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The "True" Nature of Love
What is Love? We write about it, we sing about it. We fight wars for it. Yet no matter what religion, country or background we are from, we all have very similar opinions about what Love really is. In the short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,[i]” Raymond Carver depicts the difference between relationships based on love and relationships based on lust. This difference is similar to the distinction between the Lover and the Non-Lover in Plato’s “Phaedrus.[ii]” In this essay, I will analyze each of the relationships described in “What We Talk About,” using the “Phaedrus” to determine whether or not they were based on love.
In order to compare it to “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” I must first analyze the “Phaedrus” and describe what elements I’ll use for comparison. In the beginning, Phaedrus describes to Socrates the difference between a “Lover” and a “Non-Lover,” in an effort to convince him that “it is better to give your favors to someone who does not love you than to someone who does.[iii]” I believe that when Phaedrus uses the term “Non-Lover,” he is describing someone who is “in love,” who bases a relationship on a genuine feeling of commitment, friendship and compassion. And when he says “Lover,” what he means is someone who bases a relationship solely on lust and pure, fleeting passion.
He claims that a Lover will regret the time he has spent with his beloved after his passion is over, and “they can’t tell whether they’ll still want to be friends after their desire has passed.[iv]” He says that “the Lover keeps his eyes on the balance sheet—where his interests have suffered from love, and where he has done well; and when he adds up all the trouble he has taken, he thinks he’s long since given [his beloved] a fair return.[v]” In other words, the “Lover” he describes enters a relationship on purely selfish terms, caring only for his own benefit and pleasure. He has his own interests at heart, and never considers what is best for his beloved before what is best for himself. The Lover “prevents [his beloved] from spending time with other people…he’ll have you completely isolated from friends.[vi]” The Lover obviously isn’t “in love,” because he doesn’t want his beloved to be happy. If he did, he would allow time for friends, and anything else that would bring his beloved happiness or pleasure. Instead, he treats the beloved as an object of desire, a plaything to be used and thrown out when its use is expended.
The “Non-Lover,” however, has his beloved’s best interests at heart, and would do anything to make them happy. I believe that this is “true” Love. The Non-Lover “does the best he possibly can for you,[vii]” and doesn’t keep track of the wrongs he has suffered because of the relationship. He won’t be jealous of the other people his beloved spends time with; in fact, he “will hate anyone who does not want to be with you,[viii]” because he knows that having other relationships is beneficial and pleasurable to his beloved, and wants the best for them. People who are truly in love are more than just lovers, they are friends. Phaedrus says that the “Non-Lover” is your friend “even before they achieve their goal, and you’ve no reason to expect that benefits received will ever detract from their friendship for you.[ix]” In other words, the Non-Lover will care for you even in the absence of erotic love; he loves your personality and character just as much as your body, if not more. Therefore, the “Non-Lover” is more committed to a relationship and will do everything it takes to prolong it, even after the promise of physical pleasure is gone.
The terms “Lover” and “Non-Lover” relate only to physical love. When Phaedrus says “Lover” he means someone controlled by erotic passion; when he says “Non-Lover” he means someone who is in love, someone who cares not only for physical pleasure but for a meaningful friendship as well. So for the remainder of my essay, for the sake of clarity, I will change the term Non-Lover to soul-mate, since that is what I believe his definition of Non-Lover most closely resembles. So, now that I’ve defined the elements of the Phaedrus that I’ll apply to Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” I will analyze each of the relationships portrayed in the story.
The relationship between Nick and Laura is a good example of a relationship based on Love, a relationship between Soul-Mates. Carver uses the imagery of the sunlight through the kitchen window to illustrate the different phases of their relationship. Nick is always the one who notices the light in the room. In the beginning of the story, he says that “sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind his sink.[x]” He and Laura are always holding hands and touching knees under the table. At one point he “took Laura’s hand and raised it to [his] lips. [He] made a big production out of kissing her hand.[xi]” At this point, their love is in the beginning stage, the cute romantic “puppy-love” which makes Terri jealous. They’ve been together for almost a year and a half, and are still head over heels for each other.
Later in the story, Nick notices that “the leaves of the aspen that leaned past the window ticked against the glass,[xii]” creating the sense of time, like the ticking of a clock. He says
The afternoon sun was like a presence in the room, the spacious light of ease and generosity. We could have been anywhere, somewhere enchanted. We…grinned at each other like children who had agreed on something forbidden.[xiii]
They are still living in a romantic fantasy, an innocent, childish, pure kind of love that is still strong despite Terri’s disbelief and the passage of time. I think that the lack of other detail makes it possible that the story represents not just one afternoon passing, but many days or years. Nick says himself that they “could have been anywhere,[xiv]” illustrating the ambiguity of the setting. If we assume that there is much more time passing, it is obvious that the commitment and caring that Nick and Laura display for each other is more than just a physical attraction. After awhile Nick says
The sunshine inside the room was different, changing, getting thinner. But the
leaves outside the window were still shimmering. I stared at the pattern they made on the counter. They weren’t the same patterns, of course.[xv]
At this point, most of the physical contact is gone from Nick and Laura’s relationship. If the sunlight represents their love, the patterns it made in their lives aren’t quite the same. But the leaves are still “shimmering,” showing a lingering feeling of enchantment and happiness in the relationship. They are soul-mates, in a relationship based on true love, because like Phaedrus’ “Non-Lover” they are still committed to each other even after the promise of physical pleasure is gone. He says that “in addition to being in love, [they] enjoy each other and each other’s company,[xvi]” because the soul-mate loves the beloved’s character and personality as well as their body.
