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The Drama of Love and Death Edward Carpenter

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The Drama of Love and Death

by Edward Carpenter

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“To talk about your devotion is to kill it.� Perhaps one ought even to say that to talk at all is to kill it! One often thinks what divine and beautiful creatures—men and women—there are all around, how loving and lovable, how gracious in their charm, how grand in their destiny!—if indeed they could only be persuaded to remain within that magic circle of silence. And then alas! one of these divinities begins to talk—and it is like the fair woman in the fable, out of whose mouth, whenever she opened it, there jumped a mouse! The shock is almost more than one can bear. Not that the shock proceeds from the ignorance displayed—for the animals and even the angels are deliciously ignorant—but from the revelations which speech unconsciously makes of certain states of the soul—from the strange falsity which is too often heard in the words, and in the very tones of the voice.

But Love burns this falsity away. That is why love—even rude and rampant and outrageous love—does more for the moralizing of poor humanity than a hundred thousand Sunday schools. It cleans the little human soul from 49 the clustered lies in which it has nested itself—from the petty conceits and deceits and cowardices and covert meannesses—and all the things that fly from the tip of the tongue directly the mouth opens. It burns and cleans them away, and leaves the lover speechless—but approximately honest!

Love is an art, and the greatest of the Arts—and the truth of it cannot be said in words; that is, in any direct use of words. You may write a sonnet, of course, to your mistress’s eyebrow; but that is work, that is doing something; it is or is trying to be, a work of Art—and anyhow your mistress is not obliged to read it! Or you may take a more decisive line to express your feelings—by slaying your rival, for instance, with a sword. That is allowable. But to bore the lady with protestations, and to demand definite replies (that is, to tell lies yourself, and to compel her to tell lies), is both foolish and wicked.

The expression of Love is a great art, and it needs man’s highest ingenuity and capacity to become skilled in it—but in the public mind it is an art utterly neglected and despised, and it is only by a very few (and those not always the most ‘respectable’) that it is really cultivated. It is a great art, for the same reason that the expression of Beauty is a great art—for the reason that Love itself (like Beauty) belongs to another plane of existence than the plane of ordinary life and speech.

50 Speech is man’s great prerogative, which differentiates him from the other creatures, and of which he is, especially during the Civilization period, so proud. The animals do not use it, because they have not arrived at the need of it; the angels do not use it, because they have passed beyond the need. It belongs to the second stage of human consciousness, that which is founded on self-consciousness—on the rooted consciousness of the self as something solitary, apart from others, even antagonistic to them, the centre (strange contradiction in terms!) even among millions of other centres, to which everything has to be referred. The whole of ordinary speech proceeds, and has proceeded, from this kind of self-consciousness—is generated from it, describes it, analyzes it, pictures it forth and expresses it—and in the upshot is just as muddled and illusive and unsatisfactory as the thing it proceeds from. And Love, which is not founded on that kind of self-consciousness—which is in fact the denial of self-centration—has no use for it. Love can only say what it wants by the language of life, action, song, sacrifice, ravishment, death, and the great panorama of creation.

Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’ The woman looks at him—and then she looks at something more interesting. And so too the whole modern period of commercial civilization and Christianity has been fatal to love; for both these great 51 movements have concentrated the thoughts of men on their own individual salvation—Christianity on the salvation of their souls, and commercialism on the salvation of their money-bags. They have bred the self-regarding consciousness in the highest degree; and so—though they may have had their uses and their parts to play in the history of mankind, they have been fatal to the communal spirit in society, and they have been fatal to the glad expression of the soul in private life.

Self-consciousness is fatal to love, which is the true expression of the soul. And it is curious how (for some occult reason) the whole treatment of the subject in our modern world drives it along this painful mirror-lined ravine—how the child is brought up in ignorance and darkness, amid averted faces and frowns, and always the thought of self and its own wickedness is thrust upon it, and never the good and the beauty of the loved one; how the same attitude continues into years of maturity; how somehow self-forgetting heroisms for the sake of love are made difficult in modern life; how even the act of intercourse itself, instead of taking place in the open air—in touch with the great and abounding life of Nature—is generally consummated in closed and stuffy rooms, the symbols of mental darkness and morbidity, and the breeding-ground of the pettier elements of human nature.[28]

