him farewell and returned to my desk.
The position proper to the single person on amatory pause is not so much different as liminal. Let’s reconsider our dining scene. In the past, whenever I would enter restaurants alone, the maîtres d’hôtel would look at me perplexed. Sometimes they would insist on my waiting for a table for two. Other times they would escort me to a table for four only to move me minutes later to a smaller table. It seems that a restaurant cannot accommodate the solo diner without rigmarole. Nowadays I skirt the whole problem. I simply dine at the bar.3 There, still technically within the restaurant’s orbit of couples, families, and other conventional diners but nearly adjacent to it, I observe customers, contemplate incidents, and, most of all, keep desire alive.
When younger, I aspired to abiding love. I sought potential partners at social gatherings, struck up conversations in bars, and sometimes even went out on dates. No one can fault me for such heroic efforts. Yet now, in middle age, I’m satisfied with incidental pleasures, the kind potentially found in an evening tryst, a passing flirtation, or some pitiful replacement. Whenever I’m fortunate enough to find someone compatible and available for a brief time, I devote all of my passion to him, the proxy for my true but forever-absent beloved.
This morning I tried to estimate the number of hours I stayed logged on to the app last weekend and the number of unanswered messages I sent. If only I could recapture that lost time, I could play the piano, draft an essay, or visit a friend. Yet I still wait on desire.
Sometimes the lover experiences Intermittence as Absence. For they are two kindred figures, different but at times only subtly so. Prone to Intermittence, the lover acquiesces to the other’s departure, casting the beloved into temporary oblivion (16). Subject to Absence, the lover suffers abandonment and refuses to forget the other. So far, the distinction between the two figures is clear enough. The confusion arises when the Intermittent Lover, after giving up love, aspires to resume it after a while. Biding time, the lover quietly prepares for the long-awaited advent, anticipating love just around the corner. In that respect, the Intermittent Lover is not all that different from the abandoned lover, who, like a forsaken parcel, awaits the beloved’s return.
What ultimately links the two lovers, however, is their tragic recognition that desire depends on absence for its existence.
This afternoon I took the jaunt to a Brooklyn bar. As I entered, my favorite bartender greeted me with an infectious smile. After grabbing a beer, I sat on the loveseat. Through the window in front of me, I spied groups of fellow drinkers laughing and petting their dogs. Although I came all this way to drink and forget, I soon opened the app and dashed off random messages, hoping for the beloved to (re)appear, if not at my side, at least on the screen, as if he had been absent for only a little while. Thus, even if I substitute a drink for the absent other, the replacement fails to appease. For it reminds me of the loss that characterizes my love life. And so, I oscillate between two phases of Intermittence, or is it, rather, between Intermittence and Absence? Although I try to forget love, I nonetheless wait for, even plot, its arrival on the scene.
This morning, hopeful for an amorous liaison, I edited my profile on the app. I never know how to strike the appropriate tone. I feel either too predictable or too eccentric, too prudish or too revelatory. While I debated the matter, I scanned past messages. The ones from last weekend’s rendezvous had mysteriously disappeared. I was stunned. Did he really have the nerve to block me? The meaning behind his abrupt rejection I will never know.
Dear Erstwhile Lover,
This morning I take some time from writing essays and reading books, grading papers and cleaning the apartment to compose this letter at long last. Although I salute you in the singular, you are legion. For a few of you, I thought you were the one, the person with whom I could share the rest of my life. For most of you, I could have settled for a few weeks, even a few nights. To still others, I was ready to say good-bye. I’m sure that for all of you my idiosyncrasies strained our relationships: my early matinal routine, my solitary proclivities, and my fastidious housekeeping. Yet I nonetheless hope that, at least for a while, I gave you the affection and companionship you sought. Mostly, I want you to know that I loved you—all.
The Intermittent Lover
Lately, I’ve been drinking too much. Like a child who hasn’t mastered the fort-da game, I stage alcohol’s happy reappearance more often than its melancholy leave-taking.4 The other night I tried my hand at a different approach to this daily ritual. I consumed not even a drop of wine or beer. I figured that, if I could abstain even one night, I would relish a drink the following day. I was correct. Yet, no matter how well I play this game with wine or beer, I still haven’t succeeded in drawing the beloved back into my life.
In his seminar The Neutral, Barthes planned a number of figures he later deserted. One of them was, fittingly enough, Abandon.5 Scanning the OED, I learn that the first major definition of abandon is “[t]o give up or relinquish completely.” Within that definition lies a remarkable but unacknowledged bifurcation. On the one hand, the word signifies “to give up” something (definitions I.1-2, 4, 6-8). On the other hand, it means “to give oneself up” to something entirely (definitions I.3 and 5). Given that dual meaning, I propose that the Intermittent Lover lives in a perpetual state of abandon. Serially surrendering to amorous attachments, the lover always risks being left in the lurch. Yet, when a relationship becomes too stressful to bear, the lover, too, can muster the courage to cast the beloved aside.
The other day, as a friend came to mind, an unexpected sadness came over me. From past conversations, I know he once desired me, but I failed to reciprocate. I empathize with his amorous disappointment. Sharing the same structure, he is a heartbroken emblem of myself.
Whenever I’ve had a boyfriend, even for a few weeks or months, I could always detect when we were beginning to drift apart. It was like finding in our relationship a “dead spot”: a place where we could not adequately address or hear the other. Of course, I would never give voice to the concern for fear of accelerating the time to inevitable termination. If only I could sustain this relationship a little longer, I reasoned, I could defer that moment when, once again, I would be relegated to the wretched status of reject or, better yet, remnant, an unwanted leftover doomed to forget desire for a stretch.
My whole adult life friends have tried to match me with handsome, intelligent, sophisticated men. And, in my amorous meanderings, I’ve often pursued men with those very characteristics. Yet, no matter how many men with that description I meet, I can’t seem to snatch one. And, as much as that profile would seem to suit me, it rarely coincides with my type: a younger, slender, artsy or nerdy man, slightly disheveled and in want of care. Indeed, I know I’ve discovered my type when, upon encountering a guy, my first impulse is to rescue him. Then, if all goes as if preordained, I enter my desire’s danger zone: a nebulous space where love is fierce, tortured, and transitory.
All weekend long, as I anticipated my birthday, I stayed continuously logged on to the app. I hoped that, even without a boyfriend, I might at least find Laetitia, the term Barthes’s lover adopts for a vivacious sensation (50). Day after day passed, but no success. Then it happened: that rare moment when one man’s interests and schedule coincided with my own. As the appointed hour approached, my excitement built. When we finally met, it quickly became apparent that he was kind and reasonably handsome. Yet, in him, I didn’t find it, that one scarcely nameable thing for which I longed. More disappointed than satisfied, I later laid my head on my pillow and drifted off to sleep.
As I approach six years without a boyfriend, I doubt I’ll ever find one again. Thus, my epithet is surely a misnomer. A lover is, after all, someone who loves someone else. Yet I’ve come to realize that my moniker doesn’t require a direct object for syntactical completion. Indeed, my search for romantic fulfillment depends more on the mainspring of my desire than on the person who might embody it. For if, as in my amorous history, the other is only ever fleetingly available, more often absent than present, it matters little whether he drops into or out of my life or
even stays awhile. What I want, in the end, is desire.
This morning I deleted the app from my cellphone—and not for the first time. I owed this rash decision to the onset of weariness and frustration. I’m tired of surfing profiles and sending messages only to receive silence in return. I’m tired of reading messages from men who live across the world or fall outside my type. Don’t be dismayed, gentle reader. I haven’t abandoned desire. It’s only in abeyance. No doubt in a few days I’ll download the app and start again.
Sometimes when I’m downhearted, I try to bring to mind the personal attributes for which I’m most admired. Usually organization, reliability, and dispatch top the list. Yet what I most want in life is for someone not to appreciate me but to desire me. Even if no one fancies me, I’m nonetheless convinced that, despite any loss or rejection I may face in this life, desire will endure. And if I’m wrong, if my heart were to break at long last, I fear I won’t be able to repair or replace it.
Whenever I speak, I feel like a perverse child who periodically lifts a bandage to expose a wound, letting it bleed and ooze. Undoubtedly, some readers would have preferred for me to have kept my bandage intact. Yet it is only in disclosing my wound that I can fully embrace my vocation as an Intermittent Lover.
In my amorous despair, I summon the goddess H. For those who embrace her gifts, she offers neither romantic felicity nor sexual bliss. Instead, her fruits are based on addition: a heightened state of awareness, sensitivity, and amusement. Even so, I still wish she would bestow on me the elusive object of my desire.
I say to the other (old or new): Let us begin again. (24)
Walking home this afternoon, two young men eagerly accosted me. One was tall, slender, and dark-headed, while the other was shorter, thin, and blonde. After a brief exchange, I learned that they were tasked with persuading willing passersby to make a certain environmental change in their lives. Normally, I would have wished them good day, but these guys were too enticing to pass up. Shaking my hand, the tall one promised to deliver only two sentences but soon ran over the limit. I didn’t mind much. As I eased away from his display table, I evaded his request for a decision on the matter but lingered just long enough to engage with his blond colleague. With a twinkle in his eye, he complimented my all-gray outfit. Amused, I finally turned away, muttering “too cute” under my breath. The interaction, though brief, buoyed my confidence. It’s undoubtedly true that they flaunted their beauty and youth for the sake of persuasion. But if they found me attractive enough to play that game, I haven’t been put out to pasture just yet. Perhaps I will download the app later tonight.
1 See Barthes, Lover’s Discourse 1. From this point, all parenthetical citations with page numbers come from this text.
2 Elsewhere I describe this aspect of my love life as a series of intermezzi. See Daffron 47-48. In that piece, I mention other amorous patterns described here but to different ends; see 43-44 and 49.
3 For a different treatment of this personal preference, see “Savories: A Diet after Roland Barthes,” forthcoming in The AutoEthnographer.
4 See Freud 13-15.
5 See Barthes, Neutral 255, note 1.
6 See Barthes, Roland Barthes 63-64.
“Abandon, V.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2022, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/70.
Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Translated by Richard Howard, Noonday P, 1990.
Barthes, Roland. The Neutral. Lecture Course at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Translated by Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier, Columbia UP, 2005.
Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, 1977.
Daffron, Eric. “Interstitial Living: Fragments towards an Ethics.” European Journal of Life Writing, vol. 11, 2022, pp. 32-64. U of Groningen P, http://doi.org/10.21827/ejlw.11.37967.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translated by James Strachey, W. W. Norton, 1989.
“Intermittent, Adj. and N.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2022, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/98036.
Eric Daffron, based in New York City, is a professor of literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Although he devoted his past scholarship to early gothic literature, Michel Foucault, and other topics, he currently writes in an autotheoretical mode with a particular emphasis on Roland Barthes.