On Love: Lauren Berlant, Marguerite Duras, and Roland Barthes

In the latter half of Desire/Love (2012), Lauren Berlant addresses “the ways that fantasies of romantic love and of therapy posit norms of gender and sexuality as threats to people’s flourishing and yet [. . .] are [simultaneously] part of the problem for which they offer themselves as solutions” (87, emphasis added). The thesis emerging from this comparison is quite compelling:

[. . .] the conventional narratives and institutions of romance share with psychoanalysis many social and socializing functions. As sites for theorizing and imaging desire, they manage ambivalence; designate the individual as the unit of social transformation; reduce the overwhelming world to an intensified space of personal relations; establish dramas of love, sexuality, and reproduction as the dramas central to living; and install the institutions of intimacy (most explicitly the married couple and the intergenerational family) as the proper sites for providing the life plot in which a subject has “a life” and a future. That these forms are conventions whose imaginary propriety serves a variety of religious and capitalist institutions does not mean that the desire for romantic love is an ignorant or false desire: indeed, these conventions express important needs to feel unconflicted and to possess some zone where intimacy can flourish. But in the modern United States, and the places its media forms influence, to different degrees, the fantasy world of romance is used normatively – as a rule that legislates the boundary between a legitimate and valuable mode of living/loving and all the others. The reduction of life’s legitimate possibility to one plot is the source of romantic love’s terrorizing, coercive, shaming, manipulative, or just diminishing effects – on the imagination as well as on practice.

– Desire/Love, pp. 86-87

Lauren Berlant Desire/LoveTo sketch out these conflicted yet damaging conventions and cultural scripts, Berlant analyzes an interesting assemblage of texts (Bridges of Madison Country [1992], Sula [1982], and Ruby Sparks [2012]). These distinct analyses develop and support larger claims about the “romantic commodities” of “desire/fantasy” as they play out generally and (hetero)normatively in “popular narrative forms” and in “therapy culture, commodity culture, and liberal political culture” (88). The critical analyses of the first two texts enable one, she claims, to re-imagine “romantic love” as a potential “placeholder for a less eloquent or institutionally proper longing” and of a “love plot” as a common method of translating or sublating “the aggression inherent in intimacy” from “violence and submission” into an admixture “of curiosity, attachment, and passion” which congeals — according to a dominant, naturalized logic of necessity and urgency — into “an identity or a promise” (95).

Her readings show how this normative thinking is fraught insofar “as [] narratives and institutionalized forms of sexual life” continue to “organize identit[ies]” that encourage people to live “these longings [. . .] as a desire for love to obliterate the wildness of the unconscious, confirm the futurity of a known self, and dissolve the enigmas that mark one’s lovers” (95). The consequences for this discursive-literary grid of love’s intelligibility is far reaching. Self-help discourse, for instance, “valoriz[es] the promise of love” and “presumes that problems in love must be solved by way of internal adjustments,” thus “sustaining,” even in its most pessimistic forms, “the signs of utopian intimacy” in the everyday common sense of how love and desire are supposed to work (98-99). The incoherence of this everyday common sense is pervasive throughout commodity culture: “Love induces stuckness and freedom; love and its absences induce mental/emotional illness or amour fou; love is therapy for what ails you; love is the cause of what ails you” (102). Berlant pushes this argument further, intimating at the end of her chapter that the shared tropes of romantic narratives, psychoanalytical therapy, and commodity (self-help) culture also find analogues in the strategies of “liberals” who aim to heal “antagonism between dominant and subordinate peoples” through oddly conservative appeals: “the people you [might] think of as Other only appear to threaten your stability and value by their difference; they have feelings too; [. . .] You desire the same thing ‘they’ do, to feel unconflicted, to have intimacy” (110). Berlant is rightly suspicious of this attitude – so prevalent in arguments for gay marriage – since it encourages the dominant culture to bypass an examination of its own policies and to rely, instead, on a readymade mode of empathy which it merely needs to learn to apply to “marginalized groups” (110). This mode of liberal strategizing, Berlant suggests, implicitly encourages the system as such to remain largely unchanged.

Though these connections between psychoanalytical therapy, self-help culture, liberal ideology, and romantic narratives are compelling, I find Berlant’s approach to “love” a bit old hat (though I actually agree with her analysis in principle). In other words, I worry a bit that her method too easily conflates and erases the disparate and distinct approaches to love in singular texts, persons, or relationships. (This gesture of reduction is what frustrated D.H. Lawrence, after all, when critics turned Sons and Lovers into a case study, as if Paul Morel were an actual analysand.) The reflex of psychoanalytically- and discursively-inflected approaches to love or romance glosses over the specificities that disclose singular contours and textures, and Berlant’s analysis certainly exemplifies this theoretical limitation insofar as it eruditely covers a wide range of cultural material while eliding their singularity, emphasizing, instead, tropes and other structural generalities according to which they resemble each another. (The theoretical presumption here is that an appearance or recurrence of a “love” trope in a particular “love” attachment somehow and in every case determines its future, limits, contents,  half-life, anxieties, etc., etc.)

