The L-Word

What we talk about when we don't talk about love

I have searched databases and repositories of famous speeches, but I can't find what I'm sure I saw in November, late one night during the endless commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination: the president of the United States, talking about love.

Imagine that. The leader of the free world taking time out from policy and political rhetoric to say what so many musicians and poets do: That love guides us, and that the key to progress and human longevity is in looking out for each other, trying to understand each other. Part of what makes it so unfathomable nowadays is the one-dimensionality of Valentine's Day, which gets any veteran soul wary at the first mention of love. But I'm with artist Helene Aylon, who said, "Because there is a fear of sentimentality, love is not very often addressed--and it is really the one motivation in all of our lives."

Which sounds needy, greedy, and true. At the moment, I don't want to literally fall in love with anyone other than my wife, because whenever some crush or another comes or goes, it makes me feel alive, as well as reminds me that the root of the word "emotion" is "disturbance." But in a seize-the-night, hitting-on-all-cylinders sense, I always want to feel like I'm in love. That is, I want to tap into that big energy, that fabled virus that bypasses the mind and goes straight to the heart, resulting in the "perfect oneness" that so many spiritualists, if not newscasts or greeting cards, speak of.

James O'Brien

That kind of love doesn't get much play in the real world. For example, the headline to Frank Rich's column in the New York Times last Sunday was "What's Love Got to Do with It?," and I was excited to maybe sit down and read about how so much culture is cranked out without any consideration of love. I guess I hoped Rich would riff on why Rodin's most famous sculpture is The Kiss, not The Thinker; what savants from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. said of love; why a Google search produces twice as many matches for "sex" (258,000,000) as "love" (117,000,000); how even crap like Blind Date can afford the rare chance of seeing first kisses and people actually falling in love.

What I got instead was a column about the joke of marriage and how it's portrayed in pop culture. Which was fine, but I was left wanting, because out of some 2,000 words, to quote Kirsty MacColl, "he never mentioned love." I wonder why, and I've wondered why constantly over the past year. We live in a world that feeds on war. We spend our days immersed in cultural diversions that jump the shark before anyone can muster a shred of real interest. We are a straight-to-video civilization.

The sum sensation is of swimming in an ocean of blankness, which is why I've come to the conclusion that love isn't an abstraction (or a "cliché," as the title of songwriter Dan Israel's last record had it), but the only thing of substance we've got left--the only life raft there is. Because in the face of all this death and deathlike cynicism, love is the one impulse in our repertoire that says the world is unfinished. Thomas Merton: "Love is an intensification of life."

His words could just as easily have come from the pen of my friend Craig Wright. He's a seminary grad, songwriter, playwright, and staff writer at HBO's Six Feet Under. Last season, he wrote a scene that makes Nipplegate look like something out of PBS Kids: Nate, the restless, married, pot-smoking funeral home director, falls into bed with the daughter of an executed serial killer. With his wife gone missing for several days and his newborn baby sleeping in a crib next to the bed, Nate gives in to the woman's insistence that he enter her from behind. As he pumps into her ass, the woman screams, "Fuck me! Fuck me!" until Nate covers her face with a pillow and tells her to shut up--she's going to wake the baby.

The scene was hailed by critics, and the episode was nominated for an Emmy. From the very same mind and heart came Melissa Arctic, Craig's play about a man struggling to deal with the death of his wife, which opened in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago. When the protagonist, Leonard, complains that he can't love his wife anymore because she's "gone," his friend Cindy says, "Love doesn't know she's gone. Love just loves. And it wants to keep loving." In a review, the Washington Post singled out the line as evidence of the play's thoughtlessness.

"Moral?" Craig e-mailed me last week. "Depiction of outrageous misery is congratulated, depiction of outrageous goodness is criticized. As if butterflies and peaceful days didn't exist, or were the norm. Unfortunately, 'Fuck me! Fuck me!' is the norm. I want more butterflies. The poet Kenneth Patchen, a fellow sentimentalist, said it best: 'Caring is the only daring. Oh, you know it.'"

There he goes, quoting another source in defense of his heart with the "Kick Me" sign on it, which is what I've been tempted to do throughout this piece (J. Krishnamurti: "The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that for you the world is transformed"), as a way of circling the wagons against despair. Most of the time, though, when talking-head nation gets too monotonous, and the black and white newspaper world offers too few of the grays that make life interesting, I retreat to my headphones. As Jeff Tweedy said in the only quote I remember from the avalanche of music-bizzy press that accompanied the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, "I believe music is love, and vice versa."

That's why I'm taking my wife and kids to hear Mason Jennings at the State Theater on Valentine's Eve. He's celebrating the release of his new CD, Use Your Voice, the title of which can be read as a call from a wise young soul-leader to his fans to do what all the old world-leaders obviously can't: change this fucked-up world--not only by speaking their minds, but by spreading the kind of love that happens regularly at his gigs between friends, lovers, and strangers.

Now all I need is a card, or a candidate, to put it all in words for me.

Jim Walsh can be reached at jwalsh@citypages.com or 612.372.3775.

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