Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Eros, Philos, Agape

Seven Years, by Peter Stamm

translated by Michael Hofmann

 It was the great scholar and saint, Augustine of Hippo, who first explored with remarkable psychological acuity the nuances of human love and the connection between human erotic passion and the love of God. In the Confessions, Augustine delineates with exquisite--at times excruciating--self-awareness his journey from cupidity to caritas, from love of the flesh to love of the spirit:

“I was in misery, and misery is the state of every soul overcome by love of mortal things and lacerated when they are lost. Then the soul becomes aware of the misery which is its actual condition even before it loses them.” 

In his short, exegetical work, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine argues that Scripture, as God's Word, must always be read and interpreted as tending toward the enhancement of divine love--the word alone is merely dross; its meaning uplifts the devout to knowledge of, and love for, the Divine.

Strange as it may seem, it was Augustine who came to mind as I read through the unusual and unsettling 2009 novel Sieben Jahre, translated with typical felicity by Michael Hofmann as Seven Years and published by Other Press. Believe me, there is nothing remotely Augustinian or even especially religious about this novel, yet I was compelled to think, as the story of Sonia, Alexander, and Ivona unwound, not of the physical compulsions of human love but of the mysterious psychological or, in this case, spiritual dimensions of attraction and obsession. The force fields of this particular triangle are oddly proportioned--unbalanced and disjointed: Alexander has married Sonia. He is a handsome, charming, and not especially ambitious architect, more deeply engaged by the practical side of design than the aesthetic; he offhandedly woos and eventually marries Sonia. Sonia, we are told (repeatedly) is beautiful, brilliant, dynamic, alluring, etc. Unlike Alex, Sonia is drawn to the aesthetics of architecture, in particular to the murky--authoritarian--utopianism of Le Corbusier. Indeed, the novel's epigram is from the great Swiss-French architect, an often-quoted modernist koan: "Light and shadow reveal form." If Alexander and Sonia are light and shadow--he all practicality, down-to-earthiness, muddle; she a ravishing mystery--then the nearly mute, devout, lower-class and decidedly unattractive Ivona is "revealed form." For what Stamm has achieved, brilliantly if incredibly, is to make a silent outcast, a mystical washerwoman, the real center of the novel, the source of its energy and cryptic meaning. How so?

Alexander has a brief tryst with Ivona, not out of attraction, but out of (self) loathing; he finds Ivona repulsive but compelling; he strips off her clothes and lies on top of her, fondles her, but does not "possess her." It's a disturbing scene: not rape, but not consensual, and it's not sexual but contractual, a tacit acknowledgment of a connection that persists over years and years, even though Alex has virtually no contact with Ivona, his life is shaped by her being, and hers by him. It is as if Ivona, the victim of a callous and unfeeling man's assault, is the seducer. For thereafter, all through his profitable marriage and business partnership with Sonia, Alexander cannot excise Ivona from his consciousness. He cannot be happy with Sonia (it appears) largely because the woman he desires is someone he doesn't love. It's a muddle, implausible, but entirely believable. The form of a life is made not by anything real, but by contrasting ideals.

We live in a building that we build ourselves. This "building" is not only our life--that's the least of it--this building is what we think about our life. The modernist ethos prescribed functionality, a prescription that grew out of the embrace of positivism and technology that swept through European intellectual life in the late 19th century. The great monuments of modernist writing accept as given the fact that we have built a world and that we are compelled to constantly reconstruct and remodel our view of our place in that world. The tension between a lived and an examined life is the source of what is loosely called "irony."* The magisterial work of modernist irony is Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a novel that excavates the tension between the world we actually live in and the world we think we live in... Joyce, Woolf, James, Eliot, all wrote from the same ironic perspective, trying or not trying to bring into harmony light and shadow, life and thought, the building and the space it defines.

Augustine, as a believer in an omniscient deity, had no such paradoxes to resolve, and if he thought of irony at all he thought of it in the Greek sense of εἰρωνεία, the rhetorical trope for "dissimulation" or "delusion." Augustinian love is "ironic" when the the lover mistakes his erotic fascination for the real thing, as when Chaucer's Troilus, released at last from the surly bonds of earth, looks down on the world and, at long last, gets it.

SPOILER ALERT: So here is the joke, the irony in the Augustinian sense: only Ivona--fat, covered with moles, naive, unfashionable, etc. is fruitful. Only Ivona is fully alive. Only Ivona has bridged the unbridgeable gap between life-as-lived and life-as-reflection. And how does she manage this miracle? Here's where Augustine popped to mind: she is a medieval woman; she is the annunciate, the true Child of God. Sonia cannot conceive; she can design and create soulless buildings, but she cannot love her husband, or the child (Sophia!) whom he creates with unloved Ivona. It is with these unexpected developments that Stamm is most original. His love triangle offers no clarity, no resolution; there is no "happily ever after," no "blended family." Sonia runs off. Alexander broods. Ivona, out of love, gives up her baby. Stamm's wonderful insight is that "making sense" of our lives isn't a solitary pursuit, and in any case, isn't really worth the time and suffering we put into it. "Making sense" of things is a modern madness--things in themselves have sense, are meaningful, and our role is to accept that fact, or, rather, to make the leap to belief. This belief isn't--I say again--religious--but psychological. But, in the end, what's the difference?

*Among the Ancients, Socrates, as he comes to us via Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was an "ironic" figure ("The Apology"). The next great ironist was Shakespeare (compare "The Tempest" to "On Cannibals" for the difference between irony and not-irony). This said, I am probably wrong, and if I had paid closer attention to my teachers I would have avoided this sort of shameless generalization. 

George Ovitt (6/7/16)

No comments:

Post a Comment