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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Pleasures of Love- by Robertson Davies

Let us understand one another at once: I have been asked to discuss the pleasures of love, not its epiphanies, its ecstasies, its disillusionments, its duties, its burdens or its martyrdom--and therefore the sexual aspect of it will get scant attention here. So if you have begun this piece in hope of fanning the flames of your lubricity, be warned in time.

Nor is my intention to be psychological. I am heartily sick of most of the psychologizing about love that has been going on for the last six hundred years. Everybody wants to say something clever, or profound, about it, and almost everybody has done so. Only look under "Love" in any book of quotations to see how various the opinions are.

Alas, most of this comment is wide of the mark; love, like music and painting, resists analysis in words. It may be described, and some poets and novelists have described it movingly and well; but it does not yield to the theorist. Love is the personal experience of lovers. It must be felt directly.

My own opinion is that it is felt most completely in marriage, or some comparable attachment of long duration. Love takes time. What are called "love affairs" may afford a wide, and in retrospect, illuminating variety of emotions; not only fierce satisfactions and swooning delights, but the horrors of jealousy and the desperation of parting attend them; the hangover from one of these emotional riots may be long and dreadful.

But rarely have the pleasures of love an opportunity to manifest themselves in such riots of passion. Love affairs are for emotional sprinters; the pleasures of love are for the emotional marathoners.

Clearly, then, the pleasures of love are not for the very young. Romeo and Juliet are the accepted pattern of youthful passion. Our hearts go out to their furious abandonment; we are moved to pity by their early death. We do not, unless we are of a saturnine disposition, give a thought to what might have happened if they had been spared for fifty to sixty years together.

Would Juliet have become a worldly nonentity, like her mother? Or would she, egged on by that intolerable old bawd, her Nurse, have planted a thicket of horns on the brow of her Romeo?

And he--well, so much would have depended on whether Mercutio had lived; quarrelsome, dashing and detrimental, Mercutio was a man destined to outlive his wit and spend his old age as the Club bore. No, no; all that Verona crowd were much better off to die young and beautiful.

Passion, so splendid in the young, wants watching as the years wear on. Othello had it, and in middle life he married a young and beautiful girl. What happened? He believed the first scoundrel who hinted that she was unfaithful, and never once took the elementary step of asking her a direct question about the matter.

Passion is a noble thing; I have no use for a man or woman who lacks it; but if we seek the pleasures of love, passion should be occasional, and common sense continual.

Let us get away from Shakespeare. He is the wrong guide in the exploration we have begun. If we talk of the pleasures of love, the best marriage he affords is that of Macbeth and his Lady. Theirs is not the prettiest, nor the highest hearted, nor the wittiest match in Shakespeare, but unquestionably they knew the pleasures of love.

"My dearest partner of greatness," writes the Thane on Cawdor to his spouse. That is the clue to their relationship. That explains why Macbeth's noblest and most desolate speech follows the news that his Queen is dead.

But who wants to live a modern equivalent of the life of the Macbeths--continuous scheming to reach the Executive Suite enlivened, one presumes, by an occasional Burns Nicht dinner-party, with the ghosts of discredited vice presidents as uninvited guests.

The pleasures of love are certainly not for the very young, who find a bittersweet pleasure in trying to reconcile two egotisms, nor yet for those who find satisfaction in "affairs." Not that I say a word against young love, or the questings of uncommitted middle-age; but these notions of love correspond to brandy, and we are concerned with something much more like wine.

The pleasures of love are for those who are hopelessly addicted to another living creature. The reasons for such addiction are so many that I suspect they are never the same in two cases.

It includes passion but does not survive by passion; it has whiffs of the agreeable vertigo of young love, but it is stable more often than dizzy; it is a growing, changing thing, and it is tactful enough to give the addicted parties occasional rests from strong and exhausting feeling of any kind.

"Perfect love sometimes does not come until the first grandchild" says a Welsh proverb. Better (by) far if perfect love does not come at all, but hovers just out of reach. Happy are those who never experience the all-dressed-up-and-no-place-to-go sensation of perfection in love.

What do we seek in love? From my own observations among a group of friends and acquaintances that includes a high proportion of happy marriages, most people are seeking a completion of themselves. Each party to the match has several qualities the other cherishes; the marriage as a whole is decidedly more than the sum of its parts.

