Afterthought on “Love Potions”
Avi Garelick is unfair to claim that a particular plot point in the Medieval romantic legend Tristan and Isolde is ridiculous. To be sure, there’s something ludicrous about the scene he describes: Tristan and Isolde, having betrayed God and country, having been exiled from society and forced to flee into the wilderness for years, are seen sleeping with Tristan’s drawn sword between them, in other words still not fucking after all that trouble. But in this scene the author or authors of Tristan and Isolde were up against a basic formal problem in the artistic representation of love, one which they simply lacked the narrative technology to treat adequately. The simple truth is that the representation of love requires obstacles; we can’t measure the intensity of a passion except by what it overcomes. These obstacles may be external (they want to marry but the families forbid it), or they may be internal, and if internal either asymmetric (he’s got to win her over) or symmetric (they’re both too prideful and prejudiced to be together even though they’re meant to be). But in any case the barriers must be there; love remains invisible without them. It’s all very well for a man to say on stage that he’d die for his beloved, but as an audience we aren’t buying it yet: it’s just talk. We want to see him go ahead and die.
Hence Tristan and Isolde’s predicament: their love can’t be allowed to run its natural course because simply allowing them to get together would be unbeautiful, would not adequately reflect the strength of their love. Of course the author of this narrative had another option than damning them to eternal chastity: he might have closed the story with a “happily ever after” at the moment of their exile, and allowed us to imagine that they were joyfully fucking offstage somewhere. Certainly this would have saved him from the ridiculousness of the sword scene, in which love remains foiled long after there’s any objective or psychological obstacle left to block it. But the trouble with “happily ever after” is that it’s intrinsically disappointing, for a rather subtle reason: it draws the curtain only when everyone knows that really, there’s nothing much left to see. Happy love is no fun to watch, because there’s no way for us to enter into its happiness. And in fact it’s worse than no fun. Imagine if we were to encounter Tristan and Isolde without the sword, happy together in the woods; they’ve betrayed everything they had ever cared about out of searing passion for one another, and now... they’re making out! That’s cute. It would render the whole previous plot ridiculous: they’d gone through all this for something as banal and ordinary as being together? Couldn’t they have found an easier way?
“Happily ever after” is a perfectly valid way to end a love story, provided that neither audience nor author considers too closely what happens in the after. If one begins to inquire into that, however, one can’t help but feel that what happens after (an ordinary marriage, more or less happy in the manner of marriages) will necessarily be far less beautiful than what came before. The young lovers risking all out of adoration are fascinating; the adults playing house together just aren’t. In this sense “happily ever after” is something worse than a cop-out: it casts the whole love story in a bad light. You’ve kept your audience on tenterhooks for hours, desperately hoping that the lovers would end up together, and then the minute they succeed you let the curtain fall, as if to say “Move along, folks; nothing to see here.” To confess that love in the face of impossible odds is more beautiful than simple, married love is to admit that the very thing star-crossed lovers desire is less lovely than what they already have. Such an admission robs star-crossed love of its goal and hence some of its beauty.
So what’s an artist to do? What’s the right ending for a love story? Luckily, narrative means have been developed for handling this problem, and they’ve even been widely diffused. Consider A Walk to Remember, the 2002 film version of Nicholas Sparks’ rom-lit classic.
If you’ve never been a teenage girl in the early aughts, it’s just barely possible that you’re unfamiliar with the plot of A Walk to Remember, so let me remind you. The movie opens with popular, attractive bro rebel Shane West in a fix: some dickish prank he pulled has landed in the principal’s office, where he’s told that he’ll be expelled unless he spends his afternoons with the social outcasts in the drama club. So he has to spend time with those freaks, among whom he encounters Mandy Moore, a Christian goody-two-shoes whose repellent earnestness on all subjects has earned her a well-deserved place so low on the social hierarchy that her Hollywood good looks are invisible to all but the keenest eyes.1 Through prolonged exposure, however, West’s character becomes sensitive to her charms, is redeemed from bro-dom by her Christianity, and falls in love. But just as things seem to be going swimmingly, she announces that she can never be with him—she’s dying of leukemia! He marries her anyway, they enjoy six months of wedded bliss, she croaks and the movie closes on a voiceover in which West tells us how meaningful the whole thing was to him. At this point those in the audience whose hearts are not entirely deadened to young love are shamelessly sobbing.
