I can’t help but feel a palpable embarrassment over grown
women who are given teddy bears and balloons on Valentine’s Day and the men
who give it to them. Why would anyone want to “infantilise” love and human
desire which is so potent? It is the very essence of life and death. Take
the Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard that tells the story of prominent
intellectuals of twelfth-century France: Heloise, a strong woman gifted in
Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and Abelard, of noble birth, a philosophy lecturer.
They fall in love; have a child out of wedlock, and paid the ultimate price.
(Love usually comes with enormous price tags). Abelard was assaulted by a
hired thug and castrated; exiled to Brittany, where he lived as a monk.
Heloise entered a convent; became a nun.
Their letters (The Love letters of Heloise and Abelard),
originally written in Latin, are deeply touching, universal and timeless, a
tension of lost love and the reality of vows of chastity. A month after I
had first discovered the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic in a tiny
bookshop in Istanbul, I had a couple of infinitely precious hours with Derek
Walcott, talking about love. If writing is autobiographical (as he said) and
human desire is central to our lives, we got to ruminating over what it
(love) is. There was the intensity of Rumi in my head at the time, whose
writing was 700 years old, but as fresh to the human heart as ink that had
not yet dried on the paper. Rumi reminds me of Walcott, the inevitable
mingling of comedy with tragedy.
In a surprising turn of the interview Walcott was saying
that he “loved” his students, that he liked to “harass” them. (And this is
such typical Trini lingo, associated with affection and attention, so
removed from the harsh litigation-fuelled word in the west.) “Careful,” I
said. We both laughed, remembering the Nobel Laureate’s tribulations after a
supposed “harassment” case. “Autobiography is writing about yourself—what
you feel. I think it is in this new book (White Egrets, out in April). I am
trying to record my feelings.” The feelings are of longing, of separation,
the stuff of romantic, impossible love, without which neither the
metaphysical poets would exist nor great literature, not Shakespeare or
Madame Bovary, neither the metaphysical poets nor Rumi.
Egrets, Walcott writes:
“There never really was a ‘we’ or ‘ours’;
Whatever each enjoyed was separate:
A drizzle’s drift, the slant of arrowing showers,
On a hot road, on roofs made them elate-
But with a joy defined by separation
The languor of a glittering afternoon
When a bay’s bowl is full of glittering coins,
Or a white road is paved by the full moon,
The same delight that separates them joins,
Without conversion, but close to happiness,
In accidental gusts that made the leaves,
Agree unanimously with one green yes,
Yet made a dark division of their lives.
The clouds shone alter-white on moonlit nights:
He was the stubborn, sacrificial victim
Of his own hopes, like fireflies whose lights
Are like false stars that, with the daylight, dim.”
Where would love be without longing? Nowhere.
What’s interesting about this poem is what’s buried
underneath it. Desire, I surmise. He tells me: “I think everyone is very
cautious, even shy about writing about desire, which is one of the driving
forces of our lives. What we feel may be too vulgar for literature and too
interesting. A great writer should take into account physical need. A lot of
writers like Henry James hide that truth. Some like DH Lawrence didn’t.” Is
that the reason, I joked, he wrote so much about the tropical foliage with
its overt sexual imagery to sublimate this need? He looked enigmatic and
said without any irony:
“You cannot teach without loving who you are teaching, and I have loved
everyone I have taught. And when you see someone develop as a writer, then
you love them more. Teaching is a process of love.”
That was fine, but we still hadn’t defined “love.” Walcott
resists packaged love, definitions. He is right, of course. The human heart
is too scrambled to fit into neat shelves. So what is this love you speak
of? He answered my unspoken question: “Who knows? What you call affection
can be called a different name. It could be a physical desire.” What Walcott
and Rumi teach us is to strip away all the labels, the tenderness one feels
at a child sitting absorbed with a game of his imagination in the middle of
a rubbish heap. His hair turned a cherubic gold in the evening sun. Is not
that far from the flashy gold-tooth smile (reflecting searing sunlight) of
the vendor when you buy a bottle of water; the crimson silk camisole you buy
for your Valentine girl is not so separate from the grizzled beard of your
father, neither is the protective hand you will place on your partner’s
waist while playing mas this Monday and Tuesday.
It returns there. It warms you, lifts you, and its price is
a residual ache that never vanishes, but which, nevertheless, nourishes the
soul. Happy Valentine’s Day!
It stems from the heart.