Love

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Whatever
love is – it might, in the last analysis, resist any convenient
summing up in a definition – it is most certainly not the simple,
passive experience that popular culture or folkloric wisdom mocks
it up to be.

I

Current
popular culture, catering to and so dominated by the ubiquitous
"youth," offers an adolescent notion of love: insipid
high school types – blond cheerleader and stereotypical "jock"
– find themselves mutually smitten; the girl's parents adduce
high-handed reasons to oppose any intensification of the "relationship"
past chaste dating; intensified, precisely, by parental opposition,
the love-stricken couple do what the partners will and the charisma
of their consummation convinces one and all that they are made for
each other. This is the story even when the mode is utterly grotesque,
as in the hugely and cynically successful American
Pie
movies, where a "nerd" replaces the "jock."
Shakespeare offered a more realistic interpretation, not of the
plot, but of the phenomenon: Romeo
and Juliet
is about the disaster of infatuation. One might
agree that, from their own point of view, the two teenaged spooners
are "in love" (who would be churlish enough to deny it?);
but that their passion is incompatible with their situation, that
they are incapable of imposing their conviction on a world that
transcends them – this dooms the transitory bliss of their
connection. Even with assistance (Juliet's nurse and the helpful
friar), they terminate in calamity.

No
one interprets Romeo and Juliet accurately. Critics invariably
side with the pair (the "star-crossed lovers"), without
endowing the parental objection with its actual legitimacy. Shakespeare's
The
Tempest
, despite the fact that it is a magical fantasy,
offers a more realistic scenario for young love than Romeo and
Juliet. Prospero, the wise father, carefully tests Fernando
before giving his daughter Miranda in marriage; Fernando must prove
himself worthy to support and partner the wide-eyed girl.

Love
is a union of two parties against the world – in a very real
sense, against bad traits in one another. It requires not only a
certain type of equality in the partners, but also a certain type
of compatibility founded on significant experience and meaningful
achievement in the world. The radio counselor Dr. Laura Schlesinger
famously, and to the irritation of many, advises people not to marry
until they reach age thirty; the proof of her advice is in the endless
stream of telephone calls she receives from young women in their
early and middle twenties who married out of high school and suffered
the disaster of growing apart while growing up. People are simply
not complete as people until they approach thirty and have
established an independent niche in the social fabric. The Swedish
playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) wrote a story called "Phoenix,"
which lays bare the causality.

In
a mode of irony, Strindberg begins by heaping cliché on cliché:
"The wild strawberries were getting ripe when he saw her for
the first time at the vicarage. He had met many girls before, but
when he saw her he knew this was she! But he did not dare
to tell her so, and she only teased him for he was still at school."
The language is pregnant: the youth's love has as its context the
ripening of the "wild strawberries." It is, in other words,
a completely natural phenomenon, akin to the fructification of the
vegetable world and the rutting of animals. Strindberg conveys the
youth's naivety in the lack of daring in his character: for
a long time he is too shy to speak to the girl. A mature person
would dare to assert himself because he would be rooted in
his accomplishments and so confident in his own desire. The youth
is "still at school," a telling phrase, but what of the
girl? She can lay claim to maturity even less than he, except peculiarly
that her teasing him suggests that she half-understands the
situation better than he does. It is a fit scenario for teasing.
But the youth flatters the girl even as he inflates his own worth
and he extracts a promise of marriage from her. Unfortunately, he
must complete ten years of schooling before he earns his degree
in engineering; he must spend these years apart from her, and he
postpones the nuptials until that day. He thus selfishly and stupidly
deprives the girl of the edifying experience of being courted by
a variety of young men before making her choice of husbands. She
has no chance to grow into her own and gain knowledge of life before
becoming a wife. Her illness betokens the strain that the condition
puts on her. The marriage, of course, is a disaster. Neither partner
knows himself; only the youth has any accomplishments, nor are they
other than narrowly technical. Strindberg later makes it clear that
the youth was merely infatuated when he decided that he loved the
girl. His fixation on his daughter, who resembles his wife when
she was young, and his remarriage, after his first wife's untimely
death, to a girl impossibly younger than himself, point to an unhealthy
idée fixe. The story's protagonist did not marry a
person, only a sweet, girlish image. The girl, trapped by an unfair
engagement, never had a chance to grow up; the premature arrangement
denied her a measure of her own potential for personhood.