Nor are these cherished qualities simply the obvious ones; the reclusive man who marries the gregarious woman, the timid woman who marries the courageous man, the idealist that marries the realist--we can all see these unions:the marriages in which tenderness meets loyalty, where generosity sweetens moroseness,where a sense of beauty eases some of the aridity of the spirit, are not so easy for outsiders to recognize; the parties themselves may not be fully aware of such elements in a good match.

Often, in choosing a mate, people are unconsciously wise and apprehend what they need to be greater than they are.

Of course the original disposition of the partners to the marriage points the direction it will take. When Robert Browning married Elizabeth Barrett, the odds were strongly on the side of optimism, in spite of superficial difficulties; when Macbeth and his Lady stepped to the alter, surly some second-sighted Highlander must have shuddered.

If the parties to a marriage have chosen one another unconsciously, knowing only that they will be happier united than apart, they had better set to work as soon as possible to discover why they married, and to nourish the feeling which has drawn them together.

I am constantly astonished by the people, otherwise intelligent, who think that anything so complex and delicate as marriage can be left to take care of itself. One sees them fussing about all sorts of lesser concerns, apparently unaware that side by side with them--often in the same bed--a human creature is perishing from lack of affection, of emotional malnutrition.

Such people are living in sin far more truly than the loving but unwedded couples whose unions they sometimes scorn. What pleasure are there in these neglected marriages? What pleasures can there be in ramshackle, jerrybuilt, uncultivated love?

A great of all the pleasure of love begins, continues and sometimes ends with conversation. A real, enduring love affair, in marriage and out of it, is an extremely exclusive club of which the entire membership is two co-equal Perpetual Presidents.

In French drama there used to be a character, usually a man, who was the intimate friend of husband and wife, capable of solving quarrels and keeping the union in repair. I do not believe in such a creature anywhere except behind the footlights. Lovers who need a third party to discuss matters with are in a bad way.

Of course there are marriages that are kept in some sort of rickety shape by a psychiatrist--occasionally by two psychiatrists. But I question if pleasures of the sort I am writing about can exist in such circumstances. The club has become too big.

I do not insist on a union of chatter-boxes, but as you can see I do not believe that still waters run deep; too often I have found that still waters are foul and have mud bottoms. People who love each other should talk to each other; they should confide their real thoughts, their honest emotions, their deepest wishes. How else are they to keep their union in repair?

How else, indeed, are they to discover that they are growing older and enjoying it, which is a very great discovery indeed? How else are they to discover that their union is stronger and richer, not simply because they have shared experience (couples who are professionally at odds, like Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition, also share experience, but they are not lovers) but because they are waxing in spirit?

During the last war a cruel epigram was current that Ottawa was full of brilliant men, and the women they had married when they were very young. If the brilliant men had talked more to those women, and the women had replied, the joint impression they made in middle-age might not have been so dismal. It is often asserted that sexual compatibility is the foundation of a good marriage, but this pleasure is doomed to wane, whereas a daily affectionate awareness and a ready tongue last as long as life itself.

It always surprises me, when Prayer Book revision is discussed, that something is not put into the marriage service along these lines--"for the mutual society, help, comfort, and unrestricted conversation that one aught to have to the other, both in prosperity and adversity."

Am I then advocating marriages founded on talk? I can hear the puritans, who mistrust conversation as they mistrust all subtle pleasures, tutting their disapproving tuts.

Do I assert that the pleasures of love are no more than the pleasures of conversation? Not at all: I am saying that where talk is good and copious, love is less likely to wither, or to get out of repair, or to be outgrown, than among the uncommunicative.

For, after all, even lovers live alone much more than we are ready to admit. To keep in constant, sensitive rapport with those we love most, we must open our hearts and minds. Do this, and the rarest, most delicate pleasures of love will reveal themselves.

Finally, it promotes longevity. Nobody quits a club where the conversation is fascinating, revealing, amusing, various and unexpected until the last possible minute. Love may be snubbed to death: talked to death, never!

2 comments:

  1. I know this is long, but definately worth the read!

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  2. I agree with you

    ReplyDelete