Friday, 8 February 2013

Wuthering Heights: In defence of amour fou

So, I took the plunge and went to a book group. 

Wow. Socialising. With real live people-persons who had real people personalities. That's not happened in a while. The book we were talking about was Wuthering Heights. I enjoyed the discussion; lots of interesting stuff raised, tangents and ideas about, not only the book in question, but about the nature of people-persons, and the way that said people-persons interact with books. It was good. Naturally, I did my usual seminar dear-God-no-wonder-you-had-no-friends-at-University routine, but that's a story for another day.

It also raised something that's been brewing in my head for quite a long time – something about the way our current society thinks about love. It may surprise none of you to learn that I agree with Angela Carter.

“Well,” my obliging hypothetical audience supply, “what do you agree with Angela Carter about, aside from 'practically-everything-with-the-notable-exception-of-clitoral-orgasm'?”

For a start, I agree with her about Wuthering Heights. And about love. There is a significant overlap between the two1

Obviously, the whole 'love' thing came up at the book group – notably the conception that Wuthering Heights is some kind of a romance novel2. We were asked, more as an opener to discussion than anything else, whether we thought Wuthering Heights was a love story. There was derisory laughter, slightly incredulous glances, and there was me, too much of a fucking coward to offer disagreement.

Which is this: 

We have a real problem with love in this country (or this society, or the English speaking bits of the world. Whatever.) We have a problem with it. So often, in the discussion, words came up to describe what Cathy and Heathcliff felt: obsession, infatuation. We are not, as a society, willing to believe that what those two experience is love. Ask people what love is, and there is a fair chance they will start quoting Corinthians 13:4 at you3.

Patient? Kind? Right... Are we even talking about the same thing, here?

No. We're not. That's one of the problems we face, just to have this discussion: there are a dearth of words in the English language to describe love. Of course, some kinds of love are patient, and kind, and they are valid, important types of love. They, however, are not what I am talking about. The Greeks have it slightly better, they have agápe, éros, philía, and storgē, but even they do not quite answer my purposes. These are different types of love used, exclusively or in combination, in different kinds of relationships. Most often, the distinction is used to separate basic human compassion from emotional love from lust. But I am not talking about physical love as opposed to emotional love, and whatever list of those one needs to build a happy relationship. I'm not, if I'm honest, talking about relationships. A relationship is an ongoing negotiation between two or more people; a relationship answers to sense, to reason, to common, human kindness.

No. I'm not talking about relationships.

There is, though, a distinction in the English language, a distinction that tells us more about ourselves than many of us would care to admit. We talk about loving and we talk about being in love.
Being in love, is, according to so many sources I occasionally want to vomit, a passing infatuation,4 a temporary madness, a brief obsession5 which occurs at the beginning of the relationship. Intensely physical, utterly consuming, it is wild and – most importantly – morally questionable. It is frequently described in terms of its immaturity, its lack of sustainability. This problematic state soon passes, and we are left either with nothing much to show for it, or the slow, steady, healthy attachment which we term love. That charming, kind, patient Corinthians 13:4 ad nauseam state which is the basis of all lasting adult relationships.

Cathy and Heathcliff, we are lead to believe, by the estimable Nelly 'whoops-I-appear-to-have-misplaced-your-children' Dean, have no idea what this 13:4 love means. She is probably right. They are selfish, passionate, aggressive. They are (oh, dear Gods, don't make me say this, alright, I'm going to say it) mutually abusive. Unlike dear, sweet, sickening Edgar, there is no way, no possible way, that they can love.

What, then, is left, except those critical little words – obsession, infatuation. They are in love as are terminology would have it. Except... Well, except they have been in love, violently, passionately, unsustainably in love, since they were children. They are in love without ever consummating their passion. They are in love until they have managed to drive each other into the grave, and they proceed to be aggressively, transgressively in love even after death.

But even that can be written off by our entrenched, Puritan morality. Their feelings for each other, after all, can be belittled; they are children, spiteful, moral babies who refuse to grow up and accept their place in the adult world. They don't want their feelings to be the staid, manageable sweetness of an adult's world, they don't want to be patient and kind and good tempered to anyone, least of all to each other.

Ahem. Can we leave the morally loaded terms at the door, please?

Cathy's own words dispute this reading. We think very little about what Cathy or Heathcliff actually say, glossed as they are by Nelly Dean. Nelly, who understands everything the lovers say in the worst possible light, or as the deepest falsehood, even if their words are borne out by their actions. But if we actually give Cathy the benefit of the doubt, she re-frames the whole debate, making her feelings for Heathcliff not childish but primal, her affection for Linton not settled and adult, but superficial, transient. “My love for Linton,” she says, “is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He is always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

It is Linton's 'foliage' which flatters her, which amuses her. It is Linton's 'foliage' which gives pleasure to the eye and the child in her. It is Linton's 'foliage' which she outgrows with that sheer rush of joy when Heathcliff returns to her, “Catherine flew upstairs, breathless and wild; too excited to show gladness: indeed by her face, you would have surmised an awful calamity.” 

