“But I could swear by your expression / That the pain down in your soul was the same / As the one down in mine / That’s the pain / That cuts a straight line down through the heart / We call it love…”
–”The Origin of Love,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
The gods, Aristophanes tells us in Plato’s “Symposium,” gave humans love as a punishment; it is a pale imitation of oneness with self. “[W]hen one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself … these are the people who pass their whole lives together,” he says (translated by Jowett). “[H]uman nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.”
Most of the time, though, love is not as easy to define as Aristophanes might have us believe. Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück and poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran both show us that the endings of love stories may be as tragic as their beginnings are wonderful. Moreover, our mutual admiration, affection and respect for each other can take as many forms as we have relationships. Perhaps this uniqueness is the beauty of it — that to every person one loves, one can say, “There has never been a love like ours.”
Every love, though, must have a source — some reason why we choose not only to begin loving someone, but to continue. Glück writes, “The beloved [i]s identified with the self in a narcissistic projection.” When we look at each other, we see ourselves. We want to understand ourselves in the world around us, to verify that we do live, that we are real, that we are perceived — and, in some small way, recognized as ourselves. We ask whether the beloved thinks us intelligent, kind, funny, beautiful, ignorant, selfish, cruel, worth living or not worth living. Since we think the best of the beloved and trust their judgment — when they believe us good and worthy, we must become so. In this manner, love is a question, a trap swinging shut: a completion. But can we complete ourselves?
Gibran may have an answer. The titular character of his magnum opus “The Prophet” tells humanity that “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” So, life is that which can be the lover and the self, which can be self-renewing and endlessly productive. This question we ask one another, this question that drives us when we seek out our “whole,” is: Are we deserving of the effort that life has put into us? It spent an unimaginable energy cost plucking minds from the verdant universe and setting them like jewels into our bodies. It forged us against the flat electric surface of the material world. Then it tapped our chests and told us to breathe; we opened our mirrored eyes and life saw itself.
Glück writes of “the lovers lying there in each other’s arms, / Their shattered hearts mended again, as in life of course / they never will be…” Wholeness is impossible on this earth. Humans forget things in birth, and we spend years trying to remind ourselves of them, to pay our original debt. The one who is both the lover and the self can create — can heal — is a god. Art is a bound wound, and with its aid we may make life a scar.