A love letter

Published : Jun 19, 2024 17:07 IST - 6 MINS READ

A still from Past Lives (2023).

A still from Past Lives (2023). | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Dear Reader,

The origin of love has been a subject of fascination for centuries, and everything from science to literature offers theories, stories, and explanations as to why humans love. Here’s my favourite story: In Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical text written in the form of a dialogue, various speakers offer their perspectives on the nature and origin of love. One of the most memorable and influential accounts is that of the playwright Aristophanes, who offers a mythical explanation for love.

According to Aristophanes, humans were originally very different from how they appear today. They were circular beings with two faces, four arms, and four legs. These early humans came in three distinct varieties: male-male, female-female, and male-female. Due to their unique physiology, they were incredibly powerful and posed a potential threat to the gods.

Feeling threatened by the strength and audacity of these creatures, Zeus, the ruler of the gods, devised a plan to diminish their power. He decided to split each human in half, creating two separate beings from each entity. Apollo, another god, then reshaped their bodies, turning their heads in the direction of their newly formed bellies, which serves as a reminder of their original state.

As a result of this divine intervention, humans were left with an intense yearning for their missing halves. Aristophanes suggests that the desire for love and the pursuit of a romantic partner is, in fact, a quest to reunite with one’s original other half. This longing for completeness and the desire to merge with another is seen as the driving force behind love and relationships.

The myth also accounts for the existence of different sexual orientations. Those who were originally part of a male-male pair are drawn to men, those from a female-female pair are attracted to women, and those who were part of a male-female pair are attracted to the opposite sex.

Aristophanes’ account of love’s origin reaffirms the idea that love is a search for wholeness and unity. It suggests that humans are inherently incomplete and finding one’s “other half” is the key to achieving a sense of completeness and fulfilment. This notion of love as a quest for a missing part of oneself has had a lasting impact on Western literature and philosophy.

While Aristophanes’ myth is not meant to be taken literally, it serves as a powerful metaphor for the human experience of love and the deep-seated desire for connection and belonging. It highlights the transformative power of love and its ability to reshape individuals as they strive or struggle to find their place in the world and to forge meaningful relationships with others.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. If you’ve ever been in love, dear reader, you’ll know that love is a package deal: it comes with excruciating agony, illogical pain, and misery in all hues. Love and tragedy have been intertwined throughout history, both in literature and in real life. One reason why love loves the tragic is that tragedy adds depth and intensity to the experience of love. When love is tested by adversity, it has the opportunity to prove its strength and resilience. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers’ relationship is made all the more poignant by the fact that it is doomed from the start. The obstacles they face, including family rivalries and societal expectations, only serve to intensify their feelings for one another. As Juliet declares: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea / My love as deep; the more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite”. The tragedy of their story, with its inevitable conclusion, elevates their love to a level of immortality.

Another reason why love prefers tragedy is because it allows for a deeper exploration of the human experience. Love, in its purest form, requires vulnerability and the willingness to open oneself up to potential pain. Tragic love stories remind us of the fragility of life and the importance of cherishing the moments we have with those we love. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the tumultuous relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff is a testament to the destructive power of love when it is left unchecked. Their passion consumes them, leading to a life of misery and regret. As Catherine laments: “I am Heathcliff - he’s always, always in my mind - not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself - but as my own being.” The tragedy of their story serves as a cautionary tale, reminding us of the importance of balance and the need to temper our passions with reason.

Love also loves the tragic because it allows for a cathartic release of emotions. Tragic love stories evoke a range of intense feelings, from joy and ecstasy to despair and grief. By experiencing these emotions vicariously through the characters, readers and audiences are able to confront their own deepest fears and desires. In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, the love story between Hazel and Augustus is made more poignant by their terminal illness, their love a light in the face of death, and their story a reminder of the importance of living life to the fullest. As Augustus says: “That’s the thing about pain... it demands to be felt.”

And, like pain, love needs to be felt too. Like a storm-hit geography, the cartography of lost, broken, abandoned, discarded, dejected love can be read only by the broken, hurt, rejected, and lost. That’s why Kartik Chauhan perhaps likens love to cholera, a deadly disease. “It makes us feel nauseated and ill,” Kartik writes in this short, beautiful piece—“On love and other demons”—in the latest edition of Frontline, where he traces the complexities and depths of love through Celine Song’s film Past Lives, Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, and more. Write in with your thoughts on the piece.

PostScript: Today, June 19, is observed in India as National Reading Day to honour the life and work of P.N. Panicker, widely regarded as the Father of India’s Library Movement. Are you a member of a library? Do you visit one often? What’s the latest book you read? Was it about love?

Looking forward to hearing your comments. Here’s wishing you a lovely day.

For Frontline

Jinoy Jose P.

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