May 2006

Monica McFawn Robinson

features

Like Love Itself

There are no suitable objectives! While this might serve as a triumphantly bleak epiphany about life itself, it was an awful thought, sans grandeur, to have while planning a college class. I was slated to teach the unrevealingly titled “Study of Love,” and no objective for the course seemed right. Love, the great mystery, didn’t lend itself to the quotidian language of the syllabi. The old standbys (increased computer literacy, critical thinking, and better written expression) seemed sadly sober goals for the study of love. Doesn’t Eros demand something more rarified? And yet the official objectives for the course were perhaps overly lofty. A guru of sorts had originated the course thirty years prior, and his objectives consisted of such utopian aims as “to give language to the unconscious and help unlock its secret meanings for our lives” and “to help students become, through hard intellectual work, more loving and happy human beings.”  I myself had tried, through hard intellectual work (I guess), to become a happier and more loving human being, but I wouldn’t consider my personal results conclusive enough to warrant me qualified to teach such a skill. And as for giving language to the unconscious and unlocking its secret meanings, I was a poet, for god’s sake.  I had beaten the unconscious-and-its-meaningful-secrets horse to death.

I finally decided that the course would be a “study of how we talk about love” and the goal would be not to define love, but, in the forced eloquence of syllabi, “to find incisive and insightful language with which to discuss it.” And, I decided, I would further divide the course by paradox, or tension -- control vs. freedom, love vs. lust, ideal vs. real. At the time, it sounded good. Not too reductive, and not too restrictive, either. I was now ready to move on to the fun part of class planning: choosing the materials. This would be easy, I thought. Anything could work.

But the possibilities were too infinite. Again, what should have been an existential realization about life was inconveniently recast as a class-planning obstacle. Since everything was about love, nothing was. A D.H. Lawrence poem? Too many animals, not enough love. Brontë’s Wuthering Heights? Too particular. And all my favorite Hawthorne short stories? Too oblique. The love would have to be argued for before it could be discussed. And so it went. For everything I thought up, I thought up a one- or two-word summary of its unfitness. Eventually, however, I ran out of time to deliberate. Using much the same strategy as I used to plan my own life, I figured that since anything could work, I should just choose the next works that came to mind. Love itself was all desperation, instinct, and illogic, so why should my class material selection process be anything less? Love, the grand justification (for murder, madness, depravity) was now demoted into a defense for impulsive class-planning.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of the works that sprang to mind like the unbidden image of a former lover. Since it was too late to order the play, I figured I’d find a film version of it. I was unaware of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Robert Burton’s famed 1964 version until I stumbled across it at the video store. I was equally unaware what a harrowing ride it was until I had already shown it to the class. It certainly illustrated “control vs. freedom” (that week’s paradox) but it also illustrated all sorts of dark truths best left tucked away in the unconscious. I was genuinely disturbed by the movie. That sure is love, I thought -- a needling, orchestrated, ever-renewing mode of argument between two people.

The class, which should have been shocked or harried into silence, had the opposite response. Everyone spoke at once: was this love? Or abuse? One student described Martha and George’s guests as “pawns for their foreplay” as if their abuse of the younger couple for a whole night was the equivalent of heavy petting. Another student wondered if Martha’s baby (her invented son born of the pain of infertility) was a metaphor for their marriage -- its death representing the death of their relationship. An argument heated up about who was controlling who. Was Martha controlling George? Or George Martha? The upper hand was always changing. Others read it all as passion. “I think they’re really in love. Maybe it’s not what you commonly see, but it’s their version of love. Their arguments are passion.”

I preferred to just listen to the students, who seemed to have further-ranging insights than I did. But as the Professor of Love, I was compelled to weigh in. “People always talk about love and eternity in the same breath, don’t they?” I began, “And that usually means people will love each other forever. In this film, the eternity of their love seems to be in their mode of talking to each other. Their way of arguing is eternal, because that type of wordplay can go on indefinitely.” This was greeted with a collective “huh” of maybe-that’s-so before they returned to a comparison of their favorite insults from the film and a musing on how much gin Martha drank before morning.

A strange little essay by D.H Lawrence called “Sex and Loveliness” appeared to me, like a new lover, when I wasn’t looking. “Sex and beauty are inseparable,” Lawrence writes, “like life and consciousness.” This seemed like a fine beginning for a discussion on love vs. lust. Sex is the great inextricable from all things for Lawrence, and the students seconded him with anecdotes about how love springs from sex and sex springs from love (“if a woman has sex with you a couple times, she starts to think she’s in love,” as one student misogynistically put it). To see if there was any way to conceive of one without the other, I followed up discussion with an activity called “A World Without Sex.”     

“Imagine if there were no sex or sex drive. Would there be intimacy? Would there be love?” One student wisely pointed out that there might be love and intimacy without sex, but only if there was some other clandestine relation to replace it. “Maybe people would sneak off to talk about literature instead,” he mused, “and when you fell in love talking about something like Moby Dick, that would serve as ‘going all the way.’” I count it as a meager triumph that the course, like love itself, led this student into such a pleasurable absurdity. A world without sex might be absent love, but at least, in this case, we’d have a more delightful promiscuity.