On the End of Love

Posted by @ 10:55 am on August 16th, 2013

written-on-the-body-by-jeanette-wintersonWritten on the Body
by Jeanette Winterson
Vintage, February 1994
192 pages / $14.95  Buy from Amazon

&

To the Wonder
Dir. Terrence Malick
2012

 

 

 

I

To put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin
but apparently this is not possible
and just to say – I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds

– Zbigniew Herbert “I Would Like To Describe”

The greatest irony for a writer, a person obsessed with language is to run into the boundaries of words. In our intense, overwhelming moments these faithful friends fail us when we need them most. All artists seek to express something, but what do you do at the end of expression?

That we call the ineffable the “ineffable” points to the paucity of our expressive capabilities. This is both a universal and a poignant contemporary problem. Post-modernity, while often exaggerated, highlighted the strange duality of living in a world constructed by words and the attending inability to transcend the world of words. From time immemorial artists understood the inability to translate the wondrous into a chain of letters and symbols, but with the accretion of time the problem of clichés grew, leaving many to shrug in cynicism at our inability to say anything new or urgent.

II

“Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.”

– Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

 

It would be the greatest torture, if love really could contain such a self-contradiction, for love to require itself to keep hidden, to require its own unrecognizability.

– Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love.

 

No topic has seemed to run its course more than our abiding obsession with love. We like to think of this obsession as timeless. We recall Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the urgings of Jesus, but love rarely engendered this kind of devotion as it does in our time. In an increasingly secular and secularized world, Love has become our universal religion, our God, the altar at which we pray. It provides the foundational meaning of our lives and defines our pursuits. In our zeal and haste we’ve plundered the emotion, the experience, the concept leaving it bloodied, bruised, depleted. No sentence has more fill-ins than the sentence Love is_________.

Yet, as Winterson writes eloquently, love does demand expression. An unexpressed love is hidden, narcissistic, predatory, and painful. In the same breath Winterson writes, “It’s the clichés that cause the trouble.” There is no greater cliché than “I love you” and yet, there is nothing that needs expression more than love.

A sort of artistic paradox.

Clichés about love not only threaten the ability to express our deepest emotions and thoughts, but force us to experience love in the shadows of other people’s conception.

Do you fall into love, or create it? Does love grow or wither, does it overtake your life? Does it matter?

III

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities…Most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature.

– George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

As we try to escape the jail of metaphorical living and expression, we realize that though we cannot escape we can changes the rules of the game, the look of our prison. Hardened and clichéd metaphors might trap us in a stale existence, experiencing love in the afterglow of someone else’s passion, but fertile metaphors can change it all. If you think of a debate as a war full of opponents, defensive and offensive maneuvers then you will treat your competition as an enemy. If you think of a debate, of an argument as a dance with dynamic movement, with a partner instead of an enemy, then you can accomplish something different than victory. Love can be your end all and be all, or it can serve as an aperitif, a tangential enjoyment or frustration in life. Love can potentially be anything you make of it, perhaps.

Like few other writers Jeanette Winterson understands the potentialities of love, the weight and power of the metaphor you choose to love by. Her novel, Written on the Body is many things at one time, but above all it is a search for the relevance and scope of love. Winterson acknowledges the challenge of talking about love today, but doesn’t cower. Instead, she uses language against itself, resuscitating the medium in pushing it to its artistic limits. If metaphor fails you, she seems to say, try harder, think differently.

Milan Kundera, in his magnum opus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, warns the reader, “That metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

Indeed.

IV

“Time that withers you will wither me. We will fall like ripe fruit and roll down the grass together. Dear friend, let me lie beside you watching the clouds until the earth covers us and we are gone.”

― Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

 

Love must be re-invented, that’s certain.

Rimbaud

           

Time withering, love dying, beauty fading all speaks to a timeless insecurity: the loss of something once pure and complete, the loss of Eden. If you believe in the deleterious effects of time, you will worry about its march forward. Winterson evokes then undermines this clichéd view of time, beauty, and love. True, time does wither, fruit spoils, and love fades, but why can’t we spoil together, Winterson asks.

If all books ask questions of its readers, Winterson’s novel asks what metaphor of love will you use or create? Can you conceive of something personal and singular, or will you leech off expressions of others, is your love defined, bounded, or elastic, fluid?

What do you truly believe about love?

VI

Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You got me out of the darkness. You gathered me up from earth. You’ve brought me back to life.

– Terrence Malick, To The Wonder

to-the-wonder-starring-ben-affleck-olga-kurylenkonbsprachel-mcadams-and-javier-bardem

That we can conceive of an Eden, a heaven doesn’t speak to its veracity, but it speaks to our abilities and desire to create one here on this earth. Love, in our modern calculus, is the closest we will come to a heaven, an Eden. Love, we think, transforms two into one, it works like magic to uplift, to transcend to create a new world were once was nothing but ashes. Is the only way to save this heaven through words, through explosive metaphors? Does not the intensity of the ineffable redeem our lack of expression? How can we return to the savage Eden? Can you bypass language? Just because we lack the nuance to express our love, can that possibly diminish our experience of it?

VII

You shall love whether you like it or not. Emotions, they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling; you shall love. To love is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal. You fear your love has died; perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes.

– Terrence Malick, To The Wonder

Terrence Malick’s oeuvre can be categorized by this challenge, as a mellifluous dynamic of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. His works are both spiritual and theological, but always dialectical. Heaven and Earth. Man and Woman. Good and Evil. City and Field. Nature and Grace. Immanence and Transcendence. Europe and America. Love and Lust.

While never revolutionary, Malick’s vision stems from his ability to express the urgency through experience, the viscerality of emotion. The Tree of Life presented the age-old question of theodicy, but made it relevant and new because of the emotional poignancy of the suffering, the contrast to nature, and the parental anguish for a lost child. Malick bypasses language to access a pre-lingual world of imagery, of the ineffable. Malick resuscitates theology in a postmodern world not through any fancy feats of intellect, but in reminding us that certain experiences abide, regardless of historical epoch.

In To The Wonder, a sort of B-side to The Tree of Life, Malick attempts to reinvigorate love, to redeem love through similar means, an onslaught of beauty meant to bypass the intellect. Malick is not only a visionary, painting careful portraits in each cinematic shot, but a poet. The monologues and dialogue in his movie are lyrical statements juxtaposed to the beauty on camera. In a symbiotic manner, they feed and give to each other. Yet, in To The Wonder, Malick’s poetry, excluding this quote, can barely keep up with his eye. Instead he speaks in clichés, both of the theological and emotional kind. He tells us what we know (“Love makes us one. Two. One. I in you. You in me,” “If you love me there’s nothing else I need.”) and hopes to redeem the mundanity through transcendent beauty. It only works some of the time, but when it works nothing in contemporary movies can rival its brilliance.

VIII

“There is love that is like a stream that goes dry . . . but there is love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love, and has its source above. The husband is to love the wife as Christ loved the church, and gives his life for her.”

– Terrence Malick, To The Wonder

Javier Bardem, dressed in full priestly regalia, delivers these lines in a dismally attended sermon toward the beginning of the movie. Malick strikes a playfully ironic tone in this scene of sadness. Not only has Father Quintana’s sermon attendance dried up, but the Father can barely muster the passion to utter these sentences. He does so, but only as he cleans his glasses, not looking at this crowd. Even the aforementioned quote, while beautiful, echoes an old sentiment, given its most coherent treatment by Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard famously divides love into two categories, categories that Malick explicitly references in this movie: Earthly and Christian Love, Human and Divine Love. Kierkegaard explains:

“Earthly love is based on an impulse which, explained as affection, has its highest, its unqualified, its poetically unqualified exclusive expression in the fact that there is but one single object of love in the whole world…All other love, whether humanly speaking it withers early and is altered or lovingly preserves itself for a round of time—such love is still transient; it merely blossoms. This is precisely its weakness and tragedy, whether it blossoms for an hour or for seventy years—it merely blossoms; but Christian love is eternal.”

