tinyletter: love’s work, 8/3/16

To the Eye Surgeon, John Burnside

my eyes have seen what my hand did
— Robert Lowell

No matter what we say, we still believe
the soul is here, a live daguerreotype
recoiling from the laser’s perfect stare:

the woods at daybreak, rain-light, mother love,
preserved intact, behind the tarnished shapes
you study and repair, with craft and guile;

though what you see is anaesthesia,
the opposite of space, antithesis
of childhood snow, or torchlight in the stars;

what you see is how the tissue looks
when things fall silent in the inner rooms
of blood and mind

and how else would you work, if not
with something like suspended animation,
the windows shuttered on an empty house,

a random map of old iritis scars
and shadows on a damaged retina
the ghost companions of your healing eye?

No one should have to peer into the quick
of one soul, then another, through a haze
of cataracts and retinal decay;

the soul, when it is visible at all,
should always be a glimmer in the green.
A hidden thing, part-animal, part-stain,

shifting away, to weather long ago
forgotten, in a house of sleet and smoke,
beyond this work, beyond this field of vision.


I don’t relax easily into eye contact, but I am interested in the meeting of souls, so often I make an exception. This week his eyes are blue, and I’m not sure if I want to rest my gaze on their surface or to sink below their depths; to see or to have; to meet or to master (it is easier to make an example of this urge to sink when the eyes in question are blue). Derrida writes of this when he tells us both that ‘Whenever our eyes touch it is day!’ and ‘Whenever our eyes touch, it is night!’ We want to look at, and to look through, and it seems to me that learning to balance these conflicting impulses might just be the work of love. Mostly, though, I think we’re just hoping to be looked at.

Love is a game of boundary-crossings, a liminal space where two might become one in law and in life (though in life, unlike in law, there’s no impetus to stop at two). Sex is dissolution of boundaries, a test of the extent to which the protective epidermis keeps the outside out and the inside in. Love, when prolonged, is similarly easily considered as a dissolution. I recall that often-quoted passage from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is.

“True” love is the state of entwinement: the end of autonomy. De Bernières, in his contrasting of volcanic fire and the rejuvenating forest of love, tries to pretend the idea that “real” love is redemptive, not destructive, alchemising its environment for the better – but I’ve never quite been convinced. While the ‘roots’ discussion keeps an emphasis on maintaining individual life, fully individual lives are no longer possible in de Bernières’ lovescape; rather we begin to speak in the plural ‘your’, though English fails to register the full force of this distinction. It’s the same uneasiness that haunts the end of the story of Baucis and Philemon. Granted the right to spend eternity together in reward for their piety, the protagonists must sacrifice their differences of consciousness and physicality to share the same mute tree forms. This is love’s reward; its radical reform.

Is it a loss? Perhaps. And perhaps not. ‘Love […] is light’, writes Simone Weil, and like light it illuminates and it blinds, it brightens and it binds. We’re playing with fire, here; it’s question of boundaries. Recently I have been making inventories of love in an effort not to be anyone’s sacrifice, nor my own impulsive martyr. I weight harm against gain, and prescribe myself the appropriate remedies: Emma Dowling on The Political Economy of Intimacy; Rose Hackman on Emotional Labour; Sylvia Plath on crises of work and love. It never fully works, though it helps. Like the invisible force of the gaze, sometimes something just passes through your line of least defense, and though it makes you bigger, it also leaves a fissure. With everyone I let in (or who break in), the house of my heart gets larger and increasingly full of ghosts. You can find yourself standing quietly at the side of a space, overwhelmed by traces. It takes some practice not to feel overwhelmed by your crypts.


And yet. Despite love’s self-abasements, which at time have left me feeling somewhere between Chris Kraus in I Love Dick and Marie de Gournay, who was so overwhelmed when she first met Michel de Montaigne that she stabbed herself in the arm with a hairpin to prove her devotion, I am not convinced the myth of individualism is as desirable as it’s sold. It is tempting to try and outrun oppression by outrunning all dependency, but I’m not sure this is possible, or indeed ultimately desirable (though of course full financial autonomy is so very necessary to allow us to make the decisions we need to for our wellbeing).  The disabled/sick body, for example, does not do well alone. Eula Biss’ On Immunity; Joanna Hedva’s ‘Sick Woman Theory’; Anne Boyer’s cancer writings: all these have meshed with my experience to convince me that love is crucial, is key, to survival. The absence of a body in the waiting room when you emerge from a frightening and intrusive medical examination, or of someone to help you on a difficult day; here the absence of love makes you smaller, not larger. But it’s wider than this. I think of the numerous studies centering on touch deprivation, proving that our bodies suffer alone, and of the reports cited in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, highlighting the increased cortisol and adrenaline levels that leave the lonely experiencing disturbed sleep, hypertension, and a decline in immune and cognitive function. Who’d live loveless? Who could?


Where does this thinking leave me? Right where I started when I began typing these thoughts: reading Gillian Rose’sLove’s Work, carrying out an inventory of my heart that a part of me wishes was an excavation (or an explosion, a razing to the ground to begin again). Under the electrical teeth of the ECG machine, watching the evidence of my body’s stubborn arrhythmic determination to endure, I think about what isn’t there – all those ghosts, dancing in an invisible ballroom somewhere no one will ever see or measure. The nurse reassures me as I panic during the blood test, and I think of this small act of love, which no medical record will display, and which she will probably not remember, and feel myself making another mental calculation, the balance of myself/others shifting anew. This is exhausting and beautiful and terrifying, as messy and draining and reviving as de Bernières’ roots, but always with the potential to scorch and overwhelm. Perhaps what he meant when he contrasted the tree and the volcano was simply that love always risks destruction, but a good love will leave you the chance to plant yourself somewhere new. My partner quotes me indirectly in a conversation, and I realise the extent of my influence beyond the boundaries of my self. I make a plan to map these boundaries one day, to show the implausible geographies of love in all their strange glory. A map is appropriate, I think: aware of love’s colonising threat, as well as its ability to bridge borders.


Now I read back over these notes, critically, a little embarrassed about the tone of this piece. The thing about love is that it never stops making us feel like gods, and never stops making us look like fools. I write of love and my Janus heads are revealed: my cold logic spinning in the face of earnest over-feeling. Perhaps I’ll never be free, never be resolved. Perhaps nothing could be worse.

I cannot live anywhere but on this tightrope of love, attempting to balance the needs of body and soul; of the twin demands to dominate and to submit; to see, and to be seen. ‘[I]t is night!’, ‘it is day!’, it is both at once. I want all of me owned, and none at all. I want to own, and yet I want you to remain you, other to stay other. Deleuze and Guattari on rhizomes is a great comfort, as is Eula Biss on childbirth/blood transfusions. I remind myself, we are made of other people. Romans 12:5: ‘and every one members one of another’.

What am I doing here? I don’t know. Perhaps, in the end, I’m just experimenting on you. I offer you these words in free, direct seduction; for a few minutes, I aim to master your mind. Then I step back and await your response, partners in the dance.  Like lovers, if all goes well we’ll murder and pillage what had been of each other’s minds, but done right we’ll make something new of each other in the process.

Or something.

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