The Unknowable :: A Lover’s Discourse

The Unknowable

inconnaissable  /  unknowable

Efforts of the amorous subject to understand and define the loved being “in itself,” by some standard of character type, psychological or neurotic personality, independent of the particular data of the amorous relation. (Barthes 134-135)

1.         I am caught in this contradiction: on the one hand, I believe I know the other better than anyone and triumphantly assert my knowledge to the other (“I know you-I’m the only one who really knows you!”); and on the other hand, I am often struck by the obvious fact that the other is impenetrable, intractable, not to be found; I cannot open up the other, trace back the other’s origins, solve the riddle. Where does the other come from? Who is the other? I wear myself out, I shall never know.

(Of everyone I had known, X was certainly the most impenetrable. This was because you never knew anything about his desire: isn’t knowing someone precisely that-knowing his desire? I knew everything, immediately, about Y’s desires, hence Y himself was obvious to me, and I was inclined to love him no longer in a state of terror but indulgently, the way a mother loves her child.)

Reversal: “I can’t get to know you” means “I shall never know what you really think of me.” I cannot decipher you because I do not know how you decipher me.

2.         To expend oneself, to bestir oneself for an impenetrable object is pure religion. To make the other into an insoluble riddle on which my life depends is to consecrate the other as a god; I shall never manage to solve the question the other asks me, the lover is not Oedipus. Then all that is left for me to do is to reverse my ignorance into truth. <Gide> It is not true that the more you love, the better you understand; all that the action of love obtains from me is merely this wisdom: that the other is not to be known; his opacity is not the screen around a secret, but, instead, a kind of evidence in which the game of reality and appearance is done away with. I am seized with that exaltation of loving someone unknown, someone who will remain so forever: a mystic impulse: I know what I do not know.

3.         Or again, instead of trying to define the other (“What is he?”), I turn to myself: “What do I want, wanting to know the other?” What would happen if I decided to define you as a force and not as a person? And If I were to situate myself as another force confronting yours? This would happen: my other would be defined solely by the suffering or the pleasure he affords me.

GIDE: Speaking of his wife: “And since it always requires love in order to understand what differs from you . . .” (Et nunc manet in te).

[From A Lover’s Discourse, by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard]