Shulman’s To Love What Is is an inspiring account of the perseverance of love. However, reading that memoir did not affect me in such as way as to make me feel love. Yes, Shulman’s strength and tenacity are to be commended, and I empathize and shudder with the thought of her obstacles but I did not vicariously experience her love – even though her love was genuine and authentic.
Perhaps it is the ineffable quality of love, that which refuses to be categorized, which calls out for metaphors. Intangible love represented by subjective metaphors seems a more accurate representation of love than factual science or memoir. Stories of parental and romantic love are brought to life by metaphors in Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love.
Many of the short stories contained in The Secret Lives of People in Love tell of the vulnerability afflicted by loving. When pondering love, the possible pitfalls we expose ourselves to are as valid as the oxytocin highs previously discussed. As Woody Allen wrote in his screenplay for the movie, Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, “Only unfulfilled love can be romantic.” Ackerman’s passage from A Natural History of Love implies that Denis de Rougemont would concur. History doesn’t bother recording eternally happy lovers. “Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon, and doomed…not the fruitful contentment of the settled couple, not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering” (Ackerman 108). Ackerman clarifies the lure of passion: “[We prize passion] because caring and suffering make us feel more alive, they give us a frisson, a jolt. Passion whips us into a frenzy of feeling so intense we crave it, even though it pains us. Passionate love elevates, but it also afflicts us, and for that carnal thrill-feeling all of our senses on red alert, the sun always at noon, each hour a small forever-we would gladly suffer” (Ackerman 108).
Lovers do suffer at Van Booy’s hand. “Not the Same Shoes” acknowledges the loss of what was not decided upon, the painful recognition that indecision becomes decision: “Now, on a sloping meadow hours into a fresh day, he found himself a desperate man, struggling to free himself from the shackles of a life he had not pursued. And her voice trickled through him, an icicle perpetually melting” (Van Booy 26).
Van Booy illustrates the vulnerability inherent in loving someone in “The World Laughs in Flowers,”
But sometimes, when confronted by something of unfathomable beauty, the bars of the cage around us begin to tremble. So I ran away to protect myself and remained a prisoner… I realized that since leaving Samantha, there was a part of me that had never stopped grieving. And all this time, it was not Samantha for whom I had often woken up sobbing, but for my self, for the plague of indifference that had kept me from her all these years. Like a ship. I had dropped anchor in the middle of the sea. I had chosen to quietly rot (Van Booy46).
Here Van Booy wrote of the tragedy caused by conceding to vulnerability. Unable to face the vulnerability poised by loving Samantha, the character leaves her. He had protected himself from possible pain so effectively only years later did he recognizes his grief and his loss.
The character in “The World Laughs in Flowers” flies from Los Angeles to Greece after receiving a letter from a woman, Samantha, he fell in love with five years ago but has not seen since. He climbs to where he and Samantha once picnicked,
And then, as I close my eyes, the wind-after skimming along the sea, peeling it salty freshness – races up between the wildflowers, slowing as it gathers the weight of their bouquet. When the wind finally comes upon me and inhabits my shirt like ice, I inhale the memory of Samantha (Van Booy50).
Van Booy enlists our senses of smell and touch to express the palpable qualia involved in experiencing the memory of a lover. Scent is a powerful trigger of memories. Perhaps Van Booy’s character uses scent to evoke fortifying memories of his love for Samantha.
He notes that if he were to leave Greece without seeing Samantha, she would be married by the time he was back in LA. Instead, he freed himself by quelling his vulnerability, gaining courage, “Up here on this forgotten elbow of land, I have nothing to lose, and though I am more afraid now than I have ever been. I am relieved. I am unburdened. I am ascending” (Van Booy 51). The scent, which triggered not only memories, but his qualia of Samantha, fortified his strength and empowered him to face the vulnerability that comes with loving another.
Indeed, love does require unabashed courage or it can be missed. An explanation of oxytocin or a listing of the components of compassionate love do not express the tremulous courage needed to seize the moment the way Van Booy’s metaphors do,
There is little joy in those first moments of recognition – for the reality is that most encounters of such depth, most first glances of love come to nothing. And while the sincerity of that rare moment when your heart is bursting should be the signal to fling yourself on the ground in the path of this stranger, it’s the depth of such sincerity that paralyses you, holds you back… (Van Booy 156)
The paralysis that ostensibly protects our emotional selves has no evolutionary function. The feel-good quality of oxytocin cannot rush in to override fear and susceptibility or provide the courage necessary to take emotional risks. The chemical rush is a reward for fulfilling an evolutionary destiny that is potholed with emotional risks. Achieving that reward requires courage. Acknowledging the vulnerability and fortitude inherent in loving another is prerequisite to any attempt to understand love.