Tag Archives: relationships

books and loves: an immigration

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“When he had taken a last swallow and put down the cup he’d get up and say thank you and go—so she had to think of something to say, quickly, to mend, justify, the pickup.
What about you?
It was the wrong thing—there! She’d done it, it came out god-awful as Showing Interest, and she thought she heard him take a breath in order to deal with it, with her; but he only put out his hand for the sugar-bowl, she hastened to hand it to him, he helped himself to another spoonful for the dregs in his cup. He would keep silent if he wanted to, he could speak if he wished, it wasn’t up to her.” ~ The Pickup, Nadine Gordimer (12)

I was staying at a beach house rental this past summer for a multi-family holiday and noticed a small bookshelf shoved off in a corner of the dining room. I always enjoy looking—just looking mind you I certainly don’t need more books to read— but I am curious, pure objective curiosity, as to what books there may be in any given corner of the world. So I took a gander.

Choosing a book has a feel that is similar to a pickup, doesn’t it? Especially when one is just looking at a random take-one, leave-one type shelf. It was an odd and motley mix. An unpredictable mix of high brow and low brow “summer reading” fare. What catches my fancy and why is an internal mystery I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. As I have matured I am only aware that I simple surrender to it—in love and books, it’s the same.

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer is an extraordinary book. I’m still well under its fog. Whenever I get very involved in a work of fiction the feeling I have when I must turn the corner down and lay the book aside for a moment to deal with reality, is like coming back from another country, another realm.

This book, which concerns a South African woman, Julie, and an Arab man, Ibrahim, is a powerful account of the unaccountable intimacy between two people. Gordimer articulates by direct and indirect means, obscure and exact thoughts and language, the unexplainable attachment of two people—unexplainable to others, of course, but also to themselves. The story is told mostly from Julie’s perspective. The intensity of their difference: she a white woman, he an “illegal” from a poor Muslim village of an unnamed country highlights what is true in all relationships—the inescapable otherness of the beloved which occurs within the closed cocoon of a romantic relationship, a private sphere, alone and freestanding, within the outside world.

“Brooding in a bed in the dark has a kind of telepathy created by the contact of bodies when words have not been exchanged.” (187)

The story is beautiful, sensual, and oddly inevitable. The story follows the lovers from their pickup in South Africa to an unnamed desert of Ibrahim’s origin. I couldn’t think of any other way it could have ended—the ending being something of a beginning. There was a small chance of the man not acting so much like a man, but that was never going to happen, so the course upon which the novel struck at the end had to be.  And it leaves one feeling frustrated, resigned, and sad, while at the same time one surrenders to the romance, the unspoken parts, the fidelity to self, and trust in the other—and if not the other than the desert which stands for the stability of time and Nature, humbling us all, reminding us of our smallness in the face of its persistent, calm beauty. The book does not leave one thinking they can know how it all turns out, it only leaves one knowing it had to be this way.

“He gave his wife his smile, that of himself which was for this one: for her.” (155)

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Imperfect, But Trying

He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy.
—Alain De Botton, The Course of Love (42)

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We’re all nuts and merely tolerating our beloved is the crux of love. At least according to Alain De Botton’s sweet and insightful novel The Course of Love. His novel takes off where most end: at the end of the beginning—the “happily ever after”—after the event of falling in love, where most novels, films, and love songs end.

We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane (85).

Interpolated in the story is the narrator’s calm analysis explaining the effects of the certain disillusionment that comes from close contact with another person. In the case of this particular story the persons involved are Rabih and Kirsten, an Edinburgh couple who are disappointed to discover in each other flaws that exasperate their own shortcomings. These exasperations result in the sorts of fights in which, for example, the absurdity of railing against a wife who is competent and nice seems logical, at least to Rabih. Kristen’s of a differing opinion in regard to her character but is also paralyzed by her own reasonableness which stems solely from fear of the out-of-control situations she experienced in her formative years.