52 We have said that for any lasting alliance, or really big and satisfactory love-affair, plenty of time should be given. Perhaps it is a good rule (if any rule in such matters can be good) never to act until one is practically compelled by one’s feelings to do so. At any rate, the opposite policy—that of letting off steam, or giving expression to one’s sentiments, at the slightest pressure—is an obvious mistake. It gives no chance for the depths to be stirred, or the big forces to come into play. Some degree, too, of self-repression and holding back on the part of the man gives time, as we have said, for the woman’s love-feelings to unfold and define themselves. But there is a limit here, and even sympathy and consideration are not always in place with love. There is something bigger—titanic, elemental—which must also have its way. And, after all, Force (if only appropriately used) is the greatest of compliments. I think every woman, in her heart of hearts, wishes to be ravished; but naturally it must be by the right man. This is the compliment which is the most grateful of all to receive, because it is most sincere; and this is the compliment which is the most difficult of all to pay—because nothing but 53 the finest instinct can decide when it is appropriate; and if by chance it is inappropriate the cause is ipso facto ruined.

Nature prizes strength and power; and so likewise does love, which moves in the heart of Nature and shares her secrets. To regard Love as a kind of refined and delicate altruism is, as we have already hinted, drivelling nonsense. To the lover in general violence is more endurable than indifference; and many lovers are of such temperament that blows and kicks (actual or metaphorical) stimulate and increase their ardor. Even Ovid—who must have been something of a gay dog in his day—says,"non nisi læsus amo.� There is a feeling that at all costs one must come to close quarters with the beloved—if not in the mimic battles of sex, then in quite serious and hostile encounters. To reach the other one somehow, to leave one’s mark, one’s impress on the beloved—or vice versa to be reached and to feel the impress—is a necessity. I sometimes think that this is the explanation of those strange cases in which a man, mad with love, and unable to satisfy his passion, kills the girl he loves. I don’t think it is hypothetical jealousy of a possible other lover. I think it is something much more direct than that—the blind urge to reach her very actual self, even if it be only with knife or bullet. I am sure that this is the explanation of those many cases of unhappily married folk who everlastingly nag at each other, and yet will not on any account part company. 54 They cannot love each other properly, and yet they cannot leave each other alone. A strange madness urges them into continual contact and collision.

But yet possibly there is even something more in the whole thing, on and beyond what is here indicated. In the extraordinary and often agonizing experiences attending the matter of ‘falling in love,’ great changes, as we have already suggested, are being wrought in the human being. Astounding inner convulsions and conversions take place—rejections of old habits, adoptions of new ones. The presence of the beloved exercises this magical selective and reconstructive influence—and that independently to a large degree of whether the relation is a happy and ‘successful’ one, or whether it is contrary and unsuccessful. The main thing is contact, and the coming of one person into touch with the other.

We have seen, in the case of the Protozoa, the amazing fact of the ‘maturation-divisions’ and the ‘extrusion of polar bodies’ as a preparation for conjugation—how, when the two cells which are about to unite approach each other, changes take place already before they come into contact, and half the chromatin elements from one cell are expelled, and half the chromatin elements also from the other. What the exact nature of this division and extrusion may be is a thing not yet known, but there seems every reason to believe that it is of such a character as to leave the residual elements on both sides complementary to 55 one another—so that when united they shall restore the total attributes of the race-life, only perhaps in a new and unprecedented combination. The Protozoa in fact ‘prepare’ themselves for conjugation and realization of the race-life, by casting out certain elements which would interfere with this realization. And we may well ask ourselves whether in the case of Man the convulsions and conversions of which we have spoken have not the same purpose and result, or something much resembling it. Whatever really takes place in the unseen world in the case of human Love, we cannot but be persuaded that it is something of very far-reaching and long-lasting import; and to find that the process should often involve great pain to the little mortals concerned seems readily conceivable and by no means unnatural.

The complementary nature of love is a thing which has often been pointed out—how the dark marries the fair, the tall the short, the active the lethargic, and so forth. Schopenhauer, in his Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, has made a special study of this subject. Plato, Darwin, and others have alluded to it. It seems as if, in Love, the creature—to use Dante Rossetti’s expression—feels a “poignant thirst and exquisite hunger� for that other one who will supply the elements wanting in himself, who will restore the balance, and fill up the round of the race ideal. And as every one of us is eccentric and out of balance and perfection on one side or another, so it almost seems as if for every one there must be, on the 56 other side, a complementary character to be found—who needs something at any rate of what we can supply. And this consideration may yield us the motto—however painfully conscious we may be of our own weaknesses and deficiencies and follies and vices and general ungainliness—the motto of “Never despair!� Innocent folk, whose studies of this subject have been chiefly perhaps derived from penny novelettes—are sometimes inclined to think that love is a stereotyped affair occurring in a certain pattern and under certain conditions between the ages of 18 and 35; and that if you are not between these ages and are not fortunate enough to have a good complexion and a nicely formed aquiline nose, you may as well abandon hope! They suppose that there is a certain thing called a Man, and another certain thing called a Woman, and that the combination of these two forms a third quite stereotyped thing called Marriage, and there is an end of it.

