It’s as though each of us were born with a tender spot somewhere that we are completely unaware of until someone or something pokes around in it; suddenly, with a blinding pain we can barely remember afterwards, we are expelled from our innocence, from childhood, and then it can take us years to comprehend that a spot exists, to learn where it is and what it means, to find a way to protect oneself. Eventually, we learn that the spot is the locus of our greatest sensitivity, that some of our highest endeavors have come about in response to it; that the scar tissue that grows over the spot can be as beautiful as a spider web, or the texture of a leaf. But before that happens, it can seem as though the spot were gaping out from the middle of our forehead: a hideous defect, an all-encompassing shortcoming that invalidates the rest of our existence, that we do all we can to conceal from others. Sometimes we toughen up in response, sometimes this occurs at the cost of a larger receptivity, but sometimes the wound won’t heal and goes on oozing for a long time, emitting a strange odor that others instinctively pull back from.
Researching a quote from Nietzsche’s posthumous writings, only some of which have been translated into English, I call my friend Rainer, expert in all things Nietzsche. He points me to a “non-book” that I actually have at home, The Will to Power, edited by Walter Kaufmann. I retrieve it from a shelf high up in one of my bookcases and wipe off the dust. In it I find several passages marked in red by the person I was thirty years ago:
“On the genesis of art.— That making perfect, seeing as perfect, which characterizes the cerebral system bursting with sexual energy (evening with the beloved, the smallest chance occurrences transfigured, life a succession of sublime things, ‘the misfortune of the unfortunate lover worth more than anything else’): on the other hand, everything perfect and beautiful works as an unconscious reminder of that enamored condition and its way of seeing—every perfection, all the beauty of things, revives through contiguity this aphrodisiac bliss. (Physiologically: the creative instinct of the artist and the distribution of semen in his blood—)
The demand for art and beauty is an indirect demand for the ecstasies of sexuality communicated to the brain. The world become perfect, through ‘love’—”
Sammeln Sie Herzen? the cashier at the local supermarket wants to know: Do you collect hearts? I smile and shake my head to indicate the negative. She is slightly unnerved; to her it’s a straightforward question, but to me it causes me to stop and pause—do I?—after which it feels like a lexical assault. Treueherzen, Loyalty Hearts: an appropriation of love, and loyalty, for the purposes of keeping anxious, coupon-clipping housewives busy.
The earliest memories of the self, and how the mind retains them: a fleeting moment, a vivid, invisible color in the mind, nothing more than the stark perception of oneself in the world, the immensity of time, the distant certainty of death. The child who looks around in wonder and thinks to itself that the grandmother and grandfather were also, at one time, children: but does the child really believe this? It is a kind of theoretical knowledge that it accepts; after all, the child is reasonable enough to understand that, for instance, things fall from up to down, and hence the concept of gravity is plausible, useful for explaining numerous phenomena. But when the child compares its own perceived superiority to the limited worlds of the adults it sees around it, the constraint of their understanding concerning the simplest, most self-evident things, does it really believe it will ever be anything but a child? It is like looking at an old photograph and focusing one’s attention on some fleeting detail—the crisp shadow of a branch on a wall, a reflection in a water glass—and thinking this really happened this way, this was exactly so in this moment, but there is no way to understand this or to comprehend a past consisting of infinite such moments that happened in such a way and no other. Better to remain in the present, in the certain understanding of what one is: a child, forever or almost, while everything else remains pure speculation.
Destiny: a word that transmits little waves in all directions, some of them rapid and shrill, and some of them deeper, pulsing at the very edge of perception. A range of associations from bright and tinsel-like, like costume jewelry, to solemn and ancient. I once fell in love with a man who was mildly oblivious to my existence, who smiled to himself, as though he found me amusing. I was alone at the time, and in my solitude I became carried away by a fantasy that eventually escalated in my imagination. It would be easy to dismiss this love as infatuation, but what is it, really, to believe that one was meant to be together with another? What is it that makes the soul burn with longing, that induces one to inhale, to absorb another person into one’s perception to the point that one sounds like that person, resembles that person? I recall him smiling differently at times, too, coming up from behind me on a bicycle, for instance, pedaling amiably, having clearly enjoyed observing the movement of my gluteus maximus, my gluteus medius on the seat; having allowed that to suggest other activities to his imagination. I also recall his eyes on me at unexpected moments, when there was sometimes a pained expression in them. The Androgyne, two parts of a severed whole longing for each other, longing for completion. When I was very young, a sense of my own destiny would arrive at unexpected moments: walking down Seaview Avenue at the age of thirteen or fourteen, after nightfall, in awe at the terrible infinitude of the pitch-black sky above me, the terrible distances between the stars, listening to my shoes hit the pavement one after the next in a regular rhythm, connected to this Earth by the mere force of gravity and understanding myself to be entirely, irrevocably alone, and that I would always be walking in this way, listening to my own footsteps, with the beautiful, terrible nighttime sky above me twinkling with the ghosts of long-dead stars. An early encounter of the self with the self: a kind of knowledge that was impossible to describe, or convey, or articulate in any way; that had to do with me in the most intimate way.
If not mistaken, then deluded? Ask around, and people will give you their reasons for loving this or that person: he or she is kind, smart, funny, caring. Good in bed; good-looking. Good at things they themselves enjoy, in other words, good companions. Many of them things that can be said about other people as well, people they do not necessarily love. Press them further, and you will get different, more fervent answers. Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, however, the delusion involved in believing a person is one’s other half or destiny lies not in the belief as such, but in thinking that this circumstance arrives on its own, without our willful complicity. Something ignites and catches fire, and then we stoke it, heap anything we can find onto it to keep it burning; we hold our hands out to the blaze as we watch the deep orange glow on each other’s skin flicker with the flames. Now that you have my undivided attention, you tell me your story, and I listen closely as the subtle play of light leaps lithely across your face. But perhaps my attention isn’t entirely undivided; perhaps I am listening to your words and silently criticizing the way you tell your story: perhaps I don’t find it imaginative, or brilliant, or humble enough. Or before I have even listened properly I am comparing it to my own, and point out the notable similarities. Or perhaps, just as you tell me something particularly important, particularly painful, my head jerks away in a kind of reflex, or I ask an inappropriate question, or suggest we change location, go to a movie perhaps. I fail to register the shift in expression on your face, brush away your flummoxed protest; I am thinking about something that concerns me now: I am hungry. Or turn it around: we are sitting somewhere outside when you suddenly feel chilly; the gravity and import of what I’ve just told you do not hold precedent over your need for me to stand up and collect my plate and glass so that we can move to the indoor section of the restaurant. Or something I’d like to buy has suddenly come to mind, and I recall that the store closes at a certain hour and that I will have just enough time to go there and be able to browse comfortably, but only if we leave now or very soon. It’s my choice, really; in the end, it is what I do with your story that determines my degree of delusion. I only dimly realize that the occasion may never repeat itself, but fool myself over this easily enough. There are a thousand things to distract me from the momentous event of your vulnerability, and you from mine; a thousand ways not to rise to the occasion and to betray each other’s trust.
I begin with mistaken love, then hesitate. Is love ever mistaken? You love a person, and then circumstances change or your perception of circumstances changes, or the person changes or seems to change or, more likely, your perception of that person changes and then suddenly you find yourself either unwilling or unable to love any longer. But does that mean you were mistaken? And if you discovered that you were mistaken, would you, if you could choose, go back in time to unlove that person? Or would you seek to alter the circumstances responsible for the inauspicious change, rearrange them in such a way that the outcome would be different, that is, conducive to the continuance of love as opposed to unconducive? If, that is, a change in circumstances has been responsible for your unwillingness or inability to love any longer. Perhaps it was merely your perception of circumstances that changed, or your perception of the person. Or perhaps it was that person’s perception of circumstances that changed, or perception of you. In any case, like a drop in air pressure, or the silence in a room after something has been said that can no longer be unsaid, it immediately becomes clear that something has changed, something love-snuffing, love-obliterating, and that it is no longer possible to go back to the time before the change, and there is no way to prevent it from occurring, because in some way you understand that everything has been leading up to this, every marker along the way has reliably announced its eventual arrival. But this is still not to say that the love you felt was mistaken. The attributes you loved may or may not have existed, you may or may not have loved a phantom partially of your own making, but love is seldom a mistaken emotion and in any case preferable to indifference.