It’s a bit confusing that this is so notoriously a chick movie, given that the book was written by a man and so obviously fulfills a male fantasy: the beautiful, virtuous girl whose love “saves” you from your sordid and childish maleness and then quietly exits stage left before you’re required to do too much husbanding. Nonetheless the ending possesses a mawkish brilliance one can’t help but admire. Imagine how this movie might have ended—an ever-after in which as the credits rolled we’d have been left to contemplate the wisdom of a marriage between two 18-year-olds who’ve never been to bed together, or imagine what conversations might transpire between a smarmy prude and a shallow jock condemned to see each other every day for decades. But no—like a knight in shining armor, leukemia arrives to prevent all that. Instead of a poor life-choice, marriage becomes love’s greatest sacrifice; instead of the stale repetition of marriage we get a love eternalized by death. This ending has all the advantages of the drawn sword with none of its fundamental risibility: the lovers remain separated forever, so their love retains the beauty of its first blush.
Far be it from me to deprecate Nicholas Sparks’ craft as a novelist—if I could sell a million copies of a romance novel I wouldn’t be out here criticking in the wilderness—but in all fairness it must be said that he didn’t invent this death gambit. The teen lovers from antagonistic crowds, coming together despite social prejudice, only to be separated forever by misfortune, death as the capstone on young love—it’s Romeo and Juliet but sans pentameter and starring Mandy Moore. As with so many other things, Shakespeare got there first and did it better.
Let’s review the end of Romeo and Juliet. (Spoiler alert: They both die.) Romeo gets exiled from Verona for killing Juliet’s kinsman Tybalt, and Juliet (whom her relatives believe to be pining with grief for Tybalt, when of course we know who she’s really crying for) is about to be married off to Paris. So she goes to Friar Laurence and she’s like “Hey, I think the best option here is to kill myself. Do you think I should kill myself? I will totally kill myself, don’t even think I won’t.” The good friar offers a compromise: she should take a potion which will make her seem dead for forty-two hours, she’ll be placed in her family’s sepulcher instead of marrying Paris, and then when the coast is clear she can run off with Romeo. She follows the plan, but Romeo doesn’t get wind of it—he just hears that she died. He sneaks back to Verona with a crowbar in order to pry his way into her grave and kill himself by drinking poison there. Juliet wakes up, sees him dead, and speaks as follows:
What’s here? A cup, clos’d in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl! Drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips;
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them,
To make me die with a restorative.
Thy lips are warm.
When that doesn’t work, she turns her attention to Romeo’s dagger, addressing it as follows:
This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.
It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s craft that this is beautiful, because it’s very difficult, in a plot summary, to save Romeo and Juliet from being ridiculous. If Romeo had only spent ten more minutes discoursing on his grief in iambic pentameter before offing himself, the whole thing could have ended happily. (Plus they’re like twelve years old, remember.) What’s striking is how eager the two are to die for or with one another—they don’t need a deus ex leukemia, they can barely restrain themselves. Juliet’s sleeping potion and Romeo’s poison both function as love potions here. They’re desperate to join each other in the one place where they can love eternally without hindrance and without exhaustion: in the grave.
The greatest love story in English literature ends in death, as we have seen, for good reason: love’s intensity can be expressed artistically only as loss, obstacle, and at the limit impossibility. As audience we see love most clearly when it’s silhouetted against death. But is this a merely literary problem? The love which ends in death is best when it’s a matter of watching, but surely in life we’d rather live happily ever after?
In Stendhal I have come across what must be the saddest euphemism for sex ever spoken: when a man’s mistress at long last gives in to his wishes and has sex with him, she is described as “having left him nothing more to desire.” How terrible for both parties! The woman, it seems, must lose the lover to whom she has sacrificed her honor, just because she sacrificed it: her lover got what he wanted, so what more good is she? The man, in turn, is at the end of his rope: he is in the melancholy position of not knowing what to want anymore, at the end of the path his desire led him down. He has nowhere else to go and nothing else to hope for. What an unhappy ending!
