28 April 2007

'I Love You'

From 'Parenthesis,' the 1/2 chapter in A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters by Julian Barnes:

'I love you.' For a start, we'd better put these words on a high shelf; in a square box behind glass which we have to break with our elbow; in the bank. We shouldn't leave them lying around the house like a tube of Vitamin C. If the words come too easily to hand, we'll use them without thought; we won't be able to resist. Oh, we say we won't, but we will. We'll get drunk, or lonely, or - likeliest of all - plain damn hopeful, and there are the words gone, used up, grubbied. We think we might be in love and we're trying out the words to see if they're appropriate? How can we know what we think till we hear what we say? Come off it; that won't wash. These are grand words; we must make sure we deserve them. Listen to them again: 'I love you'. The subject is a short word, implying the self-effacement of the lover. The verb is longer but unambiguous, a demonstrative moment as the tongue flicks anxiously away from the palate to release the vowel. The object, like the subject, has no consonants, and is attained by pushing the lips forward as if for a kiss. 'I love you'. How serious, how weighted, how freighted it sounds.

I imagine a phonic conspiracy between the world's languages. They make a conference decision that the phrase must always sound like something to be earned, to be striven for, to be worthy of. Ich liebe dich: a late-night, cigarette-voiced whisper, with that happy rhyme of subject and object. Je t'aime: a different procedure, with the subject and object being got out of the way first, so that the long vowel of adoration can be savoured to the full. (The grammar is also one of reassurance: with the object positioned second, the beloved isn't suddenly going to turn out to be someone different.) Ya tebya lyublyu: the object once more in consoling second position, but this time - despite the hinting rhyme of subject and object - an implication of difficulty, obstacles to be overcome. Ti amo: it sounds perhaps a bit too much like like an aperitif, but is full of structural conviction with subject and verb, the doer and the deed, enclosed in the same word.


Let's start at the beginning. Love makes you happy? No. Love makes the person you love happy? No. Love makes everything all right? Indeed no. I used to believe all this, of course. Who hasn't (who doesn't still, somewhere below decks in the psyche)? It's in all our books, our films; it's the sunset of a thousand stories. What would love be for if it didn't solve everything? Surely we can deduce from the very strength of our aspiration that love, once achieved, eases the daily ache, works some effortless analgesia?

A couple love each other, but they aren't happy. What do we conclude? That one of them doesn't really love the other; that they love one another a certain amount but not enough? I dispute that really; I dispute that enough. I've loved twice in my life (which seems quite a lot to me), once happily, once unhappily. It was the unhappy love that taught me most about love's nature - though not at the time, not until years later. Dates and details - fill them in as you like. But I was in love, and I loved, for a long time, many years. At first I was brazenly happy, bullish with solipsistic joy; yet most of the time I was puzzlingly, naggingly unhappy. Didn't I love her enough? I knew I did - and put off half my future for her. Didn't she love me enough? I knew she did and gave up half her past for me. We lived side by side for many years, fretting at what was wrong with the equation we had invented. Mutual love did not add up to happiness. Stubbornly, we insisted that it did.

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