“He’s calm, he likes to go walking, he doesn’t seem to think it’s such a terrible flaw that I’m ‘reasonable.’ Anyway, to get back to the larger point: How can I make it any clearer? Being nice is not boring: it’s an enormous achievement, one that ninety-nine percent of humanity can’t manage from day to day. If ‘nice’ is boring, then I love boring (171).

De Botton succeeds in making the reader care about the individuals and about the couple, and yet, his talent lies in the way in which one also identifies with the characters—maybe one more than the other (am I anxiously attached like Rabih or is Kirsten’s avoidance attachment more me? Jesus, I think I’m both. Is it possible it be both? That probably bodes ill, right? Damnit.) —and in this way the novel gives the reader a perspicuity into their own pathos. It’s an enormously clever book.

That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood (64).

It is temping, of course, to hold out for a mind-reader, but barring that, this book offers to frame love very differently than the classic, (albeit deeply appealing) romantic fantasy, and it is in many ways a more daunting, mature, but satisfying kind of love—a love that trusts. As I wrote here, in regard to De Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, I don’t particularly care for books that might be found on the self-help shelf, but I do rather like De Botton’s sly hand in delivering a penetrating look into where we misstep and why. His voice is at once forgiving and hopeful, and that is reassuring.

Fundamentally, De Botton advocates for the examined life. Empathy and caring can carry us through the landmines perpetually detonating as a result of our flawed childhoods. The glorious thing is, none of us are perfect. Not a one! There is no perfect one. There is just you and me. When we let go of the romanic ideal and let the beloved be imperfect, let ourselves be imperfect without hiding in either silence or acrimony, then we can all be ourselves—imperfect, but trying. That is the course of love.

 

Threads of UPR

“On the way out, confided in Bonnard for the first  time about my love. Sad.”
From the diary of Edouard Vuillard quoted in Vuillard, Master of  the Intimate Interior (52)

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The first Edourad Vuillard painting I ever saw was The Suitor (Interior with Work Table) since that time, I have been smitten. I immediately liked his work, but really only considered it carefully after having a conversation with my daughter about a painting problem she had been trying to resolve concerning her backrounds. I sent her images of his work as an example of someone who painted every aspect and surface with the same attention as one would normally reserve for the figure.  My daughter loves printmaking and one of the fabulous things about these turn of the century artists was their appreciation and respectful co-opting of Chinese and Japanese prints. Vuillard’s aggressive patterns belie his quite themes and the tension is exhilarating. The fact that most of the faces of his figures are monotone abstractions make his backgrounds essential to the mood of the painting and the visages of his models become symbolic universalism.

The Gaugin-like emotionality of his work is wonderful, but the thing that I never tire of thinking about is photography’s influence on artists of this time. Vuillard often used a photographic-like close cropping of his view, not to create a sense of claustrophobia, but rather to enhance the intimacy of the room. His paintings have a feel of a scene, set for the stage, and he was in fact one of the first artist to design sets for the theater. His images bask in a quality of serenity, and yet the bustle and complexity of life are expressed within his signature style of tight floral patterning.

Vuillard was involved in a secret organization called The Nabi (Hebrew for prophet) in which the occult and matters of spirituality were a source of inspiration. A focus on the ideas and connotations of decoration and design particularly interested The Nabi, and in Vuillard’s work there is a mystical quality to his patterning.  Whereas Gaugin’s symbolism created magical scenes of paradisaical “primitive” societies, Vuillard transported the Fauvist magical into the realm of the mundane.

With my new found interest, I was thrilled upon seeing so many of his paintings recently at the Yale Gallery.  I brought my very old client to the gallery. We had walked the entire floor and she was tired by the time we got to the Vuillards. She sat on the bench and we spent some time looking at the paintings. Finally she pointed to The Thread and said to me, “That’s how you look when you are doing my sewing.”

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The design of his compositions, the push and pull between his use of bright colors and muted tones, strong lines and micro details, entropy and order, as well as the general domestic themes of his paintings all work to captivate me. There is a feeling that his work exudes deeply connecting me to all that is good, yet often lonely and sober, in my world of intense domesticity. Vuillard breaks my heart just a little bit.

The relationships between the people of his paintings as well as between the space and activity are imbued with life and within the life of the painting is a profound feeling of what a friend of mine and I like to refer to as UPR: that hilariously overly-fussy psychological term- unconditional positive response. In other words- love.

[Vuillard] is the most personal, the most intimate of storytellers. I know few pictures which bring the observer so directly into conversation with the artist. I think it must be because his brush never breaks free of the motion which guides it; the outer world, for Vuillard, is always a pretext, an adjustable means of expression.” – André Gide quoted in Vuillard, Master of the Intimate Interior by Guy Cogeval

Camping With Chekhov

But silence is painful and terrifying only for those who have already said everything and who have nothing left to say; but to those who have not yet begun to talk, silence comes easily and simply. – Maxim Gorky, Twenty-Six Men And A Girl (210)

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I dragged my Russian authors along on our annual camping trip. The Party by Anton Chekhov was an interesting contrast. Chekhov’s descriptions of the interior worlds of the painfully superficial and emotionally stunted bourgeoisie set alongside our chaotic, boisterous little group was amusing. While we are, some of us on occasion, at a certain…comfort level with emotionally stunted, the others try to help and,  painfully superficial has never been a danger in our midst. Some fifteen people, all of whom have their own struggles and hopes can at least find solace and encouragement sitting near one another next to the hearth discussing how to pronounce the word. And if that fails we can have fun arranging still-lifes:

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Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe en L’Orange

It seemed to her for some reason that if her husband were suddenly to turn facing her, and to say, ‘Olya, I am unhappy,’ she would cry or laugh, and she would be at ease. She fancied that her legs were aching and her body was uncomfortable all over because of the strain on her feelings. – The Party (198)

How many of us wear ourselves out binding our pride to our confusion and a looming monotony of meaninglessness that scares or deadens us? I was admittedly late to making this discovery, but I am happier when I can say if I’m not. Just let me feel. Let me feel it. The demons in my head are dispelled, and then there is happiness, lurking on a cool path through the woods, in one of our children’s laughter, competitive four-square, rushing waterfalls, bags of ice, blackened marshmallows, the history of cinema, no money or shoes, forgotten tent poles, a starry night, copious amounts of quinoa salad and the color orange. It’s all there.

Life for those whose circumstances never change is agonizing and very difficult: the longer they live, the more agonizing such circumstances become, if their spirits are not broken altogether.  – Twenty Six Men and a Girl (213)

Our spirits are not broken. Throw the comfort of a soft bed, clean clothes, and dry bathroom floors aside- these new circumstances in good company are a sweet succor to me. It’s all here. Don’t let happiness pass you by.

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*The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories edited by David Richards
The Party, Anton Chekhov translated by Constance Garnett
Twenty-Six Men and a Girl, Maxim Gorky translated by Roger Cockrell

Incredulity of Echo

DSCI0053Maybe it will all disappear today
doesn’t matter what I say
Fingers probed the hole
now out of sight, still it stays

Maybe it will all come back today
doesn’t matter what I say
Faith lost its soul
except at night, she’s acting brave

Maybe it will all change today
doesn’t matter what I say
Fortune’s on the dole
try my might, chance goes its way

Maybe it will free me today
doesn’t matter what I say
Fetters take their toll
another blight, each scar levies its pay

JA/2013

Kicking Against the Pricks

Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as it were slurred over. (9)
– D.H Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

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In Stephan Zweig’s short story Burning Secret, he writes something along the lines of – there comes a time in every woman’s life when she must decide, is she a mother, or a woman? For me it begs the question- why? Why must we ask ourselves that question? Because society says so? I certainly can not imagine a man having to face this sort of a false dilemma, nor can I deny that there is truth in it. And that is the real pity.

