Thursday, October 26, 2006

Brackets within Parenthesis

...Poets seem to write more easily about love than prose writers. For a start, they own that flexible 'I' (when I say 'I' you will want to know within a paragraph or two whether I mean Julian Barnes or someone invented; a poet can shimmy between the two, gettingcredit for both deep feeling and objectivity). Then again, poets seems to be able to turn bad love - selfish, shitty love - into good love poetry. Prose writers lack this power of admirable, dishonest transformation. We can only turn bad love into prose about bad love. So we are envious (and slightly distrustful) when poets talk to us of love.

And they write this stuff called love poetry. It's collected into books called The Great Lovers' Valentine World Anthology of Love Poetry or whatever. Then there are love letters; these are collected into The Golden Quill Treasury of Love Letters (available by mail order). But there is no genre that answers to the name of love prose. It sounds awkward, almost self-contradictory. Love Prose: A Plodder's Handbook. Look for it in the carpentry section.

The Canadian writer Mavis Gallant put it like this: 'The mystery of what a couple is, exactly, is almost the only true mystery left to us, and when we have come to the end of it there will be no more need for literarture - or for love, for that matter.' When I first read this, I gave it in the margin the chess marking '!?' indicating a move which, though possibly brilliant, is probably unsound. But increasingly the view convinces, and the marking is changed to '!!'

'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 expring speck. As a boy I would watch this process every evening, vaguely wanting 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? O 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 finacier, well-known in his time; but we remember him 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.

'I love you.' For a start, we'd better put these words on a high shelf; in a square box behind glass which have to break with our elbow; in the bank. We shouldn't leave them lying around the house like a tube of vitamin C. If the words come to easily to hand, we'll use them without thought; we won't be able to resist. Oh, we say we won't, but we will. We'll get drunk, or lonely, or - likeliest of all - plain damn hopeful, and there are the words gone, used up, grubbied. We think we might be in love and we're trying out the words to see if they're appropriate? How can we know what we think till we hear what we say? Come off it; that won't wash. These are grand words; we must make sure we deserve them. Listen to them again: 'I love you'. Subject, verb, object: the unadorned, impregnable sentence. The subject is a short word, implying the self-effacement of the lover. the verb is longer but unambiguous, a demonstrative moment as the tongue flicks anxiously away from the palate to release the vowel. The object, like the subject, has no consonants, and is attained by pushing the lips forward as if for a kiss. 'I love you'. how serious, how weighted, how freighted it sounds.

I imagine a phonic conspiracy between the world's languages. They make a conference decision that the phrase must always sound like something to be earned, to be striven for, to be worthy of. Ich liebe dich: a late-night, cigarette-voiced whisper, with that happy rhyme of subject and object. Je tiame: a different procedure, with the subject and object being got out of the way first, so that the long vowel of adoration can be savoured to the full. (The grammar is also one of reassurance: with the object positioned second, the beloved isn't suddenly going to turn out to be someone different.) Ya tebya lyublyu: the object once more in consoling second position, but this time - despite the hinting rhyme of subject and object - an implication of difficulty, obstacles to be overcome. Ti amo: it sounds perhaps a bit too much like an apertif, but is full of structural conviction with subject and verbm the doer and the deed, enclosed in the same word.

Forgive the amateur approach. I'll happily hand the project over to some philanthropic foundation devoted to expanding the sum of human knowledge. Let them commission a researcg team to examine the phrase in all the languages of the world, to see how it varies, to discover what its sounds denote to those who hear them, to find out if the measure of happiness changes according to the richness of the phrasing. A question from the floor: are there tribes whose lexicon lacks the words I love you? Or have they all died out?

We must keep these words in their box behind glass. And when we take them out we must be careful with them. Men will say 'I love you' to get women into bed with them; women will say 'I love you' to get men into marriage with them; both will say 'I love you' to keep fear at bay, to convince themselves of the deed by the word, to assure themselves that the promised condition has arrived, to deceive themselves that it hasn't yet gone away. We must beware of such uses. I love you shouldn't go out into the world, become a currency, a traded share, make profits for us. It will do that if we let it. But keep this biddable phrase for whispering into a nape from which the absent hair has just been swept.

I'm away from her at the moment; perhaps you guessed. The transatlantic telephone gives off a mocking, heard-it-all-before echo. 'I love you', and before she can answer I hear my metallic other self respond, 'I love you.' This isn't satisfactory; the echoing words have gone public. I try again, with the same result. i love you i love you - it's become some trilling song popular for a lurid month and then dismissed to the club circuit where pudgy rockers with grease in their hair and yearning their voice will use it to unfrock the lolling front-row girls. I love you I love you while the lead guitar giggles and the drummer's tongue lies wetly in his opened mouth.

We must be precise with love, its language and its gestures. If it is to save us, we must look at it as clearly as we should learn to look at death. Should love be taught in school? First term: friendship; second term: tenderness; third term: passion. Why not? They teach kids how to cook and mend cars and fuck one another without getting pregnant; and the kids are, we assume, much better at all of this than we were, but what use is any of that to them if they don't know about love? They're expected to muddle through by themselves. Nature is supposed to take over, like the automatic pilot on an aeroplane. Yet Nature, on to whom we pitch responsibility for all we cannot understand, isn't very good when set to automatic. Trusting virgins drafted into marriage never found Nature had all the answers when they turned out the light. Trusting virgins were told that love was the promised land, an ark on which two might escape the Flood. It may be an ark, but one on which anthropophagy is rife; an ark skippered by some crazy greybeard who beats you round the head with his gopher-wood stave, and might pitch you overboard at any moment.

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 each other, but they aren't happy? What do we conclude? That one of them doesn't really love the other; that they love 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 etails - 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 knew 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 from 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.

But love isn't an atom bomb, so let's take a homelier comparison. I'm writing this at the home of a friend in Michigan. It's a normal American house with all the gadgets technology can dream (except a gadget for making happiness). He drove me here from Detroit airport yesterday. As we turned into the driveway he reached into the glove pocket for a remote-control device; at a masterful touch, the garage doors rolled up and away. This is the model I propose. You are arriving home - or think you are - and as you approach the garage you try to work your routine magic. Nothing happens; the doors remain closed. You do it again. Again nothing. At first puzzled, then anxious, then furious with disbelief, you sit in the driveway with the engine running; you sit there for weeks, months, for years, waiting for the doors to open. But you are in the wrong car, in front of the wrong garage, waiting outside the wrong-house. One of the troubles is this: the heart isn't heart-shaped.

'We must love one another or die', wrote W.H. Auden, bringing from E.M. Forster the declaraion: 'Because he once wrote "We must love one another or die", he can command me to follow him.' Auden, however, was dissatisfied with this famous line from 'September 1, 1939'. 'That's a damned lie!' he commened, 'We must die anyway.' So when reprinting the poem he altered the line to the more logical 'We must love one another and die'. Later he suppressed it altogether.

This shift from or to and is one of poetry's most famous emendations. When I first came across it, I applauded the honest rigour with which Auden the critic revised Auden the poet. If a line sounds ringingly good but isn't true, out with it - such an approach is bracingly free of writerly self-infatuation. Now I am not so sure. We must love one another and die certainly has logic on its side; it's also about as interesting on the subject of the human condition, and as striking, as We must listen to the radio and die or We must remember to defrost the fridge and die. Auden was rightly suspicious of his own rhetoric; but to say that the line We must love one another or die. is untrue because we die anyway (or because those who do not love do not instantly expire) is to take a narrow and forgetful view. there are equally logical, and more persuasive, ways of reading the or line. The first, obvious one is this: we must love one another because if we don't we are liable to end up killing each other. The second is: we must love one another because if we don't, if love doesn't fuel our lives, then we might as well be dead. This, surely, is no 'damned lie', to claim that those who get their deepest satisfactions from other things are living empty lives, are posturing crabs who swagger the sea-bed in borrowed shells.

This is difficult territory. We must be precise, and we mustn't become sentimental. If we are to oppose love to such wily, muscled concepts as power, money, history and death, then we mustn't retreat into self-celebration or snobby vagueness. Love's enemies profit from its unspecific claims, its grand capacity for isolationism. So where do we start? love may or may not produce happiness; whether or not it does in the end, its primary effect is to energize. Have you ever talked so well, needed less sleep, returned to sex so eagerly, as when you were first in love? The anaemic begin to glow, while the normally healthy become intolerable. Next, it gives spine-stretching confidence. You feel you are standing up straight for the first time in your life; you can do anything while this feeling lasts, you can take on the world. (Shall we make this distinction: that love enhances the confidence, whereas sexual conquest merely develops the ego?) Then again, it gives clarity of vision: it's a windscreen wiper across the eyeball. Have you ever seen things so clearly as when you were first in love?

If we look at nature, do we see where nature comes in? Not really. There are occasional species which apparently mate for life (though imagine the opportunities for adultery on all those long-distance migratory swims and night flights); but on the whole we see merely the exercise of power, dominance and sexual convenience. The feminist and the chauvinist interpret Nature differently. the feminist looks for examples of disinterested behaviour in the animal kingdom, sees the male here and ther performing taks which in human society might be characterized as 'female'. Consider the king penguin: the male is the one that incubates the egg, carrying it around on its feet and protecting it for months from the Antarctic weather with a fold of its lower belly . . . Yeah, replies the chauvinist, and what about the bull elephant seal? Just lies about on the beach all day and fucks every female in sight. It does regrettably seem true that the seal's behaviour is more standard than that of the male penguin. And knowing my sex as I do, I'm inclined to doubt the latter's motivation. The male penguin might just have calculated that if you're stuck in the Antarctic for years on end then the cleverest thing to do is stay at home minding the egg while you send the female off to catch fish in the freezing waters. He might just have worked things out to his own convenience.

So where does love come in? It's not strictly necessary, is it? We can build dams, like the beaver, without love. We can organise complex societies, like the bee, without love. We can travel long dostances, like the albatross, without love. We can put our head in the sand, like the ostrich, without love. We can doe out as a species, like the dodo, without love.

Is it a useful mutation that helps the race survive? I can't see it. Was love implanted, for instance, so that warriors would fight harder for their lives, bearing deep inside them the candlelit memory of the domestic hearth? Hardly: the history of the world teaches us that it is the new form of arrowhead, the canny general, the full stomach and the prospect of plunder that are the decisive factors in war, rather than sentimental minds drooling about home.

Then is love some luxury that sprang up in peaceful times, like quilt-making? Something pleasant, complex, but inessential? A random development, culturally reinforced, which just happens to be love rather than something else? i sometimes think so. There was once a tribe of Indians in the far north-west of the United States (I'm not inventing them), who lived an extraordinarily easy life. They were protected from enemies by their isolation and the land they cultivated was boundlessly fertile. They had only to drop a wizened bean over their shoulders for a plant to spurt from the ground and rain pods at them. they were healthy, content, and had failed to develop any taste for internecine warfare. as a result, they had a lot of time on their hands. No doubt they excelled at things in which indolent societies specialize; no doubt their basketwork became rococo,their erotic skills more gymnastical, their use of crushed leaves to induce stupefying trances increasingly efficient. We don't know about such aspects of their lives, but we do know what was the main pursuit of their generous leisure hours. They stole from one another. That's what they liked to do, and that's what they celebrated. As they staggered out of their tepees and another faultless day came smooching in from the Pacific, they would sniff the honeyed air and ask one another what they'd got up to the previous night. The answer would be a shy confession - or smug boast - of theft. Old Redface had his blanket pilfered again by Little Grey Wolf. Well, did you ever? He's coming along, that Little Grey Wolf. And what did you get up to? Me? Oh, I just snitched the eyebrows from the top of the totem-pole. Oh, not that one again. Bo-ring.

Is this how we should think of love? Our love doesn't help ussurvive, any more than did the Indians' thieving. yet it gives us our individuality, our purpose. Take away their joyful larcenies and those Indians would be able to define themselves less easily. So is it just a rogue mutation? We don't need it for the expansion of our race; indeed, it's inimical to orderly civilization. Sexual desire would be much easier if we didn't have to worry about love. Marriage would be more straightforward - and perhaps most lasting - if we were not itchy for love, exultant on its arrival, fearful of its departure.

If we look at the history of the world, it seems surprising that love is included. It's an excrescence, a monstrosity, some tardy addition to the agenda. It reminds me of those half-houses which according to normal criteria of map reading shouldn't exist. The other week I went to this North American address 2041½ Yonge Street. The owner of 2041 must at some point have sold off a little plot, and this half-numbered, half-acknowledged house was put up. And yet people can live in it quite comfortable, people call it home . . . Tertullian said of Christian beliefe that it was true because it was impossible. Perhaps love is essential because it is unnecessary...

Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, 227-236.

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