By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

“I Love You” (in Theory)

In which Roland Barthes asks “Alors, l’amour?”

Blake Smith

Portrait of Roland Barthes (detail), 1979, © François Lagarde; Agence Opale/Alamy Stock Photo.

On Thursday, January 23, 1975, Roland Barthes lectured in Paris at the École pratique des hautes études on the theme of love, focusing on the phrase “I love you.”  Barthes was then at the summit of his career. From his beginnings as a literary and cultural critic of the “mythologies” of mass media in the years after World War II, he had become both a famous writer and (despite never finishing any of his three attempts at graduate study) one of the more influential figures in French academia. Known best for his pioneering application of structural linguistics to the analysis of texts ranging from the classics of literature to detergent packaging, Barthes seemed in the 1960s and early ’70s to have laid the basis for a new science, or semiotics, of culture.

Barthes’s analysis of love, however, came at a critical moment in his thinking, just after he had announced, in his experimental autobiography Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (finished in the autumn of 1974) that he was tired not only of semiotics but of the pretenses to epistemic “heroism” and “arrogance” that characterize all forms of theory.11xRoland Barthes, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, in Roland Barthes, Œuvres complètes IV, livres, textes, entretiens, 1972–1976, ed. Eric Marty (Paris, France: Seuil, 2002): 575–774. He condemned what he called “the blackmail of theory,” by which we seem to hear ideas saying that we must “love, maintain, [and] defend” them because they align with our intellectual commitments. But isn’t thinking a kind of pleasure, Barthes asked, and isn’t it in the nature of pleasure, whether intellectual or erotic, to make us question such certainties?

Stepping back from the discipline of semiotics, and apparently from the pursuit of generalizable knowledge of any kind, Barthes also announced a shift in his political views that, by the time of his death in 1980, would take him to the limits of an idiosyncratic liberalism. As he was completing his autobiography, in the spring of 1974, he had joined a group of fellow travelers on the French left for a three-week trip to Maoist China. The group, which included the young Bulgarian theorist of language Julia Kristeva (whose career in France owed much to Barthes’s effusive public praise) and was originally meant to include the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, was composed mostly of thinkers looking for an alternative model after their disillusionment with the Soviet Union and the French Communist Party. Barthes, as he wrote in a book-length unpublished diary, was looking to distract himself from a painful, one-sided romantic obsession (for which he would soon seek treatment from Lacan, unsuccessfully). What he found in communist China bored and disgusted him: political clichés from every interlocutor, drab uniformity of dress and comportment, a country, it seemed, in which the personal and the pleasurable had been abolished. Once back in France, Barthes published a short, dismissive essay, “Alors, la Chine?” “We return,” he wrote, “with: nothing.”22xRoland Barthes, “Alors la Chine?,” in Roland Barthes, Œuvres complètes IV, 516.

As he began his seminar on what he had recently started calling the “lover’s discourse,” the things that someone in love says to himself, the beloved, and others, Barthes seems to have prepared himself for a decisive break with “theory” in both science and politics. The experience of love, both as he himself was undergoing it and as it could be considered in “discourse,” might have seemed an ideal topic through which to pursue a new, post-theoretical approach that moved from the abstract to the personal. Yet Barthes’s lecture on “I love you” was a display of theoretical bravura, in sometimes bracingly opaque language. It drew, ironically, on linguistic and psychoanalytic jargon he had been exposed to by Kristeva and Lacan. Their difficult, rebarbative styles worked their way into his own, with characteristic neologisms, erudite digressions, and inversions of the obvious. Drawing from their work, and the broader, voguish, conceptual vocabularies of linguistics and psychoanalysis, Barthes’s lecture offered a dense theory, at times impenetrable and self-contradictory, about declarations of love.

The crux was that “I love you” is a statement “without context,” resisting explanation in terms of what precedes or underlies it. This phrase, unlike any other, cannot be historicized, with attention to circumstance revealing its meaning in this instance to differ from its meaning in that one. “I love you” can be analyzed only in terms of its self-same, unchanging essence, which is a doomed “demand” for love from an arbitrarily selected, and ultimately irrelevant, beloved. But even as Barthes insisted that “I love you” has no context, and no hope, he was not only analyzing these words but saying them, in a covert address to one of his students, Roland Havas, with whom he was, unrequitedly and despondently, in love.

