Absence, Desire, and Love in John Donne and Roland Barthes
Christopher B. Smith
Department of English
One of John Donne’s varied responses to the condition of love is to playfully examine the condition of desire and those who mediate it. His poems collectively place an emphasis on the poetically conjured beloved, who is signified, in several ways, as absent in the text. It is this absence that Roland Barthes, founder of semiotics (the study of signs) and author of A Lover’s Discourse, sees as one of the necessary conditions for the amorous cycle, which refracts absence and presence through the binaries of self and other. For Barthes, the lover’s discourse is not the exchange of romantic sentiments, but rather a conversation that he who is in love holds with himself, made possible by a repertoire of images that constitute the condition of being in love. The self therefore remains in place, while “the [pursued] other is, by vocation, migrant, fugitive” (Barthes 13).
Inherent in this condition is desire as a language-producing force, which Barthes’ student Julia Kristeva separated into two elements of signification: the symbolic and the semiotic. The former is a structure that governs the ways symbols can refer; the latter can be seen as the origin of drives that, while not embodied as language, are, to Kelly Oliver, important in its fluidity: “Rhythms and tones do not represent bodily drives; rather bodily drives are discharged through rhythms and tones” (Oliver xiv). It is the “dialectical oscillation” (xv) between the symbolic and the semiotic that makes signification take place. Language, operating with the same logic as a bodily drive, can then be seen as a desirous exchange motivated by an absence which is never obtained—only sought through endlessly deferred signs—which Donne dramatizes and Barthes theorizes. As in the enlarged frozen moments Barthes offers up for further examination in A Lover’s Discourse, Donne poetically strikes a series of poses which constitute his fictional speaker’s identity in relation to a series of revisions of an elusive beloved.
Kristeva refers to poetic language as a “particular signifying practice” (Kristeva 93), an unsettling process of the identity of the speaking subject that transcends the “religious sensibility” that all human knowledge has retained as “its blind boundaries” (94). As it uses the signs of transcendence to “sustain itself,” it remains “knowingly the enemy of religion” (94). It is this highly fluid view of poetry that allows Donne to write both his Holy Sonnets and his often bawdy verse, the speaking subjects of which may also sustain a stance of speaking against love, or embark upon the bitterly tinged, “anti-love,” revisions of accepted conventions (the Petrarchan sonnet, the comparison poem, the response poem). This can all be seen as part of a shifting subject-in-process that is sustained by contradiction: the speaker, containing Whitmanesque multitudes, thus continually mutates while speaking about love. It is the paradoxical nature of desire as governed by absence that forms a clear example of this; Kristeva says that such crises of contradiction, “far from being accidents, are inherent in the signifying function” (94).
She sees poetic language as the best embodiment of “the never-ending rapprochement between the signifiable and the referent” (215). It differs from visual art in its signifying (as opposed to simply representative) function; the dual, “heterogenous” operations of the symbolic and semiotic drives need one another in order for this to occur (52-53). As the semiotic is contained by the symbolic, the resultant rhythmic and stylistic mannerisms continually enact a “repletion of the distinguishing or arbitrary void” that separates the signifier and signified (215), creating in effect a “plurality of signifiers [which] aims at and fails at being” what is signified (214). Kristeva likens this poetic activity—a pursuit of the thing the speaker is seeking, as put into a system of signs—to a game of chess, which can easily be equated with the amorous pursuit described by both Barthes and Donne.
One of the contradictions Donne’s speakers offer to the reader is a paradoxically affected insincerity. By degrees, they appear to care greatly, a little, or not much at all (“Song,” “Woman’s Constancy,” “A Fever,” and “The Flea” all offer a variety of attitudes ranging from the self-consciously libidinous to the bitter to the solemn) while at the same time appearing to think one thing and say another; therefore, the poems can be said to involve unreliable narrators, whose speech is deeply coded. In this case, it is Barthes’ mode of textual analysis that seems most useful to apply, which is not about describing the structure or logic of desire in poetry but rather its “avenues of meaning” (Barthes 84). In his textual analysis of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Barthes does not try to find any one hermeneutical meaning, nor to exhaust the text of possible meanings, but to perform a “crossing of the text” (86), surveying what it may contain.
