Saturday, February 14, 2015

Love stories that are evergreen

There is a story about love few have missed. It's the film adaptation of Eric Segal's tear-jerking novel. Called Love Story. A story about two star-crossed lovers. A story that ends where it begins. A story that doesn't leave much to ask, and at the same time doesn't satisfy our collective demand that it end on a happy note.

Love Story was released in 1970 and became a smash hit. It earned more than 100 million dollars in the US alone, a big figure for that time. It also earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and won for its haunting, evocative music. But that's not important right now.

What's important is the story. Not just for today, but everyday. It's about two star-crossed lovers, I've mentioned. Both at Harvard. The boy's an heir. Born with a silver spoon. Oliver Barrett. The Fourth. He's rich, got millions to himself, but for some reason is never happy. Except when he's with the girl.

The girl's from a working class background. Jennifer Cavalleri. Sharp-tongued, honest, but all the kinder for these things. She also means well. When Oliver rebels against his father, and disowns him, she is upset. She doesn't want father and son to separate. Doesn't want them to part ways. On her account. Her love for him, unlike his lover for her, is conditional. Which is why the two bicker. Almost always.

I saw this when I was quite young. Too young, I admit, to appreciate the deeper subtext of the story. I took it for what it literally was: a love story. I understood the "story". The "love" part to it eluded me, though. It took some time. As time passed, the film (and the book) afforded much to think about. And reflect on.

Love is a four-letter word. It eludes definition and easy capture. When it's framed, defined, and hence pushed into what you make of it, it tries to escape, to be free. No, you can never limit it. The meaning's wider than you think. It's much more than what you think it means. So much so that everyone, from the man on the street to Bertrand Russell, has pronounced his or her own views on it. Not surprisingly, none of them has come up with a true, timeless definition of the word.

I read a story once. It was by Tagore. There had been a theft in a kingdom. The usual suspect had been a foreign merchant. He had been sentenced and imprisoned. The daughter of the king, the princess, had seen him, and had asked the guards to set him free. They elope on the second night, and together wade across the river. A day passes, and every time the curious stranger asks her how he was set free, the answer remains the same: "Hush, not now darling." She is in love with her. Terribly.

At the end of the day, though, she explains. A lovesick boy had been imprisoned. Pining for the princess' attention, he had taken the stranger's place. Willingly. "My greatest sin has been committed for the love of you, my best beloved," she whispers to him. She had used an unrequited love in the hope of gaining the attention of an un-requiting love.

But she doesn't gain it. The man grows angry. "That my life should be bought for the price of a sin!" he shouts. He leaves her, refusing her advances and even trying to kill her at one point. Eventually, after much parting and coming together, the man calls after her, thinking that she's dead. But no, she isn't. She comes out of the woods and tells him: "I have come, my beloved. Your dear hands failed to kill me. It is my doom to live."

He replies: "Go, go. Leave me." She does that, disappearing in the woods by the riverbank, leaving the man in the boat, listless, left wondering what to do.

There's love here too. Unlike Love Story, there's meaning. Deep meaning. I have often wondered just how far a lover would go to win attention. It's fool's love of course, or amour fou. The princess, I noticed, had used one lover to win another's love. The lovesick boy who had taken the prisoner's place, who hoped to win the princess: how far would he have gone? I wonder.

In his marvelous book The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell claims that of all forms of caution, caution in love is the most fatal. I'm not so sure. Love is fatal, true, but not when you barricade yourself against it. Writing half a century after Russell completed his book, Albert Camus argued in an influential essay ("Reflections on the Guillotine") that a spurned lover absolves himself of crime the moment he commits it to avenge his unrequited love. Yes, love is fatal. But only when you let yourself be overwhelmed by it. And when you are, there's no rationality involved in whatever you commit in the name of love.

There's a quote from Love Story that even those who haven't seen it will remember. It comes up in two sequences: one when the girl comes back to the boy after she leaves him, the other at the end, when the girl dies and the boy is reconciled to his father. I couldn't fathom its meaning back then, when I first saw the film. I still can't, but that's another story.

The quote is this: "Love means never having to say you're sorry". Again, I beg to differ. Love is about acknowledgment, reconciliation, and moving on. There must be a "sorry" ingrained somewhere there. If that's the case, would saying sorry amount to saying "sorry, no love?" I don't know.

Everyone has his or her meaning of that four-letter word, I've noticed. Those who are spurned respect it more than those who take it for granted. Does this mean that those who are single appreciate it, since they would have loved at some point, and have had that love unrequited? I wish I knew.

There are requited lovers and there are unrequited lovers. Face it. That's the world we have. Today. Then there are those who take it easy, who accept rejection calmly, as though it were a vicissitude of life. There are also those who don't, those who commit anything and everything in the name of whoever rejects them. Like that boy in Tagore's story, who is put in prison in place of someone the girl he loves wants, who in turn spurns her.

Yes, love is twisted. Deformed. But, in a world where we need it more than anything else, we can't do without it. It's evergreen. Survives time. Cannot be captured or framed. It's free. So take it. Or leave it. That's the law.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 14 2015