But by some kind of Providential arrangement it appears that the actual facts are very different—that there are really hundreds of thousands of different kinds of men, and hundreds of thousands of different kinds of women, and consequently thousands of millions of different kinds of marriage; that there are no limits of grace or comeliness, or of character and accomplishment, or even of infirmity or age, within which love is obliged to move; and that there is no defect, of body or mind, which is of necessity a bar—which may not even (to some special other person) become 57 an object of attraction. Thus it is that the ugly and deformed have no great difficulty in finding their mates—as a visit to the seaside on a bank-holiday speedily convinces us; a squint may be a positive attraction to some, as it is said to have been to the philosopher Descartes, and marks of smallpox indispensable to others;[29] while I have read of a case somewhere, where the man was immediately stirred to romance by the sight of a wooden leg in a woman![30]

But apart from these extreme instances which may be due to special causes, the general principle of compensation through opposites is very obvious and marked. The fluffy and absurd little woman is selected by a tall and statuesque grenadier; the tall and statuesque lady is made love to by a man who has to stand on a chair to kiss her; the society elegant takes to a snuffy and preposterous professor; the bookish scholar (as in Jude the Obscure) to a mere whore; the clever beauty (as in L’homme qui rit) to a grinning clown; and of course the ‘wicked’ man is always saved by the saintly woman. The masculine, virago-like woman, on the other hand, finds a man who positively likes being beaten with a stick; and the miaowling, aimlessly amiable female gets a bully for a husband (and one can only say, “Serve them both right�)... Finally, the well-formed aquiline nose insists on marrying a 58 pug nose—and this apparently quite regardless of what the other bodily and mental parts may be, or what they may want.

Everyone knows cases of quite young men who only love women of really advanced age, beyond the limit of childbirth; and these are curious because they seem to point to impelling forces in love beyond and independent of generation and race-perpetuation, and therefore lying outside of the Schopenhauerian explanations. And similarly we all know cases of young girls who are deadly earnest in their affection for quite old men, men who might well be their fathers or grandfathers, but hardly, one would think, their husbands. In these cases it looks as if the young thing needs and seeks a parent as well as a lover—the two in one, combined. And where such love is returned, it is returned in a kind of protective love, rather than an amative love—or at any rate as a love in which the protective and amative characters are closely united.

Similarly there are numbers of cases in which mature or quite grown men and women only love (passionately and devotedly) boys and girls of immature age—their love for them ceasing from its ardor and intensity when the objects of devotion reach the age, say, of twenty or twenty-one. And in many of these cases the love is ardently returned. Here, again, it is evidently not a case of generation or race-perpetuation, but simply of compensation—the young thing requiring the 59 help and protection of the older, and the older requiring an outlet for the protective instinct—a case of exchange of essences and qualities which (if at all decently and sensibly managed) might well go to the building up of a full and well-rounded life on either side.

In all these cases (and the above are of course only samples out of thousands) we seem to see an effort of the race-life to restore its total quality—to restore it through the operation of love—either by completing and rounding out the life of the individuals concerned, or by uniting some of their characteristics in the progeny. I say ‘seem to see,’ because we cannot well suppose that this gives a complete account of the matter, or that it explains the whole meaning of Love; but it at any rate suggests an important aspect of the question. The full quality of the race-life is always building itself up and restoring itself in this manner. A process of Regeneration is always going on. And this process, as suggested before, is more fundamental even than Generation—or it is a process of which Generation is only one department.

