LOVE & ITS DISCONTENTS
Susan Smith Nash
Here it is, months away from Mother's Day, and I'm desperately groping for a workable definition of "love." I love my mom, I love my son, I love my family -- those sound culturally acceptable, but the sort of familial love they denote does nothing at all to explain the exalted "love" found in literature.
When I say I love my son, it is an emotion that surges in the wake of irrational bonding; a feeling that manifests itself in actions, both automatic and by design, that demonstrate an active nurturing, protecting, guiding, giving, and forgiving force. That's on a good day. Sometimes that same "love" manifests itself as nagging, scolding, browbeating, jumping to conclusions, blaming, and self-justifying. I feel fairly guilty & I wonder if I've scarred my son. Who knows. People can be fragile. But, hey -- maybe they deserved it (joke). I am at a loss -- I remember myself at age 15-1/2 (my son's age), and I think I was somewhat worse than he is. And yet, his actions torture me. Maybe it's because I'm assuming he had the same outrageous thoughts as I did at that age. Honestly, I sometimes think that mother-love is masochism.
Are love and madness intertwined in familial love? Obviously they are when family loyalties require one to avenge a death, or to commit an "honor killing." I recently returned from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic where people speak a linguistic relative of Turkish and practice moderate Islam, at least in the capital city, Baku. In the mountains, however, they say that tribal customs prevail, and the phenomenon of "honor killing" is discouragingly familiar. Usually it is the young girls who are subjected to this. For example, if a young girl is raped, and if anyone finds out, then it is the duty of a male member of the family to kill her, rather than to have the family subject to humiliation. This is done out of family duty, which is in theory a form of love. When I found out about this practice, I was horrified. That is the most extreme case of "blaming the victim" I have ever heard. Unfortunately, the practice is widespread throughout Islamic countries. In fact, the Queen of Jordan is campaigning against it. Sadly, this is one of the practices that gives Islam a bad reputation, and leads to stereotyping and demonizing.
One should not kill in the name of "love." And yet, this sort of psychosis is preached every day, particularly if one lives in a society in which it is necessary to demonstrate one's worthiness to continue in the clan by a great show of loyalty. The issue of "family love" becomes even more vexed in these cases. Just watch The Godfather or Goodfellas if you have any doubts.
But what of the exalted love of poetry and drama -- the one that drives lovers to madness, suicide, and murder, or to great feats of heroism, bravery, and courage?
The "love" of Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, is more a force than a relationship between two people. Essentially philosophical, and an extended metaphor for the awakening consciousness that gradually learns to differentiate between categories (the good, the pure, the beautiful), and to rank the various deviations from the ideal, this sort of "love" leads to desire. But what kind of desire is created? In Plato, "love" engenders a desire to become one with the ideal. It is a craving for unity with what results on top, what is considered the best. The fact that the desire is destined to always go unfulfilled is rather painful and tragic. However, that is the basis for romanticized ideal "love."
On a more positive note, in Platonic philosophy, "love" allows the mind to understand the realm of perfection, and to soar into the skies. "Love" is the driving force that makes mental transformation possible, and, in theory, the joy of understanding.
In NeoPlatonic philosophy, as written and described by Plotinus, and later Boethius, the force of love is a pseudo-mystical force. Instead of simply driving one to a higher plane, or enabling one to understand the perfect forms, it virtually possesses one, compelling the person to enter into an exalted, enraptured state, in which one received intuitive knowledge in a mad, disordered, semi-chaotic rush of enlightenment. Such began the so-called "dark night of the soul" more thoroughly developed by mystics.
For most medieval mystics, love and madness were one and the same. The English anchorite Julian of Norwich experienced convulsions, hallucinations, and extreme pain as she suffered through a serious illness. Later, she wrote about the experience and explained that the hallucinations, visions, and pain helped her understand the concept of love, and how Christ suffered and died on the cross. Her writings were reproduced and widely circulated around England, where they were considered works of divine love. Today, we would probably say they were the scribblings of a woman suffering from a severe psychological disorder. Would we call it madness? That is not the politically correct term of choice. But, that is generally the gist of it. We would use the word "mad" before we would say her work described "love." The other mystics were much the same -- Ste. Therese of Lisieux lived in 19th century France, and her sufferings from tuberculosis, and her hallucinations were considered divinely inspired visions of love.
In medieval traditions, the best art and literature allowed the reader to understand relationships between people and the divine order, and the more intricate the picture, the more treasured the objet-d'art. Perhaps the most dramatic examples were the gothic cathedral and Dante's Divine Comedy. Both illustrate the levels and hierarchies as one ascends to the realm of perfection. Out of the religious world, troubador and epic poets likewise described how one could achieve perfection by means of love. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, love for one's queen requires devotion, bravery, and adherence to rigidly defined codes of conduct. In troubadour poetry, the poet sings the praises of his lady love. The object of his devotion is a cultural projection rather than a real person, and the desire he expresses seems more narcissistic and/or idealized -- it is more about wanting to achieve the state of joy that supposedly accompanies a mental appreciation of perfection. Strangely, no one ever seemed particularly happy. In fact, what they were creating was a way of knowing that limited knowledge precisely because the categories were so rigid.
