“At first, all things were confused mass without form, heaven and earth and sea were created one: soon sky was set above land, earth circled by water, and random chaos split into its parts: forests allowed the creatures a home: air the birds: fish took shelter in the running streams. Then the human race wandered the empty wilds, a thing of naked strength and brutish body: woods were its home, grass its food, leaves its bed: and for a long time, no man knew another. They say sweet delights softened savage spirits: when man and woman rested in one place: they had no teacher to show them what to do: Venus did her work without sweet art.”
(Ovid, The Art of Love, Book II, 467-480)
The pleasure of love can “soften savage spirits”. Without love, forests remain dark, and the world is not named with affection. Venus, mother of Eros, spreads beauty over the world, gives vision to an opaque gaze. Her work is priceless.
But what happens when Love enters into the thoughts of man? It seems that between the alchemy of Eros and the word of man there emerges a conflagration of language which overwhelms reason. Or, rather, what Barthes calls the “lover’s discourse” is born, that hemorrhaging of words, which has neither beginning nor end, which follows the pace of an erupting volcano. A soliloquy made of excess, signs, and obsessions.
Indeed, man’s word “is made up of an impalpable chemical substance which brings about the most violent alterations,” and becomes combustible when it encounters Desire, which is the reservoir of all that we consider fulfillment, accomplishment, return. Connected to pleasure, Desire, like the capricious Eros himself, strikes in unexpected ways, and when it does, ignites the imagination. It is the imagination of the lover that manifests itself in the lover’s discourse.
There is no point in asking: why do I love this one in particular? It is not for us to know. What is it that we love in another person? Their everything, or something in particular that has awakened in us a memory? The form of the fingernail, the shape of the eyes, a scar that gently disfigures the lip? The image of the other is like a portal through which we let ourselves be transported into another dimension.
Desire, imagination, language, these are all connected.
Barthes, as semiologist, does not philosophize on love, but rather he shows us the interior monologue that plagues lovers. In the words which he surgically extracts from personal situations, films, and novels, we understand how much the “lover’s discourse” belongs to us, how much we invoke it and how much, at the same time, it torments us.
So why, then, is it worth the trouble of being captured by it?
Perhaps – we think – it is because there is really nothing else like being in love that gives a feeling of being invaded, of being possessed by a force that looms over us and hands us over to our desiring nature. For philosophers and contemporary psychologists, Desire is a word that connotes an abstract entity, but not any less mythological than what the ancients saw impersonated in Eros.
Eros, for the ancients, Desire for the moderns. We are referring to the same “power” which manifests itself, the same “invisible” thing which moves us, as Hillman would say – which acts as guide in our mythological thought.
Returning to the lover’s discourse: it is so laden with meaning that it surpasses the limit of the signified. And it must be for this reason that the “I love you,” which is the climax of the lover’s discourse, is the “statement that carries no information,” but is instead a “shout, uncontainable” and also a “magical utterance,” which requires a response no less magic, which would be something like “me too.” When the Beast, hopelessly in love with Beauty, says: “I love you, Beauty,” and the girl responds unexpectedly: “I love you, too, Beast,” the beast is stripped of his terrifying appearance and transformed into a most beautiful man.
The transformational power of the erotic word when reciprocity is realized, when a “you” appears and faces us. The power of Eros, when it strikes us, leads us on a journey from which we will not return ourselves as before. In the turbine of contemporary erotic language divine magic reemerges, which Venus, with the help of Eros, brings about in the human heart.
“…They say sweet delights softened savage spirits: when man and woman rested in one place: they had no teacher to show them what to do: Venus did her work without sweet art.”