But it is joy, just one rendered unfamiliar by the sheer “intensity of her delight.” And we, the reader, are forced to watch Edgar responding with surprising small-mindedness for one rejoicing in such adult, kind, selfless love, “'Well, well', cried her husband, crossly, 'don't strangle me for that! He never struck me as such a marvellous treasure. There is no need to be frantic!'” And, later, “try to be glad, without being absurd!”

Absurd: Again, that belittling of the feeling, that assumption that this is something childish, to be outgrown. But it is Heathcliff who shows restraint in the face of jealousy, Heathcliff who claims he never will, and indeed, as an adult never does, strike Edgar. Edgar has no such compunction, and is quite as6 unpleasant about his wife's lover as Heathcliff is about him.

None of this, though, is to belittle the monstrosity of Heathcliff's, or indeed Cathy's actions. Both do terrible, hateful, hurtful things. But it is a concentrated, adult fury, not the tantrum of a child in a pet. That latter can be applied more fittingly to Edgar losing his temper at Heathcliff's needling, or Nelly's refusing to take Cathy's illness seriously simply because Nelly takes Edgar's side in the argument.7

So why then, is there this anger, both from characters in the novel and real people outside of it? Why do we scorn the emotion laid before us in all its raw, visceral glory? 

Perhaps we ought to dwell for a moment on the word, “awful,” on the word “terrible” and, as Carter does, on the word, “passion.” Yes, the first two can be something bad, but they can also be something so big, so powerful that they inspire awe and wonder. They can be something that make us feel, acutely feel, our own insignificance. And, of course, a passion can be something sexual8, but it is also the word used to describe the suffering undergone by a Saint in their religious fervour. Cathy and Heathcliff are passionate, in the fullest, hardest, most terrible sense of the word. The hell they put the other people in their life through is nothing, I repeat, nothing to the hell they visit upon each other. And seeing two people so utterly, painfully, violently committed to each other that they are the same person, taking joy in the other's joy, agony in the other's sorrow, is terrible. Seeing two people destroying each other with a force as unrelenting, as unforgiving, as self-hatred is awful, and by those words I mean not necessarily bad but terrifying.

There are two things we can do when faced with something that scary; we can fall down in awe, or we can, as J.K Rowling noted so perfectly, make it ridiculous. Laughter, even sneering laughter, petty laughter, can banish conscious fear at the very least. We make love, that kind of love, look small so that we can feel big. We don't like the thought that someone could get inside our heads like that, drive us wild with grief and rejection, that we, sane, sensible grown-ups all, could wrench ourselves to pieces, could feel so strongly that we can control neither our bodies nor our minds, so we make it a childish thing, a little thing, something that we know passes. 

Except, of course, that it doesn't always pass.

So we berate it. Perhaps with some righteousness; Heathcliff's revenge is terrible, again, in both senses of the word. But Heathcliff and Cathy's love is knotted and twisted up by degradation, by shame and propriety and all the forces of a world desperate to keep them apart. Tear all that away and what do we have? A love that would have settled down, become as sane and rational as that we are told Edgar Linton feels? 

No, for Cathy knows, even then, love's pain. It is not “a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself,” but it is there, a bedrock, stark and secure. It is not kind, or gentle of itself; it is the landscape, the air, the world. It is, as both Cathy and Heathcliff admit, as simple and as inevitable as existence.

So, no, it is no more patient than one is patient about breathing after holding one's breath for hours at a time. It is no more fair, no more merciful, no more hopeful than the world. And, of course, like the world, it is not of necessity tragic, messed up, angry or self-destructive, of course it is not. Upon it, pleasure, kindness and patience can be built, as one can build anything with oneself, one's life. It can all turn out okay.

But tell me, where's the narrative interest in that?

1Go read her essay, 'Love in a Cold Climate'. I'm not going to summarise the argument here, but the fact is, with a few notable exceptions, I'm pretty sold on that interpretation. And, er, feel free to disagree with me.
2Which it is. Just not that kind of romance novel.
3Please – do not start quoting Corinthians 13:4 at me. I couldn't bear it.
4That word again.
5Yes, and that one.
6, although more subtly,
7 On an unrelated note, Cathy's illness looks remarkably like bi-polar disorder to my eyes, but I'm always wary of assigning real mental illnesses to fictional characters.
8Or, indeed, a temper tantrum.

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