An Unchaste Socrates

Romantic and sexual relationships between students and professors were in that era neither forbidden nor necessarily frowned upon in the French, or American, academy. (In our own case, one has only to think of Allan Bloom’s relationships with students, semicovertly celebrated in what conservatives misread as a celebration of traditional morality, The Closing of the American Mind.) Barthes had enjoyed several such intimacies during the previous decade, making himself the center of a circle of admiring young men who had been or might become his lovers. Many of them became, in later years, something like successors, significant figures in French intellectual life who wrote monographs and organized conferences on Barthes, even seeing to the posthumous publication of his lectures. Like Michel Foucault, who had been his friend in the mid-’60s (before Foucault’s increasingly strenuous political radicalism drove them apart), Barthes seems to have relished being at the center of a group of male student-lovers, as an unchaste Socrates—more so than he enjoyed any of the particular partners on whom he temporarily focused his attention. Until he met Havas.

More than thirty years younger than Barthes—who had been born in 1915—Havas spent many days and evenings in his teacher’s company in 1974 and ’75, playing piano, discussing psychoanalysis, and occasionally sharing a bed. But he was already living with his fiancée, whom he would eventually marry. He may have been flattered by the interest of one of France’s most famous thinkers, who remained dashing, if a bit pudgy, at the threshold of sixty. But Barthes’s desire neither altered the course of Havas’s life nor aroused in him any reciprocal intensity.

This unaccustomed rebuff seems to have inflamed his teacher. After falling for Havas in the spring of 1974 and enjoying what he called in his diary (perhaps retrospectively) a “brilliant summer” of delusion, Barthes spent the second half of that year in despair.33xRoland Barthes, “Chronologie et premier index,” Fonds Roland Barthes, NAF 28630 (9), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Roland Barthes archive. He wrote Havas hundreds of love letters, sometimes several a week, to which his student often didn’t respond. By the beginning of 1975, Barthes was lurching between listless misery and lacerating agony, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night wracked by thoughts of suicide.

Barthes’s seminar on love was, ostensibly, about a fictional version of just this situation. The course, he announced at the beginning of the year, would examine the “lover’s discourse” in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Written two centuries earlier, as Goethe grappled with an unrequited love of his own, the novel recounted the title character’s romantic obsession with a young woman, Charlotte, which eventually drives him to kill himself. The novel inspired a wave of Wertherian suicides across Europe, but Goethe himself, Barthes noted, had escaped Werther’s fate by writing a novel about him. Barthes did not say aloud, but may have hoped, that he could do the same for himself by lecturing about the novel, in a strategy, self-therapeutic no less than pedagogy, of talking about Goethe’s escape from love through art as an escape of his own from love through commentary.

If Goethe had sublimated his feelings in a coherent, masterful work of art, however, Barthes took a different approach, eschewing any sort of conventional unity for his lectures. On the first day of the course, he introduced it by arguing that although we often talk about love, including our own, as a story with a beginning, middle, and end, we experience it as a disorienting series of isolated moments.

When we look at love from the outside—for example, as readers of a romantic novel—we can imagine it progressing, through a series of difficulties and pleasures, to its tragic or joyous conclusion. But when we are in love, we don’t see a path. We don’t understand how our confused and contradictory feelings, our alternatingly joyous and dim visions of the beloved, can be reconciled into a whole. These discordant states of feeling, each coming into language in its own fragment of discourse, form in Barthes’s account not the raw material of a narrative but so many distinct voices.

Aiming to make his students experience for themselves love’s dizzying multiplicity, Barthes moved in each lecture through a variety of apparently unrelated themes. Over the weeks of his seminar, he tracked the changing emotional states, as expressed in Werther and other texts, through which someone in love drifts. To capture the way such a person is pulled unpredictably from one emotional state to another, and from one way of talking to another, he isolated and labeled several such fragments, then arranged them alphabetically. Each of his lectures would be composed of several of these units, related to one another solely on the basis of alphabetical order.

