Love, Passion, Ecstasy, and the Ordinary
Love as Constancy
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments,” says the bard.
So, my friends, are we to believe about “true” love that it is constant, as the poet would have us believe? Or, if you are a cynic, relentlessly constant?
We are consistently reminded in this famous Shakespearean sonnet that love does not change; “it is the ever fixéd mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken.” It is the stable “star” in the heavens, the guide to every lost ship (“wandering bark”).
Shakespeare, of course, was not up on his physics. We are now being told that the universe is accelerating at break-neck speed. Our solar system is part of that movement. What keeps it from exploding apart is gravity.
So, if everything in our universe is moving forward, then even that guiding “star” simile is illusory. I leave it to modern poets to find some other metaphor to express ideal love’s constancy.
But I digress.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that time can do a job on our physical appearance, which can add lines and sags to those once “rosy lips and cheeks.” But true love is timeless, according to the poet, in spite of those protruding hips and plump stomachs we are all “prey to,” the “slings and arrows” of our degrading bodies, to use the language of Hamlet.
Caritas, Agape, and Human Passion
St Paul gives “love” (caritas in the ancient Latin translations) a gold star, trumping even faith and hope. Part of that Christian ideal is the ancient golden rule to love others as we would be loved.
Ancient Christian writers, however, always gave agape, the love between humans and God, a much higher status on the totem pole of affections. That probably was one of the reasons many a young man and woman joined a monastery or a convent in the Middle Ages in order to experience that higher calling (although many joined as a family obligation or as a way to escape the throes of marriage; there are also some narratives of women going into the convent after the death of a husband or a failed relationship)
On the more human side, one of the narrators in an e e cummings poem tells us that she cannot touch the person she loves because they “are too near.”
Passion is just too fragile for this person to engage in physical contact. If we’ve ever been weak-kneed in front of some beautiful force of nature in Central Park or in a store, we know what that’s all about—the rational fear of taking in too much passion that could devour us, annihilate our identity, make us write bad checks.
Herman Hesse, in his poem, “Spring,” alludes to the same passion but modifies the attraction into tenderness: “you entice me tenderly/all my limbs tremble at/your blessed presence.”
Nevertheless, both poets give us a glimpse into being overwhelmed by love’s passion, the same kind of attraction that Gatsby felt for Daisy in F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby. Or the passion that eventually turns into the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy in Shakespeare’s Othello.
The difference between the narrator in the cummings poem and Gatsby and Othello is that the one is too overwhelmed to even try to pursue the relationship while the other two are seduced into their own fatal attractions. A more refined view of, of course, is that Daisy played Gatsby while Desdemona was the innocent victim of her husband’s tragic jealousy.
Herman Hesse’s narrator appears to have a sweeter affection but still trembles at his lovers “fragrance” and “finery.”
Transcendent Love and Evanescence
Wagner’s Isolde in her final aria, the Liebestod, speaks longingly of her dead lover, Tristan. Love becomes here a transcendent moment when she aspirationally hears the “melody” of Tristan’s “sweet fragrance” invading her. She asks, with otherworldly conviction, whether she will be engulfed, drowned, even unconscious as she fuses her lover’s breath with the billowing “World Breath.”
The soaring music parallels her expansive sense of the sublime in this ecstatic moment of oneness with her lover and the universe, the “sublime delight,” she says.
Isolde reveals here the almost wordless sense of the transformational power of love to lift her beyond the capacity of many humans to internalize, even though audiences find themselves transported into the realm of identifying with that transcendence
She is, in this moment, raised beyond all human invention, suggesting for all of us the transcendent power of love to lift us even beyond our own mortality.
The famous Japanese ukiyo-e tradition tells us, in its wood-block prints, that beauty exists in the “floating world” of evanescence. Beauty, in the form of sensual geishas and courtesans, is portrayed in its ravishing immediacy. To love these women is to immerse oneself in the fatalistic reality that they cannot be possessed; they are to be enjoyed, in the moment. Beyond that would require of them to descend into ordinariness.
Ukiyo-e beauties are meant to be ludic lovers, playful, enticing, captivating. But they are love sprinters; they are not in it for the long haul.
Love as a literary or ancient-text motif, in many ways, reifies our own fantasies about how we imagine ideal love should be. Some would certainly love the grand passion, the seduction, the erotic intensity.
Love as Settling Down to the Ordinary
From my experience, however, I believe most couples eventually stop hoping for one more moment of erotic ecstasy, if there ever was one. In the end, we settle for the ordinariness of what we know to expect, a kind of settling in to the gentle inevitability of the known.