Boots and Rallies
A friend of mine recently shared a theory of his with me that a better outcome of World War I would have ended with the German army successfully taking Paris and stopping right there. Paris, he explained, is an unreal city, but it is unfortunately full of French people who are lazy and rude. If we could have the best of both worlds — that is, all the resplendent French art and architecture but populated and governed by friendly and efficient Germans — that’d be a place worth staking out for one’s expatriate days. Since I know little about history or the character of the contemporary French, I have to stay neutral with respect to this theory’s credibility. Yet one point of credit that I’ve come across in the past week seems to vindicate the French at least a pinch in my esteem.
American teenagers are wont to deploy the abbreviation “ilu” in text messages to one another. Like most of these abbreviations, such as “lol,” “brb,” “srs,” “gj” and the rest of that ilk, I find “ilu” a hideous piece of language. I cannot imagine a 17-year-old boy with tears streaming down his Dorian face, calling up to the object of his infatuation on a cold Italian spring night, “Silvia, Silvia, ilu! ilu!” That sounds stupid. French teenagers, by contrast, apparently text each other “jtm,” which is short for “je t’aime” -— French for “I love you.” Something about the aesthetics of “jtm” screws the flimsy “ilu” into the ground. It comes across as so much more tender and bold.
I’m fascinated by the language of love. My opinions on the topic are about as strong — and as arbitrary — as any of the others that you’ve seen printed here, week by week. For instance, in the dull-brained bookworm’s favorite coming-of-age movie, “Dead Poets Society” (1989), Robin Williams’ character declares before a room’s worth of malleable young male sexuality that “language was invented for one reason, boys — to woo women — and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.” This line, which has enjoyed a memetic apotheosis on internet sharing platforms, makes my heart bristle and curdle. However earnest the sentiment is meant to be, it’s terrifically reductive and — though I promised myself I’d never put this word in a “Boots and Rallies” column --— so heteronormative as to be boring. Read “The Invention of Love” by Tom Stoppard, set in various periods of the life of A. E. Housman, author of “A Shropshire Lad,” formidable classicist and hopeless lover of his best friend Moses Jackson. Also in the play is a young Oscar Wilde — the most prolific proponent of dandyism — and like Housman, a gifted student of Greek and Latin. Both of them turned to the Roman poets who wrote impeccable verse expressing adoration for their young male lovers and both framed their lifestyles (quite literally) along those lines. The love poem was invented to woo men, not solely women.
But if my qualms were only about identity and sexual politics, I doubt I’d have much to say that would be worth reading -— I just wanted to tip my hat to a literary tradition that I respect and which engrosses me. I have more to say about how to use the word love, and when and to whom. In a somewhat less recent conversation with another friend, I asked what love meant to her — since to me, it’s always denoted a kind of desperation and dependence that is only periodically satisfied. Is that what it’s like for you? No, she said. For her it’s not like that at all. It’s just the feeling of incredulity at another person’s existence, that they truly awe and astound you to a degree at which you forget yourself and only wonder how such a human being could be.
No one’s definition of love is the same as another’s, and no one uses the word consistently. I love reading, but that’s different from how I love my friends, or even specific friends whom I love in different ways. It’s all different from how O.T. Genasis is in love with the CoCo, or how Machiavelli loved his native city of Florence more than his own soul. Normally I am quite insistent about the consistent use of words. I don’t like appeals to “usage” or terms that deviate from etymological origins — not a particularly fashionable stance in this age of strident relativism and deconstruction. But if love is my first religion, language is my second, and my faith will not be corroded by anything.
Love, though, is exceptional, in this and in every respect. I don’t think it matters that the word refers to uncountable emotions (there is at least one definition of love for every love poem written, if not more.) And it’s just because the one thing I will positively and affirmatively attribute to the word is the spirit of the limitless and infinite -— love is the opposite of definition. So as concerned as I am with saying and knowing and making known exactly what I mean whenever I speak, I leave the “love” in “I love you” up for interpretation, lest the paralysis of ambiguity leave it out of my vocabulary altogether.
At the end of my favorite movie, “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), Belle kneels down in the rain beside the Beast’s expiring body. For the first time, she feels like she can give a word to the “something there that wasn’t there before,” and, crying, whispers to him that she loves him. Suddenly the sky clears and he is transformed back into a prince, and happily ever after, yadda. Who knows if she knew just what she meant when she confessed? I don’t suppose it mattered to anything or anyone except the spell of the enchantress. Magic only responds to magic.