II

One
of the functions of story telling – of fiction – is to
reflect the human world. Yet paradoxically, fictions about love
are one of the pitfalls in the social reality: people who believe
the fairy tales about love, the fables that misidentify passion
or longing as love, end up betrayed by their own gullibility. A
quirky little parable by science fiction writer Robert Sheckley
(born 1928) – his Pilgrimage
to Earth
(1952) – skillfully dissects the phenomenon.
Sheckley's protagonist hails from Kazanga IV, "a small agricultural
planet near Arcturus." He is a farmer, formally unschooled;
he buys a book of antique poetry from a traveling vendor and asks
the man to tell him about Earth. Comes the answer: "On Earth…
everything is possible, nothing is denied." Earth, the storyteller
alluringly adds, "still has love" and indeed "is
the only place in the galaxy" where one can still find it.
Simon becomes fixated on "love" and makes the titular
Pilgrimage to Earth in order to find it. Earth, "the mother
planet," turns out to be a completely, grotesquely commercialized
place where "nothing is denied" only in the sense that
everything is for sale. Love is for sale. A cinema marquee suggests
the tenor of affairs in Times Square, where Simon wanders: "LUST
ON VENUS! A DOCUMENTARY ACCOUNT OF SEX PACTICES AMONG THE INHABITANTS
OF THE GREEN HELL! SHOCKING! REVEALING!" Simon looks for love
but what he sees is lust – for sale, of course. It baffles
him when a shooting gallery owner asks whether he wants to take
a shot at one of the "scantily dressed women" each "with
little bulls-eyes painted on their fore heads and above each breast"
at the target end of the firing range. Later, at Love, Inc.,
Mr. Tate explains to Simon that: "Our product is not a substitute.
It is the exact, self-same feeling that poets and writers have raved
about for thousands of years. Through the wonders of modern science
we can bring this feeling to you at your convenience, attractively
packaged, completely disposable and for a ridiculously low price."
When, his experience over, Simon complains that – well, that
it's over – Tate reminds him: "Love is a delightful
interlude, a relaxation, good for the intellect, for the ego, for
the hormone balance, and for the skin tone. But one would hardly
wish to continue loving, would one?" The episode was scientifically
engineered to be satisfying to Simon and during it the girl was
as convinced that she was in love with him as he was with her. It
is a fake, of course. The customer is too naïve, shocked, and
confused to argue effectively. Sheckley takes him back to the shooting
gallery, where he tells the manager to "line u2018em up."

Sheckley
makes two points. The first is that love is spontaneous and must
both emerge and develop organically, as a long-term relationship
between the parties; the second is that the confusion that people
have about love makes them susceptible to exploitation. Love,
Inc. trades on naïve perceptions and offers a commercialized
product to off-planet rubes, people who know no better. Disappointed
by his commercial rencontre, Simon becomes a misogynist ("line
u2018em up"), cutting himself off forever from love.

Sometimes
it can work the other way around. Isak Dinesen (1885-1862) has a
story, The Young Man with a Carnation (1949), that
puts on display a protagonist, Charley Despard, who has love,
in the form of a beautiful and intelligent wife, but who fails to
understand that he has it until a series of miraculous accidents
awakens him to the reality: he sleepily enters the wrong hotel room
late at night and spends an unknown dandy (the "young man"
of the title) away from the door; later he grasps that he had spent
part of the night in bed with a stranger, a young woman, and that
the "young man" had come to make love to her. His wife
therefore never read the farewell note that he now regrets having
left for her – but the other woman must have, and must feel
as parted from her lover as he feels from her. Despard has been
tested (maybe, as Dinesen suggests, by God) and the story concludes
with a hopeful rather than an outright happy ending. Dinesen's point
is that love comes from effort. Despard is attractive to his wife
because he has real accomplishments. (He has raised himself from
poverty by becoming a best-selling writer about social issues.)
She is educated (the daughter of a scientist) and worldly and can
join him in marriage as an equal. They share their world as genuine
partners.

III

No
better representation of love and its related phenomena exists than
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's late opera The
Magic Flute
(1791), with a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
(1751-1812). Mozart (1756-1791), who has been portrayed as a silly
person but who was not, had worked hard at his own marriage to his
wife Costanza and understood the seriousness of plighting troth;
Costanza for her part had endured the hardships entailed by conjugal
union with one who made his living, in some years fretfully, as
a performing artist and composer. Yet in the last year of his life,
Mozart's income had risen and his prospects looked good. Years of
hard work and striving were beginning to pay off. Although it shows
the outward appearance of a fairy tale, The Magic Flute is
a serious work that illuminates in brilliant lights the psychology
of love and friendship.