Regeneration is the key to the meaning of love—to be in the first place born again in some one else or through some one else; in the second place only, to be born again through a child. As in the Protozoa, so among human beings, generation alone can hardly be looked upon as the primary object of conjugation; for, among the latter, out of myriads of unions vast numbers 60 are as a matter of fact infertile, and a considerable percentage (as indicated above) are quite necessarily infertile, and yet these infertile unions are quite as close, and the love concerned in them quite as intense and penetrating, as in the case of the fertile ones. “If a girl were free to choose according to her inclinations,� says Florence Farr in an eloquent plea for the economic independence of women,[31] “there is practically no doubt that she would choose the right father for her child, however badly she might choose a life-long companion for herself.� In this passage the authoress seems to suggest (perhaps following Schopenhauer) that the generation of a perfect child is the one main even though unconscious purpose of love-union, and that the individual parent-lives may instinctively be sacrificed for this object. And there no doubt is so far truth in this, that the tremendous forces of love often pay little respect to the world conveniences and compatibilities of the lovers themselves, and that often (as indeed also among the Protozoa) the parent’s life is rudely and ruthlessly sacrificed for the birth of the next generation. Still, even so, I think the statement as put here is risky, both as a matter of fact and as a matter of theory. Would it not be more correct or less risky to say: “If a girl were free to choose, she would choose the man who most completely compensated and rounded out her own qualities, physical and mental (and so would be likely to get her a fine 61 babe), even though he might not prove the best of companions?�

It is curious, as we have suggested before, how married folk often quarrel to desperation on the surface, and yet seem to have a deep and permanent hold on each other—returning together again even after separation. It seems in these cases as if they mutually obtained a stimulus from each other, even by their strife, which they could not get elsewhere. Iræ amantium redintegratio amoris. The idea, too, that the great and primal object of union is to be sought in the next generation has something unsatisfactory about it. Why not in this generation? Why should the blessedness of mankind always be deferred to posterity? It is not merely, I take it, the perpetuation of the race which is the purpose of love, but the perfection of the race, the completeness and adequacy of its self-expression, which love may make possible to-day just as well as to-morrow. Ellen Key, in that fine book, Liebe und Ehe,[32] expresses this well when she says: “Love seeks union, not only in connection with the creation of a new being, but also because two beings through one another may become a new being, and a greater than either could be of itself alone.�

The complementary nature of sex-attraction was made much of by that youthful genius Otto Weininger, who in his book, Sex and Character,[33] 62 has a chapter on the laws of Sexual Attractions in which, in the true German manner, he not only gives an algebraic formula for the different types of men and women, but a formula also for the force of attraction between any two given individuals—which latter of course becomes infinite when the two individuals are exactly complementary to each other! Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, in his very interesting work, Die Transvestiten,[34] goes even more into detail than does Weininger on the subject of the variations of human type in special regard to sex-characteristics. Sex-characteristics, he explains, may be divided into four groups, of which two are physiological, namely the primary characteristics (the sex organs and adjuncts) and the secondary (the hair, the voice, the breasts, and so forth); and two are psychological or related (like love-sentiment, mental habit, dress, and so forth). Each of the four groups includes about four different elements; so that altogether he tabulates sixteen elements in the human being—each of which may vary independently of the other fifteen, and take on at least three possible forms, either distinctly masculine, distinctly feminine, or intermediate. Calculating up the number of different types which these variations would thus give rise to, he arrives at the figure 43,046,721!—which figure, I think we may say, we need not analyze further, since it is certainly quite large enough for all practical purposes! And 63 really though we may mock a little at these fanciful divisions and dissections of human nature, they do help us to realize the enormous, the astounding number of varieties of which it is susceptible. And if again we consider that among the supposed forty-three millions each variety would have its counter type or complementary individual, then we realize the enormous number of perfect unions which would be theoretically possible, and the enormous number of distinct and different ways in which the race-life could thus find adequate and admirable expression for itself.

However, we are here getting into a somewhat abstract region. To return to the practical, the complementary idea certainly seems to account for much of human union; for though there are but few cases in which the qualities of the uniting parties are really quite complementary to each other, yet it is obvious that each person tends to seek and admire attributes in the other which he himself possesses only in small degree. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that some common qualities and common ground are necessary as a basis for affection, and that sympathy and agreement in like interests and habits are at least as powerful a bond as admiration of opposites. It sometimes happens that there are immense romances between people of quite different classes and habits of life, or of quite different race and color; and they see, for the moment, flaming ideals and wonder-worlds in each other. But unions in such cases 64 are doubtful and dangerous, because so often the common ground of sympathy and mutual understanding will be too limited; and hereditary instincts and influences, deep-lying and deep-working, will call the wanderers away, even from the star which they seek to follow.

