Mate is a comfortable and companionable word. Its world exudes a kind of biological
or metaphysical rightness: a place where human beings, like those smiling giraffes
shown boarding the ark in tandem in childrens books, contentedly pair off forever.
It is a cosmic laundry in which no sock ever goes missing.
But the aspirant
to this mately heaven is haunted by fears of inadequacy. The founding myth of
the mate, after all, derives from Platos Symposium. In that dialogue, one of
the speakers, Aristophanes, asserts that the primordial race of men and women
(and hermaphrodites, but to explore that would take us too far afield) was divided
in half by Zeus. Ever since then, goes on Aristophaneswho, it should be noted,
claims to be suffering from a severe hangoverwe have been destined to search
for our complementary halves, without which we will not be complete. In an age
in which the soul-elevating yearnings and courtly ordeals of Provençal love
have been replaced by sixty-second dating and sexual encounters negotiated on
the Internet, this theory raises the bar of matedom dauntingly high. Hence,
perhaps, the preference, in our modest age, for the neutral husband or wife
or the still more poker-faced partner, which could refer as easily to the
relationship between Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley as to that between Dante
and Beatrice. Still the mate ideal beckons, like a horizon.
Of course, you
cannot visit a horizonwhich is one of the reasons why literature so rarely
deals with long-term romantic relationships of the sort that could be characterized
as mately. Byron anatomized this omission in Don Juan: All tragedies are finished
by a death, / All comedies are ended by a marriage; / The future states of both
are left to faith, / For authors fear description might disparage / The worlds
to come of both, or fall beneath, / And then both worlds would punish their
miscarriage. . . In Tristram Shandy, the first modern, smarty-pants novelist,
Laurence Sterne, slyly alluded to the problem of depicting ideal happiness by
inserting a blank page on which the reader could draw his beloved.
of literary history, marriageparticularly happy marriagemight as well be one
of those empty spots on old maps inscribed with the words Here be monsters.
For every Kitty and Levin, the lovingly observed couple in Tolstoys Anna Karenina
who find grace as they work their way together through life, there are hundreds
of Karenins, Madame Bovarys, and Casaubonsa vast, dreary entourage of miserable
spouses, doomed adulterers, and hideously mismatched souls. There are plenty
of lusty young stallions crashing through fences, but very few mates grazing
contentedly together in the meadow. As an old man, the Spanish philosopher Miguel
de Unamuno said, I do not feel anything when I brush against the legs of my
wife, but mine ache if hers do. Though existent, these kind of poignant observations
are hard to find in fiction.
Some of this void
can be attributed to the uninspiring historic reality of marriage, which until
fairly recently could be summed up as a business deal with bad sex. But the
reasons are deeper. Stories are driven by change, not permanence: once the hero
and heroine make their safe harbor, the wind goes out of the storys sails.
From a narrative standpoint, happiness is boringa truth summed up by Tolstoys
famous dictum that Happy families are all alike.
There is also the
uncomfortable possibility that mately happiness may be boring even to those
allegedly enjoying it. We return to perhaps the worlds most depressing marriage
counselor, Lord Byron, who wrote, Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign / Of human
frailty, folly, also crime, / That love and marriage rarely can combine, / Although
they both are born in the same clime; / Marriage from love, / like vinegar from
wine / A sad, sour, sober beverageby time / Is sharpend from its high celestial
flavour / Down to a very homely household savour.
Who would sing
the joys of even the finest aged Modena balsamic when there are so many sweet
young bottles of Taittinger yet to be popped? (Although it is worth noting that
Georges Simenon, the great Belgian writer who claimed to have made love to ten
thousand women, created one of the most memorably contented couples in literature
in Inspector and Madame Maigret, who walk together in happy silence. Could it
be that exhausting, Wilt Chamberlain-level promiscuity is required to direct
a writers precious mental fluids toward consideration of mately bliss?)