The plan immediately broke down. He gave the first proper lecture, in the second week of the course, on the ravissement of falling in love—as the word connotes in both French and English, the experience of being seized and drawn upward by a deity, in the manner of both the Christian Rapture and the love affairs of Zeus. This lecture was out of alphabetical sequence, Barthes admitted, but he rationalized that love is like that, disorganizing even our attempts to represent its disorganization. We are always surprised to find ourselves in love, and in love with this specific person. Once in love, we are, in a sense, out of place, “atopic.” Obsessed with our image of the beloved, we become ill at ease in company and by ourselves, unable to fit into our usual groups or routines. We are amazed that everyone else is still so wholeheartedly involved in what, from the perspective of lovers, seems like futile business and idle chatter. Coming without warning, love takes lovers out of the world. Returning to the world (and alphabetical order), Barthes devoted the following week’s lecture to the word aime—as in je t’aime, “I love you.”

Barthes used strange linguistic arguments to justify his decision to focus on this conjugated form of the infinitive aimer (“to love”). The verb love, he said ought to have no infinitive. In other verbs, the infinitive exercises a “metalinguistic role,” placing our attention in a “neutral position” from which we focus only on the act abstracted from any actor. But in our actual experience, we never take such a neutral position toward love. Loving always “implies a subject-position” and has to be conjugated (I love, you love, etc.). A “true grammar” (italics his) would reveal that loving is unlike any other activity, cannot be considered apart from a subject—and, why not, an object—to form the phrase “I love you.”

“I love you,” Barthes went on, comes “without context.” It is a “cry” that constantly echoes in the heart of the lover and can erupt at any moment into discourse. “I love you” appears suddenly out of our vast, unknown inner life, like a “fallen meteor.” (The metaphor is revealingly bad; astronomers can see meteors coming.) Neither does “I love you” have “isotopy.” This was a concept from linguistics that had only recently been developed by Algirdas Greimas to refer to the expectations that a word or phrase creates about what is to follow. But in the case of love, Barthes argued, if we wonder about the “the preceding message” that was said just before “I love you,” we are bound to be misled. Love comes out of the blue, just like that, with no explanation.

Certainly, that was how his argument seemed to be proceeding. With purple language about cries of the heart and fallen meteors, as well as recently invented jargon that must have been obscure to many in the audience, Barthes was insisting that “‘I love you’” can appear anywhere, anytime, and thus should not be analyzed in terms of its “context.”

Such a claim should make us suspicious. If taken seriously, it would convey that “I love you” as a unit of meaning always means the same thing. Context, after all, is that which we use to distinguish among what we would ordinarily take to be the various senses of “I love you” (or any other phrase). One may find oneself, for example, saying “I love you” as an apology, a plea, a reproach—and perhaps infinitely many other things—depending on the specific conversation and relationship in which one says it. Barthes denied that these contextual considerations had any relevance to the analysis of “I love you,” which always comes into language in the same, contextless way.

The timing and content of Barthes’s lecture on “I love you” raise questions—in defiance of his injunctions, or in a secret fidelity to his real intentions—about its context. What moved him, as a thinker and as a lover, to take “I love you” for his theme at just this moment? One way to answer the question would be to consider, as Barthes enjoined us not to, a “preceding message.” He had written in his diary the night before, “The idea occurs to me, scathingly, that R[oland] never answers my letters and usually doesn’t even acknowledge having received them.”44xRoland Barthes, “Chronologie et premier index,” Fonds Roland Barthes, NAF 28630 (9), Bibliothèque Nationale de France [unpaginated], entry for Jan. 22, 1975.

Barthes had first confessed to Havas that he loved him five months earlier. This was the only instance of telling Havas “I love you” that Barthes recorded in his diary, which does, however, reveal his almost constant anxiety, pain, and grief over his student’s “muteness,” his inability to reciprocate Barthes’s feelings and unwillingness to respond to what Barthes said and wrote to him. The section of the lecture that followed Barthes’s pseudolinguistic remarks on love addressed, precisely, the problem of silence. He argued, in a reversal of his actual, personal situation, that the silence torturing the lover is not the silence of the beloved, but his own.

