Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Question of Love

There is a partial poem in The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams that goes like this: "Love's an old remembered song / A drunken fiddler plays, / Stumbling crazily along / Crooked alleyways." Before his granddaughter interrupts the oldest living poet, we get another line and a half ("When his heart is mad with music / He will play the . . . "). And then that's it. We are left hanging in the air as to what would or could have followed.

Is this, in a sense, a kind of definition of love? Is it really an "old remembered song"? And if so, is it played by a "drunken fiddler"? And does he play it when "his heart is mad with music"? Questions abound. There is something catchy about the lines, especially about the first four. The fragmented "conclusion" is intriguing, but there isn't much we can think about it one way or another.

Love has certainly generated more words in the history of human cultures than any other topic. We all know what it is - or so we think - but there are so many ways in which love can manifest itself in any person's life that there is probably no satisfactory definition about which we could say, this is it. We don't need anything else.

There is a big difference between love in general and romantic love. In Hungarian there are, in fact, two words for love both of which mean "love" - but one of them is love in general (szeretet) while the other is romantic love (szerelem). The stem is the same for each of these words, so both of them can and should be translated by the English word for love. But even the case of romantic love is manifold. One thing that usually accompanies it is "lust." Romantic love - usually between a man and a woman - has sexual desire included in it. "Making love" means that, though in some old-fashioned usages to make love to a woman may mean no more than to woo or court her.

The question for right now, though, is why the partial poem from the Williams play is so fascinating. Would a teenager react to it the same way as an aging or even old man? "Remembered song" is how the poem defines, in a sense, love. If it is that, something remembered - in fact, a song remembered - how would/could any of us accept it as somehow or other a truthful utterance? The idea that the song is played by a "drunken fiddler" whose heart becomes "mad with music" raises a whole new question: is love intoxicating? We have metaphors for it that make it a kind of madness or even a kind of bewitchment. It's certainly enchanting, too. Crazy in love is a common enough expression. Falling for someone is another common metaphor. Hungarian,  for example (with its two words for love) also speaks of "szerelembe esni" - which is a direct translation of "to fall in love" (though the Hungarian word order is the other way around: "into love to fall").

What I am driving at here is really very simple: love (the romantic kind) is so widespread in the world, in all cultures, that its various verbal manifestations can be endlessly formulated and reformulated by poets and philosophers and novelists and screenwriters and psychologists and even scientists. We know what it is, and perhaps we seldom come to disagree with some poetic or philosophical or scientific formulation of it.

According to an evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller, art itself is an evolutionary development for the purpose of wooing women. Art - poetry, etc. - is really, then, part of the human genetic development. The book where Miller argues this point in is The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature.

No wonder then that the question of love is an endlessly occurring phenomenon in words and music and pictorial or plastic representations. Long live love!