Saturday, June 6, 2015

Xavier Moon

Context first. Xavier Moon is the name of a character from my oft-restarted, oft-aborted, novel. In truth, Xavier Moon is, in some small way, me, and in many large ways, not me. Regardless, he's become so archetypal and abstract to me that in order to write him as a character I'm going to have to fight with him a lot.

What I'm about to post here is something I wrote back in October, but chose not to post at that time. Rereading it, I figure, hey, why not? So here's a paragraph about Mr. Moon. Be warned, this is me writing the way I really write. Kerouacian, if I flatter myself, or maybe just poorly. Hard to say. Regardless, here be (intentional) run-on sentences.

Xavier Moon is an impossible character to describe, because he's really only an idea, an archetype, a reflection of myself into some mystical, mythical world of forms, but not quite that, because Plato's forms have no meaning in our historical age, when we can see the past and make - or more often not make - sense of the stories about the past that we hear and accept. Xavier Moon has been a writer, a musician, a student, an athlete, a dreamer, a dream, a lover, beloved, powerful, meek, an astrologer, a scientist, a lonely man in shirt sleeves (after Eliot), and a man burning some preposterous version of his own second Troy. Xavier Moon stays up until 3 AM, but doesn't particularly care for clocks. He wears the finest clothes, but no jewelry, and has long, black hair. Or else his hair is brown, tawny and well-kempt. Regardless, his glasses give him a dignified, intelligent bearing, and he would never be caught writing in a generic notebook with a generic pen, not because he has some superficial aversion to the cheapness of genre, but because he somehow finds himself always surrounded by finery, as if by accident. He is no great man, but he draws the greatness of others to him. Except, there's a catch, because in the process of attracting and enabling power to come to be his own lunarity inflicts some shadowy maleficence upon the shining virtue of his interlocutor. He might rationalize his corrupting bearing by explaining that, in truth, there is no such thing as greatness uncorrupted, or else he might remind those poor souls to whom he is midwife that all births - especially significant ones - are painful.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Problem With Love

The problem with love, as a word, is that it’s woefully imprecise. The Greeks had no less than three words for our one. That’s a radical reversal of the usual state of affairs. Consider the Greek logos, which is variably – and accurately – translated as “word,” “logic,” “idea,” and “ratio,” and is also appended onto countless other roots to mean “the study of,” as in anthropology (literally “the study of humans”) or technology (literally, and somewhat ironically, “the study of art and craft”). Logos is typical of Greek: a single word referring to a great many concepts, for which we now have dozens and dozens of words.

English, however lexically rich in most cases, is destitute when it comes to love. Love is love. While we still believe in a difference between brotherly love – agape in Greek – the love of an idea – philos – and romantic love – eros – we have but the one word. It’s a problem that makes itself felt whenever we say we love someone. One would hope that context is enough, most of the time, to tell which kind of love is meant, but it’s not always immediately obvious.

For the purposes of this essay, I want to talk mostly about love as in eros. Romantic love. Desire. The other kinds of love are interesting, sure, but not interesting enough. So let’s extract ourselves from the linguistic mess. Love, from here on, need not be a complicated word. Or, at least, we can peel away the first level of complication and get to the real problem.

The problem with love as a word is miniscule compared to the real problem. The real problem with love is as an emotion, as an experience. No two people have the exact same experience of love, but if great poetry and shitty pop music alike teach us anything, it’s that there are certain aspects of being in love that resonate across time and space and culture. Our experiences may differ, but in those differences there is much commonality. I won’t cite love poem after love poem – or pop song after pop song – as that could take ages. Instead, here’s the problem with love in a nutshell:

Love is always, and fundamentally, unrequited.

I don’t mean to say that two people can’t love each other. I don’t mean to say, either, that happy relationships don’t exist. Of course there are a great many people in the world who accurately describe themselves as in love with one another. There are genuinely loving 50th wedding anniversaries and lovers who finish each others’ sentences. There are men and women who cook for their partners at the end of a long day and couples who raise their children together joyfully. There are couples who never fight because they’re so much alike, and couples who fight all the time and revel in the fighting and so love each other for that. Who am I to say all that love is unrequited?

I hasten to explain that unrequited does not mean that love is not felt by both parties. Literally, etymologically, “unrequited” means “not given back.” And how could it be given back? Love, given to someone, is not meant to be returned. When two people love each other, they love with a different love, with their own love. My love for someone else is uniquely mine, and the love I receive in return is emphatically not mine.

That may sound like just semantics, though, and questionable semantics at that, so let me explain. What I really mean is, there is a certain, irrational, intrinsic myopia to love. Love is felt, but not really understood. We become obsessive over it. We act strangely. We lose perspective. Even if – especially if – we deeply, truly love another person, that love is so essentially our own that to think of it as being shared is almost absurd. When two people love each other, it is not that they possess each other’s love. Rather, they possess their own love for each other.

To distinguish this from more traditional and mundane unrequited love, let’s consider the ways in which love is typically not returned. A great deal of the love in the world is unrequited in the classic sense that one person loves another without being loved by that person. After all, it is much, much easier to find someone to love than it is to find someone who loves you. What’s more, it’s easy – and probably foolish – to trick yourself into thinking you’ve fallen in love with someone simply because that person loves you. This, too, is unrequited love, because however real it feels, it’s not really, really, real.

Then there are the countless cases where love fades, where the magic and passion that once allowed a relationship to flourish turn to mere duty and routine. This happens often, and while it may be expected and accepted that relationships lose their luster with time, at a certain point that love, that eros, becomes more a familial love, agape, which doesn’t particularly inspire – or, I dare say, matter – quite so much. The true tragedy is when this happens to one partner before it happens to the other. How awful is the unrequited eros of a man or woman whose partner loves, but is not in love?