Interestingly, by the time we get to Shakespeare, we have a world that no longer is content with rigid categories and inflexible social and political structures. The Renaissance mindset has changed radically -- it embraces the notion of Platonic love because it seeks change and transformation. However, it wants change to be more than a philosophical ideal. It wants material change. But, how is "love" different in the Renaissance than before?
In Shakespeare, love springs up in the most unexpected places. People who are not supposed to love, fall in love. Romeo and Juliet are prohibited by family feuding to be in love. Titania falls in love with Bottom, but only after he has large donkey ears, and, one must add, after she is enchanted by pansy juice applied by Puck. Olivia falls in love with Viola (but she thinks Viola is a man). What does the weird coupling allow? It certainly allows people to love outside their predetermined levels. It also allows friendship to emerge, when before there was only the objectifying Platonic love. For all its virtues, Platonic love is highly limited in that it treats people as objects -- as rungs on a ladder. It does not admit their humanity, and it does not account for the capriciousness and contrariness of human nature.
Love, in Shakespeare, lies always on the verge of disintegration. It is one step away from utter chaos. And yet, such love is vital, alive, and not rarified to the point that when one hears troubadour poetry, one wonders about the woman who is placed on such a high pedestal. Is the poem about her, or is it about the singer himself, and his desire to achieve unity with an intellectual concept? This is unmistakably narcissistic, unmistakably within a closed, hierarchical system where "love" means perfection. In Shakespeare, love does not mean perfection -- love means understanding human frailty, and -- perhaps most importantly -- it is about how the audience begins to understand that reality is never as things appear. People are in disguise. People fall in love based on mistakes and miscommunications. People fall under the spell of dreams and enchantments and incantations. The imperfection of the world is what engenders true love - the audience sees that imperfection and the chaos are the catalysts for life and love. So, we laugh and are emboldened to fall into our own little irrational love.
At this point in my life, somewhat saddened and definitely gun-shy regarding love, I find myself hesitating before I embrace the mad world of double meanings and dissembling appearances that is the breeding ground of love. I want to proceed with caution, and I do not want to be hurt (or make a fool of myself).
And yet, a few weeks ago, something very puzzling happened. Despite my calm demeanor, my self-control (my self-repression, perhaps) I found myself in a weird situation as I killed time in the dusty-floored, crumbling Soviet-era departure lounge of Kazakhstan Airways, waiting for a flight from Atyrau (the north tip of the Caspian Sea) to Budapest.
On the other side of the waiting area, I noticed that there was a crew of construction workers -- probably Hungarian -- sitting together. They were drinking vodka (it was 8 in the morning) and laughing. I was imagining that they were eager to get out of Atyrau, which is a rather bleak place, of wind, saline grit, industrial pollution, and crumbling infrastructure. I was sure they were ready to get back to a place that didn't have water rationing (water 3 hrs/day) and latrine-type toilets. I noticed a guy seated with them, and I felt my heart skip a beat and my stomach turn to butterflies.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the guy -- I did like his sense of style, though -- overalls, t-shirt, interesting shoes, dark blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. Of course, we had absolutely nothing in common -- I was sitting there in a black blazer, black&white striped shirt, black skirt -- Madame American, wearing her business travel gear to minimize hassles. He was either Russian or Hungarian. He looked Russian.
My heart was pounding. It was all I could do to keep from trembling. I couldn't even look at him. What was it? I have no idea. Was it mutual? I'm sure it was not. (I'm only saying that so it won't look like I have some sort of form of delusional disorder -- some kind of erotomania -- like the stalker who believes the stalkee is in love with him!) I didn't sit near him in the plane. Later, I didn't see him in Customs. I still think about him.
Now that I'm back home, I regret my common sense. I wish I had run up to him and pledged to him my undying love, and begged him to marry me and come with me to the U.S. I hate it that I did nothing. I wanted to tell him -- in extended and wordy refrains -- all about how much I loved him -- all in English, which would have been rather useless. I didn't. I couldn't even look at him. But -- now I wish I had said something. The chance was lost forever. He was so gentle-looking and mild-demeanored. He had the sweetest, most forgiving & comprehending face I've ever seen. He was honest and good and kind (or at least he seemed that way). And I blew it. I'll never know.
On the other hand, my family might have been a bit dismayed if I had dragged home a non-English speaking husband. That's assuming he accepted my bizarre proposal.
But still -- was that the last time I'll ever feel that emotion? Maybe. I'm not sure why I even felt it at all. Perhaps it would bear looking into. Maybe it happened because I wasn't glued to the Internet like I usually am here, while I was in Kazakhstan. Maybe it was because I had just spent 6 days actually living life and interacting with people… perhaps the life I lead here is dehumanizing and has turned me into an unfeeling automaton.
What is love in the 21st century, in the age of Internet?
Perhaps that's what I should really be asking, instead of pining for a man I only glimpsed in the airport of Atyrau, Kazakhstan, plunging myself into my own absurd re-enactment of Dante's Vita Nuova -- written as a tribute and love-testimony to Beatrice -- a female he saw only once, having glimpsed her in passing on a street in Italy.
If only I had that morning in Kazakhstan to live over….