Suddenly, looking at him, the heavy feeling at the mother’s heart melted into passionate grief. She bowed over him, and a few tears shook swiftly out of her very heart.

In Part One of Sons and Lovers, Lawrence carefully chronicles the life of the Morels: a struggling family, a loveless marriage, and the children that come into the world trying to fill the holes in their parent’s lives.

Paul loved to sleep with his mother. Sleep is still most perfect, in spite of hygienists, when shared with a beloved. The warmth, the security and peace of soul, the utter comfort from the touch of the other, knits the sleep, so that it takes the body and soul completely in its healing.

That is a perfectly beautiful description of delicious sleep, when your hand can rest in perfect trust on a body, whether it be: child, friend, or lover. The peace of our souls is found in each other – from the touch of the other, a beloved. Lawrence is such a wonderful writer, his use of colloquialisms, details of meager material objects, and the shared rapture of the glory of nature in the lives of mother and sons gives a clear picture of the family’s daily existence, allowing the deeper significance of the story to fully develop. It is Lawrence’s sensibility and keen sense of the importance of intimacy that is at the center of his novel.

Now, when all her woman’s pity was roused to its full extent, when she would have slaved herself to death to nurse him and to save him, when she would have taken the pain herself, if she could, somewhere far away inside her, she felt indifferent to him and to his suffering. It hurt her most of all, this failure to love him…

Mrs. Morel, sadly, goes straight to motherhood, her chance to be a woman is never realized and the disappointment just grows. Putting all her passion into being a mother, the decision of whether or not to be a woman too, is moot. With no deep connection to her husband there is just the empty space of desire left. Reading this novel one becomes aware of the limited vocabulary we have to discuss love and passion. Lawrence never suggests incest, and yet the nomenclature of romantic love does. Both romantic intimacy and the intimacy of mothering are physically pleasing and intensely fulfilling, but part of our emotional retardation is to always talk about physical pleasure as only sexual. Breastfeeding is an excellent case in point- physically pleasurable, and fulfilling in an entirely non-sexual way, the fact that breasts provide sexual pleasure as well should not be a source of confusion for people. It’s gotten to the point that people don’t want to see a woman breastfeed because – breast are for sex, and we don’t do that in public – or talk about it.  Lawrence, has no such inhibition, he will leave sensuous terms as they are and dare you to be puerile. Women in Love has been described as homoerotic, if so, Sons and Lovers is incestuous, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is pornographic and you have lost the point altogether.

What Lawrence was really trying to discover was how, how can we deeply connect with one another? In Lady Chatterley’s Lover the sexual connection that is possible between lovers is a sacred thing. But it is deep connections generally that give our lives meaning. Our language cannot scratch the surface of our feelings. The words that we have to describe the love of friendship suffer the same problem in Women in Love as parental love in Sons and Lovers. Even when Lawrence is talking explicitly about sex, he is not talking about sex. His cri de coeur was the sine qua non of intimacy and connection of all kinds. Lawrence takes care to explore the complexities inherent: no matter how wonderful being a mother is- a mother is also a woman. Mrs. Morel’s mothering love in the absence of the woman inside her is a heavy and mournful thing. After all, a son loves his mother passionately, but it is the mother’s job to eventually deflect that passion away from herself and peripherally enjoy the realization of the child’s happy fulfilled life. In a healthy home, this happens naturally. The woman however, has the opposite aim- if she finds passion with another, and if it is returned, that is something she must hold on to, cherish and let bloom. The poverty of our words is frustrating and the word “passion” is sorely overworked.

At the end of Part One, William, the eldest son, is caught up in a relationship that mirrors his parents. Even as his mother attempts to caution him, he feels already morally committed and helpless to do anything other than see it through. She can not give him the inner strength required to rebel against societal expectations. The price is, of course, his soul.

