Well, for our next meeting we are going to take a very different tack. Instead of traveling farther along the chronology we have been following so far (the course of non-supernatural thought through the centuries), this month we will be looking at a force that dominates everybody’s lives, in all ages: love. One of the core principles in the major religious traditions is the aspiration towards love (for “God,” for one’s in-group, for nature, for the poor). It is certainly central to all of our lives, even for those of us who stand outside of any religious tradition. Yet in everyday life, talking of love often makes us… uneasy. Sure we can laugh about how much we adore our children. There are weddings, anniversaries, funerals, when it is acceptable to talk openly of love. You might end a phone conversation with a quick “I love you.” But in most conversations — those not directed to our parents, our children, or to our cats or dogs — we tend to shy away from it. Our discussions of character and moral dilemmas and politics are oddly emptied out of references to love. How about re-claiming this word for non-supernatualists like ourselves? Can’t we meet and talk of love without feeling squeamish? Can’t we talk about what loves means to us, how we recognize it? How we try to love more deeply, more truly, better? Can’t we too share stories of our varied experiences of love, and how these experiences have changed or transformed or been redirected over time? This meeting is our chance to start. I will be posting readings over the next month. As I do I will put them up for you in pdf form here. All suggestions welcome! Tom — To start us off, I give you the final of Shakespeare’s sonnets:
The little Love-god lying once asleep Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand, Whilst many nymphs that vow’d chaste life to keep Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand The fairest votary took up that fire Which many legions of true hearts had warm’d; And so the general of hot desire Was sleeping by a virgin hand disarm’d. This brand she quenched in a cool well by, Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual, Growing a bath and healthful remedy For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall, Came there for cure, and this by that I prove, Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.
“Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.” Certainly the neurochemical cocktail called “romantic love” is not necessarily the only — or even the most life-changing — form of love that we experience. But I think this sonnet is a good place to start because its memorable last line captures, I think, the triumphant and terrifying power of love over lived experience. Contrary to all known laws of thermodynamics, love’s fire heats water… water cools not love. In the case of love, a purely subjective state overwhelms the objective world. Everything is inverted. Everything is loop de looped. How lucky we are that this is true! * A poem by William Blake:
Never seek to tell thy love Never seek to tell thy love Love that never told can be; For the gentle wind does move Silently, invisibly. I told my love, I told my love, I told her all my heart, Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears– Ah, she doth depart. Soon as she was gone from me A traveller came by Silently, invisibly– O, was no deny.
* A short story from George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead.” At first it may seem a strange selection for our discussion on love, but I think you will find that it raises a lot of questions about the nature of love, and different kinds of love, and what they matter to us. I found it quite powerful. I hope you do too. It was published in the New Yorker (and it’s now part of his latest collection of stories, Tenth of December. Here’s the link: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/12/20/escape-from-spiderhead * A fragment of a poem by Saphho:
Asleep against the breasts of a friend.
* Another short story, this time by James Lasdun. It was in this March’s Paris Review. I thought it was wonderful, and it raises many questions about different kinds of love, and the role of love in our lives. It’s called Feathered Glory. (Click on the title for the pdf!)
* One more — a short story by Tove Jansson (actually it is a chapter in her novel, Fair Play, but it reads as a distinct story). Tove Jansson is famous for the Moomin books, which she wrote for children, but she wrote adult novels too. This brief and gentle chapter is a good counterpoint, I think, to our usual assumptions about love. Here’s the pdf: Fireworks.