Love and Loss: A Conversation with Ilan Stavans

Love and Loss: A Conversation with Ilan Stavans

El amor y la pérdida

Ilan Stavans

VERÓNICA ALBIN: How should one define the word love?

ILAN STAVANS: As a most amorphous human emotion, capable of incorporating extremes: attraction and repulsion, exultation and misery, Eros and Thanatos.

V. A.: In Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (2005), you devote a brief chapter to the word in different languages: Russian, German, French, Italian, Spanish… Which do you prefer?

I. S.: Phonetically, amor, in Spanish, is the most beautiful. A derivation from the Latin amor. In Greek, eros. The Romance languages play upon the same sounds: amour, amore, amor, l’amor, and, the inspired Romanian variation, iubire. In Medieval German it is lieb, from the Latin libens, connected, as you might suspect, to libido. In any case, I learned about love, physically and emotionally, in Mexico. It is thus fitting that the language of Cervantes would hit closer to my heart.

V. A.: Not Yiddish?

I. S.: For me liebe is a term of endearment toward the community. My upbringing in Mexico in the sixties was defined by a Bundist philosophy, brought by Jews from Eastern Europe, where it fermented at the end of the 19th century. For Bundists the link between people depended on cultural empathy. The others, los otros, was often stressed as the depositories of selfless love.

V. A.: Obviously, your suggestion—and what the chapter in Dictionary Days is about—is that love is understood differently around the globe, depending on the coordinates of time and space.

I. S.: Who can prove that what Cleopatra felt for Antony is the same that Heloise felt for Abelard? For that matter, is it possible to be sure there is any kind of symmetry between what lovers feel for each other? Did Romeo love Juliet the same way Juliet loved Romeo? These are obnoxious questions but they prove our open-endedness toward the concept of love. What is it, really? Might it be studied scientifically? Does it always need to be left to poets to “calibrate” it? Is there a way to measure it?

V. A.: Are poets those who come closest to describing it, then?

I. S.: Sure, and to define it as well. Since love is irritatingly ethereal, you might do better by going to Ovid, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Christina Rossetti, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Apollinaire, Yeats, Neruda… than to theOED, Larousse, and the Diccionario de autoridades, for instance.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak; yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

The loved one’s powers in Shakespeare’s poem are earthly, imperfect, human—yet incandescent. No lexicon is able to come remotely close to what love is—its subterfuges, its importunities, its delights—as poems do. Metaphor is love’s niche. Lexicons are too chaste, too prudish. They are bastions against eroticism. Show me a definition able to replicate the incantatory metaphors in Robert Herrick’s famous eulogy “Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast”:

Have ye beheld (with much delight)
A red rose peeping through a white?
Or else a cherry (double grac’d)
Within a lily? Centre pac’ed?
Or ever mark’d the pretty beam,
A strawberry shows, half drown’d in cream?
Or seen rich rubies blushing through
A pure smooth pearl, and orient too?
So like to this, nay all the rest,
Is each neat nipple of her breast.

Love doesn’t only change from language to language. It undergoes changes across time too. Our elastic understanding of it today isn’t the same from the one espoused by Plato in the 4th century BCE. Nor is it like courtly love in the Renaissance. Stendhal’s approach to it is different from Proust’s and Freud’s.

V. A.: I Googled the word love. I came up with 500,000,000 hits.

I. S.: In the language of the Internet, the amount is a synonym of infinity. It’s like saying: “I have a million chores to accomplish.” A million is a figure of speech, just like The Thousand and One Nights doesn’t include 1,001 tales. In Arabic, the number means all numbers together.

V. A.: As the polyglot that you are, to which concept of love do you subscribe? Would you describe your views of it as shaped by Hispanic civilization?

I. S.: My wife would probably say yes, but I’m not sure myself. When I was an adolescent, I used to love a la mexicana. I’ve become an American, though. Am I less effusive, more constrained? Maybe so. An immigrant’s journey isn’t qualified in geographical terms: the miles you’ve traveled. Instead, it is about inner transformations. How have you changed since you left the place of origin? In my own case, since 1985, when I moved to the United States, I began a slow yet dramatic process of acculturation. Are there traces of the Ilan Stavans who left Mexico? If so, are those traces still reachable? Do I love nowadays a la gringa?

V. A.: Did Mexican Jews have a style of love of their own?

I. S.: Mimesis is a feature of Jewish life. No sooner do Jews figure out the patterns of a new environment, they quickly incorporate those patterns into their natural behavior. In order to prove themselves authentic, they parade those patterns in ways only an outsider might do. Eventually they become so confident in them they actually start suggesting new patterns for the environment to adopt. Yiddish-speaking immigrants from the Pale of Settlement to Mexico loved the only way they knew how: the European way. Their descendants negotiated a change between the old ways and the new. In the past couple of decades, their grandchildren—the third generation—are opening unforeseen vistas.