Seeming to suddenly remember that the course was supposed to be about Goethe’s novel, Barthes declared that Werther had been driven to suicide because he had been unable to say “I love you” to Charlotte. The unspoken avowal “putrefied” in him, leading to fatal despair. Werther thus appeared as the tragic story of a “mute lover” who could have been cured if he had revealed his feelings. The lover who speaks, in contrast, can begin “refashioning” and releasing his passion. Breaking his own silence is the first and most important step the lover must take to rescue himself from the pain of love.

Alone at night, Barthes suffered from Havas’s silence, but in the light of day, before an audience, he could turn his suffering inside out. Despite the unhappiness that had followed his declaration of love to Havas, Barthes was now telling students that Werther proved that the lover “should always say ‘I-love-you!’” (as one hurried word) regardless of the consequences. Otherwise, thoughts of love would form a deadly “blockage” inside him—as if such thoughts were not still a blockage inside Barthes, months after he had said “I love you” to Havas, and as if his lecture, in which he said, under the cover of citation, “I love you” again and again, was not only another sort of continued, unanswered address to his beloved student.

If Havas and the other students were two distinct audiences, to whom Barthes’s lecture spoke in different registers, Barthes was also talking, in a third register, to himself. In this passage he seems to have been reassuring himself that, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, he was better off than Werther. Having made his declaration to Havas, he had escaped the greatest danger, suicide—however narrow or unsecured an escape that might be.

Agonized by the “muteness” of his beloved, Barthes justified having admitted his feelings. The lover must say “I love you,” or die! But as he transitioned to the next section of his lecture, shifting from linguistics to psychoanalysis, Barthes recognized that “I love you” is not just a statement, but a “demand” that expects a response. It is, he further asserted, inevitably disappointed.

Absolute Lack

Here, Barthes turned to the work of Jacques Lacan. Psychoanalysis was then one of the most important discourses in French intellectual life, and Lacan was its most (self-)important spokesman. Not without reason, Barthes justified his resort to psychoanalysis by explaining that it offered the only conceptual vocabulary for discussing love that would be taken seriously by his contemporaries. But psychoanalysis was not just one of the epistemological bases of the age. It was a frequent subject of discussion between Barthes and Havas, who was in training to become an analyst. In his lecture, Barthes sharpened Lacanian theory into a weapon against his beloved, using it to argue that beloveds, in general, are insignificant objects of misguided fantasies.

Barthes gave a summary of Lacanian theory based more on conversations with Havas than the still scant quantity of Lacan’s published writings and seminars. As Barthes explained it, Lacan teaches us that we remain, throughout our lives, in the position of children longing for our mother’s love, seeking more or less tolerable symbolic substitutes. As infants, we call out for our mother when she is physically separated from us. In the first years of life, we begin to develop language, learning not only to make these calls with words rather than screams and sobs but to be satisfied with a linguistic rather than physical response. “Mommy’s here,” said in a warm and tender voice, becomes as pleasurable as being held or suckling at the breast, or even more so. From then on, our longing for intimacy—the caring presence of another person—is expressed and answered more and more in symbolic terms, through language, rather than in the direct meeting of bodies.

“I love you,” Barthes added, is the paradigm of this substitution of word for flesh. We say it to reveal our experience of “absence,” of being separate from others and uncared for by them. We hope that, by saying it, we will be met, as we were as infants, with “the message of presence,” a reciprocal “I love you.” This phrase is a plea “to be recognized,” begging the beloved: “Be there. Speak to me. Love me.” It is an echo of the child’s first cries when its mother is absent, the cries that are the origin of language itself—as though, just as all our desires derive from our fundamental, infantile longing for our mother, all our discourse, as a substitute for her absence, shouts out “I love you!” yet means “Love me!”

Imagine, Barthes told his audience, “the case, improbable but hoped for,” in which, “in one flash, simultaneously,” two lovers tell each other “I love you.” It would be the “joyous mirror, the fulfillment” of desire—for an instant. “From absolute satisfaction” in such a mutual embrace would only surge an unmediated awareness of “absolute lack,” the “bitterness” of knowing that even when we get what we think we want, we cannot be lastingly happy. The cycle of illusion would begin again, with some new object of desire deluding us with the promise that it could give us the sense of plenitude that only God and our mothers—with whom, as living adults, we can hope for no blissful union—offer us in our prayers or memories.

