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

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Can There Ever Be The Same Love Twice? – The Ineluctable, Inescapable Presence Of First Love

F. Scott Fitzgerald was famous for his statement in the short story The Rich Boy, “There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice”, a hymn to love wherever it may be found, infinite in its possibilities, but only possible if one moves on from the last.

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Yet because one’s first love is so indelible, so persistently present that it is impossible to move on, and that serial affairs are only purposeful attempts to recapture it, Fitzgerald’s homily must be redacted.  There are indeed all kinds of love in the world, but none can replace the first.

And why is that? Certainly there are many woman more sexually mature, attractive, accomplished, and desirable than one’s first, young love.  Is it ephemeral? Initiative? The final release after years of adolescent fantasy? A Freudian encounter with libido, mother-love? A Jungian connection with all sexual pasts?

It doesn’t seem to matter at all why first love is not only unrepeatable but irreplaceable – it just is; and men in their sixties recovering from divorce first turn to first loves to make up for the years of insatiable jealousies and recriminations.  First loves were pure, unsullied, and perfect; and women loved, even after decades of their own forgettable marriages, would retain at least some of that adolescent innocence, and would be at least an anodyne for pain and suffering.  

In most cases the reconnection, if even possible given the fragmented, disassociated lives people live, is unhappy.  There is no forgiving the horrible aging process, the terrible assault of age on youth; and as much as former lovers try to see only the past, they see only fleshy folds, liver spots, shuffles, and grey. 

The main characters in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day loved each other quietly during their tenure at Darlington Hall where they were both in service; and both agreed to meet each other after many years ostensibly to review a possible appointment for her, but because their love had never been expressed nor consummated.  Their reserve, sexual timidity, and propriety had prevented it.  Now, much older and experienced – at least in her case – they thought that there might be a future for them.  There was a future – there should have been a future - if it hadn’t been for his impossible reserve and propriety.  They could have renewed their unfulfilled love and not parted at a rainy bus stop in Brighton; but did not.  They had known first love, could have revived or at least re-enacted it, but could not.

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Most men die not thinking of their wives or children but of the loves they have missed – the first love let go, secondary loves parted or underestimated, and hundreds of opportunities missed.  Of all these men regret the path not taken most, the conversations never started, the introductions not made, the steps not taken.  They do not regret the passing of consummated love - as passionate as it might have been- but the sexual occasions missed.

Axel Burnham had had a short, passionate, first love which ended badly.  Despite a perfect emotional alignment, they were too young to realize its importance.  There were too many rough sexual edges, too many previously unthought of claims, too many intimations of deviance to make it work.  How could he know, thanks to his conservative New England upbringing, that sexual union was the defining character of marriage?  It should not have taken D.H.Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover to intimate the essential quality of sex and sexuality; and a reading might have given him at least a glimpse into a world of psycho-sexual dynamics for which he had been ill-prepared, but it was not to be.  He went innocently, naively, and perfectly into a first love romance that was to cloud his sexual judgment until his dying day.

There were two ways that Axel could have gone after his divorce – a full-throated, all-or-nothing sexual libertinage; or a more modest return to his own conservative roots.  Either an untamed exploration of the sexual thrills suggested by this former wife or a calming, restorative, and eminently practical return to basics – a respectful, loving, practical, and unassuming wife and sedate, protective, predictable life. 

Most first loves of Axel’s generation were romantic and treacly – love letters, longing, waiting by the phone, corsages, and necking in the park – so it was a disturbing surprise for him to find himself desperately and irrevocably in love with a woman who had no part of this Norman Rockwell fantasy.  She was an artist, a free-thinker, an eccentric, and an uninhibited sexual libertine.  She was one-of-kind -  a unique woman like Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, or Sarah Bernhardt, sexually unbound, creatively innovative, and inoculated at birth against cant and presumption.  He, son of a middle-class professional and remarkable but devoted mother, was totally unprepared for Lavinia; and it was this socio-cultural shock which left him high-and-dry.  Had he not been brought up properly, dutifully, respectfully, and predictably, he might have been able to deal with his wife’s particular distinctiveness.  But, alas, because of this Skinner-esque upbringing, he fled before he had given Lavinia a chance.

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How could there ever be a second act? Where would he ever find another Lavinia? And more importantly if he was still looking, why had he given her up in the first place?  The deed was done, the divorce papers signed, sealed, and delivered in a quickie Mexican settlement; but the act was never forgiven.  He should never have given up so quickly, so easily, and so irresponsibly.

It took decades for Axel to realize how much he had given up.  It took years of respectable marriages, and many more of dalliances, affairs, cinq-a-septs to bring him around.  He had made an unforgiveable mistake by letting Lavinia go.  All the sexual deceptions, liaisons, and roundabout encounters which would have been in the offing with her would have been well worth the effort.  There are few truly complementary sexual partnerships around – relationships which match wills and wits, understand sex and sexuality as the core of compatibility, Lawrentian in nature.  Brought around but alone.  At this late stage in life, Axel never felt more alone.  Neither faithful wife nor loving, dutiful children, could mitigate his awful feeling of loss. 

It was too late to redo, relive, or rectify the past. He would have to spend the few years remaining in his long life trying to dispel the nagging thoughts of his unthinkable acts.  He woke up in the middle of the night frustrated and angry, wondering how he could possibly face another day of resignation. 

A man’s life, so often described as one of recorded achievements, praise, and recognition by others, comes down to its final moments; and what will they be? Reminiscences of a loving wife, mourning children, and sorrowful friends? Or of love lost? Of likely encounters missed, opportunities neglected, and first loves ignored?

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