<= 2002.04.20

2002.04.22 =>

of love and other demons

Someone (I suspect Ethan or the mysterious chili) pointed out the gross solecism in yesterday's Michael Frayn quote. The error is mine and not Frayn's, of course. I have emended it.

The prevailing wisdom on divorce—and specifically the nature of its effect on children—has, like other cultural attitudes, changed along with the times. Do divorced-but-happier parents make for happier children, as was once thought, or is even a contentious but intact marriage better for children, as the most recent line of thinking has it? As the research has piled up over the past several decades, with recantations and modifications following each new finding, one senses that divorce has come to be a leading cultural indicator, the locus for a whole cluster of our anxieties about everything from sex to death.

Or it may be that I am hopelessly dating myself by the intensity with which I approach the subject: perhaps, for the generation coming up, it will be just another rite of passage to be navigated, like getting one's first job. I am referring to the marital micro-trend known as "starter marriages." Such blitzkrieg unions are, their enthusiasts tell us, all the rage; they last five years at most, are childless, and are usually over and done with before either partner reaches thirty. In a book called "The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony" (Villard; $24.95), Pamela Paul predicts that these speeded-up scenarios are the wavelet of the immediate future. "People will slide wedding bands on and off," she reports, "with the same ease with which they whip out updated resumes." Paul bases her far-reaching conclusions on the slimmest of demographic bases (she interviewed sixty young divorced people around the country) and has compiled her book largely by stringing together quotes from a smorgasboard of books and articles (ranging from Cosmopolitan to Gertrude Himmelfarb's "One Nation, Two Cultures"). But there is no doubt that she is on to something marketable: herself a "starter marriage" survivor—in the glittering company of Drew Barrymore, Uma Thurman, and Angelina Jolie—Paul has already appeared on the "Today" show. She insists that this kind of marriage is entered into with expectations of permanence. All the same, a starter marriage sounds suspiciously like a starter apartment: a provisional arrangement, a necessary first step on the road to a more gratifying marital habitation—one with a top-of-the-line kitchen and a river view.

—Daphne Merkin, from The New Yorker, 22/29 April 2002

If you want my opinion (which I guess you do, or you wouldn't be reading this) as someone who has seen several marriages, including that of my parents, disintegrate at close range (and who hasn't, nowadays?) the whole goddamn institution is bankrupt. Cohabitation seems to be practically the norm in Europe, at least among certain classes. Now that childbirth is less common, the pressing need for social sanction is on the decline. I don't know if it's better to have everyone ending their marriages once they grow tired of them, as opposed to enduring unhappy marriages their entire lives. It would be fine if it weren't for the kids. If the impulsive, selfish choices one makes about one's life were not visited upon others. I can't fathom anyone accepting that kind of commitment and contract when you know damn well that your identity is not static, that devotion is something you will never be able to guarantee, that any morning you may wake up and realize that you've dug yourself into a pit. It's raining outside.

'What will survive of us is love.' This is the cautiously approached conclusion of Philip Larkin's poem 'An Arundel Tomb'. The line surprises us, for much of the poet's work was a squeezed flannel of disenchantment. We are ready to be cheered; but we should first give a prosey scowl and ask of this poetic flourish, Is it true? Is love what will survive of us? It would be nice to think so. It would be comforting if love were an energy source which continued to glow after our deaths. Early television sets, when you turned them off, used to leave a blob of light in the middle of the screen, which slowly diminished from the size of a florin to an expiring speck. As I boy I would watch this process each evening, wanting vaguely to hold it back (and seeing it, with adolescent melancholy, as the pinpoint of human existence fading inexorably in a black universe). Is love meant to glow on like this for a while after the set has been switched off? I can't see it myself. When the survivor of a loving couple dies, love dies too. If anything survives of us it will probably be something else. What will survive of Larkin is not his love but his poetry: that's obvious. And whenever I read the end of 'An Arundel Tomb' I'm reminded of William Huskisson. He was a politician and a financier, well-known in his time; but we remember him today because on the 15th of September 1830, at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, he became the first person to be run down and killed by a train (that's what he became, was turned into). And did William Huskisson love? And did his love last? We don't know. All that has survived of him is his moment of final carelessness; death froze him as an instructive cameo about the nature of progress.


Let's start at the beginning. Love makes you happy? No. Love makes the person you love happy? No. Love makes everything all right? Indeed no. I used to believe all this, of course. Who hasn't (who doesn't still, somewhere below decks in the psyche)? It's in all our books, our films; it's the sunset of a thousand stories. What would love be for if it didn't solve everything? Surely we can deduce from the very strength of our aspiration that love, once achieved, eases the daily ache, works some effortless analgesia?

A couple love one another, but they aren't happy. What do we conclude? That one of them doesn't really love the other; that they love one another a certain amount but not enough? I dispute that really; I dispute that enough. I've loved twice in my life (which seems quite a lot to me), once happily, once unhappily. It was the unhappy love that taught me most about love's nature—though not at the time, not until years later. Dates and details—fill them in as you like. But I was in love, and loved, for a long time, many years. At first I was brazenly happy, bullish with solipsistic joy; yet most of the time I was puzzlingly, naggingly unhappy. Didn't I love her enough? I knew I did—and put off half my future for her. Didn't she love me enough? I know she did—and gave up half her past for me. We lived side by side for many years, fretting at what was wrong with the equation we had invented. Mutual love did not add up to happiness. Stubbornly, we insisted that it did.