But even if we
reject Byrons discouraging words and insist that mately love is more like aged
Bordeaux than oxidized rotgut, there is a deeper reason that writers rarely
explore it. Fictions happily ever after syndrome betrays its deep roots in
fairy tales and fablessimple, archetypal forms that reveal both the eternal
human drive to affirm a state of permanent happiness and the difficulty of doing
so. Even the most sophisticated modern writers, who do not believe in fairy-tale
endings, are still drawn to convey an irreducible and transcendent union between
two people. But just as in fairy tales, they cut away at precisely the moment
when it is to be revealed. It is as if only by looking away can one convey the
unknown land denoted by the word happiness. Like Orpheus bringing Eurydice
out of the underworld, it seems the novelist cannot look directly at love without
losing it. The light flashes only out of fragments.
act like officers of the Federal Reserve Bank of Language, attempting to increase
the value of the l-word by restricting its circulation. In Czeslaw Miloszs
memoir Native Realm, for example, the word love appears, I believe, only onceas
literally the last word in the book. Its an extraordinary and unexpected move
that falls like a thunderbolt. Or take the famous last sentence of The House
of Mirth, when Lawrence Selden says goodbye to the dead Lily Bart: He knelt
by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in
the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear. The word,
presumably, is love. But the fact that Wharton refuses to name it gives it
far greater power. Silence breathes the ineffable.
The ending of Milan
Kunderas The Unbearable Lightness of Being reveals another strategy of indirection.
It attempts to resolve the question posed at the outset of the book: How can
you know if your decision to settle down with one person is driven by love or
sentimental exhaustionwhat Kundera calls hysteria? The problem with questions
like this is that once they are asked, there is almost never going to be a satisfactory
answer. And the books protagonist, Tomas, is nothing if not a bed-hopper and
question-asker. Kundera needs to assert that Tomas has experienced some kind
of romantic epiphany that has made him choose Tereza once and for all, but he
is also too sophisticated to be satisfied with that answer.
He falls back first
on a venerable narrative device: prolepsis or foreshadowing. The reader is told
that Tomas and Tereza are both going to die in a truck crash. This omniscient
knowledge bathes their last scene in a golden glow; it becomes doubled, like
a vista observed by a man with cancer uncertain he will ever see it again. Yet
even with this doubling, which would perhaps have allowed Kundera to get away
with a sentimental portrayal of marital happiness, he distances himself. Tereza
leaned her head on Tomass shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together
in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd
happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station.
The happiness meant: we are together. The sadness was form, the happiness was
content. Happiness filled the space of sadness.
Which comes first,
happiness or sadness? In this dialectical game of tag, in order for us to believe
in the happiness that the author is asserting, it is also necessary for us not
to believe in it. Without shadow, no light.
And then, having
adjusted his chiaroscuro perfectly, the author in the books last lines retreats
altogether and turns things over to the God of narrative. Tomas and Tereza retire
to bed. A butterfly flies up. The strains of the piano and violin came up weakly
from below. The greatest intimacy can only be communicated by the neutral turning
of the world.
There is, of course,
far more to the mately story than these kind of deconstructive and reconstructive
finesses. Byron is wrong: not all comedies are ended with a marriagemany, in
fact, begin with one. Marriage may be rarely chosen as a romantic subject, its
intimacies and their meanings may be terra incognita, but it frequently serves
as a kind of rumpus room, an arena where all the furniture can be wiped off,
the laugh track is always going, and the wet bar is well stocked. Literature
is filled with companionable, often jesting and jawboning mates, an endless
procession of Nicks and Noras and Mr. and Mrs. Bennetts. Statistically, matedom
is comic. But comic matedom is simply taken for granted, as background; it no
longer has any meaning, any fizz. Loves daemon is deadand you can often discern
a distinct element of thank godand pure vinegar reigns.
Far from indicating
an eras creeping spiritual death, vinegar literature can be a sign of its maturity.
It would be foolish to generalize, but ages that are only obsessed with the
ecstasies and agonies of the carnal may well turn out to be intense but callow.
Whatever the case, the greatest psychological novelists, like Stendhal or Flaubert,
combine vinegar and winethe disillusioned but smiling perspective of the mate
with the erotic obsession of the lover.
