We’re saddened to hear of the death of the great Bob Ellis this evening.
He kindly wrote this piece for Ampersand‘s sixth issue, One Little Room, in May 2013.
HOW LOVE HAS CHANGED
by Bob Ellis
Issue 6, One Little Room, Winter 2013
In Shakespeare in Italy, a play by myself and Denny Lawrence that won high praise from small houses in Adelaide last August, there is a doleful dinner party in April 1585, and this exchange:
Florio: These are dangerous times.
Julia: And what will we remember of them, years from now?
Shakespeare: All that we will remember is of love.
Philip: How say you?
Julia: A sonnet! A sonnet!
Florio: A love song extempore. Tried in the fires of death.
Shakespeare: (rising) No. I mean only to protest, in time of dreadful alteration to the fortunes of us all, in a time of plague and murdered friends and mad princes, princes crazed by the power they seize too rudely, that love comes, and it goes. One’s autumn love is by the shooting spring replaced by one’s imminent … summer love, which goes. And goes, and goes. And so it goes. I have a wife I can barely conjure in mind, a drowned girl methought I … would have gone to the gallows for, and a girl in a prison cell with a dirty face who is fading from me now. And yet love persists, the capacity to rise up, even on the gibbet, one’s cock like a pointer dog, in quest of the unknown, the ever unknown but imminent, always imminent, beloved.
Florio: You say we are all traitors … to our hearts, then.
Shakespeare: To yesterday. We are inconstant, like the moon.
The scene bespeaks not so much the 1580s as the 1970s, when this kind of love was abundantly given, without much fear, because of the Pill, and it was possible to be abed with four or five partners unjealously, while ‘anchored’ to one, as my wife and I were, and sharing an address. It was partly an illusion, the girls believing they would be always 22 and beautiful and wanted; partly an economic circumstance, when jobs were always available and rents cheap; and partly international travel, when one partner could take a holiday from the other, a frequent interim of absence or lay-off, a ‘short sabbatical from love’ we called it. But there was truth to it too. It was that best definition of love, fullness of response, so well described, a surrender to the moment immense and overwhelming that bore nonetheless no lifetime commitment, but like the ‘shipboard romance’ of Edwardian times (or that best of love-comedies An Affair to Remember), shared a ‘fortnight stand’ between undeluded, undeceived participants who were, for the moment, and in long memory thereafter, lovers. I meet old girlfriends from those times now with a shared, and communicated, and forgiving fondness unlike any other greeting of an old acquaintance. No ‘nostalgia-swive’ occurs though I would be up for one; yet, in some way, all is well. We are glad to have been there, done that. It used to be good, and it is good to remember it that way, 35 years after.
It is different for young couples now. They use, again, French letters, those squashy authors of frigidity in my mother’s generation, or, if on the Pill, demand the men take tests for transmissible Chlamydia. ‘Medical risk’ is what semen-passing now implies, and oral sex both ways is preferred, or enforced, especially among the early teens, and love … well, love got lost in the wash, somehow.
It is not good to put rubberware between one and one’s beloved. Rubberware mistrust, foreboded infection or parsimony; parsimony of the sort that afflicts young couples in flats too small with nowhere else to go for want of money and the subsequent fights over money that make a rancorous boredom of what ought to be joy.
And you tell young folk that these days, and they won’t believe you.
“What is love?” an older Will Shakespeare asked, and said in answer, “’Tis not hereafter”, and of course it isn’t. Penelope Lively in According to Mark compared it to a heavy cold or flu that passes. The very word ‘honeymoon’, composed as it is of a heavy fluid and a calendar month, suggests it is a rare virus that strikes but once in a lifetime for a very few weeks and does not return, and only through a different host body may reassert itself.
The word itself is inadequate. Love of a newborn, suckling child; love of a dying pet; love of one’s clumsy teenage deflowerer; love of the United States; love of the Labor Party; love of Leonard Cohen – these are slightly different kinds of love, none with an erection involved, or an orgasm. The love of a bride for a husband she has never met in a marriage arranged by their two families is, or becomes, true love too sometimes, but it takes a while to, in Obama’s words, “fire up”. It can take ten years. But, being interwoven with newborn children, and growing children, and children likewise ‘arranged’ into other marriages, it can be stronger than all other kinds of love.
There is the kind of love that is like a violent assault, the lovers (in Malcolm Muggeridge’s words) “stripped like wrestlers, panting in expectation of the moment of combat.” It is more common in South American cultures, the tango prefiguring it. But it exists here, too, in country towns and working class suburbs, ‘wooing’ of the medieval sort – rough, ready, difficult to make work, easy to stuff up, or be mistaken for what it also is, ‘harassment’.
And there is the kind of love that, as in When Harry Met Sally, creeps up on you; the one that has longer life than the young Shakespeare’s ‘list of love’. Love of this sort came upon my mother after my father died, for a man, Wal Buckley, long a neighbour, after his wife died. Friends for 30 years, they became, in his last decade, lovers, or something like it. He came by every day, cleaning and mowing and shopping, and staying over many nights, sharing a bed. A survivor of Changi, he had known worse duties, worse relationships. I resented him for a while, on Dad’s behalf, but there he was, a good, kind, loyal man.
Similar movements of the heart occur in retirement villages, in book clubs, bowling clubs, church choirs. It would be true, too, among hostages. Intimacy grows with long adjacency, shared privation, eventual understanding. An act of kindness in an hour of sickness or danger ignites it.The six years of Ingrid Betancourt sawsuchlove.
Love is a rush of commitment, of becoming ‘we’ for a while, not ‘I’ and ‘you’. How long that ‘we’ lasts is variable. It is often, I think, the nine or seven years that was the length, on average, of a medieval marriage, one partner being likely to die within a decade of wedding, of childbirth, of plague, of war, of a fatal clash with a brigand, or a kicking horse, or whatever.
It is wrong to imagine it must last forever, like a mother’s love for her offspring. It might. It might not. Circumstance might overwhelm it. Poverty might shrivel it; the avoidable death of a child; a wife-beating; a wife’s adulterous pregnancy. These things matter. No love is guaranteed.
It is, however, irreducibly, ‘fullness of response’. And, as Shakespeare, the real Shakespeare, immortally adds:
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter,
Present mirth hath present laughter,
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
And so come kiss me,
youth’s a stuff will not endure.
Illustration: Simon Greiner