In those late works in which 20th century French critic Roland Barthes speaks about his own life, speaking with a first-person, autobiographical “I” who can make the reader uncomfortable for its sudden intimacy, I wonder, whom exactly is he addressing?
Vous vous adressez à moi pour que je vous lise / You address yourself to me so that I will read you / mais je ne suis rien d’autre pour vous que cette adresse / but I’m nothing to you except this address / je ne suis pour vous ni un corps ni un objet. / for you I’m neither body nor object.1
Whom is Barthes addressing when he says “I,” and is this a different addressee than the one whom he addresses in the earlier, semiological, structuralist works, the ones subordinated, as he said himself, to a “euphoric dream of scientificity”?
Why even ask this question?
We suffer from the condition of being addressable.2
Suffering, and a longing. Reading Barthes as a longing to be addressed by him. A longing to be his you.
All speech addressed to someone. To whom do I speak?
Hello. To whom am I speaking?
Hello. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?
The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means I have become its secret addressee.3
You, dressed in black. You, mind already wandering. You, with your phone in your lap, typing with one finger.
This secret hour of the secret addressee, you who remain unnamed “you.”
In the book the bird says, are you my mother? Are you my mother, my child, my complex other? Does science dream of speaking to you? Is speaking to a pleasure? Is the euphoria of speaking a euphoria of you?
Let’s not say you, but remain together, there in the spread palm of nothing said, and there, I’ll address you.
You, who, supine on the forest floor. Your hands on me are an everyday concordance. Hold me fast in your mind and from there, I’ll address you. My words are a wish that you would not come to harm. I’ll wish that you’d wish that I would come to no harm.
Mon énigme / My enigma / ce qui est vu très clairement de vous mais pas de moi / what is clearly seen by you but not by me / je ne peux que deviner, dans les broussailles de moi-même. / I can but guess at it, in the thickets of the self.4
I speak to you now in the languages I know. I address you in silence in the languages I don’t. And shame stitches the latch between what’s extinguished.
I address you aftermath, you as vengeance.
My name is X. Je m’appelle X. I call myself X. What is your name? Comment t’appelles-tu? And you, how do you call yourself? Calling yourself makes a stray sound. Calling you forth I live in a house whose walls are made of listening.
When I raise my voice in argument you say Mama, don’t talk, don’t talk, no more talking.
You wish me no harm. Imagine the world in which I exist, unharmed.
Describe that world. A kingdom for a horse, an eye for an eye, all my words for a you.
You whom I address. Standing in traffic, in your loose jeans, encrusted with dirt. Heavyset, your hands at your sides. Your eyes look as if you were already dead, which makes you extraordinarily alive, because your aliveness is your secret.
Does my you have a body and can I press on its fingertips?
The body militia, its members astray, below, stop, command, proceed, further, longer, exposing, where I had been live wire, ends cut without discretion, where sparks flew. Then anyone
in the room could have been my you.
I wish that you’d come to no harm.
Mama, my hair is brown. Your hair is black. Eliza’s hair is yellow.
I address the animal who has no need for my caress. Alterable, estranged, the body of my you, left behind on a bench, in a store, under waxed wing, the old haunts, I know them by heart, certain books, where I used to be I, before I said “you,” without saying you, when I was alone.
You whom I address, don’t talk, don’t talk. No more talking.
You said a bad thing, you had a bad thought. But you are not bad. You are not bad.
What do you want? What do you feel?
I am lost without you, alight on my branch. I speak small petty slights, tiny harms, palms casting shadows on our shared principality, familiar, foreign sounds, such as the sound of your breathing which makes no sound, like the sound of my arms cracked in held out places, held out for you. When the body falls, take down what I have lost, went away, disappeared, trailed off, finishing my sentences without you.
I can say “you,” but can I make you mean? When I say “I,” I say you.
It didn’t happen to you.
The X of you intensified.
Personne n’a envie de parler de l’amour, si ce n’est pour quelqu’un. / No one wants to speak of love, if not for someone.5
You are brown, white, black. Your child is only half of what you are. You look at your child and are confounded.
Not to do with love, but confounded. The other part of her, the part that you are not. “You,” you say to your child whom you address. You are what I am not.
Your bad. My bad.
When you were startled by my address, when it made you wish you’d made a plan. When my address endangered you and cast you outside of kindness, cast you in the narrows, my only you, abundance distant as Arcadia.
Are you in danger or endangered? Outside of kindness? My only you? Must hold you in mind as a vision of the many places I’ve never seen, hedged confines of plain, under a million suns or what is innumerable, fortress of the brain, when you were harmed, I could not even imagine.
To be unseen is to be gravely injured. Not to be addressed is to be beyond imagination.
Not addressed in the kitchen, in the bedroom, the street, in the car, in the coat, in the dress, on the phone, on the airplane, on the ground, lying down, on the ground, not addressed. No one can touch the intimacy between us.
When I address you I implore you. To know what’s in my mouth and that what’s done there can be done only slowly, with the palpable taste of ink. The palpable smell of the shore from which reaching after—even a loon makes his mark and does not leave the earth undisturbed. It is the job of every creature to breathe and alter, ever more you. When I turned from you, you were sick at heart, undeliverable and consonant.
When you were gravely harmed I spoke to the harm, I told it: “you.”
What are you thinking? What do you want from me? What did you mean to say?
Jesus, I am cruelly lonely and I do not know what I have done nor do I suspect that you will answer me.6
Tout propos qui a pour objet l’amour (quelle qu’en soit l’allure détachée) comporte fatalement une allocution secrète / All discourse on love, however detached it may seem, involves a secret allocution / (je m’adresse à quelqu’un, que vous ne savez pas mais qui est là, au bout de mes maximes). / (I address someone, you don’t know whom, but someone, who is there, at the receiving end of my maxims).7
I address someone, you don’t know whom, but someone, who is there.
There, all discourse on love. Everybody does. Discourse on love. You don’t know whom.
Someone, who is there. My love, you are never far from mind. And entering the story you altered its coordinates. When I speak of love and what I’m unable to love, I speak differently now. With altered coordinates. When I address my incapacity to love everything and always.
The part that I am not I now address.
1 Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte.
2 Claudia Rankine quoting Judith Butler, Citizen.
3 Osip Mandelstam, “On the Addressee.”
4 Roland Barthes, Le Neutre.
5 Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux.
6 Jane Mead, “Concerning That Prayer That I Cannot Make.”
7 Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux.