"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Love Conquers All–Whose Exactly And How?

A Washington attorney had been, despite defending and prosecuting the worst of the worst, an idealist. Early on in his career he was convinced that 'human integrity' as he called it, or at least compassion, brotherliness, or even affection could have prevented courtroom conflict, resolved divorce claims before they were presented before a judge, and raised the most bored and listless judge out of the existential funk that came with too many cases, too little time, and too much ugliness.

The problem, he knew, was that love, ever since Petrarch, had become a distorted notion of emotional affection.  It was not the defining human emotion, the one that began, nurtured, and annealed intimate relationships, only an adolescent one. Yet he for many years he could not shake Petrarch's medieval notion of knights and their fair ladies; and extended it farther than the poet had ever imagined, to human behavior; and it was only much later that he lost his idealism and finally saw love for what it was.

Henry Towson had led a reasonable if predictable life.  He had been born of good New England stock, married only slightly outside its perimeters to a woman who traced her ancestry back to the first thanes of Scotland, and had followed his father dutifully to St. Paul’s, Yale, and Harvard Law.  He was a well-adjusted child, a temperate adolescent, and a good student.  He never fell for the radical blandishments of the 60s, remained loyal to his Enlightenment roots (both English and Scottish), and never looked either forward, backward, or to the side in his complaisant trajectory. 

Until he met Berthe Paulsen, a neither overly attractive nor particularly intelligent Danish woman, who for some unexplained and perhaps unknowable reason was irresistible.  Not exactly the woman of his dreams – that, as for most of his male cohorts was blonde, pouty, and available – but more aligned with his own, unexplored sexual reaches.  How was he to know that he wanted to be led? To be tempted and let down? To be loved, but incompletely?

Image result for thane of cawdor

Berthe Paulsen never loved him, never pretended to, and only admitted to being attracted to his intellectual consistency.  She was attracted to men of equal worth but added a dimension of mental reliability. She tolerated no unnecessary remark.  Henry was within her demanding parameters.  It was no accident that he became a lawyer, a Supreme Court advocate, and a senior partner at Hobbes, Wentworth & Peabody.  He was nothing if not consistent and predictable in his considered opinions at the bench or for his colleagues and friends.

Henry, on the other hand, was besotted, impossibly in love and willing to throw away his marriage of thirty-five years, his two children, and a life of community rectitude for this unremarkable woman.  He would have followed her to Eritrea, her next posting, lived in refugee camps, and endured the night sweats of dengue and malaria for her.  She had besotted him, bewitched him in ways that he could never have imagined let alone fathomed. 

He got over Berthe, continued his long and uncomplicated marriage, and never gave her more than an occasional thought.  Yet these occasional thoughts were troubling because he knew that neither his wife, nor ex-wife, nor former partners were ever as complete as Berthe.  He would have followed her anywhere, and it was the following – the unquestioned and absolute hitching to someone else’s wagon – that was at the heart of their relationship.  It was not a question of Lawrentian dominance and submission.  She was neither a Gudrun nor an Ursula but an indifferent lover, one who neither assumed nor demanded that her lovers comply or submit.  It was her indifference that attracted Henry; for after decades of pursuit, male style, he was happy to have found without looking.

Image result for images antony and cleopatra

On reflection he never loved anyone the way he did Berthe – a love which was unrequited from the beginning but made no difference.   He had loved his first wife, but knew that that had more to do with inexperience and motherlove than with mature passion and emotion.  He married Brett for storybook reasons and a need for comfort more than real desire or companionship.  He loved his last love, a young woman from the Midwest with little education and less ambition because he knew it was his last; but he had loved Berthe for the best of reasons – the inexplicable ones. 

After he had settled in to the finality of a fifty-year marriage and the ultimate dearth of lovers, he wondered what, after all, was love worth?  He had loved women, had loved his children, mother and father; but never extended this emotional reach any farther.  He not only did not love God, but never understood how and why the idea of loving one’s creator ever came about.   Thankful perhaps if lucky, resentful if otherwise, but never willingly loving.  Nor did he understand the idea of Christian love, so abstract and doctrinally questionable to be irrelevant.   Brotherhood, community, camaraderie – all were social constructs to promote self-interest at best and cliques of need and hopefulness at worst.

Romantic love is a relatively new idea, borne out of chivalry and the sonnets of Petrarch, and no more than an expression of medieval wealth.   For the first time, wealth permitted leisure and leisurely thoughts:

Doth any maiden seek the glorious fame
Of chastity, of strength, of courtesy?
Gaze in the eyes of that sweet enemy
Whom all the world doth as my lady name!
How honour grows, and pure devotion's flame,
How truth is joined with graceful dignity,
There thou may'st learn, and what the path may be
To that high heaven which doth her spirit claim;
There learn soft speech, beyond all poet's skill,
And softer silence, and those holy ways
Unutterable, untold by human heart.
But the infinite beauty that all eyes doth fill,
This none can copy! since its lovely rays
Are given by God's pure grace, and not by art.
Image result for images petrarch

So if the love of the created for the creator, the sinner for the redeemer, and the knight for his lady are all constructs derived out of economic reality, myth, and increased mobility, what real value do they have?  A child’s love of his parents is a  hardwired mechanism of survival.  Parents’ love for their children is an expression of legacy, heritage, and patrimony.  While the death of an infant in a country whose infant mortality rate is 1 in 5 and whose life expectancy hovers just above 30 is not insignificant, and has neither the pathos nor the implication it does for the well-off.  Parental love is relative; and if so, one cannot conclude its essentiality nor the absolute higher value of love itself.

Henry Towson concluded that while he could do without love, he could not do without intimacy.  He had been spoiled by his sexual encounters and missed physical contact, affection and simple sexual loyalty and desire.  Yet, old age being what it was, the renewal or rediscovery of such intimacy was a vain hope if that.   He would have to make do with the formal intimacies that he was bequeathed.

Dark-eyed beauty

The older he got, the more he knew he would die alone.  Not that his wife and children would not be at his bedside, but that when he lost focus and could only see the end, he would only be concerned with what lay ahead.  He and his maker, he and nothing, or he and himself; but no scenario included anyone else.

Henry Towson was never a misanthrope nor a wet blanket.  He cried at tear-jerkers like anyone else.  He loved country music, Turkish soap operas, and Indian melodramas.  He loved his children, would have been lost without them, had developed special and unique relationships with them, and found with them the only real intimacy in his life, as necessarily removed and formal as it was.

Tuvana Turkay

None of this broke his intellectual resolve, however.  The love of God would always be self-fulfilling and mythic.  Christ’s love for mankind was counter-intuitive – his father’s creations were anything but lovable – and nowhere in the canon or traditional literature is evangelical love explained or justified.  Romantic love was invented by and for the leisure class.  For most of the world’s peasantry there is no such thing.  Mating is a matter of economics and social convenience, nothing more.  Love for one’s fellows has no innate or divinely-endowed basis; and is either an expression of idealism or a more practical and happy varnishing of survival motives.

Henry’s harshest critics suggested that he had no core – no ‘there’ there; no inspirational source, no nothing.  Without love, all emotion is empty of meaning. 

Henry’s admirers knew that he was either right or at least on to something – a human paddlefish, an organism that has existed for over 75 million years because of its adaptability, intruding on no one else’s feeding grounds, picking on no one beneath and avoiding fights with anyone above.  Life had its ups and downs, highs and lows, passions and disappointments, but the paddlefish were the ones who survived.

Image result for images paddlefish

It was not that Henry was emotionless of feckless.  On the contrary Henry was a passionate lover, solicitous of his children, and always accommodating to his wives and lovers.  it was just that he could never give himself over to idealism – romantic idealism at that – and was quite happy to swim in the murky waters of prehistoric rivers.

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