10 FEBRUARY 1961, Page 26

The Rise of Love


SOMEONE once said, 'people wouldn't fall in love, if they didn't read about it first.' This is a large and valuable half-truth. With that remark nagging in your mind, you are forced to re-examine the whole question of love, if only in self-defence. The fact is that love and literature are inseparable, and the halfness of the 'truth comes in because we can only examine love— except from our own personal experience—where literature exists and influences it. Certainly we should find people attractive or repulsive or neutral whether we had read about love or not. But literature creates expectancy in us. We grow up prepared to love; books give love definition, a social context, a permissive area. To a large extent, as we move into adolescence, we move towards words—rapture, heartbreak, sex, passion, infatuation, obsession, fate, enchantment, delight. And as we move through to manhood to write our poetry and novels, our autobiographies and critical studies, we relate these words to an experience uniquely ours so that we change their connotation. Literature influences love, and love literature. They are inseparable.

For, of course, it is a commonplace of social history that love has changed. Consider the two pairs of lovers who dominate that side of the Iliad. They show us clearly enough what the scope of heterosexual love once was. Hector and Andromache are the archetype of lawful, wedded love. They have grown into a state of complete dependence on each other. The one thing out- side this is Hector's love for his city, which, in a sense, is only an extension of his love for his wife and child. But there is no hint that either of them ever chose each other in the romantic sense. The implication in their relationship is that love is the result of marriage, of a community of living, not the cause of it. With normal luck, men and women could expect this beautiful and easy mutuality through the operation and the obser- vance of a social law. Hector is father and mother to Andromache, as well as 'a warm bedfellow'; and she, to him, is home. This is in its inception the veriest marriage of. arrangement, a social contract; yet the Iliad invests their relationship with the purest radiance. Paris and Helen, by contrast, desire each other and despise each other at the same time. Theirs is the anti-social union, with no radiance about it. They are vic- tims. Homer saw no glory in their love, no many- splendoured thing. Helen knows she is helpless, calls herself Kvv7 xvoquixams, the bitch that started all the trouble. To Homer and Helen, this love was the fatal enchantment of Aphrodite, that made her forget home and child, break law, go helplessly to degradation. What was later thought of as romantic love between a man and a woman, the crown of life itself, appeared to the Greeks as an unalloyed misfortune, the interference of a heartless and arbitrary god. Some people have claimed that Euripides understood a love that was at once romantic and heterosexual, but that was in his Perseus and Andromeda, which is now lost; and even the loss may be significant. There were many things in the work of that extraordinary man which his contemporaries could not under- stand, and such a love would have been one of them. What does survive is the body of his work, which could be used as a school textbook and therefore illustrates what was socially acceptable. In his Medea we find a complete condemnation of passionate love between man and woman, when that passion tries to take its own way and shape its own future. The chorus of Corinthian women cry out in terror at their vision of a world well lost for love : Love as an obsession brings neither glory nor greatness! If love comes moderately there is no god does such grace—Oh Lady Mistress, never loose at me from your golden bow an arrow poisoned with passion!

All through Greek literature there re-echoes this note of terror. What gives the idylls of Theocritus their particular force is the sense, even in the most trivial circumstances, that love as a flash- point between men and women is a visitation at once arbitrary and inescapable. Theocritus tries to control this by making fun. His lover becomes the great booby Cyclops, or the hypersensitive Thyrsis. Simtetha is Medea—but a Medea in reduced circumstances, whose magic does not work.

Whence, then, the sense of glory? Or, to put it crudely, at what point in history might a girl expect to meet Mr. Right? 1 am too imperfect a scholar to find the situation anything but hope- lessly confused. We are told that romantic love is at bottom an invention of the Middle Ages— courtly love and all that—but surely the break with the past was nowhere near complete? For Greece went through a silver age to one that might be called tinsel. In about AD 400, give or take a generation or two, romanticism regarded as a Good Thing reared its questionable shape. One Heliodorus £thiopica made a pure and very boring romance out of the loves of Theagenes and Chariclea. And what about Daphnis and Chloe? What about those other Greek novels that I have never seen, let alone read? For the life of me, I cannot define the difference--no, I cannot even find the difference —between Theagenes and Chariclea and Aucas- sin et Nicolette. All I can find is an astonishing parallel. Yet the one is the last fling of Greek— when it had changed from a way of life to a channel for diplomacy--and the other is the day- spring of European romance. I can only think that the glory extends back beyond Heliodorus —rumour said he was a bishop—to when they poured out the new wine of Christianity. It was a long time working. It was nearly 2,000 years, by way of Heliodorus and Dante and Shake- speare, to the Proustian discovery that romantic lovers are in love with persons who, properly speaking, are not there at all.

I was brought to these considerations by read- ing Mr. John Bayley's latest book,* which among other things is about love and literature. He meditates on three works, Troylus and Criseyde, Othello and The Golden Bowl. He has not answered my question for me, largely a historical question, but then he never intended to. Instead, he has come up with a most reward- ing proposition: that we cannot write about Love. We can only create personalities who are, in fact, love itself. Love cannot be wrung out of them like water from a sponge. They are, like love and literature, one and the same thing. But, as one might expect, the book has much more than this. It contains a subtle and percep- tive analysis of the three works, and an epilogue on Character and Nature which is not only casually learned and astonishingly penetrating, but likely to be of great help and incitement to the practising writer.

If I have 'any bone to pick, it is with the stature which Mr. Bayley allows to the play Othello. Certainly it illustrates the Proustian thesis—that lovers construct a persona and then project it on to the beloved—and certainly it contains matchless poetry. Certainly it is flawlessly con- structed and so on and so on. Mr. Bayley dwells on subtleties of characterisation and interaction that had escaped my own analysis even after many readings. He has done a splendid job. Almost he convinces—but not quite. He cannot remove the conviction in my mind that the play is at once smaller and less absorbing than the other tragedies. For all its verbal splendours, Othello is a suffocating play.

Romeo and Juliet is a young man's play, a prentice piece, imperfect and at times overwritten. Yet in it love triumphs. Now this may be the romantic view; but surely it is the feeling we have as the curtain falls? They are dead, but we be- lieve in them as people and we feel their para- doxical triumph. I should find it hard to put that triumph into words, without invoking absolutes, a perilous thing to do. But who triumphs at the end of Othello? Only a character in whom we cannot believe, lago, the incarnation of evil. Nor has Desdemona, for all her pathos, anything more than the appeal of Ophelia, that minor character in a greater play. As for Othello. Shake- speare gives him a nobility by verbal magic which is not sustained in the event. We can pity them both, but not feel about them the larger compas- sion, for they cannot bear the weight.

But all this is a small disagreement with a book which has given me deep enjoyment. Mr. Bayley has the art of making his critical world easily accessible to the reader—and at the same time taking him on a complicated journey through it with the minimum of pain. But where in fact did the whole thing begin? I wish Mr. Bayley would take me back with him into the world of Greek literature, and set my mind at rest.

*THE CHARACII as OF LOVE. By John Bayley. (Constable, 21s.)