“BUT love, that word … Horacio the moralist, fearful of passions born without some deep-water reason, disconcerted and surly in the city where love is called by all the names of all the streets, all the buildings, all the flats, all the rooms, all the beds, all the dreams, all the things forgotten or remembered. My love, I do not love you for you or for me or for the two of us together, I do not love you because my blood tells me to love you, I love you because you are not mine, because you are from the other side, from there where you invite me to jump and I cannot make the jump, because in the deepest moment of possession you are not in me, I cannot reach you, I cannot get beyond your body, your laugh, there are times when it torments me that you love me (how you like to use the verb to love, with what vulgarity you toss it around among plates and sheets and buses),I’m tormented by your love because I cannot use it as a bridge because a bridge can’t be supported by just one side.”
These — wonderful — lines were written by Julio Cortázar, the man who believed in love. He will blow me away forever through the pages of this novel, Hopscotch. Through this book he built "his bridge" between Paris and Buenos Aires. It tells the story of Sibyl and Horacio, two fantastical beings, who roam a city shrouded in desire. Through this delicate tulle, capricious and incomplete, through this lack which enlivens, which spurs, which stimulates. Desiderium (waiting for a gift from the stars), such is the etymology of desire. It is this labyrinth that the Sibyl and Horacio traverse. And us with them.
The Paris of Hopscotch was a celebration. Paris was the spirit, the creativity. A shield against death. The novel, which the Argentinian author wrote in France, was published in 1963. It is part of the famous “Latin American boom”. I was born a little later, and when, as a teenager, I looked for definitions of love, I dismissed the romanticism of Alfonsina (Storni); Alejandra's desire for revenge (a character in Heroes and Tombs by Sábato; that of Alejandra Pizarnik, both lethal and sublime; until all that remains is Cortázar and his banquet, in a style better than Plato's. His delicious and irreverent feast opened my imagination to love, as the surrealists proclaimed: Crazy love. I had found love, at least in spirit, in my "strange girlish heart", in a society that boasted of being postmodern, yet in which the corpses of the victims of the bloody dictatorship continued to be washed up from its rivers and seas.
Strange because silent, shy, without too much pride, and because I was so thin that at school I was nicknamed Twiggy after the English model. It was a different style that appealed to Argentinian boys, a style that would never be mine. That didn’t stop me from falling in love with one of them. He would disappoint me years later - not everyone reaches adulthood with a whole soul - but at that time, he was my hero because he had been drafted into the army to fight the Falklands War. Romantic, I went from church to church in Buenos Aires, praying that nothing irremediable would happen to him. The boy received my letters, love letters from a budding writer, a kind of Jo March, the heroine of May Alcott, in love with love. And although he did not make it to the battlefield, the letters gave meaning to his existence, and the whistling of bullets became musical to him.
A few years went by, and I found myself married in Paris. I built the Cortázar Bridge in my own way. And little by little, I fell in love with France. A love that cost me many tears and a first divorce. For four years, all I wanted was to walk these uneven streets, this familiar landscape which gradually faded and allowed me to open my eyes to a new horizon. I longed for the landscape of my childhood, this poor Ithaca of the great Alexandrian poet Kavafis, he who had guided my first steps, my first readings. The unconditional love of my family, my first love for the boy who sat next to me. We were five years old, he called me: the pretty girl. I was doing my homework after getting home, agitated, upset by some stray dog, or by some beggar that I wanted to force my parents to give shelter to… The shadow that crept into this tableau came from their divorce. Much silence and pain. Then came the military dictatorship. Everything began to be prohibited. I loved my books, and that I was prevented from reading The Little Prince seemed foolish to me. To hear my parents repeat to me a thousand times as soon as I left the house, "Don't talk to anyone", "Keep silent". It made my stomach ache.