Werther needed to tell Charlotte “I love you,” then, regardless of the consequences, because whether he were to feel the disappointment of rejection or the inevitable disillusionment of an actual romantic relationship, he would in either case realize that she, like any beloved, was not what he really wanted. Werther was in love only with a “fetishized” ideal, investing in his image of this dull young woman all the wonderful qualities and promise of joy that mothers have in the eyes of their infants, who, once grown, can never again experience such ecstasy and contentment. Charlotte herself, Barthes noted, is “boring.”

From the Lacanian point of view as adopted by Barthes, the task of the lover—the person demanding love—is to speak his “truth” (“I love you”) in order to grasp the greater truth of his, and humankind’s, condition: that every love is a passing substitute for the love we have lost forever. The lover needs to confess his love not because the answer, whatever it might be, will satisfy his “lack,” but because he should rid himself as quickly as possible of this specific desire and its corollary delusion that the beloved is somehow different from his or her equally unsatisfying predecessors.

As if to prove that language is the play of substitutions, Barthes had now provided (in the space of only a few pages of notes, equivalent to perhaps fifteen minutes of lecturing) no less than three different accounts of “I love you.” He did not signal how different they were from each other, or clearly mark the transitions from one to another.

The first account presented “I love you” as a contextless burst directly from the lover’s anguish. Its precedents and consequences are not of interest, and it does not appear as something said deliberately to achieve some desired end. “I love you” is a meteor that falls to earth, dangerous and strange, but not something prompting questions about intent or significance.

In his second version of things, Barthes analyzed “I love you” as a phrase said by a lover who surmounts an inner resistance that has been keeping his feelings silenced. Here “I love you” is deliberate and consequential. If the lover can say it, he rescues himself from the worst of his suffering; if he cannot say it, he dies. While the first account analyzed “I love you” as something that unpredictably forces its way into speech despite the intentions of the speaker, the second account treated it as a therapy that lovers should perform on themselves. “I love you” was no longer a meteor crashing over the lover’s head but a courageous, salutary choice to speak what he felt.

Now Barthes had given yet a third account of “I love you.” Although he had begun the lecture by arguing, through rather bizarre employments of linguistic concepts, that the word love is unlike other words, here he claimed, with the help of Lacan, that “I love you” is in fact the hidden template of all speech. Saying “I love you,” from this psychoanalytic perspective, is neither a contextless eruption nor a courageous decision, but a revelation of the unconscious and its relationship to language. Everything we say is a lover’s discourse addressed to an absent mother.

What Barthes’s students—and Havas in particular—made of the lecture is impossible to say. We should keep in mind, as we consider it, that it was delivered with a voice, a look, a body, shaken, inwardly and perhaps outwardly, by desire, to an audience that was likely uncomfortable and perplexed. Sitting in the crowded classroom, alongside colleagues and friends (and perhaps his fiancée), Havas would have heard Barthes say “I love you” dozens of times over the course of the lecture.

Where, and how, did Barthes direct his gaze as he said it? Steadily at Havas? Stealthily? Or, knowing that his student would know to whom this phrase was addressed, did he glance indifferently at one member of the audience, then another, or into some blank middle distance, as if the I and you were only grammatical units, not two real people in the room? As Barthes spoke, again and again, the words that expressed his feelings, did Havas blush or shudder? Was he already past being embarrassed or flattered by such scenes? Perhaps sensing that something was amiss, did the other students awkwardly avert their eyes, titter meaningfully to one another, slump in resigned confusion?

From Desire to Theory

Whatever the audience made of Barthes’s lectures, generations of readers of the book that resulted from them, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, have been, since its publication in 1977, almost unanimous in their praise of its masterful analysis of love.55xRoland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978). First published 1977 as Fragments d’un discours amoureux. Moving, like the lectures, from one fragment to another, the book has appeared as a kind of theoretical kaleidoscope whose shifts in perspective reveal, as Barthes biographer Tiphaine Samoyault puts it, “an experience that belong[s] to all,” the universal structure of love.66xTiphaine Samoyault, Barthes: A Biography, trans. Andrew Brown (Cambridge, England: Polity, 2017), 398. First published 2015 as Roland Barthes, Biographie.