As
Act I begins, a young prince, Tamino, has lost his way in a mysterious
forest where a fierce dragon pursues him. He cries out for help
and then faints dead away (perhaps not a propitious sign), whereupon
the adventitious Three Ladies dispatch the monster and secrete themselves,
the better for them to observe the interloper. The Three Ladies
invite sympathy for their timely intervention, but closer scrutiny
suggests that all is not right with them. Their praise of the sleeping
Tamino suggests an underlying lasciviousness, which the comedy of
their banter ("I'll stay and watch him while you two
take word to the Queen of the Night") does not entirely dispel.
Lasciviousness, which Mozart also reveals in the character of Monastatos,
is a debasement of the proper admiration between incipient lovers;
it concerns sex alone and in most cases is non-reciprocal. Through
the medium of the Three Ladies, the Queen of the Night charges Tamino
and Papageno with freeing her daughter from her supposed captivity
in the Temple of Sarastro. Tamino is smitten by a cameo of Pamina
and claims, on that basis, to be already in love with her. Papageno
has previously sung of his longing for a mate. The quest of the
two young men coincides with their parallel search for meaningful
amorous union.

By
the end of Act I, Mozart has clarified a number of issues. The Queen
of the Night is not benevolent, but evil; Sarastro, formerly her
husband, is not a tyrant, but a philosopher king. More importantly,
Tamino's infatuation with the mere image of Pamina is an insufficient
basis for a union with her: Sarastro sees in Tamino a worthy candidate
for philosophical initiation and a potential groom for his daughter,
Pamina; but first both must be tested – and so must Papageno.
The bird catcher, despite supplying most of the comic relief in
this ritualistic opera, is a fully human person and a morally admirable
character. It is Papageno, not Tamino, who first discovers
Pamina and who helps her to escape from Monastatos. Papageno and
Pamina sing the important aria about man and woman being God's supreme
creation. When it comes to actual cases, Papageno does not lack
courage and has an instinctive grasp of right and wrong. Tamino
is more civilized and refined than his new friend, but quickly learns
to respect him and tries to help him, as much as he can, during
their trials in Act II. The "test for lovers" is an ancient
motif from folklore, exploited with warmth and sensitivity by Mozart
(and by Schikaneder). Papageno has a rougher time than Tamino because
he lacks schooling and is not consoled by philosophy, but he does
overcome his fears and shows good intentions to Papagena, when the
priests first introduce her to him. A trio of boyish "Spirits"
(the benevolent counterparts of the Three Ladies) occasionally gives
helpful advice to the aspirants – and once they intervene boldly
to keep Pamina from suicide when she thinks that Tamino has turned
his back on her. (In fact, he was bound by a vow of silence as part
of his candidacy.) The good personae in The Magic Flute
all show care for one another – Sarastro to Pamina,
Tamino and Papageno to each other, Tamino and Papageno to Pamina
and Papagena respectively. None puts any demand on the other; reciprocity
is freely observed. When the story divulges why Sarastro wants Tamino
to be joined to Pamina, the reason is important: their marriage
will cement the peace of the kingdom, for Sarastro intends them
to rule in his place when he abdicates his throne.

The
Magic Flute addresses one further aspect of love – its
relation to art and beauty. Love is a species of order arranged
freely by a man and wife or by those who call themselves friends;
this order in turn is the basis of the social order. Art also depends
on – it is – a form of order; music especially
requires harmony among its parts and people do not by accident refer
to the "harmony" in love or in marriage. So Tamino's magic
flute holds the power, for example, to tame savage beasts and Papageno's
magic bells can immobilize enemies by placing them under a terpsichorean
spell. The final scene of Act II, when Sarastro has defeated the
Queen of the Night, shows the general dance after the crowning of
Tamino and Pamina: the whole community has been brought under
the harmony and order anchored in and expressed by their new conjugal
union. The notion of the social order as "harmony" goes
back to Heraclitus, the archaic Greek thinker who was the first
to exploit the metaphor.

Courage,
commitment, experience, education, and openness to beauty –
all of these are ingredients of the finally indefinable phenomenon.
That one cannot define love exhaustively, however, does not mean
that love is whatever anyone says it is; that it is anything or
nothing. This is by no means the case. Many of the predications
that people ascribe to love are downright stupid. And even supposing
that one could not exhaustively define it, one might still show
it, as the artists do in their stories and operas and plays.

May
6, 2002

LewRockwell.com
needs your help. Please donate.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare