Friday, 7 August 2009

Márai on passion

Can't quite resist this, another piece of Márai, this time on passion. We are going out to celebrate a friend's fortieth birthday. It is the poet Helen Ivory, whom I taught at undergraduate level and who is now on her third book. She is a very fine poet and more people should know that. But for now she is entering the cave of the forty thieves so we must be there to help her pass through.

Here the husband in The Intended is off on a deep dark riff about romantic love, the power that has destroyed him. We catch it half way through. Over to Márai:

One day...

One day you discover a desire in yourself to encounter this all-consuming passion. It is when you no longer want to keep anything for yourself, when you don’t want love to offer you a healthier, calmer, more fulfilled kind of life, but you just want to be, you know, to exist in a total sense, even at the cost of perishing in the process. This desire comes late in life: some never feel it, never encounter it... They are too cautious, but I don’t envy them that. Then there are the gluttons, the curious, who have to sample everything and can’t pass any opportunity by… They are genuinely to be pitied. There are also the obsessed, the desperate, love’s pickpockets, who, quick as lightning, dip their hands into your heart to steal a feeling, discover some secret physical susceptibility there, then immediately vanish into the darkness, melt into the crowd, sniggering with malicious delight. Nor must we forget the cowards, the calculating, who, even in love, work out everything strategically as if love were a matter of economics and production deadliness, people who live according to a precise agenda. Most folk are like this: they are true wretches. And then there comes a day when someone really understands what life desires of love, why life has given us sensibility. Does life mean well?... Nature is not benign. Do you think it means to make you happy with this feeling? Nature has no need of human pipedreams. All nature wants is to beget and destroy: that is its business. It is ruthless because its plan is indifferent to the human predicament, beyond the human. Nature has gifted us with passion but it insists that the passion be unconditional.

In all proper life there comes a moment when a man is so deep in passion it is as if he had cast himself into the waters of Niagara. Without a lifebelt, naturally. I don’t believe i love that begins like a picnic, a holiday excursion complete with rucksack and singing and sunbeams breaking through the boughs… You know, that flood of ‘spring-is-here’ feeling most people experience at the start of a relationship… I am deeply suspicious of it! Passion does not celebrate holidays! It’s a dark force that builds and destroys worlds and waits on no answer from those it has touched, nor does it ask them whether they feel good as a result. Frankly, it doesn’t care either way. It gives everything and demands everything: it is that unconditional passion of which the deepest stratum is nothing less than life and death. There is no other way of experiencing passion… and how few make it that far! People comfort and cosset each other in bed, tell some whopping lies and pretend to feel all kinds of things, selfishly robbing the other of what they fancy, possibly throwing some superfluous tidbit of joy the other’s way in return… But they have no idea that this is not passion. It is no accident that history has regarded great lovers with the same awe and veneration as heroes, as brave pioneers who have risked all by voluntarily embarking on a hopeless but extraordinary human enterprise. Yes, true lovers run every kind of risk, literally, in every possible sense, and the joint enterprise in which the woman is as much the guiding force as the man, just as heroic, just as full of valor as a knight setting out to seek the Holy Grail, that being the point of the crusade, of the battles, of the wounds received, of the final vanquishing… what else should they want?

What other purpose has that ultimate, unconditional sacrifice towards which fatal passion drives those it has touched? Life articulates itself through this power than immediately turns away from those it has sacrificed, completely indifferent to them. All ages and all religions honor lovers for this reason. Lovers bind themselves to the stake when they are in each other’s arms. The true lovers, I mean. The courageous, the few, the chosen. The rest simply hope to find a woman the way they might a beast of burden, or to spend a few hours in sweetly pale and comforting arms, either to flatter their male or female vanit, or to satisfy the legal demands of a biological urge… But that’s not love. Behind each lover’s embrace stands the figure of death whose shadows are no less powerful than those wild flashes of joy. Behind every kiss looms the secret desire for annihilation, for an ultimate happiness that is no longer in the mood for argument but knows that to be happy is to cease entirely and surrender to feeling. Love is feeling without an end in view. Maybe that is why lovers have always been honored by old religions, in ancient epic poems, and in song… Deep in unconscious memory people recall how love was great once, when it was not just a form of social commerce or a way of whiling away time, a game or amusement to be compared with bridge or a society ball…. They recall that there was once a frightening task all living beings had to accomplish, that task being to love, love being the full articulation of life, the most complete experience of existence and of its natural consequence, non-existence. But people don’t learn this till very late. And how unimportant are the virtues or moral standing or beauty or fine qualities of the partner in this enterprise! To love is to know joy as completely as it can be known and then to perish. But all those people, those hundreds of millions of people, carry on hoping for help, waiting for their lovers to perform some act of charity on their behalf, a show of tenderness, patience, forgiveness, comfort… And they have no idea that what they receive in this way is unimportant: it is they themselves who must give, only they, give unconditionally – that is the meaning of the game… That’s how we set out on love, Judit Áldozó and I, when we started life in the house just outside town.

(1st draft)

Give us an A, give us an N, give us another N, give us an I (...etc) What do we want? Annihilation!. Now off to the party.

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