Mingling of comedy with tragedy


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Category: Reflections 14 Feb 10

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.

In White 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 stems from the heart.

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! 


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur