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Vol. 7, No. 1

On Love: An Introduction
by Leonard Michaels

On Love

In a scary little poem about love, William Blake begins with a warning:

Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly.

I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart,
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears—
Ah, she doth depart.

Soon as she was gone from me
A traveller came by
Silently, invisibly—
O, was no deny.

          I confess immediately that I'm not sure what Blake means. The poem is chilling and sad. It seems to mean, if you're in love, best keep it to yourself; or, maybe it means you can talk about love, but the moment you do you aren't talking about love. Love is a mystery; otherwise it is nothing.
          The poem suggests a good deal else, depending on what Blake means by love. Is it the kind that cannot speak its name? Whatever the poem means, it seems to intimate that there is something like an impulse, or a terrifying compulsion, to tell when one is in love, and that this impulse springs from a strange desire for the death of love, or maybe just for death.
          There are of course all kinds of love. Perhaps the kind Blake's narrator talks about—and loses—might best be understood by thinking of its opposite, of exactly what love isn't: pornography, or the graphic demystification and annihilation of mystery. In other words, pornography represents the desire for some feeling to be exhaustively talked about or imagined or exhibited, which is probably the condition that the modern world knows best in regard to every subject—love, sex, food, etc. It's been said that we live now in a world of images and imitations, and that this is just as likely to be true of, say, the phony tomatoes in your salad as the passions in your heart.
          Among contemporary novelists, the pornographic void has required incessant examination, and I don't mean only those novels that concentrate on sex. The novels of Henry James, for example, were considered obscene, or pornographic, by some critics of his own day because they minutely detailed and revealed the interior lives of his heroes and heroines. Tolstoy, a greater novelist, is even a greater sinner, since in Anna Karenina he makes almost everyone who reads the novel fall in love with Anna despite the fact that she is a narcissistic, self-indulgent, materialistic, irresponsible, inconsiderate woman with bad taste in the men she marries or loves. Of course she is also charming and gorgeous. But why is it virtually impossible not to fall in love with her? Even Levin, who is surely Tolstoy himself and knows better, succumbs when Anna wants his heart. Ultimately love leads to her suicide and the probable death of her lover, Vronsky, as well as to the destruction of her husband's career and moral character. In no other novel is the mystery so mysterious.
          If we imagine a continuum from mystery to pornography, then it is possible to see where various writers might stand in relation to one or the other pole. Joyce, in his stories "Araby" and "The Dead," is close to love as mystery, while in Ulysses he is close to pornography. Nabokov's Lolita, whether or not you think it's a wonderful love story, is pornographic. This becomes evident in the two movie versions of the novel, since neither version—however superb the directors or actors—features a heroine who is Lolita's age. If the beautiful girls were twelve years old, or even seemed that age, the effect would be sickening, rather like the flash of obscene white flesh that is Quilty's leg, offered to the camera by the always terrific Frank Langella in the later version. The flash is shocking, both hideous and funny. Director Adrian Lyne's intelligence and grasp of complexity in human feeling, instantly apparent, are qualities much too rare these days.
          As it happened, during a course at Berkeley when I was enthusiastically lecturing to students about Lolita, the novel, a girl Lolita's age was kidnapped in a nearby town, and raped and murdered. It became impossible then to carry on about Nabokov's fantastic wit, magnificent descriptive powers, and lyrical imagination. A real girl was dead. The novel was suddenly nauseating.
          You can sing, or you can write a poem, or find some other way of representing love-as-mystery, such as Manet's delicately sensational portrait of Berthe Morisot, or Freud's comment on what he felt when he saw Lou Salome's empty chair at his psychoanalytic seminars, or Kafka's letter to Milena in which he says that he looked at a map of Vienna and was amazed that they had built a big city "when you need only one room," or even Marlon Brando's sensitive line in Last Tango in Paris where he says to his love-girl, "Everything outside this room is bullshit" and soon thereafter butters her anus and subjects her to unanticipated delight. These are very different examples, but all seem to contain at least an instant of the unspoken and elusive thing, though the last is concerned more with death than love, and the girl actually shoots Brando at the end of the movie.

          Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears—
          Ah, she doth depart.

          Stendhal and Ortega y Gasset wrote interesting books on love, and later Roland Barthes wrote a book on love in which he says nobody talks about love. If it were possible to talk about love, it wouldn't be worth talking about: whereof we cannot speak we take the via negativa.

          My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.

          Love-as-mystery is in Shakespeare's "nothing." When another poet asks "How do I love thee?" and then says "Let me count the ways," it's a big mistake. Byron's "She walks in beauty like the night" is infinitely mysterious and much better, or Robert Herrick's "Whenas in silks my Julia goes" or John Donne's "Twice or thrice had I loved thee; Before I knew thy face or name." Love at first sight is an exciting idea, but as Donne so beautifully indicates, love is prelogical or subrational. It is long before first sight.
          In popular music, when the sublimely epicene Chet Baker sings "Let's Get Lost," or the manly Nat King Cole sings "Your chick is all that matters," or the exhilarating and adorable Anita O'Day sings "You're the Top," or Miles Davis plays his agonized, drug-wretched, broken, and convincing version of "My Funny Valentine," they evoke moods of love, from deliriously happy to cool to witty to lead-heavy miserable. None is talking. They are artists being it.
          Love moods, like Spinoza's modes of substance, are probably infinite. You can hear love's tragico-delirium in Stan Getz's saxophonic big-balls sweetness when he enters amid Astrud Gilberto's singing of "The Girl from Ipanema." He virtually enters her. Sexual dependency is in Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow," a song she wrote. It was at the end of her career, and long after the decline began, but only she could sing "Love is like a faucet/It turns off and on"—and melt your heart. I happened to be present, with about fifty awestruck others, when she made the recording. She sang it twice. Dissatisfied with the first version, she said she wanted "more Lester" in the second, meaning Lester Young's solo saxophone. You didn't have to be a jazz aficionado to know this occasion was the thing itself. Not love as confession, but as a serious problem requiring high art for its expression.
          In the movie Farewell My Concubine love is high and highly ritualized art, unrestricted by hetero- or homosexual determinations. As high art, the movie is reminiscent of Shakespeare's sonnets where ritualized structure—fourteen lines, abba, etc.—becomes pure feeling. In the movie, there are scenes of a magnificent Chinese opera where the dialogue is sublimed in piercing and unearthly cries. Very like love, the point of art is always not to talk, so that feeling might have its say. "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought," writes Shakespeare in iambic pentameter. The problem for novelists, in this age of multitudinous blah blah, is how to keep their labors from devolving into talk, regardless of their subject, but especially when the subject is love.
          To repeat, there are all kinds of love, but I'm not talking about all kinds of love, only different manifestations of the kind one sees in Chekhov's very great stories "The Lady with the Dog" and "The Kiss," or in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Or even in these few quiet lines from Jean Rhys:

By far my nicest Cambridge memory was the day an undergraduate knocked me flat as I was crossing the road. I wasn't hurt but he picked me up so carefully and apologized so profusely that I thought about him for a long time.

          What makes her last sentence wonderful is that it doesn't end at the period, but seems to abide in a sort of feminine and silent momentum. Don't you love her? For an analytical comment relevant to the hilarious and touching "nicest Cambridge memory," consider this from the brilliant, albeit heavy, Max Weber:

The erotic relation must remain attached, in a certain sophisticated measure, to brutality. The more sublimated it is, the more brutal . . . It is the most intimate coercion of the soul of the less brutal partner. This coercion exists because it is never noticed by the partners themselves. Pretending to be the most humane devotion, it is sophisticated enjoyment of oneself in the other.

          In short, never seek to tell thy love. Sartre, with overheated vulgarity, schleps intimations of brutality toward love as sadomasochism. Not worth quoting, but without that sort of lugubrious theorizing talk, Stendhal makes the dark feelings scintillate in passages of charm and wit in The Red and the Black; and like Stendhal, but with inimitably evil subtlety, Henry James plays with brutal subterranean currents in The Turn of the Screw and Portrait of a Lady. No Chet Baker he.
          I haven't read every book on the subject, but of late, when it comes to love at or around the mystery pole, it seems writers are in a pretty bad way, though Penelope Fitzgerald manages a brief and perfectly amazing flight in The Blue Flower, and John Bayley does somewhat the same in Iris. The former has the exquisite purity of idiocy. The latter is much more physical and brainy, but regardless of many differences both end in unbearable pathos, which is commonly associated with love's mystery.
          In his book on silence, the excellent Max Picard sounds very like William Blake:

Lovers are the conspirators of silence. When a man speaks to his beloved, she listens more to the silence than to the spoken words of her lover. "Be silent," she seems to whisper. "Be silent that I may hear thee!"

          This is not to say "shut up," but only to say "stop talking." The difference is everything—in art and love.



To read other stories from the Spring 2003 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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