Sympathy with and understanding of the person one lives with must be cultivated to the last degree possible, because it is a condition of any real and permanent alliance. And it may even go so far (and should go so far) as a frank understanding and tolerance of such person’s other loves. After all, it seldom happens, with any one who has more than one or two great interests in life, that he finds a mate who can sympathize with or understand them all. In that case a certain portion of his personality is left out in the cold, as it were; and if this is an important portion it seems perfectly natural for him to seek for a mate or a lover on that side too. Two such loves are often perfectly compatible and reconcilable—though naturally one will be the dominant love, and the other subsidiary, and if such secondary loves are good-humoredly tolerated and admitted, the effect will generally be to confirm the first and original alliance all the more.

All this, however, does not mean that a man can well be ‘in love’ with two women, for instance, at the same time. To love is a very different thing from being ‘in love’; and the latter indicates a torrent-rush of feeling which 65 necessarily can only move towards one person at a time. (A standing flood of water may embrace and surround several islands, but it cannot very well flow in more than one direction at once.) But this torrent-rush does not last forever, and in due time it subsides into the quiescent and lake-like stage—unless indeed it runs itself out and disappears altogether.

Against this running out and disappearance it is part of the Art of Love to be able to guard. It has sometimes been argued that familiarity is of necessity fatal; and that it is useless to contend against this sinister tendency implanted in the very nature of love itself. But this contention contains only a very partial truth. It is true that in physical love there is a certain physical polarity which, like electric polarity, tends to equate itself by contact. The exchange of essences—which we saw as a chief phenomenon of conjugation, from the protozoa upwards—completes itself in any given case after a given time; and after that becomes comparatively quiescent. The same with the exchange of mental essences. Two people, after years, cease to exchange their views and opinions with the same vitality as at first; they lose their snap and crackle with regard to each other—and naturally, because they now know each other’s minds perfectly, and have perhaps modified them mutually to the point of likeness. But this only means, or should mean in a healthy case, that their interest in each other has passed into another plane, 66 that the venue of Love has been removed to another court. If something has been lost in respect of the physical rush and torrent, and something in respect of the mental breeze and sparkle, great things have been gained in the ever-widening assurance and confidence of spiritual unity, and a kind of lake-like calm which indeed reflects the heavens. And under all, still in the depths, one may be conscious of a subtle flow and interchange, yet going on between the two personalities and relating itself to some deep and unseen movements far down in the heart of Nature.

Of course for this continuance and permanence of love there must be a certain amount of continence, not only physical, but on the emotional plane as well. Anything like nausea, created by excess on either of these planes, has to be avoided. New subjects of interest, and points of contact, must be sought; temporary absences rather encouraged than deprecated; and lesser loves, as we have already hinted, not turned into gages of battle. Few things, in fact, endear one to a partner so much as the sense that one can freely confide to him or her one’s affaires de cœur; and when a man and wife have reached this point of confidence in their relation to each other, it may fairly then be said (however shocking this may sound to the orthodox) that their union is permanent and assured.

Nothing can, in the longer enduring values of love, well take the place of some such chivalrous 67 mutual consideration which reaches the finest fibres of the heart, and offers a perfect freedom even there. Ellen Key—to quote her Ueber Liebe und Ehe[35] again—says, “Fidelity [in love] can never be promised, but may be won afresh every day;� and she continues, “It is sad that this truth—which was clear enough to the chivalrous sentiment of the old courts of Love—must still to-day be insisted on. One of the reasons, in fact, which these courts gave, why love was not compatible with Marriage, was ‘that the wife could never expect from her husband the fine consideration that the Lover is bound to exhibit, because the latter only receives as a favor what the husband takes as his right.’� To preserve love through years and years with this halo of romance still about it, and this tenderness of devotion which means a daily renewed gift of freedom, is indeed a great Art. It is a great and difficult Art, but one which is assuredly “worth while.�

The passion altogether, and in all its aspects, is a wonderful thing; and perhaps, as remarked before, the less said about it, the better! When people—I would say—come (not without clatter) and offer you their hearts, do not pay too much attention. What they offer may be genuine, or it may not—they themselves probably do not know. Nor do you also fall into a like mistake, offering something which you have not the power 68 to give—or to withhold. Silence and Time alone avail. These things lie on the knees of the gods; which place—though it may seem, as someone has said, ‘rather cold and uncomfortable’—is perhaps the best place for them.

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