Friday, March 20, 2009
The Theater of Love
My job involves meetings and interactions with other people. When I’m on the ball – when I’m ready to respond thoughtfully to other people – I can produce a relatively seamless performance of what it means to be a human being. I seem to have a coherent personality and to feel confident in my ability to make sense of the world. I don’t appear to be making it up as I go. But even on my best days, I’m aware of the backstage fumblings of my lurching mind. When I pause to reflect, I see myself as a frayed fabric of stupid mistakes and moral failings, relieved by a few lucky patches of intelligence. If I were physically beautiful, I could console myself with the thought that I’m at least easy on the eye. Not so.
And so, how can anyone love me?
Love is a mystery. I know my fellow humans well enough to say that we should all be grateful for the mystery that surrounds romantic love. Love is a fiction – an invention, really – one of the greatest inventions of Western culture. The fiction of love is the sticky web in which your lover is caught, and in which you, too, as a lover, are caught. Neither of you can get away. Not that you struggle much.
For all practical purposes, romantic love is an early modern development. We see in Shakespeare the survival of the old order alongside the emergence of the new. In the old order, marriages are arranged by fathers who guard the family estate. A marriage seals an alliance between two families, promoting their general prospects. Brides, and to some extent grooms, are merely tokens of exchange. In such a world, Romeo and Juliet don’t matter; there are only Montagues and Capulets, two families at war. Juliet tries to erase Romeo’s family name, and to escape the old order, when she argues that “that which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet.” She imagines an intimate world in which people have only first names or nicknames – like California. But Romeo speaks the idealizing language that destroys the old way forever. “Heaven is here / Where Juliet lives,” he exclaims, establishing romantic love as a separate realm, above economics, politics, patriarchy. Love is of a higher order.
That’s where we live today when we love. We raise each other up, blissfully ignoring the facts. In the best marriages, I believe, we do see one another’s imperfections – almost as clearly as we see our own; but we also identify in our lover something immortal that shines through the clouds.
Love is a beautiful performance. Like Romeo and Juliet, we speak to each other in sonnets. We create a new fabric of belief according to which each of us has the honor and pleasure of pretending to be divine, to be givers of gifts, sources of delight. The gift I give to you is to receive you as a giver of gifts, a walking miracle. I’m amazed that you love me.
Romeo and Juliet underscores the danger of this vision, as well. From one perspective, the play is beautiful but ends in suicide. From another perspective, the more modern one, it is beautiful because it ends in suicide. In either case, it shows us how love can tempt us to sacrifice ourselves, to annihilate ourselves, because it is so great and we are almost nothing.
But, no: love is nothing but us.