A sinister dread took hold of my childhood. The whispers of adults, the disappearance of family friends, my mother's first cousin hiding in the basement of the house. Repression invaded our daily lives. It was about then that I started to want to be a detective. I signed up for a correspondence course. The level was disastrous, but as I was still very young, I believed myself capable of unmasking the monster which oppressed us whether it be at home, in the village or the whole country.
Back to Paris. Seeing the light is painful, very painful. I had to relearn how to see and fill my eyes with beauty without falling into the abyss of perfection. Of what has neither secrets nor history. I had to learn to befriend these places, these little benches in a square, these cafes where you can find your favorite table and waiter, these buildings in which your heart once pounded (a first date), or in which lives somebody who has marked your life through everything he has given.
I passed the Pont des Arts, the legendary bridge of Sibyl and Horace, and I scolded Cortázar. I wondered how they had managed it? Why was I having a less fun time of it, despite the fact that, and I don't know how, love always triumphs? Passion, did you say passion? Apollo and Dionysus go together much better than we think. Paris possesses the power to allow the pieces of the puzzle to come together.
During my long walks through Paris, when I'm not running, I have become a real dawdler. I sit in the back of the Louvre’s square courtyard. Through a window, one can see the Venus de Milo, or Aphrodite. A sculpture from ancient Greece. In the center of the cement patio with impeccable geometry stands this monument dedicated to the goddess of love. One afternoon, as an exquisite corpse might do, I asked myself a question aloud: Why Paris? And looking up, I saw Venus-Aphrodite through the window. Something in me fills with grace, this invisible and powerful feeling that floods us with tenderness, making us look at the surroundings with deepest kindness.
In Sorrentino's great film, La Grande Belleza, a body-art artist, who could be a double of Marina Abramovic, plays a scene in which, dressed only in tulle (underneath, she is naked), she slaps her own face, saying: I don't love you. I don’t love you. She is bleeding, and this snow-white tulle turns into a shroud. Dionysus's pain, his fury, faced with this realization, "I don't love you anymore". The walls are falling. The audience applauds, moved by the show.
A cut scene, not part of the film, but which nevertheless constitutes a work of art, shows the meeting between Fanny Ardant and the main character, Toni Servillo, who plays Jep Gambardella. Ardant walks along a magnificent street in Rome, it is dark, a few street lamps illuminate her beautiful silhouette. The two meet and Gambardella stops and says:
'Madame Ardant, forgive me.'
'I forgive you.'
'May I say something a little daring?'
'They're the best.'
'When I saw you, in The Woman Next Door… I fell in love with you.'
'May I now tell you something daring too?' (replies Fanny Ardant, visibly moved)
'I really would have liked to be The Woman Next Door.
'To die of love.'
The scene ends with a knowing smile between these two great actors. To die of love. A theme so dear to romanticism. Do we still die of love in a century condemned to lose all its rituals? Love seems to work on demand. Meetic, Face, Tinder, and so many others are today’s options to meet your Romeo or Juliet. Sometimes it works, it's true. But what happens in the soul — for the soul remains, despite all this technological convenience — what happens to the disillusionment of such blind dates to which one must arrive ready-to-please, conquer, seduce, compete with hundreds of other images. Isn't it too demanding? Neuroscience tells us that the seat of love is in the brain and that when we fall in love, twelve zones are activated to release chemical molecules. Can such a stage-managed rendezvous, where we display ourselves in our most favorable light, where nothing is left to chance, stimulate this alchemy? Can we imagine fate meeting in the halls of technology? May our heart’s grand desire be wandering there, like Eros in search of Psyche? I can only ask the question and sound as suspicious as Psyche herself, full of questions.
In The Age of Innocence, a novel published in 1920, Edith Wharton depicts characters who are subjected to the strictures of social mores specific to the New York aristocracy in the late nineteenth century.
