Love and Death

Love and Death

Sometimes it seems like love and death are the only subjects really worth writing about. This binary quickly becomes unary when you think about it, though. I was walking to class yesterday evening when I approached a girl I know from an intro survey literature course. She was walking down the green path, just scanning the skies with a deep smile. She stopped and said:

You know what I was just thinking?

How could anyone think of suicide on a day like today!

I just stall midstream when I try to think about death. The master narratives of glorious death just don’t do it for me, though the transformation of death into sleep through elegy is interesting, largely because these poems become love poems to life. Most of the time, I feel like Woody Allen’s idiot questioner in Love and Death:

What happens when we die? Are there girls?

I prefer this line of questioning more than the militant struggle of survival, epitomized by the answer to the old joke “Why did the chicken cross the road,” in the Hemmingway style: “To die. In the rain.” I like Yeats’s take on the topic in a poem called “Politics.”

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and wars alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

We understand so little about love, and why it drives us so. I was teaching a short bit on sexist language today, and while I hate the PC tongue-twisting, the avoidance of generic objectifying is relatively easy. When you speak of everyone, you cannot say man alone. But all the same, if we speak in character, we do objectify those that are different from us. Objectifying, dividing things that are different from us into the “not us” is a fundamental building block of language. I speak of love only with the terms that I know. Being heterosexual I can only speak of women as different from me, and a binary that love seeks to unify.

But what triggered all this, more than anything else, was a song from the Pontiac Brothers called “Almost Human.”

Well she’s almost human when she steps up to you,
And gives you a kiss, from the lips that never miss,
Well she’s almost, she’s almost human.

I suspect that love is the only thing that allows us to tolerate one another. I was struck by the description of the discovery of the Pontiac Brothers by the guy who constructed the site I linked:

I came across The Pontiacs in an appropriately unassuming fashion. I dug up Doll Hut out of the incoming bin of a local used record store. I remembered seeing a Frontier Records ad for it calling it “Stones”-like, so I figured it would at least be a style of music I liked. I got Tom Waits’ Closing Time the same day. I had just had a death in the family, just split with a girl.

Love and death and the Pontiac Brothers and Tom Waits. Go figure. But then, I started to think about how many rock lyrics get a bad rap for being sexist, among them Neil Young’s A Man Needs a Maid. I just can’t read it that way, no matter how I try. It seems to me that its one of those inner voice things, and his musings about needing “just someone to keep my house clean / fix my meals and go away” is part of that same frustration in the Pontiac Brothers’ song. A frustration that we just don’t know why we need lovers so much, and yet we do. I think Liz Phair’s “Canary” really expresses the other side of being loved as an object through so many layers of sexual metaphor that it makes my head spin. I still haven’t been able to remove that damn CD from my player…

I learn my name
I write with a number two pencil
I work up to my potential
I earn my meat
I come when called
I jump when you circle the cherry
I sing like a good canary
I come when called
I come, that’s all

Send it up on fire
Death before dawn
Send it up on fire
Death before dawn

I clean the house
I put all your books in an order
I make up a colorful border
I clean my mouth
‘Cause froth comes out

Send it up on fire
Death before dawn
Send it up on fire
Death before dawn

Love and death, that’s the stuff… Or maybe just love. I’ve been collecting definitions of rhetoric, and I found another one I like from Jim W. Corder:

Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures in communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear commodious language.

To be told we objectify something is the deepest insult to love. Sexist language does violence, on both sides. But if a room is truly commodious, isn’t there room to say what we really feel?