The difficulty with happy love is that love, surely, involves desire, and desire in turn concerns lack. We desire what we haven’t got—how could it be otherwise? Hence when the hero gets the girl, in art and even in life, he risks satiation and exhaustion. This raises Garelick’s second complaint about Tristan and Isolde: that the troubadour romantic tradition in which it participates, and which our culture inherited, models human love on ascetic mystical devotion. Mysticism aims at the annihilation of the self and can end only in disappearance; one doesn’t marry God, one is consumed by His fire. Garelick justifiably takes this to be a problem with the tradition of romantic love, since a love which can’t be survived surely offers a poor model for human relations. But again, it’s hard to see a way around this: if desire is related to lack and ends when the lack is filled, it’s only natural to find the apotheosis of eternal love in a desire which is endless just because it’s impossible.
How, then, might we imagine a sustainable love, one which doesn’t contain death in its essence? To put it another way: how can we avoid turning every love story into a tragedy? Let’s pose this question to a comedian. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes invents a myth to explain human love: originally humans were four-footed, two-faced creatures. Zeus thought we were growing too powerful, so he split us down the middle; now we wander the world on two gangly legs, seeking our other halves. Sex is an attempt to get back together, to reattach—but it never works for very long, so we’ve got to keep doing it.
Love, according to Aristophanes, is a ridiculous attempt to combine two distinct and awkward human bodies into an even stranger-looking whole. It can’t possibly succeed, but that’s entirely for the best: the impossibility, in fact the foolishness, of the attempt is just what allows it to be repeated indefinitely. We can give in to our lovers’ wishes as often as we like, without fear: contra Stendhal, we’ll never find we have nothing left to desire. We’ll always need to try again.
Nietzsche’s on the track of the same problem when he asks himself in a lovely passage how monogamy can be possible for men. He claims monogamy comes naturally to women—I’m skeptical, naturally—but in men he thinks it’s strange: a man wants to possess and accumulate, so it’s natural that once he’s conquered one woman he’ll move on to the next. Or maybe he’ll decide it’s too much trouble and settle down, but in that case monogamy is just a lazy convenience. Is there another possibility?
Nietzsche answers that the shallowest men will indeed decide the moment he’s had sex with a woman that his conquest is complete, and look elsewhere. But a more profound man will ask himself—to be sure, she’s given me her body, but does she really love me? Do I have her entirely? Maybe she had sex with me out of boredom, maybe it’s not so serious, maybe I don’t yet have her. What would she give away for me, how intense are her feelings, do I have her deeply and entirely? An even more soulful (or neurotic) man will want to know something further: even if she really loves me, does she really love me? Does she understand me to my depths, does she love even what’s worst in me? Isn’t she really in love with some image she’s projecting onto me, some fantasy of her own? To be sure she loves me I must be sure she understands me.
Nietzsche’s point isn’t that the perfect love involves absolute intensity and total mutual understanding; his point is that the questions “how much am I loved?” and “what am I loved for?” are essentially unanswerable and will always remain open, and that precisely this permits love to continue. We don’t need artificial devices (be they swords, poisons or cancers) to ensure that desire is not sated; we’ll always find something outstanding, a new question to ask, something more to want from our lovers.
I’ve sometimes been amazed by how much my friends have to complain about concerning their relationships, and in what detail. From “he doesn’t pay attention to me when he’s with his friends” to “our worldviews are fundamentally incompatible, there’s no way this will work out.” The strange thing is that these complaints provide me with almost no information on how the relationship is going: people can be very happy together, destined to marry, and they’ll still complain. It’s not that the complaints don’t reflect real dissatisfactions—they do. It’s that a lasting relationship thrives on those very complaints, on continuous negotiation and mutual adjustment, on an endless and endlessly comic attempt to get it just right. The relationships that last are the ones that creatively manage their complaints, the ones that maintain a sense of humor about always wanting a little bit more. It’s not the stuff tragedies are made of—it’s unbeautiful and it lacks plot—but it’s not a bad way to love.
1 High school movies are sometimes mocked for casting ethereally beautiful women in the role of “unattractive” high school outcasts whose beauty becomes apparent to those around them only when they take their glasses off for the prom. In fact this is entirely realistic: the caste system obscures even the most natural facts, and most people, including the nerds themselves, must wait until college to learn that some nerds are beautiful.