“We are our own demons”

Woman and a Devil Puppet

démons / demons

It occasionally seems to the amorous subject that he is possessed by a demon of language which impels him to injure himself and to expel himself – according to Goethe’s expression [1] – from the paradise which at other moments the amorous relation constitutes for him.

1.         A specific force impels my language toward the harm I may do to myself: the motor system of my discourse is the wheel out of gear: language snowballs, without any tactical thought of reality. I seek to harm myself, I expel myself from my paradise, busily provoking within myself the images (of jealousy, abandonment, humiliation) which can injure me; and I keep the wound open, I feed it with other images, until another wound appears and produces a diversion.

2.         The demon is plural (“My name is Legion,” Mark 5:9). When a demon is repulsed, when I have at last imposed silence upon him (by accident or effort), another raises his head close by and begins speaking. The demonic life of a lover is like the surface of a solfatara; huge bubbles (muddy and scorching) burst, one after the other; when one falls back and dies out, returning to the mass, another forms and swells farther on. The bubbles “Despair,” “Jealousy,” “Exclusion,” “Desire,” “Uncertainty of Behavior,” “Fear of Losing Face” (the nastiest of all the demons) explode in an indeterminate order, one after the next: the very disorder of Nature.

3.         How to repulse a demon (an old problem)? The demons, especially if they are demons of language (and what else could they be?) are fought by language. Hence I can hope to exorcise the demonic word which is breathed into my ears (by myself) if I substitute for it (if I have the gifts of language for doing so) another, calmer word (I yield to euphemism). Thus: I imagined I had escaped from the crisis at last, when behold – favored by a long car trip – a flood of language sweeps me away, I keep tormenting myself with the thought, desire, regret, and rage of the other; and I add to these wounds the discouragement of having to acknowledge that I am falling back, relapsing; but the French vocabulary is a veritable pharmacopoeia (poison on one side, antidote on the other): no, this is not a relapse, only a last soubresaut, a final convulsion of the previous demon.

Roland Barthes
A Lover’s Discourse (1977)

Illustration: Woman and a Devil Puppet, Hungarian postcard, 1915

1 Goethe: “We are our own demons, we expel ourselves from our paradise.” (Werther, notes).

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