Content advisory 18+ I have been exchanging letters with a friend who writes novels. She is a woman of Moscow with long-established connections to New York City. Clever, sophisticated, and talented, she is, in fact, among the most unforgettably beautiful women I have ever seen. Hauntingly so, like the Mona Lisa. Or the Girl With the Pearl Earring. Except better.
Feminist trash-talking being what it is — if we can put it aside for a moment, please accept this: men get hooked on the stupendous conjuring power of a woman’s glance. This is NOT about male aggression, locker room stuff, or puerile fantasy-making. It is just a dazzling, spellbinding fact. As Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare’s short-lived contemporary) wrote of Helen of Troy: “So this was the face that launched a thousand ships.”
I have always assumed — and here indeed is perhaps the childish bit — that such women MUST be happy, especially in the “game of love” — for how could they NOT be, given the prodigious gifts at their command. But the reality seems to be that often they are not. And this is apparently the plight of my friend – who, by the way, is not miserable or grasping or promiscuous. She is not chasing rabbits or rainbows.
Alas, her life seems to have been full of great emotional suffering, a lot of it based on something of a tortured childhood — not physically, I assume, but due to other causes which remain a mystery to me. She is simultaneously avant-garde and deeply traditional in terms of her conservative Jewish background.
I used to teach her now teenage son. Both of us being writers, we became friends and now exchange letters periodically. The letters are never of the “How ‘ya doin’? I’m good !” variety. Never chatty small-talk stuff. Having established a genuine rapport derived from certain life issues and themes which we appear to recognize and validate in each other — and so feel driven to discuss — it has become a friendship of great significance to me. Thus, every couple of months she responds to what I have written to her and sets off triggers in my mind.
One of the themes we have discussed is “love.” What does it mean, why does it often hurt so much, how to live with it and without it…etc. Big theme. The difference is that this word, at least when applied in the romantic sense — and which is perpetually poised as the greeting card announcing the party we all hope to be invited to — is anathema to her, as if it conjures up only memories of illusion followed by disillusionment, recollections of emotional trauma — for some reason. It is difficult for me to understand — it is hard to imagine that it would have been about anything trivial, no, it had to have been terrible, but I try not to probe too much. My friend will tell me what she wants me to know.
I am different. I see a loving attraction to the opposite sex (I speak for myself — I understand that people are not all the same) as similar to wandering around in a lovely garden of endless bright blossoms. Even advancing years have not robbed me (yet) of this heavenly lust. I don’t deal much in trying to define “virtue” and “sin” — and so I accept that sexual love based ONLY on carnal desire can be a dead-end street, just as a platonic love without fireworks (among ‘partners’) makes me think of toast without butter, or American pancakes without maple syrup. In other words, arid — like a desert. Nothing intrinsically blessed or sinful in either.
I believe that letting our hair down and rolling around in the muck once in while is…important. It affirms the creaturely side of us as well as serving as either a supplement or counterbalance to the spiritual — and so it seems to me that stifling or suffocating the “love” impulse is like…vaguely…committing a subtle yet mortal crime against oneself. A form of mental suicide. Because time runs out, because there are only so many chances, and because cynicism is, I have come to see with experience, merely a coping mechanism, a feeble — even if often vociferously expressed — way of anaesthetizing oneself, of blinding or putting oneself willfully to sleep as a means of adjusting to life’s calamities. It is like drowning all the puppies with the excuse, “I could never feed them, so they are better off this way.”
Or saying there are too many dogs as it is.
Or worse: Dogs don’t love us. They only want food.
But the sad fact is that LOVE can hurt. Badly. The fascinating thing to me is how some people are able to rebound — again and again — from disastrous love situations, and keep returning for more — while others (of the “first cut is the deepest” variety) are strictly one and done. In a way, it reminds me of certain prize fighters I have seen. Some can lose terribly and then come back and reclaim the title. Like defeat never happened. Others look invincible until they meet their match and get clobbered. Once. And are never the same fighter again.
To return to the “dog” analogy. I have known people who lost a beloved dog or cat to death and vowed never to have one again. Why? Their answer is always this: To avoid going through such pain again. OK, I understand the pain of loss. But what about all the other dogs and cats who still exist…out there in the street….and need a home and to be loved? It would be sacrilege against the dear lost friend to love again? You think this???
I believe that in life you just have to keep trying. And though I have little faith that “God” is going to jump in out of the blue and help me to settle any particular dilemma, I still feel that miracles can spring up in an open and fertile heart like roses in a desert. Some people would find this paradox unacceptable, but to me it isn’t.
On the other hand, I have often been guilty of confusing “love” with lust, or with an overspilling of genuine affection that nevertheless should not have been exaggerated as constituting “love” in a pure sense. I have even — I shudder to admit — used “love” (or expressions of same) as a manipulative device to get something (sex, almost always) that I wanted from a woman.
