intransitive

Is love transitive, or intransitive?

Language is a skin; I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tips of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly, focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.

(To speak amorously is to expend without an end in sight, without a crisis; it is to practice a relation without orgasm.)

Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments


A recent program on HBO, def poetry, proclaims that it isn’t the sort of poetry you read in school. They’re right. The self-conscious prattle of folks like Jewel wouldn’t have any place at my school. Neither would the sing-song rap style delivery: that sort of basic metrics was nearly over by the mid-eighteenth century. Stilted diction is precisely what Wordsworth and Coleridge were so on about in Lyrical Ballads. Poetry is about much more than merely sounding “poetic.” However, I suppose what Russell Simmons really meant to say was that “it’s all about reality and passion.” I guess my classroom experience of poetry was different: for most of my teachers, that’s what it was all about too.

A moment with one of my teachers, Russell Murphy, has stuck with me for a long time now. I believe we were discussing Shelley when Murphy launched into an exposition about the power of love:

“Love is stronger than hate because it requires no object.”

Is love an intransitive verb?

I’ve been thinking about that every since. Even on the surface, it seems like a troublesome idea. What about the overwhelming power of teen-angst? Or the pointless anger of the alienated individual in society? I suppose that these things inevitably find some object to manifest their hatred; while it may sometimes develop in a vacuum, hate cannot survive without some way to vent its spleen. Can love?

In the most basic constructions, love takes an object. I love you. I love chocolate. I love language. In this sense, it is transitive. But reviewing English Grammar: Principles and Facts by Jeffrey Kaplan, a hard-line Chomskian text, it offers the suggestion that verbs which behave as both transitive and intransitive may indeed really be intransitive, because their objects are usually linked through causal relation. Therefore, the use of verbs like love with an object are merely a special case, with an active supportive grammar, rather than a unique linguistic variety of verb, separate from the catagories of transitive or intransitive. Of course, the same argument could then be applied to making hate an intransitive verb as well.

I suspect the difference is one of sustain. Love is often sustained through language; the rhetoric of hate usually exhausts itself, exhausts itself with the disappearance of its object. And yet love sustains itself, subject to no force but the inevitable desire which commands that it be actualized. It moves on and on, inexorably reaching for the “other.” Even after the being or object that provoked it is gone, love finds new life in language.

Barthes seems to feel that love is transitive, unlike Murphy. Nevertheless, at the same time he seems to grant special privilege to the language of love, when it wakes up and accepts that discourse does not require a direct object.

To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not— this is the beginning of writing.

Barthes, ibid.