Finally, there is the shared love, the storied requited love, of fairy tales. Prince Charming and his Princess, or Beauty and her Beast, or those all-American grandparents who were once high school sweethearts, married at 20, and have been together ever since. Even when these stories are real, though, they’re not true to the form of love. The nature of the seeming requital is too superficial. It doesn't go to the mythological roots. Is not Romeo and Juliet the truer story? Or Tristan and Isolde?

Scholars, intellectuals, and high schoolers throughout history have debated whether Romeo and Juliet truly love each other. For the moment let’s assume they do. Let’s assume that they are not just horny teenagers aroused by each other’s beauty. In that case, theirs is a classic requited love gone wrong. Thus, theirs is a tragedy of epic, mythical proportions (“never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” and all). Love at first sight – true love – turns to ash, to death, to the bitterest of ends.

It need not be that way, but there’s a certain truth to it, no? Romeo’s banishment stems from his inability to separate himself from his world, to inhabit totally his love for Juliet. There is no doubt that he wishes he could do nothing but love her, but he cannot put aside the broader world. And such is love’s myopia: it wishes to be all, to consume, to be the heart and soul and core of one’s being, and yet it cannot. “Love is not all,” to quote Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous sonnet, “it is not meat nor drink / Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain.” That Millay would not give up her love – her memory of her love, even – for those more practical things does not mean that love can replace those things. Romeo would certainly like to give up his family’s hatred for the Capulets – a ‘need’ which is good deal more abstract and less necessary than food – but he finds doing so impossible.

Perhaps love need not be so myopic? Maybe there is a healthy way of relating with it? Maybe it need not consume the way it consumes Romeo? Indeed, a great many people manage to live and love without being destroyed by the emotion as Romeo and Juliet are. Ah, but Romeo and Juliet are a metaphor, not a cautionary tale. They speak to the impotence of love – eros, to be clear – to affect or even relate to the world, even if it wants nothing more than to do so. There is a way of reading Romeo and Juliet, in fact, where it seems that the characters actually want to die.

To explore this idea, I think it’s better to turn to Tristan and Isolde. The classic poetic union of death and love – from the French euphemism “le petite mort” to the grand final scene of Wagner’s opera – is no accident. Eros, love, whatever word we want to use, is in some sense cover for the real heart of the matter. Wagner – and Shakespeare – aren’t actually writing about any kind of gilded, Platonic, or divinely pure love. They’re writing about sex. They’re writing about orgasm, as a release, as an escape, as an end, and also as a source of power, as a conflict and a struggle. Romeo and Juliet die. Tristan and Isolde die. Their deaths tell us how they love, not in some sweet and innocent way. Their deaths tell us how they fuck.

In Tristan and Isolde, the final scene is gruesome. Tristan never consummates his love for Isolde with Isolde. As such he lies on the stage dying, unable to wait for her any longer, his guts spilling out of him. His death comes, and Isolde arrives to find him spent. She finds him, also, beautiful, and proceeds to sing perhaps the most erotic solo in all of opera. If you’ve never heard it, go listen. It’s patently, blatantly, unavoidably sexual. At the end, as wave after wave of crescendo and tension finally resolves into a single explosive, orgasmic, musical moment – tension not only built in her solo, but through the entire opera – Isolde is said to have transcended the physical plane, dying her own peculiar death, reaching a spiritual fullness.

Tristan and Isolde want to die, and spend the entire opera trying to die together. Romeo and Juliet, too, want ever to die. Juliet has a particular penchant for trying to stab herself with Romeo’s dagger. Yeah, Shakespeare is subtle like that. She finally succeeds in the final scene, after he – much like Tristan – kills himself instead of waiting for Juliet to “arrive” (or wake up in this case).

[More could be said about the details of these love-deaths, about how Romeo and Tristan can’t wait, about how much more profound Juliet and Isolde’s experiences are, about the ways in which the pleasure of sexuality is tied up with power and pain and is never quite the sweet, innocent thing we like to pretend it is. But that’s all for another time and place.]

So what’s the deeper truth here? For one, erotic love is erotic. It is as much about sex as anything, and while loving a person may extend to – indeed, may depend upon – his character or her work ethic, his kindness or her sense of humor, his intelligence or the beauty of her heart, none of that is eros without the eros.

More to the point, though, is that Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet, are archetypes for sexuality. They find true requital fundamentally impossible, because they cannot share their orgasms, and orgasms are as spiritually, metaphorically, and mythically significant as death itself. In these stories, the main characters’ little deaths do not occur at the same time as each other, but even if they did, would they be truly shared? When Romeo dies, only Romeo can die.

So what is the problem with love, again? All love is fundamentally unrequited. That does not make love bad. That does not make love worthless. That does not mean love will not continue to preoccupy me and the millions and billions of other romantics in the world. But my love will never, truly, be shared, even if it wishes it could be. My love will never, truly, be requited, because my love is, finally, mine alone.

Still, I feel that love, and wish, earnestly, for that impossible requital. Failing that – as I needs must – perhaps I’ll someday be one of those fortunate few who loves someone who loves me.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Sonnet

The final assignment of the year is to write a sonnet. To prove it could be done, I wrote a sonnet about writing sonnets for my students this afternoon during homework period. Here it is.

A sonnet is no easy thing to write.
It takes much practice, effort, skill, and time.
Against the meter poets ever fight,
And 'tis no simple task to make it rhyme.
But these are just the formal steps to take.
The real art lies in saying something true
That with the reader needs must resonate
Because it is profound, brilliant, or new.
So many poems explore the same old themes,
Like love, desire, death, and happiness.
A few, though, do escape those tired memes,
Exploring thoughts unique, and nothing less.
So when contributing your own new verse
Expound on all, yourself, the universe.