I must therefore confess that I have used love as a kind of currency — as a means to an end. Less and less — thankfully — as I have aged.
Americans, in general, tend to gush a bit too much. I once had a female German friend who had been my student when I lived in Marburg — near Frankfurt — who wrote to me asking if it was OK to sign off on a Friendly letter with the word “Love”. You know: Love, Eric, Love, Mabel. Love, Santa Claus. Whatever. And I answered, why hell yes — you don’t need to REALLY love somebody in order just to say “Love, Irina” (her name) at the close of such letter. “Hi, Guys! It’s great here in Barbados. Wish you were here. Love, Irina.” No big deal.
What struck me was the fact that for her the word “love” had such a weighty meaning — maybe too serious to use casually in a friendly letter. I wondered and worried about that, it gave me considerable pause because I have never thought of myself as being a superficial person. Moreover, it has always been very clear to me that if you say (like movie stars will do) that you have a thousand “close” friends, it probably means you don’t have a real friend to your f—— name, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know it. Same with love. I am suspicious of those “do-good-ers” we find everywhere who are always preaching, singing, and chanting about “love”, passing out leaflets on the subject, trying to save the Africans (because of “love”), supporting all the lost causes (again, “love”) and basically just making a nuisance of themselves.
But there IS something…a form of release, I find — from telling someone that you love them. It is like making yourself naked in the spiritual or emotional sense, just as taking off your clothes makes you naked in the physical sense. But you shouldn’t, I suppose, do it TOO often, or it tends to devaluate the currency (There I go about love as “currency” again, damn it).
Indeed, the older I get, the more I realize how much I actually HATE a lot of things. I am confirmed in the belief that Hate, if kept under reasonable control, is a rather healthy emotion, and it should not be confused with representing — as it usually is — the opposite of LOVE. Hate is love’s ugly sister, but a sister (or close relative) she is nonetheless. The opposite of love is not hate, and the opposite of hate is not love. The opposite of both is INDIFFERENCE.
It has often been a source of sad amazement to me how frequently in life we end of HATING the very thing we set out to LOVE. After all, so many marriages finish this way, don’t they? It takes us back to what I stated earlier about cynicism merely existing as a substitute for failed idealism.
Hatred, accordingly, when not based on its usual stimulus — which is FEAR — is simply nothing more than spoiled, failed love. And, like practically all of the negative elements that we use to make scapegoats of other people and things, this hatred is almost always SELF-DIRECTED.
We hate our own vulnerability which leaves us open to exploitation. We hate our own imagined mediocrity when others appear to surpass us. We hate rejection when we have bared our souls. We hate being made to feel inferior and ridiculous. We hate being Not Good Enough.
We hate it when the greatest gift we could ever possibly give — our L-O-V-E — is low-rated, in effect pissed on — by those to whom we have offered it.
And so we retreat behind the self-made curtains and the self-conceived rocks and boulders which we have placed there to protect us…venturing, if only once in a while…to steal a peek out, exposing, just for an instant to the open air, our tragic neediness. Then, furiously we draw down the shade, fling ourselves behind the curtain of stone…until we make a rock out of our hearts.
In this world it is understandable.
So who has the best grasp of it? The guy like me, who has spent love like some guys spend money — in my day throwing it about like confetti in a parade, until at times almost turning it into something frivolous? Or the person, like my wondrous friend, who has been ravaged by Love’s sharp teeth, as from some hound from hell, and wants no more of it?
As with most things in life, the answer is probably simpler than it seems and finds its best form somewhere in the middle. Like with food, exercise, even religion. In other words, some of it is good; too much will probably make you sick. Even terminally ill.
The poet T.S. Eliot wrote these lines in a mighty work called “Ash Wednesday” :
“Teach us to care, and not to care.
Teach us to sit still.”
This rings true, and it seems to require some sort of special discipline of mind and spirit, while not ruling out the deep devotion in back of it all. I think that it means to love with all our heart — and yet to be willing to let go of love. Can we do that?
To let go and let love fly away if wants to. I believe it’s the true work, no matter how many nights I have spent gnashing my teeth because of this truth, and no matter how many times I have had to face the morning sun with a broken heart. Love, the ability to love with renewed energy, optimism, and passion — and to forget loss, spit on failure — and fight again because of this Force welling in your soul. It is my answer to the abyss.
To love without expectation. To love in the face of ridicule and humiliation. To love, even as the handsome physical equipment of youth begins to disintegrate around you. To look at what you really HAVE, what is THERE — husband, wife, child, dog, cat….and take a long, long, long look at them. Before they go.
Record them in your heart. Carpe Diem, magnificent Veronika.
===Eric Richard Leroy===