In connection with their analysis of the lectures that led to A Lover’s Discourse, present-day Barthes scholars and biographers do mention, with varying degrees of hagiographic discretion, his infatuation with Havas. In his introduction to the published edition of the lectures, Eric Marty, one of Barthes’s former students, traces how Barthes transformed personal suffering, first into a diary recording his romantic longing, then into the lectures, and finally into the book. Samoyault follows the same course, moving, apparently with Barthes, from the private pain of unreciprocated love through the work of thinking, arriving at a theory of love applicable to any lover. She argues that while Barthes “does bring his personal experience into play, this is only while placing it at a distance and insofar as it can help the structures to be displayed.”77xIbid., 396.

The theorist ascends, it seems, from the crushingly private experience of a contingent love affair to the impersonal essence of love as such. Presenting such an account of Barthes’s thinking about love, such scholars give readers new iterations of a common vision of the relationship between living and thinking that has been handed down to us since Plato’s Symposium. We start, so it goes, with our own singular desires before, in a movement that could be described either as propelled by or in flight from them, coming to recognize truths about what love, or human nature, is like. This knowledge is theoretical insofar as it moves us from the specific and concrete to the universal and abstract.

With concepts from linguistics and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Barthes traced his own version of this passage from desire to theory, the personal to the general, and love to disillusionment, in his lecture on “I love you.” Few readers appear to have been struck by the stark incoherence of his claims—or the madness of having delivered them to the man with whom he was so unhappily in love!

Barthes’s analysis of “I love you” as a contextless “cry” and unsatisfiable “demand” was only apparently an egress from his painful enthrallment to desire into the soothing generality of theory. It reassured him that, through the power of thought, he could make Havas appear to be an arbitrary, fungible object—like the other student-lovers he had so easily moved among before—not a precious, singular, irreplaceable person who would never love him in return. It reassured him, too, that it didn’t matter that Havas refused him. 

After years of successfully pursuing students, Barthes had finally become fixated on one who wouldn’t return his interest. He had, as it were, chosen someone to break his heart. But no, Barthes insisted, this is the way love always is, for everyone.

Scientific and Unsubtle

Theory, by telling us what a thing “is like,” essentially, in general, relieves us of having to ask what it is like for us—and who it reveals us to be. Ironically, this was just what Barthes had claimed to despise about theory in Roland Barthes, the experimental autobiography he finished just before his lectures on love—and as he was falling in love with Havas. Theory, whether as political ideology, psychoanalysis, the science of language and culture, or in any other form, seems unable to account for the singularity of one’s own life. Or, putting it the other way around, Barthes argued that he could not take the same approach as his leftist fellow travelers in China, “because I don’t have the same body that they do; my body can’t get the hang of generality.” He asked himself—and did not answer—whether this was “an individualist perspective? Don’t we find this in a Christian…like Kierkegaard?”88xBarthes, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 747. This was the only reference to Søren Kierkegaard in Roland Barthes. Indeed, Barthes hardly ever mentioned the Danish philosopher. But the book is deeply and explicitly engaged with the thought of another—though notoriously anti-Christian—individualist, Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Always think about Nietzsche,” Barthes instructed himself toward the conclusion of Roland Barthes: “We are scientific because we lack subtlety.”99xIbid., 735. Those who purport to know the essence of something—those who would even wish for such a knowledge—are “scientific” and “unsubtle” in that they cannot attend to “difference,” all the innumerable variations that make each instance “of something” an incomparably unique singularity. They lack, or rather are frightened of, such a sensitivity to difference because they do not want to have to understand themselves as personally, passionately involved in what they are trying to know. They want to abstract themselves from their own analysis, to exempt their own motives from investigation, to relieve themselves of having to ask what the topic of their research means to them, in the specific context of their own lives. They ask “What (is X like)?” to avoid asking “Who (does my interest in X reveal me to be)?” To acquire the spirit of subtlety necessary to perceive “difference” where the timid, supposedly objective seekers after knowledge see only sameness, one must risk becoming aware of one’s own investment, the “confusion, shaking, obsession” that calls one’s search for knowledge onward.

