I haven’t made a study of love.
But Dorothy Sayers did when she introduced her translation of Dante’s Purgatory with a kind of primer on courtly love. Like dating today, courtly love traditionalized, maybe even standardized, a set of socially sanctioned transgressions understood (then as now) as lovemaking. Adultery was central to the courtly tradition. Because marriage was for the most part an arrangement having nothing to do with love, going behind another’s back made loving possible. Unconsummated love, on the other hand, was considered the purest and the holiest of loves by courtly standards. To suffer for your love from a distance was noble, productive even. Romantic love was, at least metaphorically, given a religious status, and the poems that came forth—worshipful, hopeful in the face of suffering, addressed to the singular beloved—have been likened to prayers.
The Old Loves
Take these two love poems (loosely termed): James Tate’s “Lovelife on the Liffey” and Samuel Beckett’s “Cascando.”
Tate, in love, begins:
Better to stare into this
black face of a river
and know that thirty miles
from here it passes her door.
Once I thought oubliette
meant obfuscate now it is
my place in her heart and I am happy there.
The devotion and submission. The dark but welcome imprisonment. The interminable, tantalizing distance. Tate was courting.
Quick, climb into the river
and crawl along the floor
to catch a glimpse of her
sorrow queen in hydrangea gown
better to die drown-
ing in her miracle cool
eyes than fool the world
without her for a thousand
But what if we turn to Beckett for a taste of this same sort of romance:
the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives
Tate’s poem crawls the floor of the river, “to catch a glimpse of her.” Beckett’s trawls the mud for “the bones the old loves / sockets filled once with eyes like yours,” perhaps because to have these remnants is better than to want them. Want, in Beckett’s poem, is not the same as desire. Want is water signifying refreshment and bringing up blackness; desire does not know what it wants.
Desire is imposed on a fated object, a figment of pleasure. When we’ve known pleasure, real pleasure, and all its potential for pain, then we want. Desire doesn’t tolerate pain (or if it does, it ceases to be, well, desirable). Wanting is painful, because the wanted have feelings too. And we can’t always agree.
Tate’s is certainly the more traditional love lyric. His dread is disguised by desire. He equates love with longing. How did these two—love, longing—meet, and how do we break them up, distinguish between them? Is Tate’s a love poem, or a lovelife poem?
“Lovelife” reads like a declaration and “Cascando” like a continuous question. Only one thing is certain: whether we stare into the black face of the river, or splash our faces with its black want, whether we crawl the river’s floor, or claw blindly at its bed, it is all in search of her, and she is love.
Making It So (When Dante Loved)
What is your religion?…I mean—not what you know about religion, but the belief that helps you most?
It is in the context of Purgatory, but specifically Dante’s Purgatory, that Sayers settled on the theme of love. Allegories aside, this remains a strange setting for a love story. On the other hand, it isn’t hell. “In Hell, community is lost, or perverted into antagonism,” she writes, whereas “all Purgatory is united in the bonds of mutual goodwill.” The shared interest of progress, of eventual purgation, makes a community of Purgatory. There is an end to the suffering that only feels like an eternity.
“Today is a historic period like any other.” What then are we to do with all of these loves? What with the traditions that, like it or not, maintain their relevance?
[W]e have come to believe that the basis of all love is sexual, and that therefore any and every love which does not issue in sexual satisfactions is warped in its nature and in its effects. And by our belief we make it so, for we bring to bear upon the unfortunate lover all the relentless one-sided pressure of our current critical assumptions. But when Dante loved it was otherwise.
Sayers saw a relationship between modes of believing and those of loving. Does it matter that she was an unquestioning believer in the religious sense? Believing makes thing so, says Sayers. But when, outside of discussions of faith, do we use the word belief so literally? As children we make believe, or pretend. When as adults we say we “believe so,” we are leaving ourselves room for uncertainty. “To believe is not to know,” wrote Simone Weil, also a believer, though one with very different sources of inspiration.
Still, both Sayers and Weil were great believers—and great lovers.
Declarations on Love
The great love-lyrics, the great love-tragedies, the romantic agony, the religion of beauty, the cult of the ewig Weibliches, the entire mystique of sex is, in historic fact, of masculine invention.
Anna Karenina is one such invention. But despite her agonizing romance, the tragic details of her lovelife, and—if you’ll allow me—despite the train wreck that she was, her belief in love was far too revolutionary to be lumped into a celebrated literary tradition:
‘I think,’ replied Anna, toying with the glove she had pulled off, ‘I think…if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.’
It must follow that every love is individual, a unique invention of the self.
It is not the same to pronounce, “Our love is unique.” It is instead to say, “My love is unique to me.” The first declares a special love that is shared; the second is the realization, spoken to oneself in a dark room, that even in love one is alone.
Unless They Love You
Perhaps love has nothing to do with agreeing. What if love and harmony, standing shoulder to shoulder in a secular trinity with peace, are nothing alike. What if all love is based on a misunderstanding between two (or more) individuals.
The word of all work Love will no more express the myriad modes of mutual attraction, than the word Thought can inform you what is passing through your neighbour’s mind.
George Eliot, another brilliant lover, speaks to more than the limits of language when she insists that we can neither read Thoughts, nor Loves. Both George and Anna draw their analogies on the relationship of head to heart; but not in order to explain away love with intellect. Instead, like Weil’s love for God—perfect, but also impossible and un-provable—loving is like believing. It is an act of faith.
Again, the likelihood of love owes its potential to belief. Writes the heroine of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair in her personal journal, addressed to God, and read privately by her ex-lover:
We can love with our minds, but can we love only with our minds? Love extends itself all the time, so that we can even love with our senseless nails: we love even with our clothes, so that a sleeve can feel a sleeve. 
We have loved with our hearts and with our minds, so why not also our shirtsleeves? To those who believe in love, the possibilities seem to be endless.
The dust cloud reduces everything to dust. First the poets, then love…
When we love we become active participants in the countless patterns, habits, rites, languages, traditions, and movements that inform lovemaking, now and then and always. There is no one love.
But there are recurring themes. The dust cloud, for one: heavy, dark and blinding, oppressive, asphyxiating, isolating and, ultimately, settling. Catastrophe comes to mind—unavoidable catastrophe. Like Pompeii, whose civilization was engulfed in sixty feet of volcanic ash (dust) when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the first Century. Even with the foreknowledge of the mountain’s volcanic potential—even having been hurt before by this Vesuvius, many stayed behind and tried to work things out. Their forms are surprisingly well preserved. The iconic image of the spooning Pompeii couple, preserved in ash, might stand in, for now, as our icon or image of sustained love.
When in labor with her first child, Karenina’s Kitty lets out a piteous moan, the sound of which sends Levin, her unbelieving husband, into a tailspin of confusion. He holds his head with both hands; he stops on the stairs, trying to find sense in the pain. Why does she hurt? Has our love caused this? Can I love the child who causes this pain? “Lord have mercy! Pardon and help us!” he appeals. And for the first time Levin understands what it means to believe. “It all flew off like dust.”