How are we to read Berlant’s connections between and generalizations of these disparate texts? As verifiable propositions? As well-researched speculations? Vague intimations? Political provocations? By the end of her book, I ask myself, have I learned how to read love? To sense how it works? To differentiate between texts, even if they share conventions or tropes? Simply: no. (I don’t presume that Berlant’s book means to teach me to do these things; its great value, for me, is its role as an occasion and a ground for asking these very questions.) I do not deny, of course, the existence and coercive operations of cultural norms or scripts or generalities. In fact, once one begins reading feminist and queer theory as an undergraduate or graduate student, it quickly becomes difficult not to see these norms and scripts at work everywhere. But I do wonder if there are other ways to read love in literature and film (and if these other ways actually constitute, for minds trained in the humanities, a more difficult task than ideological or cultural critique). How, for instance, do I read books of love without presuming that repeated conventions or tropes necessarily evince a uniform (even if fraught and self-contradictory) desire for intimacy shared by the entirety of a social or cultural milieu?

I taught a five-week course on “The Modern Novel” earlier this summer at URI Providence and focused on a small selection of twentieth-century texts: Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984), D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004), and Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977). The task of the course was two-fold: [1] to consider how these texts challenge (even as they adopt) cultural scripts or myths of love and [2] to investigate how love works singularly in each of these texts. On the one hand, in other words, I tried to teach (and to learn with) students how to see and feel the presumptions and contours of general “love scripts” as they sustain and even strengthen patriarchal, imperialist, and even capitalist norms. On the other hand, I also tried to learn with them to see that this project of demystification does not dispel the turbulent, singular bundle of affects, percepts, forces, attachments, or aggregates which corresponds uniquely to each text and to which we still might assign the term “love.” I use words like “singular” cautiously, of course, because any attempt to articulate how a text might be theorizing or expressing love will certainly bump up against tropes and figures which it shares with other texts. Even so, the course attempted, heuristically, to get at love as it is spoken or felt, without recourse to a master- or metadiscourse like psychoanalysis. It intended to honor the mobile and peculiar work of a literary text without denying its historico-cultural embeddedness.

(Even as I type this, I worry that I am sounding incredibly naïve to potential readers. Certainly I am making all sorts of assumptions about the existence of singularities, about the agency of the literary text, and the heroic possibility of transcending a reliance upon metadiscursive concepts. So be it. This naïveté was a component part of this pedagogic heuristic. To put it another way: I have become suspicious of ideological critiques which read each singular occasion of love or hate or power-use as conforming, in their totality, to a general script. While each cultural or personal occasion no doubt resembles others, I believe there is still a way to get at the singularity of unique occasions [again, of love, of hate, of attachments, of lives, etc.] and, by doing so, to open up some room to think through aggregates, textures, and percepts that exceed scripts and norms. I hope this makes sense, even as it gives away my own theoretical and philosophical alignments and sympathies. This reasoning relies completely upon Deleuze’s distinction between repetition and resemblance in the early pages of Difference and Repetition. See this post for more.)

Our guiding questions in my course were,—How does love “feel” in these texts? How does it move? What is its texture?, and they had a remarkable effect on our conversations. In our ten class sessions, we alternately critiqued and fantasized, demystified and revelled, analyzed and swooned, deflated and affirmed, historicized and theorized.DurasLover When we read Duras’s novel, for instance, it was initially difficult for us to assign “love” to the affair between the narrator and her unnamed lover. One never gets the sense of a reciprocal affection or admiration between them. Though the Chinese lover desperately attempts to secure some sort of future for him our French narrator (“While we kissed, he wept. His father was going to live. HIs last hope was vanishing” [82]), she herself never admits to sharing in his sense of urgency or desperation (“Then I said I agreed with his father. That I refused to stay with him. I didn’t give him any reasons” [83]). This non-reciprocity perverts the trope of a doomed clandestine attachment, transforming it into a “mysterious death of lovers without love” (90). Though one may certainly recognize a cultural script when the narrator explains, “From the first we knew we couldn’t possibly have any future in common” (49), for the narrator herself this impossibility is not a desired future at all. Indeed, more than anything she desires to write, a desire that overlaps with “a vague desire to die” and “a vague desire to be alone” (103).

What love is this? Is this love? After we read a little bit of Roland Barthes (whose performative “fragments” and “figures” I scattered throughout five-week reading schedule) one perceptive students felt a resonance between Duras’ novel and the following passage:

248326The world subjects every enterprise to an alternative; that of success or failure, of victory or defeat. I [the lover] protest by another logic: I am [both] happy and wretched; “to succeed” and “to fail” have for me only contingent, provisional meanings (which doesn’t keep my sufferings and my desires from being violent); what inspires me, secretly and stubbornly, is not a tactic: I accept and affirm, beyond truth and falsehood, beyond success and failure; I have withdrawn from all finality, I live according to chance (as is evidenced by the fact that the figures of my discourse occur to me like so many dice casts). Flouted in my enterprise (as it happens), I emerge from it neither victor nor vanquished: I am tragic.

(Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?)

– A Lover’s Discourse, pp. 22-23 (“The Intractable”)

Why is it better to last than to burn? Upon reading this section of Barthes’ enigmatic text, several other students immediately discovered that their initial hesitation to take the relation between Duras’s lovers seriously qua love was predicated upon the assumption that both of them should want the affair to last (even if it must ultimately fail). What if we no longer assume this component of love? What constitutes the texture and the operation of the brief, passionate, fragile, and non-sentimentalized attachment between the fifteen-year-old girl and her older, nameless lover? Another student highlighted the following section passage from Duras’s novel:

All around the ferry is the river, it’s brimfull, its moving waters sweep through, never mixing with, the stagnant waters of the rice fields. The river has picked up all it’s met with since Tonle Sap and the Cambodian forest. It carries everything along, straw huts, forests, burned-out fires, dead birds, dead dogs, drowned tigers and buffalos, drowned men, bait, islands of water hyacinths all stuck together. Everything flows toward the Pacific, no time for anything to sink, all is swept along by the deep and headlong storm of the inner current, suspended on the surface of the river’s strength. (21-22)

Another pointed out this passage:

What I’m [writing] now is both different and the same [as what I’ve written before]. [Then], I spoke of clear periods, those on which the light fell. Now I’m talking about the hidden stretches of that same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried. I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing, for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn’t, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing. That if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement. (8)

“What if we replace ‘writing’ with ‘loving’?” she asked. We agreed that if we did, then the our narrator’s description of the river somehow resonated with this description of writing and, furthermore, seemed to describe the fragmented form and structure of the novel itself. It expresses love not in vivid scenes of reciprocal affection or attentiveness but in the queer, jarring, and jagged arrangement of its fragments. Here, love becomes “all contraries confounded,” a force that collects, pools, composes, and sweeps all sorts of accidental elements into a torrential trajectory. Though this initially sounded to us like the trope of love as a violent, unexpected fall, this pooling, compositional effect of attachment and love-making seemed far more supple and capacious and evasive of this norm (which is making something of a comeback among contemporary philosophers). I just want to close this rather meandering post with one more passage, one of the last we discussed . . . again, how does this love feel? how does it operate? can we simply say that it plays out a script?

The noise of the city is very loud, in recollection it’s like the sound track of a film turned up too high, deafening. I remember clearly, the room is dark, we don’t speak, it’s surrounded by the continuous din of the city, caught up in the city, swept along with it. There are no panes in the windows, just shutters and blinds. On the blinds you can see the shadows of people going by in the sunlight on the sidewalks. Great crowds of them always. The shadows are divided into strips by the slats of the shutters. The clatter of wooden clogs is earsplitting, the voices strident, Chinese is a language that’s shouted the way I always imagine desert languages are, it’s a language that’s incredibly foreign.

Outside it’s the end of the day, you can tell by the sound of the voices, the sound of more and more passers-by, more and more miscellaneous. It’s a city of pleasure that reaches its peak at night. And night is beginning now, with the setting sun.

The bed is separated from the city by those slatted shutters, that cotton blind. There’s nothing solid separating us from other people. They don’t know of our existence. We glimpse something of theirs, the sum of their voices, of their movements, like the intermittent hoot of a siren, mournful, dim.

Whiffs of burnt sugar drift into the room, the smell of roasted peanuts, Chinese soups, roast meat, herbs, jasmine, dust, incense, charcoal fires, they carry fire about in baskets here, it’s sold in the street, the smell of the city is the smell of the villages upcountry, of the forest. (40-41)

A post-coital love scene with no description of the lovers’ bodies or pleasures or pains, merely the pooling together of sounds and smells and sights and other sensuous and sensual imaginings. It is strange, perhaps, that the most tender moment of a novel called The Lover leaves out its lovers, and yet if we are to attend to the singular textures and movements of Duras’s sensuous literary composition, one needs to take seriously, perhaps, that lovers themselves need not be the primary focus or the primary forces, that the lives (known and unknown) and things (known and unknown) around them are part of this love as well and that they might very well have a part to play in where it goes, when it ends, in what absent and empty forms it lasts, and with what intensity it burns.

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