It wasn’t a madeleine that broke the dam of memory. It was reading this:
“I love being in love with you. It makes even unhappiness seem no bigger than a pin, even at the times when I wished so violently that I could give my heart to science and be rid of it.”
In a flash of a moment, I was decades back in time, awash in memories and emotion. The image of his face the last time I saw him – his hair had grown past the point of his usual tolerance and a small lock over his right ear stuck out awkwardly. Why does that memory, that image in my mind’s eye of one small unruly lock of hair, have the power still to hurt my heart?
It is a mystery to me, as love itself is a mystery – a mystery, an abyss of uncertainty and danger, an irresistible impulse. Yes, I loved being in love with him – never have I felt more alive.
I had been reading, enjoying, Michael Dirda’s Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, thoroughly engaged with his essays on “Life Lines”, “The Pleasures of Learning”, and “Work and Leisure” until I found myself in “The Books of Love,” reading the James Schuyler quote above. I stepped away from myself and thought about the effect of a chance reading of a few words, how another human being, whose existence I know nothing about and who knows nothing about mine, could understand with an insight so precise, exactly how I had felt.
And I thought about love, its mystery, joy, pain, its residual power to render us helpless, even if only for a moment.
I began pulling old friends and acquaintances from the shelves to join Mr. Dirda. What better support group than this?
After discovering that his wife had left him for another man, he said, “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live, but I am told that this is a common experience.”
Common. That is a comfort, isn’t it. Not right away, no, but soon. Soon, if we know to whom to turn.
Dianne Ackerman, in A Natural History of Love (a fascinating book on the historical, cultural, religious, and biological roots of love):
“Romantic love is a biological ballet, evolution’s way of making sure that sexual partners meet and mate, then give their child the care it needs to be healthy and make loving attachments of its own. This is not a simple or fast process. The human brain is so complex, the mind so ingenious, that biology and experience work hand in hand. People undergo a series of crushes, infatuations and loves, and learn to make magnetic attachments, whose power they feel in their cells, in their bones. It is as if they are two stars, tightly orbiting each other, each feeding on the other’s gravity.”
But why him? (or her?)
James Joyce, in Ulysses (quoted in Book by Book): “. . . and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
The poetry of Sappho (quoted in Book by Book):
Eros make me shiver again,
Strengthless in the knees,
Eros gall and honey,
Montaigne: “If you pressed me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he and I was I.”
Anne Carson, in EROS, the Bittersweet, a book that explores literary and philosophical contradictions and paradoxes of romantic love:
“As Socrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you. That incursion is the biggest risk of your life. How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom and decorum of the things inside you. As you handle it, you come in contact with what is inside you, in a sudden and startling way. You perceive what you are, what you lack, and what you could be. It is a mode of perception that is so different from ordinary perception that it is well-described as madness. This mood is no delusion, in Socrates’ belief. It is a glance down into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved. To address yourself to the moment when Eros glances into your life and to grasp what is happening in your soul at that moment is to begin to understand how to live.”
I loved him because he was he and I was I
But did I believe it would last forever?
La Rochefoucauld, bottomless font of bitter wisdom:
“Love is found in the one who loves, rather than in the one who is loved. The pleasure of love lies in loving, and our own sensations make us happier than those we inspire.”
“In the last stages of love and life, we live for the pain and not the pleasure.”
Penelope Fitzgerald in The Blue Flower (quoted in Book by Book):
“A successful surgeon realizes that the woman with whom he grew infatuated when young has forgotten his name: ‘What means something to us, that we can name. Sink, he told his hopes, sink like a corpse dropped into the river. I am rejected, not for being unwelcome, not even for being ridiculous, but for being nothing.'”
” . . . a broken relationship rips the lining from the heart, crushes the rib cage, shatters the lens of hope, and produces a drama both tragic and predictable. Wailing out loud or silently, clawing at the world and at one’s self, the abandoned lover mourns. . . First we protest and refuse to accept the truth, we keep thinking the loved one will magically return. Next we sob a torrent of tears. Then we sink into despair; the world sags under the dead weight of our pain. And at long last we mourn. In time, we gather our strengths like so many lost buttons and begin searching for a likely attachment once again.”
Regrets for yielding to love. Regrets for rejecting it. Regrets for our choices.
Joseph Mitchell (quoted in Book by Book):
“I’m ninety-four years . . . and my mind is just a turmoil of regrets . . . In the summer of 1902 I came real close to getting in serious trouble with a married woman, but I had a fight with my conscience and my conscience won, and what’s the result? I had two wives, good Christian women, and I can’t hardly remember what either of them looked like, but I can remember the face of that woman so clear it hurts, and there’s never a day passes I don’t think about her, and there’s never a day passes I don’t curse myself. ‘What kind of a timid, dried up, weevily fellow were you?’ I say to myself. ‘You should’ve said to hell with what’s right and what’s wrong, the devil take the hindmost. You’d have something to remember, you’d be happier now.’ She’s out in Woodlawn, six feet under, and she’s been there twenty-two years, God rest her, and here I am, just an old, old man with nothing left but a belly and a brain and a dollar or two.”
And a final grounding:
Dorothy Parker (quoted from memory, but I think I have it right):
“Oh I shall be ’til Gabriel’s trump,
Nostalgic for some distant dump;
And ever doomed to weep me dry
For some lost mediocre guy.”