Earthly love bubbles up from down below, its rises from the earth in the form of passion, something founded on fickle emotions. Christian love comes to us from above, and like a tree requires that we attend to it, water it if we want it to grow. In Malick’s world, the only love that abides, like Kierkegaard’s, is the priest’s Christian love, a love for all people that manifests in ethical actions, a love inspired and based on divine love for us feeble human beings.

In reaction to Kierkegaard, thinkers of all types have chafed against this duality, and of course they are right. Love will never seamlessly fit into the categories we create. We attempt to separate loves based on their objects: parental love, marital love etc, but anyone who lives in love knows the amorphousness of it all. Cuddling belies all our attempts at categorizing love. We cuddle with out children and our sexual partners; we cuddle with dogs and cats and best friends.

The vehemence with which we disagree with the breakdown of these two loves speaks not only to its intuitive incoherence, but to an inability to accept that love does indeed need work, that love dies, like everything else, that often the love of one does preclude the love of many causes pain.

IX

Who are you whom I so faintly hear? Who urge me ever on? What voice is

this that speaks within me… guides me towards the best?

– Terrence Malick, The New World

 

“What are you that makes me feel thus? Who are you for whom time has no meaning?

– Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

           

There’s an odd overlap and goodness of fit between Terrence Malick’s new movie, To the Wonder, and Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Both tell simple love stories in experimental ways, both attempt to talk about love in a post-modern world, in a world with a gluttony of ways to discuss love, all of them clichéd, all of them true and sterile. Stylistically, both toy with linear narrative with a heavy impressionistic almost fable-like bent, and work with amorphous almost archetypal characters, and both create so much beauty on a line to line or shot to shot basis as to overload its audience.

Importantly, both reach back to describe love in a pre-lingual manner, Winterson hearkens back to the moment of linguistic creation, while Malick attempts to bypass language altogether. Malick’s antidote to the clichés of love lies in his attention to visual beauty and movement, to the sensuality of light and dance, in the immediacy and urgency of this moment. Winterson, to a similar end, shatters through of expectations with a genius for words, for their slippery nature, their poetic potential, and their metaphorical abilities. She travels back to the moment of conception and creates a new language just for this. Malick subverts the need for lingual expression through visual depiction, while Winterson can only use language to overcome its limitations. Winterson therefore relies more on explanation, on motive, but both cut straight to what we may call an essence, a distilled outpouring of beauty and prayer.

In a holistic sense, Winterson, on this topic, succeeds in a way Malick does not. Malick’s imagination, his coherence of vision feels a bit tired and perhaps even stale. His love and loss poetry uninspired, wan in comparison to his cinematic vision. The gap between the honey soaked brilliance of the setting, of running in the fields and the mundane poetry creates a tear in the experience. Winterson reinvigorates love with rapture, ecstasy and all of its substantiations, she captures the fluid and volatile expressions of our passion our lust and our love in many if not all of its forms. Winterson take a considerably less reverential tone toward love and shatters our conception of it from within:

“I felt like a seed in a pomegranate. Some say that the pomegranate was the real apple of Eve, fruit of the womb, I would eat my way into perdition to taste you.”

– Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

X

“Bigger questions, questions with more than one answer, questions without an answer are the hardest to cope with in silence. Once asked they do not evaporate and leave the mind to its serener musings. Once asked they gain dimension and texture, trip you on the stairs, wake you at night-time. A black hole sucks up its surroundings and even light never escapes. Better then to ask no questions? Better then to be a contented pig than an unhappy Socrates? Since factory farming is tougher on pigs than it is on philosophers I’ll take a chance.”

– Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

Perhaps this is all we can truly hope for anymore, to have love brand us, leave us wondrously disfigured with its mark, leave us with unanswerable questions, to forever change us, whether for good or bad. Love, not as the end, but as an opening, a beginning that always begins.

Love as something wholly other than we can imagine.

***

Joe Winkler is the Online Coordinator at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and a contributing editor at Vol1brooklyn.com He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality.

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