“My boy, remember you’re taking your life in your hands,” said Mrs. Morel. “Nothing is as bad as a marriage that’s a hopeless failure. Mine was bad enough. God knows, and ought to teach you something; but it might have been worse by a long chalk.”

That’s the trouble with morals that go against truth and love, in the end, they are short sighted and punishing for all.

 

* “Kicking Against the Pricks” is a biblical reference Lawrence uses to mean, “rebelling.”

Fog of Love

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“There seemed to be no hope in the world. One was a tiny little rock with the tide of nothingness rising higher and higher. She herself was real, and only herself-just like a rock in a wash of floodwater. The rest was all nothingness. She was hard and indifferent, isolated in herself.”  Women in Love – D.H. Lawrence

Women in Love has no shortage of characters that seem to be full of rage. It would be a hard group to hang out with. Two love birds, for instance, might have exchanges such as this:

“Would you care for buttered toast?” He asked, almost hostile.

She turned to him full of hate; glaring at him she answered, “Jam, please.”

Ah, love. Obviously that is not a quote, but that seething anger, in truncated sentences is the gist of near half of the book. Why so angry? It can take some time to get used to the vehemence. Perhaps the biggest problem facing Ursula, Gudrun, Rupert and Gerald is the strong but common tendency to overthink things: What is love? Do we love each other? How much of ourselves do we have to sacrifice in order to be in love? Is it a sacrifice at all? Is falling in love a complete failure and collapse of one’s inner self, or is the inability to fall in love a failure to be a man or woman completely?

Isolated within there is only misery. We are told that nothing outside of ourselves will bring us true joy, that no one else can make us happy, but that can seem like a cheap dime-store philosophy designed to make all the emotionally or physically isolated people in the world feel better: if you’re not happy look within. Blame the victim- you.

In the books of D.H. Lawrence, he seems to ask over and over again: can we not admit that other people do make us happy? We are social animals after all and to be left alone in the world, abandoned, is the most pain our fragile beings can experience, particularly because it is the emotional kind of pain. A physical aloneness has an end point but emotional aloneness edges infinity.

The tension between men and women as well as the tension of our inner battles are the themes explored in depth in Women in Love. Lawrence takes his time in getting the feel of it right, the relationships are so deeply nuanced that by the time Rupert and Ursula get married their love is described beautifully and our understanding of them as individuals makes it that much more moving.

“In the new, superfine bliss, a peace superceding knowledge, there was no I and you, there was only the third, unrealized wonder, the wonder of existing not as oneself, but in a comsummtion of my being and of her being in a new one, a new, paradisal unit regained from the duality. How can you say ‘I love you’ when I have ceased to be, and you have ceased to be: we are both caught up and transcended into a new oneness where everything is silent, because there is nothing to answer, all is perfect and at one.”

Despite that sublime description, the book ends with the tragedy of Gerald and his inability to let himself love or be loved.  As Gerald’s friend, Rupert struggles throughout the book to find a way to love Gerald without the intensity of sexual love. The modern angst of the possibility of deep but platonic love intricately consumes him. Unfortunately Gerald cannot hear him, or feel what he is after. His own prison of pain, despair and capitulation to the absurdity of his loveless life is tragic.

“If he had kept true to that clasp, death would not have mattered. Those who die, and dying still can love, still believe, do not die. They still live in the beloved.”

That the book is primarily about Rupert’s loves and yet is called Women in Love is not accidental. Certainly there are women in love throughout the story, but Lawrence seems to be highlighting the difficulty that men have in expressing love for other men. One could argue that one of the benefits of the more recent acceptance of homosexuals in society is that it frees everyone. As there become fewer reasons to hide one’s sexual identity platonic love is relieved of “suspicion.” Lawrence was for love of all kinds. His prose, full of urgency and vehemence,  stemmed from a passionate belief in the power of love to save our souls through each other.