Thanks to the give-and-take most book groups require of their members, I recently found myself obliged to read a novel by Penelope Lively called Moon Tiger. I didn’t like it, despite the promise of its early chapters. (A woman in her seventies, dying of cancer, looks back on her life and the important people in it.) But there was one aspect of the story that really held me — so much so I would gladly, and with excitement, have read more and more, and never mind the rest.
The heroine has a brother one year older. They grow up together and in late adolescence become lovers. No one suspects. After a few years, the physical expression of their feeling for each other fades, but not the feeling. No one she meets subsequently, except for a British captain with whom she has a brief (and unconvincing) love affair during World War II, can compare with the brother. Throughout the rest of their lives, this feeling between brother and sister seems to trump any emotions either of them can experience for other potential love partners. When he is about to die, she rides with him and his wife in a taxi to some last meeting he insists on attending:
He goes on talking and she goes on talking and interrupting and beneath what is said they tell each other something entirely different.
I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things — love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness. I do not need to tell you, any more than you need to tell me. I have seldom even thought it. You have been my alter ego, and I have been yours. And soon there will only be me, and I shall not know what to do.
Sylvia [the wife], she sees, is weeping again. Not quite silently enough. If you don’t stop that, thinks Claudia [the protagonist], I may simply push you out of this taxi.
I was an only child. I yearned for a slightly older brother when I was growing up. But I did understand early on that as a first-born, I could never have an older sibling, except by adoption, which I felt wouldn’t have been the same. Lacking this much desired older brother, I made one up. [See “Fairy Tale,” an account of my childhood fantasy, its development as I grew older, and how it looks to me now.]
This is not to say I truly believe I could have fallen in love with a male version of me who I had known all my life. Lively’s heroine believes that brother-sister incest requires narcissism in both parties. As I didn’t love myself enough for much of my life, narcissism does not seem to have been my problem. What I yearned for was an alter ego, someone who would accept me as I was, knowing everything about me. Someone who was my other half.
Diana Athill, last mentioned in this blog for having at the age of 89 written “Somewhere Before the End,” a trail-blazing account of old old age — has come up with a sequel of sorts now that she’s 97; it’s called “Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter.” In her introduction to this new book, she observes that persons in retirement homes spend a good deal of time just sitting and thinking. In her case, it’s been thinking about events in the past which were enjoyable.
Until about two months ago, those events included people, usually men. I talked about it the other day with someone who is also in her nineties, though not so far into them as I am, and she said, “Yes, of course, men. What I do when I’m waiting to fall asleep is run through all the men I ever went to bed with,” whereupon we both laughed in a ribald way, because that is exactly what I did too. It cheered me up to learn that I had not been alone in indulging in this foolishness.
Athill has now moved on from thinking about men to thinking of pleasurable scenes in nature. But let’s do a rewind for a moment: How is putting oneself to sleep by reviewing past bedmates “indulging in foolishness?” As the saying goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, talk, write, or think about it. I do have some years left before my nineties, but I too have sometimes counted “sheep” in somewhat the same way as Athill and her acquaintance; I review the sexual particulars of those relatively few men I have biblically known, with emphasis on the memorable ones.
However, and getting back to the theme of this piece, I don’t do that very often. More frequently, I make up erotic stories. They’re short on variety. I provide only two or three mises-en-scene; the two principal characters are always in their late teens or early twenties, and two or three years apart in age; I play both parts, moving in my mind from the point of view of the young man, then the young woman. But irrespective of the details of the flimsy “plot,” the underlying theme is always the same: these two grow up together, a tragic separation tears them apart, they cannot find each other, some time later, quite by accident, they do. Then nothing, nothing at all, can keep them from each other. Yes, they make love, occasionally in satisfying detail. But what is most exciting and rewarding about these pre-sleep lullabies, of which the physical “coming together” is just an expression, is the emotional coming together after having been so painfully separated.
The last time I read Plato’s Symposium in its entirety, somewhat unwillingly, was in the fall of 1949, when I was a sophomore in college. However, one section of it made a sufficient impression on me that I have revisited it on several later occasions. For those of you who haven’t read it, or read about it, the Symposium is a disquisition on love as the ancient Greeks viewed it. Since Plato wrote it, we may assume that in its entirety it represents the Platonic ideal. Briefly, six or seven of Socrates’ disciples gather with him at a dinner where they will all speak, in turn, about each one’s view of this important emotion. The fourth in order is Aristophanes, who attempts to describe the feeling of love in “historic” terms he fears will be laughed at.
Mankind, he [Aristophanes] said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honor; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race….
In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different…. The primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast….Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods;….
Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts…. then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.”
He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson in humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last;….
After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them — being the sections of entire men or women — and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they mighty breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.
Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half….And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself….the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment….And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. [Italics mine.]
After my second husband and I separated, I sequentially looked up (and in my older son’s words, recycled) the two significant boyfriends of my premarital life. You may see where, perhaps not entirely consciously, I was trying to go with this coming together after painful separation. I showed each of them the Aristophanes riff on love. The first was both tactful and rueful as he turned its pages in bed: “Here I am,” he said, “thirty-odd years later: same bathrobe, same book.” At least he didn’t laugh. The second did laugh; halfway through his reading, the phone rang. “Hi,” he said, “I’m reading about these funny round people with four arms, four legs and two heads….”
As you may surmise, neither effort to rejoin what had come apart worked out. There’s a reason the Platonic ideal is called an ideal. Real life just isn’t like that. Romantic love, youthful passion, may feel so compelling nothing can get in its way. But if satisfied, it begins to dilute itself into something else which we also call love. However, that’s a different love: warm, safe, familiar, comfortable, with cranky moments, boring times, tough passages, and also good ones. A love that leaves time and space for the speculations in this piece. A love to be explored in some other post. I invite you to do that.