The Uncertainty of Signs

Painting by Auguste Renoir: Portrait of a Girl (1878)

signes / signs

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

1.        I look for signs, but of what? What is the object of my reading? Is it: am I loved (am I loved no longer, am I still loved)? Is it my future that I am trying to read, deciphering in what is inscribed the announcement of what will happen to me, according to a method which combines paleography and manticism? [1] Isn’t it rather, all things considered, that I remain suspended on this question, whose answer I tirelessly seek in the other’s face: What am I worth?

2.         The power of the Image-repertoire is immediate: I do not look for the image, it comes to me, all of a sudden. It is afterward that I return to it and begin making the good sign alternate, interminably, with the bad one: “What do these abrupt words mean: you have all my respect? Was anything ever colder? Is this a complete return to the old intimacy? Or a polite way to cut short a disagreeable explanation?” [2] Like Stendhal’s Octave, I never know what is normal; lacking (as I well know) all reason, I would prefer, in order to decide on an interpretation, to trust myself to common sense; but common sense affords me no more than contradictory evidence: “After all, it’s not really normal to go out in the middle of the night and to come home four hours later!” “After all, it’s only normal to go out and take a walk when you can’t sleep,” etc. A man who wants the truth is never answered save in strong, highly colored images, which nonetheless turn ambiguous, indecisive, once he tries to transform them into signs: as in any manticism, the consulting lover must make his own truth.

3.         Freud to his fiancée: “The only thing that makes me suffer is being in a situation where it is impossible for me to prove my love to you.” [3] And Gide: “Everything in her behavior seemed to say: Since he no longer loves me, nothing matters to me. Now, I still loved her, and in fact I had never loved her so much; but it was no longer possible for me to prove it to her. That was much the worst thing at all.” [4]

Signs are not proof, since anyone can produce false or ambiguous signs. Hence one falls back, paradoxically, on the omnipotence of language: since nothing assures language, I will regard it as the sole and final assurance: I shall no longer believe in interpretation. I shall receive every word from my other as a sign of truth; and when I speak, I shall not doubt that he, too, receives what I say as the truth. Whence the importance of declarations; I want to keep wresting from the other the formula of his feeling, and I keep telling him, on my side, that I love him: nothing is left to suggestion, to divination: for a thing to be known, it must be spoken; but also, once it is spoken, even very provisionally, it is true.

Roland Barthes
A Lover’s Discourse (1977)

Painting by Pierre Auguste RenoirPortrait of a Girl  (1878)

 1 BALZAC: “She was learned and she knew that the amorous character has its signs in what are taken for trifles. A knowledgeable woman can read her future in a simple gesture, as Cuvier could say, seeing the fragment of a paw: this belongs to an animal of such-and-such a size,” etc. (The Secrets of the Princess of Cadignan).

 2 STENDHAL: Armance.

 3 FREUD: Letters.

 4 GIDE: Journal, 1939.

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