Archer is a young man engaged to the daughter of a wealthy family. Seemingly submissive (in reality, a peerless manipulator), the latter was raised to control her feelings. Consequently, she skillfully manipulates the feelings of Archer and those of her cousin, Countess Olenska. Olenska is free, having fled Europe and her abusive husband. Olenska and Archer fall in love with each other. The “innocent” Ellen, who is in no way gullible, weaves the perfect web so that the lives of the two lovers turn into an endless quarrel. Olenska must capitulate to the austere society in which she had found refuge, to the point of returning to Europe, to Paris, where she lives locked in a beautiful apartment. Years later, Archer, now widowed, decides to visit her. But once more, despite his grey hair and trembling hands, he is unable to go against social conventions. He had decided to go find her, but he stands there instead, staring out the window, his eyes lowered. Love does not cower, my dear Archer...
And it is there, in the pretty square of rue Furstemberg, behind the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, that Archer succumbs. What about future generations? What would they say? One can imagine Olenska, as beautiful as ever, looking out the window, dignified and resigned in the face of the cowardice of the man she loves. Wharton chose the ending which corresponds to an era, attached to conventions. However, like love, it has been around since the first man and first woman felt drawn to each other, beyond the mere survival of the species. History has left us with Héloïse and Abélard who, at the height of the Middle Ages, challenged the Church, society and their families. Have you read their letters? It takes place in France in the twelfthe century. Heloise, a beautiful young woman, speaks three languages (Hebrew, Latin and Greek). Orphan, she is placed in her uncle’s care. Abélard arrives to finish the education of the beautiful young lady. Love emerges little by little through the texts, readings, and the exchange of glances. Desire grips them in defiance of any punishment. A teacher must remain single. Romantic liaisons are prohibited. Word of their secret spreads across Paris, and the rest, you can guess the rest. Henchmen, sent by Heloise's uncle, castrate Abélard. The two lovers decide to enter religious orders until the end of their lives and exchange letters right to the very end.
Back in the twentieth century, with Lacan and his postulates: "You are not you, but what my desire imagines you as." Che vuoi? What do you want from me? What does the other want? The subject encounters — always in a contingent manner — the desire of the other. Beyond what the Other asks. Beyond the silence, "what do you want? ", "what do you want from me?".
Faced with this deep mystery, a poem by Borges comes back to me. The poet I always invoke when set upon by doubts. This is how he saw it in 1972, in The Gold of the Tigers.
The threatened one
It is love. I will have to hide or flee.
Its prison walls grow larger, as in a fearful dream. The alluring mask has changed, but as usual it is the only one. What use now are my talismans, my touchstones: the practice of literature, vague learning, an apprenticeship to the language used by the flinty Northland to sing of its seas and its swords, the serenity of friendship, the galleries of the Library, ordinary things, habits, the young love of my mother, the soldierly shadow cast by my dead ancestors, the timeless night, the flavour of sleep and dream?
Being with you or without you is how I measure my time.
Now the water jug shatters above the spring, now the man rises to the sound of birds, now those who look through the windows are indistinguishable, but the darkness has not brought peace.
It is love, I know it; the anxiety and relief at hearing your voice, the hope and the memory, the horror at living in succession.
It is love with its own mythology, its minor and pointless magic.
There is a street corner I do not dare to pass.
Now the armies surround me, the rabble.
(This room is unreal. She has not seen it.)
A woman’s name has me in thrall.
A woman’s being afflicts my whole body.
And yes, love "that word", as Horacio says in Hopscotch, still remains our Holy Grail, our redemption, our damnation, our possibility of conjugating a verb to infinity. To be able to say, my life starts with you, I don't care about the past. It is one of the great moments in life.
Perhaps to reconnect with love - whatever its form - is to reconnect with our other half, separated from us at the dawn of time by some capricious god.
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Vivian Lofiego is a Franco-Argentinian writer and translator. She lives in Buenos Aires. Latest publications: Le Sang des papillons. Ed. JCLattès (novel). La Vie secrète. Os de seiche (poetry). Denis Salas' Albert Camus : la juste révolte. Ed. Jusbaires (translation).