Standing off to
the side of these romantic partners is a closely related type of mate, perhaps
indeed the beau ideal of erotic mateship in its approaching-vinegar phase: the
mate as friend. This mate appears at the very beginning of written literature:
The Epic of Gilgamesh, written as early as 3,000 b.c., recounts the love of
the half-divine King Gilgamesh for his human friend Enkidu, a love that leads
the heartbroken king to travel to the underworld to try to bring his dead friend
back. I thought my friend would come back because of my weeping, Gilgamesh
laments, in words that echo down the millennia. A mate in this sense is traditionally
male, though there is no reason the word cant stretch beyond its British nautical
roots to include women. (As Octavio Paz argues in his erudite, heartfelt exploration
of love and literature, The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, the comparative
absence of great female friendships in the canon is due to social constraints
on women, not to the feminine shortcomings alleged even by so great a thinker
A mate is no ordinary
friend: he or she is a bro, a dude, a homeboy, a pard, a pallysomeone whos
got your back, whos connected to you by a kind of tribal bond, like those found
in Clifford Geertz or the Crips and the Bloods. Since American men notoriously
pursue loneliness and bowl alone, the Ur-mate is British or Australian: American
male friendship tends to be too jumpy and self-centered. The most powerful contemporary
portrait of mates I know is in Graham Swifts exquisite Last Orders, the tale
of a gang of aging, working-class East Londoners who carry out their promise
to dump a pals ashes off Margate Pier. These men are of the generation that
fought in World War II, which is telling: one of the two quintessential mate
types is the soldier. The friendships in Erich Maria Remarques All Quiet on
the Western Front and his powerful, little-known sequel, The Road Back, are
not deeply developed, but they are unforgettable.
The other quintessential
mate locale is, of course, the Old West. The friendship of Augustus McCrae and
Woodrow Call in Larry McMurtrys Lonesome Dove, that rare book that is at once
a potboiler and a literary masterpiece, is truly epic: it reaches sublime heights
in the books long, heartbreaking denouement when Call honors his promise and
travels alone, carrying the coffin of his friend from Missouri to Texas to bury
The mate need not
even be human. In Marjorie Kinnan Rawlingss The Yearling, the love
of young Jody Baxter for his fawn Flag culminates in Jodys initiation into
the heartbreak of adulthooda passage captured in the books beautiful closing:
FlagHe did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or
his own child, as he had loved the yearling. He would be lonely all his life.
But a man took it for his share and went on.
In the beginning of his sleep, he cried out, Flag!
It was not his own voice that called. It was a boys voice. Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under
the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever.
In the greatest
novels, friendship becomes as rich, strange, and spiritually complex as a great
love affair. This is emphatically true in the greatest Western novel of all,
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The relationship of Jim and Huck, with its
racial audacity and the haunting ambiguity in which the slave is father to the
fatherless boy and the fatherless boy is father to the slave, stands as one
of the supreme examples in world literature of friendship, a friendship that
breaks the bounds of our understanding of that category as decisively as King
Lear and Cordelia break through our received understanding of fathers and daughters.
The turning point
in Hucks understanding of Jim, and of himself, comes when he decides to turn
Jim in. At first Huck is overjoyed, knowing he is finally doing a good deed
that will send him to heaven; but then he gets to thinking. And went on thinking.
And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all
the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms,
and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldnt
seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.
The climax of this
passage, when Huck decides not to turn Jim in and says, All right, then Ill
go to hell, is justly famous. But it is the sentence But somehow I couldnt
seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind
that has always moved me, with its humility, the pathos of its involuntary love.
And unlike Kunderas
couple, whose final closeness is sublime yet haunted by a hint of artificiality,
Huck and Jim are together effortlessly. It was kind of solemn, drifting down
the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didnt
ever feel like talking loud, and it warnt often that we laughedonly a little
kind of a low chuckle. Nothing really happens in this scene, but it is as close
to idyllic as anything in modern literature.
We have only touched
on the first, second, and third matesthe Starbucks, Stubbs, and Flasks of the
literary world. But the gallery is endlessly, gloriously varied: Bertie and
Jeeves, Elizabeth and Darcy, Prince Hal and Falstaff, Helena and Hermia, Dean
and Sal, Lear and Kent, Tristan and Isolde, Hamm and Clov, Don Quixote and Sancho
Panza, Poldi Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. (The entire plot of the most important
novel of the twentieth century culminates in the moment when Young Joyce and
Old Joyce, having finally met, piss togetheran action that could be considered
the apotheosis of male matedom.)
These pairs have
nothing in common except the fact that they are together. They may be blood
brothers, or conspiring fools; master and servant, or husband and wife; father
and son, or the most complicated of friends. It doesnt matter: what matters
is that for some reason, as they made their way through the world, they found
each other, found solace, or an answer, or a wilder music, and for a moment,
or a lifetime, two turned into one. Falstaffs plea to Prince Hal, who he knows
is about to drop him, could speak for them all, that great pageant of lovers
and friends: Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
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