Roland Barthes can be read as an attack on the very idea of theory—and a prescient critique both of Barthes’s academic inheritors and of his own apparently fatuous theorizing on love the following year. Barthes scholars and biographers of today celebrate his prowess at processing the raw material of the personal into a final product: theory. They thus misunderstand how Barthes’s theorization of love in his course appears both as an inability to live up to the mission he had set for himself in his autobiography and as a former theorist’s desperate lapse back into its generalizations, abstractions, and self-unknowingness. His analysis of love thus appears not as a triumph but as a failure.

Thinking about Nietzsche, and trying to escape theory, Barthes knew, were not without such risks. A decade earlier, during the period of their close friendship, Foucault, in dialogue with philosopher Gilles Deleuze, made a similar argument in his 1964 paper “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx.” Foucault claimed that after Nietzsche, “interpretation will always henceforth be interpretation of the ‘who?’…who is interpreting.” Thinking would no longer be an effort to achieve an objective science or universally applicable theory, but an ever more subtle “psychology” that asked why such-and-such a thinker thought such-and-such a thought, even at the risk that this “circular” self-questioning might end in “insanity.”1010xMichel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx,” in Nietzsche: colloque de Royaumont (Paris, France: Éditions de Minuit, 1967), 193–201.

Such a declaration was actually no less imperious and impersonal than the sort of theory it meant to overthrow. In its sweeping imperatives, Foucault’s appropriation of Nietzsche had what Barthes would refer to in Roland Barthes as the “arrogance” of the “militant,” who tells us how things are and what we should do. It is only superficially different from the other two forms of arrogance—which it seems to oppose—that of objective “knowledge” and common sense, or “Doxa.” Even when exponents of a radical break with all previous forms of thinking declare their intention to smash hierarchies, democratize knowledge, or let uninhibited enjoyment circulate, even when they threaten to expose the mystifications by which oppressors legitimate domination, they sound hierarchical, elitist, inhibited, mystifying, oppressive, and domineering. They are on the side of theory.

Barthes wished in Roland Barthes for a gentler Nietzscheanism, one without “arrogance,” aggression, or displays of pseudotransgression—one that could not become another instance of the performative contradictions that belie Foucault’s apparent radicalism. Where Foucault, following Nietzsche, had called for a new “psychology” that would expose the personal stakes of thinking for a specific thinker, Barthes adumbrated the possibility of a “carnivalesque” style of thinking that would “dramatize” them—revealing them in the play of different voices rather than in the authoritative monologue of the self-knowing subject.

Instead of universal truths about structures and essences, the knowledge that came from such a teaching would grant “the power of difference” to attend ever more closely to the uniqueness of each situation, and each person trying to understand it. Instead of aiming, as Foucault did, to answer the question of “Who?” in a straightforward telling—a procedure that, as Foucault himself recognized, presupposed an impossible and insanity-inducing pursuit of self-transparency—the carnivalesque teacher would raise the question in a circuitous showing.

Barthes’s lecture on “I love you,” delivered four months after he finished writing Roland Barthes, may have been a ridiculous failure, in which the archcritic of theory hid behind a series of sweeping and self-contradictory claims about what love, always and everywhere, is like—even as he hoped, desperately, that these assertions might wound, provoke, or otherwise act on his beloved in such a way as to exempt Barthes’s own case from his claim that love is always disappointing. It might, however, have been the first trial of the carnivalesque mode, in which, by their very absurdity, his claims’ obvious discordance with each other and with his actual situation would incite students, and readers, to think.

We do not have to choose between these two possibilities to decide whether Barthes was the conscious director or unconscious dupe of the drama of his lecture. Let us take “the lover’s discourse” to include what Barthes, as a theorist, said that “the lover” says, but also what Barthes himself, as a lover, said—taking for granted that for Barthes, or for any one of us, to speak is to be the site of encounter between conscious and unconscious meanings, addressed to multiple audiences. From this perspective, love and theory, desire and thinking, do not appear as two distinct stages in an ascent from the singular to the universal, and the private to the objective—nor, in Foucault’s Nietzschean maneuver, are claims to general knowledge reduced to the peculiar psychological characteristics of their claimants. Rather, we find a single constitutive human longing, epistemic and erotic, reaching out toward what eludes and exceeds saying—and find that if the nature of this longing cannot be rightly explained in theory (whether as science, psychoanalysis, philosophy, or anything else), it can be intimated in performance.