V. A.: In On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language(2001), you recall your sexual initiation. But the scene isn’t about love, I think. Do you remember the moment you discovered its “extremes,” as you’ve called them: attraction and repulsion, exultation and misery, Eros and Thanatos?

I. S.: For me love and literature have always been interconnected. Years ago, while still in Mexico, I read Denis de Rougemont, in L’Amour et l’Occident in French. It was about how Petrarch, even more than Plato, defined the way Western civilization approaches love. De Rougemont’s style is self-important, grandiose. In any case, I remember reading it just after I had finished Mario Vargas Llosa’s comic novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which is about a semi-incestuous relationship between Marito, the author’s alter ego, and his aunt. At one point Marito says something about Petrarch, something to the effect that he “invented” our views on love.

V. A.: It’s the exact same word you use in Dictionary Days.

I. S.: I was puzzled. Love isn’t an “invention,” like penicillin and electricity. I needed some context. So I read Petrarch’s Canzoniere and, soon after, de Rougemont’s rumination. It was a rather impressionable period in my life. I was eager to understand— to describe rationally—what I was experiencing. You see, around that time I had fallen madly for an older Parisian woman—let me call her “Brigitte”—who had come to Mexico to study. I had been in love before with una niña bien. An inconsequential relationship, in retrospect. It isn’t that I was not in control of myself; the image presupposes the possibility of chaos, i.e., the overriding of all rational thinking. I was under the sign of passion—passion running amok, on the verge of insanity—. Nothing of that was possible with la niña bien. Ours was a conventional liaison, a friendship, really. It was the opposite with Brigitte. Fuego—no other images come quicker to mind—: fire… Every time I was with her, I was shaken by a sense of oceanic emotion, a feeling of being beyond myself, as if I had become part of the cosmos. Do I remember what her mind was like, how she processed thought? Brigitte was intelligent, but that of hers didn’t interest me. It was her body I was hypnotized by: the lines of her profile, the shape of her hair, her minute breasts, the tactile sensation every time I let my hands touch her waist. I couldn’t get enough of her. I sought words to survey my inner landscape. I even challenged myself to write poetry. But I’m no poet… Language for me is an instrument for surveying ideas, not for singing to what Shakespeare, in a superbly baroque twist, referred to as “love’s labour’s lost.”

V. A.: How long did the relationship with Brigitte last?

I. S.: In chronological time, maybe a year. An eternity in existential time. But every night was its own circle of creation. I was ecstatic while those nights lasted. The moment they finished, I was fearful. Anna Akhmatova’s poem about separation, translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz, is perfect:

I wring my hands under my dark veil…
‘Why are you pale, what makes you reckless?”
—Because I have made my loved one drunk
With an astringent sadness.

While I lived through the encounters, I recall thinking to myself: I must remember all this in detail. One day I’ll write about it and my only source will be memory.

V. A.: Have you?

I. S.: Not yet.

V. A.: Will you?

I. S.: Maybe you’ve just got me started…

V. A.: Did the readings that occupied you then—Shakespeare, de Rougemont, Petrarch, Vargas Llosa—change your encounters with Brigitte?

I. S.: No, they only intensified them… Literature isn’t therapy. It is not meant to cure. It’s only useful as a form of empathy, making you realize that however unique you might believe to be the door you’re about to cross, others have gone through it before—and left inspired testimony of it.

V. A.: What happened in the end?

I. S.: My descent into madness left a lasting impression. It took me a long time to recover. For years I would see Brigitte in dreams, the Brigitte of the past: svelte, sardonic, tempestuous… I wished I could have kept those images; they had become some sort of sustenance. But not long ago, on a trip to Biarritz, France, I saw her again. She looked different: heavier, more mature, and I did too, of course. The encounter somewhat spoiled the memory. It’s difficult to invoke the Brigitte of the past without superimposing the silhouette I came across in Biarritz. For some reason, she had acquired a copy of de Rougemont’s book in English translation and had saved it for me. I was grateful, of course, but disillusioned. Brigitte was a French part of my Spanish past. I now still saw her, as before, with my metabolism, but my metabolism had now switched to English. I felt an instinctive rejection of the English translation of the book. Furthermore, as I browsed through it I picked up on a number of liberties the translator had taken, beginning with the title: Passion andSociety. I always thought I had been in love with Brigitte. But perhaps I was simply consumed by passion. What is the connection between love and passion? Might one exist without the other?

There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Lous at 10:08 pm

    Can you publish more articles about this subject? I’d care to find out more details.