As read by Barthes, Poe’s narrative has parallels with the work of Donne. Its unreliable narrator and simultaneous appearance of codes in sentences invokes a multiplicity of meaning that ultimately produces the “undecidability of codes,” its narrative giving the reader only “a performer caught up in his own production” (96-97). For Barthes, writing takes place when speech no longer does, “at the instant when one cannot locate who is speaking […] only that [it] has begun” (97); Donne’s speaker does not, in actuality, speak to his counterpart in love, but rather holds a series of extended dialogues with himself, caught up in his own musings on love but simultaneously aware of the inadequacy of any soothing balm he may produce in his poetic labors for any purpose other than a momentary settling of his disquieted heart, as “The Triple Fool” illustrates. But is the speaker’s heart disquieted at all, or is it merely a necessary condition for the poem to achieve dramatic resonance with the reader? Of course, the poems will produce a degree of readings depending on the reader’s state of mind—presumably involved somehow in the vagaries of romance, for better or for worse—and it is a kind of absence in the poetry (which can today be likened to the non-specific nature of pop songs or horoscopes) that makes its effectiveness with the reader possible. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, as a Hallmark greeting card’s appropriation of a short love poem intended for remembrance makes clear, or it can also reveal love as governed by lust, as more cynical readers will no doubt understand. But Donne’s speaker seems to feign obliviousness to the ways he will be interpreted, carrying on with his act of love, as always governed by the idea of absence.
Barthes notes that a great deal of poetry, to say nothing of the quintessentially French chanson d’amour, is specifically about the absence of the beloved, who, once set in verse or lyric, becomes an object circled by rhyming couplets and melancholic crooned notes (which seek to bring about a false sense of completion, to make the consummation of absence seem facile) which “does not move; it is the amorous subject […] who, at a certain moment, departs” (Barthes 13). The absence he speaks of here, which carries with it the idea of the poet in a form of stasis, “nailed to the spot, in suspense,” “can only exist as a consequence of the other […] in a condition of perpetual departure, of journeying” (13). The idea of writing poetry—though a stationary act—is freighted with the sense of capturing this journey, both in the ambition that penning original verse entails and the fact that the poet, once having imaginatively conquered one small poetic territory (or a large one, in the case of Milton), moves on to the next. Longing motivates poetry, and this one-dimensional absence creates a longing expressed by the one who stays while the other ventures abroad. But absence need not be prolonged; it can exist in a perpetual state throughout the relationship between lover and beloved. The former may often voice expressions of inadequate love received in proportion to what’s been given, or speak of a number of other absences characterized as imbalance.
Historically, says Barthes, “woman is faithful (she waits), man is fickle (he sails away, he cruises)” (14). But Donne’s poetry inverts the historically Odyssean archetypes, playing with the audience’s expectations and making his voicings of discontent all the more strong. It is a kind of absurdity that allows Donne to link the feminine nature with absence and a variety of other qualities, such as fundamental dishonesty and corruption, which the overture-like “Song” enumerates. Today, it is hard for us to read “Song” without its bringing to mind the anachronistic image of an embittered, bar-hopping pick-up artist who is used to getting drinks thrown in his face, or perhaps his belongings tossed out the window by a chain of enraged lovers. Naturally, we think that this must be due to his behavior, and so the poem becomes a way that the narrator tries to reconcile himself with the ways of women, or maybe more accurately, his own ways.
Part of the pleasure we may derive from reading texts such as Donne’s lies not only in placing our judgment on the speaker, but in discerning the semiotic drive taking control of their language, as motivated by absence. In Donne’s seduction poetry, the semiotic manifests itself in the speaker’s constructed display of emotion, often in a buildup of images that may have little importance individually, yet which gain meaning in how prolifically they may be spun, set in place, then cast aside.
It is “that raving energy known as the Image-repertoire” (106) which Barthes says is necessary to the lover’s discourse. Once a relationship fundamentally changes in any way that results in its disintegration, the repertoire’s meanings will be instantly killed off. Its “raving energy” can be likened to Kristeva’s semiotic drive, and this mental horde of interassociated images is narrativized—that is, structured by the symbolic drive—in Donne. Poems such as “The Bracelet or “The Relic”—with its very different “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” (Donne 40)—present us with symbolically exercised meditations prompted by images of the other in the sentimental object and the memory (or idealization of memory) it evokes. Similarly, other poems may rely on what we ourselves may have experienced when reading them; in this case, the perpetual absence is filled with our own fragments of the image repertoire.
His elegies may speak directly of loss, but a similar desire, and its attendant lack, seems their subject. The image-repertoire may at times overwhelm Donne’s poetry, as in the self-consciously “overfraught” syntax found in the second stanza of “Air and Angels” (Donne 13), and often seems to enact a Derridean deference of meaning, as in “The Bracelet,” laden as it is with metaphors of circulation. The sense of loss that pervades the latter poem is knowing and ironic, perhaps in the sense that Donne’s speaker remains aware that there is no sufficient reply to arrive from his beloved, no return of the image that will provide satisfaction and closure. His efforts to produce the absent signifier are dramatized as romantic need, or infused with melancholy. Images accumulate, but they only emphasize the absence that has nourished them. In Kristeva’s words, this speaker’s depressed narcissism becomes “the thing […] the real that does not lend itself to signification” (Kristeva 187).
Kristeva anatomizes melancholy as “a structure for mourning for the lost maternal ‘Thing’ and failure of language to compensate for the loss” (135). As the Lacanian view of birth creates a void that future words will harken back to, it also creates the desire to write out of that emptiness. Writing and love are linked in Kristeva’s psychoanalytic appraisal of the lover as “a narcissist with an object” (147), the other who returns the lover’s own ideal image but remains otherly and, finally, unattainable. Therefore, “ego is […] to be deferred” in loving the other (149), yet the “signifying economy” could not be supported by “the transcendental ego alone” (103). While the speaking subject’s semiotic drive is linked to the maternal, as the organizing symbolic is paternal, the “incestuous” creative efforts of the subject allow it to attribute to itself “archaic, instinctual, maternal territory” (104). While Kristeva speaks of women as objects of exchange in the prohibition of incest, we can see the exchange taking place in poetic language as between parts of the speaking subject. The necessary object of desire frees up the drives, allowing them to flow; the lack, as long as it continues to elude the supply of images in the repertoire, makes poetry, a series of variations on that repertoire, continue to be produced.
For as Donne’s poetry is predicated on an object of desire always longed for, it also depends upon a sort of predestined loss. As in the case of the lovesick ballad (or perhaps the pop-culture tropes present in country music narratives nourished by both romantic and quotidian hard-luck misfortune), the eternally approached absence provides meaning. It is this fatalism that infuses “The Relic” with a deep melancholy that links the ultimate demise of self with the departure of the other, envisioned in a future where the speaker’s body—mentioned first as part of a “loving couple”—is exhumed, to prompt awareness of “what miracles we harmless lovers wrought” (Donne 40).
It is curious that in a poem such as “The Relic,” the beloved does not appear, except as an ossified relic herself, a “Mary Magdalene” (40) laid beside the speaker. It is the absence of representation of romantic life as an exchange that supplies the poem with a more subtle melancholic tint, casting some doubt upon whether the lovers “loved well and faithfully” (40); if they truly did, would this poetic attempt at commemoration, which can be seen as a way of putting the past right, be necessary? Were it set up as an exchange of vows where the speaker’s spouse is given words of her own, the poem might be seen as inconsistent: how would we know that they truly feel the same way about one another? The speaker’s identity is solidified by making his discourse unidirectional, which has the effect of constructing him as a figure of (perhaps ironic, if only in light of some of the other poems) nobility and pathos. Giving him the final absence of death dramatizes his purported unfaithfulness by eliminating the possibility of emotional or physical infidelity, ultimately capturing the lovers in perfection and finality in the grave. Yet what does the beloved have to say about this? In a sense, leaving her side of the story ambiguous works in the poem’s favor. By nature, she must be elusive, at once present and absent, her mystery enhancing the desirability of the poem’s final arrangement: it is as if Donne’s speaker has tamed an unknowable force, the “miracle” (40). Whether an elegy (the lover wants the beloved to return) or a seduction (the lover wants the beloved to come, initially, to him), the poem depends on this unattainable phantom presence to work.
Perhaps poetic writing can be characterized in much the same way that Barthes, in A Lover’s Discourse, describes the activity of waiting: “futile, or immensely pathetic,” an activity that becomes (even when only waiting for the return of a phone call) a space wherein “all the effects of minor mourning” take place (Barthes 37). This futility, which Barthes describes with a comic wit reminiscent of Donne, is sourced in his statement that “the being I am waiting for is not real” (39). When the collection of small absences that comprises the lover’s waiting routine is viewed instead as the great absence that motivates amorous desire, the being in question becomes something that is built and rebuilt again, upon the poetic foundation of one’s perceived ability to love and need for loving. Unlike “Song” or “Woman’s Constancy,” the less caustic and wry poems of Donne give us narrators who enact the waiting ritual again and again, searching for completeness. Variations on a theme, then, can be seen in the valedictory poems. But nearly always present is the ironic tinge of what the cynic might call clarity; it enables Donne to construct knowing voices who cry out in the romantic wilderness and wish to expose human foibles for what they are, or tell of the bizarre conditions of love, its metaphysical frustrations. Thus, Donne’s project is the same as Barthes’: the introduction to A Lover’s Discourse states its fragmentary design is intended to produce a collection of “figures,” which are “established if at least someone can say, ‘That’s so true!’” (4). Of course, all Donne’s poems could begin with the words with which Barthes ends his preamble: “So it is a lover who speaks and says” (9).
As in all the poems, it is easy to see the function of language in “The Bracelet” as a stand-in for the bracelet, and for the idea of love itself. The romantic element of the loss that Donne’s speaker grounds the poem in seems primarily fictive. Indeed, after an anti-Petrarchan revision of typical poetic practice where the speaker’s affinity with the bracelet is denied for possible reasons such as that “in color it was like thy hair” (Donne 57), the images of currency and venereal disease soon employed metaphorize corruption and exploitation. The dual meaning of “angels,” also present, subverts the religious imagery used in romantic rhetoric and introduces the element of lust, making these angels mutable objects which can “fall” (as currencies are exchanged) when lovers are disjoined. Perhaps the purity of love is merely a stamp placed upon lust, which Donne’s speaker now sees unveiled; physicality and materiality seem to define this relationship, while the overstatement of sprezzatura present in the chain-as-union image provides an emphatic irony. Guilt is evoked, too, in what becomes a gentle castigation of the absent beloved: the lost bracelet, after all, sufficiently symbolizes a deferred romantic ideal to the extent that “as the links were knit, our love should be” (57).
Throughout the poem, a number of exchanges take place: desire into gold, stamped by a number of nations, into “bitter cost” and insatiable “pains” of jealousy (57), which we might see as being transferred back into desire for its linguistic enactment. Desire, among Donne’s chain of speakers, is plastic, and we always arrive at the poem as an unsuccessful expression of it; the result is that by poem’s end we seem to know a good deal more about the speaker than the object of desire, which remains obscure. Similarly, “The Bracelet” contains much more about the object as envisioned by the increasingly incensed, ever-jealous speaker, and the same for its imaginary male “wretched finder,” who receives his “most heavy curse” in lines 90-115 of the poem, finally given the grisly fate of falling victim to poetically conjured “lust-bred diseases” (59).
As stated above, Kristeva might see the bracelet (aside from its circular symbolism, which could form a womb or circumscribe an absence) as “the thing” (Kristeva 187) that motivates both elegiac melancholy and passionate desire. The poem can then be seen as a prolonged expression of what Barthes refers to as an “Other-ache […] being miserable by himself, the other abandons me” (Barthes 57). For Barthes, jealousy is a vital part of the discourse the lover holds with himself, for if we don’t possess the beloved—or an object bestowed with the beloved’s image in much the same way that mutable gold is stamped with the insignia of a country—it is certain that someone else does. The jealous lover typically sees the bracelet, and the lover, as stolen, not lost. Thus, the poem can be seen as the product of the speaker’s creative paranoia, an embodiment of desire wherein “form gives being” (Donne 59).
As coinage bears a signifying stamp, the beloved bears the
signifier of the bracelet. Yet, while wearing it, she could just as
chastised for infidelity, the target of the proclamation (as made by the
speaker of “
Donne’s poems that more directly address the beloved, such as “Love’s Diet” and “The Flea,” demonstrate Barthes’ rhetorical belief that desire, “always the same” regardless of the object’s nominal presence or absence, constitutes one that is “always absent” (Barthes 15). So it is that in “Love’s Diet,” the image of the sigh—a sound-image of the other—is restricted but inherently necessary to the amorous condition, a poetic example of Barthes’ belief that the breaths lovers share are examples of the “unglued image” that seeks its complement, giving off exhalations by their nature “incomplete, sought to mingle with the other” (15). Thus desire is destined for “corpulence” (Donne 35) by the speaker, with no end in sight. It “worst endures” temperance and “discretion” (35) because attempts to regulate the flow can only be seen as acts of treason against the self, or attempts at self-delusion: the semiotic drive can never be held fully in check. For these sighs constitute the condition of love itself, both as physical experiences of one’s passion and as received auditory strains of the beloved; repletion is constantly necessary. Donne’s speaker is fully aware of this when he speaks of his mindless, omnivorous “buzzard love” (36).
This ironical characterization of love as foolish and inchoate evokes Barthes when he states that the phrase “I love you,” after its initial declaration, “has no meaning whatever” (Barthes 147), as his humorous attempt to grammatically decompose the expression further clarifies. It does not “transmit a meaning, but fastens onto a limit situation […] where the subject is suspended in specular relation to the other” (148), and this characterization of “I love you” as a form of emptied language that betrays itself again brings to mind the impulse behind Donne’s sigh and the sight itself, which cannot be tamed in language, nor can the destruction of that language eliminate the impulse: “Whatever he would dictate, I writ that / But burnt my letters” (Donne 35). The sigh infinitely restates the condition of the relationship, and nothing outside it; it expresses a desire that always exists. The fact that the sigh perpetuates itself and is received ad infinitum again brings to mind the endless chain of signifiers.
Yet, as inarticulate as the sigh is, Donne’s speakers never are. Some of the poems may masquerade as sighs of cloudy desire trying to express themselves, but the hyperbole of the comparison poem is brashly deflated by Donne in “The Comparison,” with its final statement that both this absent beloved—who we can only presume must have inspired a severe case of sour-grapes disdain in the narrator—and comparisons are indeed “odious” (55). The series of speakers seems to understand the devalued nature of love’s language, but still they must pursue an object, as is necessary for poetry of this sort to take place. The speaker of “The Flea,” therefore, seems fully aware that his desire is base, yet has no choice but to obey it. As it addresses the textual character of the beloved (here given the nominally “present” status to receive this discourse of desire), it is her absence, in her denial of desire’s consummation, which the text commemorates. It seems doubtful that consummation would create a wholeness or unity—as in some mythical merging of the sexes—but the narrator seems to think so, or pretends this. He takes his absence and projects it onto the beloved and on a small, even slightly pathetic symbol (and a parasitic one; he, too, becomes a flea, perhaps a trivial nuisance approaching a woman he’s just met), focusing on the microcosmic symbol of the flea (which he’d like to imagine is eating at her), in whom a slight amount of the lovers’ “bloods mingled be” (25). This has the dual effect of comically trivializing his love—there will surely be other loves, after all, possibly spanning intervals of time as short-lived as insects’ lives—as well as the mistress’ unspoken desire for chastity. Her fundamentally unknowable character becomes the subject of the poem, as does the related issue of the impossibility of achieving true consent. The mortal flea’s “one blood made of two” (25) becomes the impossible sign, as the narrator first idealizes, then destroys, it.
“Air and Angels” offers an archetypal absence-as-presence in the text when its somewhat archly lovesick narrator says: “Still when, to where thou wert, I came, / Some lovely glorious nothing did I see” (13). Donne’s speaker’s desire establishes itself in the beloved’s body—as it later will in “To His Mistress Going to Bed”—but, “fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow” it may, his love cannot “inhere” (13). Perhaps the poem brings up the world of sacred eroticism by comparing love (and the beloved) with an angel, but the unspoken subtext is that what he seeks out is missing, never evident to the eyes of men; studying the beloved’s features brings the subject no closer to what he desires.
But desire still roots itself in the flesh, but finds no way of prolonging itself, elevating itself beyond lust. As Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost’s postlapsarian chaos find themselves unable to fully satiate or console their now altered desires (it is after the fall that signification emerges), Donne’s speaker cannot fix his love in the again “present” beloved, scrutinize her all he may. This then becomes no happy union, but a one-sided, mildly obsessive, “overfraught” (13) longing, one wherein the religious is sought out to give this absence a more pleasing shape. The mystical version of love, with its denial of the “disparity” (14) that really exists, is the narrator’s answer to the conundrum.
Donne’s poetry could not flourish without references to the beloved’s appearance, or dramatizations of the interaction between narrator and lover: however, when this type of writing does occur, it relies upon the principle of absence to conduct the discourse of desire—what good is desire without absence? What good is a poem that speaks of complete fulfillment? Thus, the last of the elegies, “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” depicts the process of the beloved (artfully denuded) approaching the narrator, the distance remaining between them intensifying the desire. This brings to mind Barthes’ essay on the phenomenon of striptease in Mythologies, where he claims that the archetype of woman is “desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked” (Barthes 84). The exoticism of costumed “exotic dancers” works as a disguise to be removed much as Donne’s speaker in the poem fetishizes the clothing he removes. It is used as a device to assert superiority of his knowledge of the beloved over that of others, whose gaze is stopped at the surface, on coverings and jewelry. This motivates the belief that “Gems which you women use / Are like Atlanta’s balls” (Donne 62), and that a “spangled breastplate” is a fixture which stops “the eyes of busy fools” (61), bringing to mind Barthes’ belief that the rhinestone costumes of burlesque are symbols of the “mineral world,” of “the absolute object, that which serves no purpose” (Barthes 83), meant to at once present an impenetrable fašade to stall spectators’ desirous eyes and to create desire.
Donne’s speaker attempts to bring the beloved out of the world of spectators and into the private world of sex and the unconscious: “now ‘tis your bed time” (Donne 61). The white robe worn by the beloved continues to exoticize her by placing her in the garb of angels suitable for them to be “received by men” (62), and conflates the bliss of the promised sexual union with the prolonged spiritual union men are thought to have with the divine, the promise being more important than the act, a ceremony that surrounds a great absence. So the difficulty of undressing the narrator’s love is prolonged and characterized as a labor she resists. It reveals a great absence: the garments that she is stripped of reveal a disembodied body that falls in line with the poem’s credo “as souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be / to taste whole joys” (62). But the whole joy is absent from the text, figured as unknowable.
Perhaps the wittiest dissection of another version of the conundrum of “Air and Angels,” and the most anticipatory of postmodern metafiction, is “The Triple Fool,” a scathing condemnation of the theory that the poetic arts might alleviate grief or romantic longing. The concept of difference comes to mind immediately; the poem, though it may be put one’s lack into words, certainly does nothing to satiate it (unless, as Donne’s speaker might be aware, a romantic prospect might hear your self-pitying ode to angst and take that pity upon you). Multiply as poems may, they will only add up to a chain of signifiers.
So Donne’s speaker condemns both his desire and his desire to express it: “loving, and for saying so / In whining poetry” (9) are equal crimes. But “loving” here might well be couched in ironic quotation marks, since we can give it a new valence almost immediately; that of “not having.” This casts a shadow over all Donne’s other poetic enumerations of love—is a depiction of an idyll of romance what it really is? “Rhyme’s vexation” (9) is not merely a tonic to soothe the pangs of desire, but to perhaps hammer out the contours of a world wherein that desire is sensible. Poetry gives the semiotic drive an object which it can attain: as poetic logic (working within the symbolic drive) seeks rhyme and meter, the lover seeks the beloved. Verse becomes an articulation of one’s image-repertoire, which can then achieve a kind of momentary satiety in its recognition of itself as just that: a store of images.
Sentiments, when articulated, can come out wrong, and both Barthes and Donne are well aware of that. Perhaps, Donne says in this poem, lovers and poets should do better and keep these sentiments to themselves. But he knows they couldn’t very well stop writing, as much as he could stop loving. Centuries apart, these two authors articulate the same concept: language and love are equally inescapable.
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