And later I decided what it was I believed about love. We think of it as an active force. My love makes her happy; her love makes me happy: how could this be wrong? It is wrong; it evokes a false conceptual model. It implies that love is a transforming wand, one that unlooses the ravelled knot, fills the top hat with handkerchiefs, sprays the air with doves. But the model isn't from magic but particle physics. My love does not, cannot make her happy; my love can only release in her the capacity to be happy. And now things seem more understandable. How come I can't make her happy, how come she can't make me happy? Simple: the atomic reaction you expect isn't taking place, the beam with which you are bombarding the particles is on the wrong wavelength.

—Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

Some months ago a question was circulating online: what is the Greatest Love Story of All Time? I was not in a fine mood that day and my first instinct was to make a brief, splenetic reply: Evil Dead II, say, or Beckett's Molloy. ("Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn't tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That's what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all?") But in the end nobler sentiments prevailed and I went with Tristan und Isolde, which I do love for the music, even apart from the story.

About that story. It's understood that the vast majority of love stories considered great—of all narrative works considered great—are tragedies rather than comedies. The Elizabethan dramatic convention, that comedies end in marriage and tragedies end in death, still holds in essence; these form our twin narrative termini. To understand the truth of this, it's best not to examine a field such as literary fiction, which prides itself on innovation, sophistication, and freedom from precedent. Instead turn to the more demotic form of the movies, where even a deliberate thwarting of convention (such as the end of The Graduate) must define itself against the expectation of a final scene at the altar.

But given that, why must a love story, in order to qualify for greatness, move toward death rather than union? I suspect that the answer lies in the sheer scale of emotion required. A story that ends in a wedding is fundamentally a story about society—ritual is followed; propriety is maintained; families are allied; the union is sanctioned by church, state, and community. Isn't there something anticlimactic, something depressingly bourgeois, about a love story that closes in this way? It suffices for a comedy of manners, certainly, but we want our great lovers to oppose society in some way. A pox on both your houses, is the lover's cry; to hell with king and country; go fuck yourself with the atom bomb. We associate passion with the grand individual gesture, and we expect romance to be as thrillingly subversive as political or ideological furor.

If love could be truly individualistic—if one could go off to a hermitage in the woods and practice it in solitude—that would be one thing. But of course it is based upon interrelationships. And it necessarily carries the seeds of the society it would like to oppose; carnal knowledge begets children, after all, and families are societies in miniature. And nobody wants to watch Tristan take a job with the Department of the Interior (for those great government benefits!) while Isolde stays home and takes her folic acid. The only narrative solution is to start turning the horrible blind cogs of society until they churn out a war, a feud, any situation that will pit the lovers against the rest of the observable world and leave one, or preferably both, of them dead. They adhered to their ideal until the end, and it is the world's function to crush ideals; therefore we may easily shed tears for them and for the improbable concept to which they sacrificed themselves, after which we may peaceably return to our own compromised love lives, assuming that we have any.

Love as a solitary emotion is solipsistic; love as a communal emotion is imperfectly shared. Wagner understood the yearning of the two to become one, and he understood the tragic impossibility of such a union. Despite his reprehensible, philandering personal habits, his artistic eye was perfectly clear, and he made this cruel bind the philosophic heart of his libretto. "Tristan you, Isolde I," sings Tristan; he yearns to shed his identity under the concealment of night, where all boundaries are invisible, and merge with his beloved. The music is all about impossible yearning. The opening motif, in simplified transcription, looks like this:

The chord beginning the second full bar is an augmented sixth, a notoriously ambiguous construction that can resolve in a number of different ways. Here it goes to an E7 chord, which would very much like to resolve to an A, but it doesn't; the music simply cuts out. (When it begins again, the same unfinished sequence is repeated in a different key.) Note the contrary chromatic lines, one ascending (G#, A, A#, B) and one descending (F, E, D#, D), both without reference to any scale, without any hint of a final resting place. This construction will return throughout the opera at the moments of greatest passion; when Tristan sings about becoming one with Isolde, she responds in kind and the short theme begins to repeat under the ensuing duet, circular and accelerating in a rhythm that, yes, is unmistakably the rhythm of coitus, and just as it seems about to climax, just as the E7 will finally resolve to its A and the lovers will finally merge, King Mark's soldiers burst onto the scene and the pair are discovered. Melot turns on the lights, destroying the illusory union of darkness, and Tristan is banished to his castle across the sea.

If there is a Fall in our history, it happened about fifteen billion years ago, when this temporal universe got started. For a moment all was a single loop of string, vibrating at such intensity that it would destroy the entire present cosmos, but then its inherent nature caused it to push outward. Since then we have been growing farther apart. Love offers few choices; no matter how many times it has failed us, we willingly reenter the pit. We need to. Eliot said that hell is oneself and Sartre said that hell is other people, but it would seem that we perceive solitude to be the worse horror. It doesn't even matter that this solitude can never be assuaged. We spend our whole lives clawing at our prison walls, desperate for the unity that we insist we once had, that we insist we might have again, and then we have the audacity to be perplexed when it doesn't materialize. Or failing that, we pick up pen and paper and sit down to document, in rhapsodic, excruciating detail, the nature of our bars.


<= 2002.04.20

2002.04.22 =>

up (2002.04)