Monday, January 12, 2009

"The Prehistory of Love"


"The Prehistory of Love." That's the title of chapter 3 in Paz's The Double Flame, assigned reading for my love poetry class this Monday.

Paz begins by reflecting on Greek poetry, which he finds as a rule "more erotic than [it is] amorous" (54). By which, he elaborates, it's a body of work in which "we see, and hear, the lovers in their different moods--desire, sensual pleasure, disillusionment, jealousy, ephemeral happiness--but never the sentiments and emotions of the Other" (55). There are no lovers' dialogues in this body of work, and love, for Paz, is essentially a dialogic, or at least relational, phenomenon.
  • As I told my class last week, it may well be that the most genres for love are drama and the novel, rather than lyric poetry. Is this a problem for my own future teaching the class, I wonder? Will I tire of teaching lyric, or find it frustrating, given my steady diet now of romantic fiction?
  • Or, conversely, might a lyric poetry that records, or at least registers, the Other's voice and subjectivity--through resistance, or active listening, or implied response--be enough to satisfy me, and him?
In any case, according to Paz the first texts that prefigure "what love was to be for us" come from Alexandria and Rome. "Love is born in metropolises." Lovely thought, for a city boy like me. (OK, I'm from the suburbs. But domesticity has a home there, surely--a split level, with shuffleboard court and wet-bar in the family room.) Why in cities? Because "in the Alexandrian period...an invisible revolution takes place: women, shut up in the gynaeceum, come out into the open air and appear on the surface of society," making names for themselves in the political realm and in the city's burgeoning world of "tradesmen, craftsmen, and small property owners" (59). "The appearance, in the new cities, of a freer woman" is what allows "the erotic object [to begin] to transform itself into a subject" (610).
  • Love as such is born of women's rights and the rise of the middle class: sounds good to me, but I'm biased, I suspect.
  • I'm not sure if it's really about the "middle class," though. Paz speaks about the importance in Rome, a bit later, of "patrician women" and courtesans as the crucial figures. "Both patricians and courtesans were free women in several senses of the word: by their birth, their means, and their mores. Free above all because to an unprecedented degree they had the freedom to accept or reject their lovers. They were the mistresses of their bodies and their souls. The heroines of erotic and amorous poetry come from both classes (62-3).
Doubling back a bit:

To Paz, the first great love poem is a piece he calls "The Sorceress," Idyll 2 by Theocritus (circa 275 BC). Is it anywhere on line? Here's a prose translation by Andrew Lang. For Paz, this is the first poem to show "rancor and love conjoined...the inextricable commingling of hate and love, spite and desire" (56). The speaker of the poem, Simaetha, "is a commoner, a young woman such as exists by the thousands in every city of the world, ever since there have been cities" (57). To make such a woman the heroine--or at least central figure--of a major literary text "was an immense literary and hsitorical innovation" (60). She's struck by desire for one "Delphis," a young athlete who obsesses her, whom she summons to her house. He woos her, plies her with promises, and they go to bed. They're lovers for a short while, after which he disappears for two weeks, and reports come to Simaetha that he's now fallen in love with another, of one or other sex.

"Simetha's love," says Paz, "is made of persistent desire, despair, anger, helplessness. [...] Between what we desire and what we value there is a gap: we love what we do not value and we desire to be forever with a person who makes us unhappy. In love, evil makes its appearance: it is a pernicious seduction that attracts us and overcomes us" (59). We are, he says, "very far from Plato" (59).

The next poet he speaks of, moving from Alexandria to Rome, is Catullus, whose work looks back to Sappho and to the Alexandrian model supplied by Callimachus.

In Catullus's poems for the woman he names "Lesbia," a patrician that scholars have identified as one "Clodia," about whom Paz says absolutely nothing. (Hmmm...) Catullus's lyrics record the stormy relationship between himself and Lesbia; again, we find this "union of opposites--desire and contempt, sensuality and hatred, paradise glimpsed and hell endured" in which "our flesh covets what our reason condemns" (62). Together, the poems comprise "a sort of novel in verse (63) in which the male speaker is in a "situation of dependency" and the love plays out as "an exercise in freedom, a transgression, a defiance of society," although he doesn't spell out exactly how this is so (63).

Three crucial elements for modern love poetry emerge in these texts, says Paz: choice (the lovers are free, at least vis a vis social norms); defiance (love as a transgression), and jealousy. Paz jumps from Catullus to talk about the "fatal pearl" of jealousy in Proust, whom I've never read, alas; from this diversion, however, he makes his way to this lovely passage:
We live with phantoms, and we ourselves are phantoms. [That is, we're always imagining what's going on in each other's minds, making up stories about each other and indeed about ourselves, some of which are quite painful and self-tormenting.] There are only two ways out of this imaginary prison. The first is the path of eroticism, and we have already seen that it ends in a blind wall. The question of the jealous lover--what are you thinking about? What are you feeling?--has no answer except sadomasochism: tormenting the Other or tormenting himself. In either case the Other is inaccessible and invulnerable. But we are not transparent, either, for others or for ourselves. [...] The other way out is that of love: surrender of self, acceptance of the freedom of the beloved. Madness, an illusion? Perhaps, but it is the only door that leads out of the prison of jealousy. Many years ago I wrote: Love is a sacrifice without virtue. Today I would say: Love is a bet, a wild one, placed on freedom. Not my own; the freedom of the Other (66-67).
The next poet he discusses is Sextus Propertius, whose lyric poems of relationship with "Cynthia" are another "novelistic" account of "meetings, separations, infidelities, lies, surrenders, endless quarrels, moments of sensuality, passion, anger, morose melancholy" (68). He delights in the "modernity" of Propertius; he notes that Propertius is the first to write a love poem in which the beloved's ghost visits the speaker after her death (passed down, he writes, to "Baudelaire and his descendents" 71), and this leads him into a longish disquosition on a poem by Quevedo ("Amor constante mas alla de la muerte") and brief mentions of other poems by Baudelaire, Nerval, Novalis, and others.

A brief discussion of Greco-Roman novels of love: Daphnis and Chloe, in particular.

Some interesting thoughts about freedom in these texts. Not political freedom--that wasn't an option--but rather, in the face of monarchic rule, "political freedom was replaced by inner freedom," by which he means something like freedom in the private or domestic sphere: work, marriage, etc., as separated from the broader life of the polis. "Political duties, extolled by the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, are moved to the sidelines of society by the search for personal happiness, wisdom, or serenity" (85). Private virtues predominate, and private pleasures, including those that earlier philosophy thought of as an enslavement, like the pleasures of passion. We start to see the idea that marriage should be by the consent of the parties, even if the heads of the families still make the primary arrangements. Again, Paz insists, "the emergence of love is inseparable from the emergence of women. There is no love without feminine freedom" (85).

Love ends up being a form of "civil disobedience," not in the name of principle (as for Thoreau) but in the name of "individual passion" (87). He concludes this way: "love is born of an involuntary attraction that our free will transforms into a voluntary union. Voluntary union is love's necessary condition, the act that turns bondage into freedom" (87).

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