• Love

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    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

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