The depiction of this type of relationship is complemented by Mel’s story of the elderly couple who were in a car wreck. Mel says that the man and his wife were both in full body casts after the accident. They were in the same room, in beds right next to each other, but the man’s condition was worsening because he was depressed. Mel says “the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his head and look at his wife…That was what was making him feel so bad.[xvii]” Both were in their mid-seventies. At that age, physical pleasure is rarely a part of the relationship. Yet even so, they were so in love that the man almost died for a glimpse of his wife. His love for her was obviously not based on her looks, a desire for her body. This is the same kind of relationship that Nick and Laura have, the love of soul-mates, which transcends physical desire and cares for personality and character instead.
Mel and Terri’s relationship is entirely different. Although “The Lover” is usually driven by passion and lust, almost all of the physical contact is gone from their relationship, in comparison to Nick and Laura’s. In the “Phaedrus” such a relationship would have ended as soon as the passion did; but in this time period, because they are married and not just lovers as the men in “Phaedrus” were, they have separated emotionally rather than ending the relationship. For example, Phaedrus claims that “a man in love will wish he had not done you any favors when his passion dies down,[xviii]” and since he cares only for his beloved’s body rather than their character, he “can’t tell whether [he] will want to be friends with you after [his] desire has passed.[xix]” He says that “there was a time I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself, but now I hate her guts.[xx]” Like the Lover in the Phaedrus, his relationship with his ex was full of passion, as if he loved her “more than life itself.” But now that that passion is gone, he wants nothing to do with her. His relationship with Terri is on its way to the same ruin. There are few times that Mel touches Terri in the story. The first time he reaches over to touch her face after making fun of her view of love. He says Terri “is a romantic. Terri’s of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school,[xxi]” then touches her face and grins. But when Terri claims that he is doing it to “make up,” he denies having done anything wrong.[xxii] The touch and his grin were both more of a mocking, callous gesture than an expression of physical attraction or passion.
Although he denies that the aggression and beatings Terri suffered with Ed were really love, Mel becomes more and more aggressive toward Terri as the story goes on. At one point, after saying that his ex-wife was allergic to bees, he “turned his fingers into bees and buzzed them at Terri’s throat.[xxiii]” If you assume that Mel was merely drunk, this confusion of Terri for his ex-wife doesn’t seem quite so menacing; perhaps it was just a mistake, and he didn’t mean the aggression for Terri but for his ex. However, Nick says that when Mel is sober “his gestures, all his movements were precise, careful.[xxiv]” And after threatening Terri, Mel crossed his legs, “taking a lot of time to do it. He put both feet on the floor, and leaned forward, elbows on the table, chin cupped in his hands.[xxv]” These are all very precise and deliberate movements, implying that Mel was indeed sober. He knew the difference between Terri and his ex, and it was not an accident that he symbolically identified the two, and wished to kill not just his ex but Terri as well.
Also, Phaedrus claims that the lover “is easily annoyed, and whatever happens, he will think it was designed to hurt him.[xxvi]” Mel harbors a lot of resentment, depression and anger, which worsens as the story progresses. He mentions that he would like to be a knight, because “you were pretty safe wearing all that armor…you couldn’t get hurt very easy.[xxvii]” And when Nick points out the dangers knights faced, Mel says “that’s right, some vassal would come along and spear the bastard in the name of love.[xxviii]” Mel is expressing his fear of being hurt “in the name of love,” needing something to protect himself against emotional pain. The ambiguity in his use of the words “vassal” and “vessel” illustrate that since he doesn’t have that armor, alcohol is his protection. He says “even the knights were vessels to someone…everyone is a vessel to someone.[xxix]” Because he is afraid that being “filled” with love would be painful, he fills himself with alcohol instead in order to emotionally distance himself. The light from the window also represents Mel’s growing depression; after talking about his fear of love, the light “was draining out of the room,[xxx]” showing the last bits of his happiness slipping away. Terri notices that he is depressed and suggests he should take a pill, to which he replies that he’s “taken everything there is.[xxxi]” Mel’s “pill” is the alcohol, and his remark that he’s tried taking “everything there is” expresses his hopelessness at ever finding a cure for the emotional pain he’s trying to drown out.
He is “easily annoyed[xxxii]” by Terri’s remarks more and more towards the end. When she asks if he’s drunk, Mel is immediately defensive, saying “I’m not on call today, let me remind you of that, I’m not on call,[xxxiii]” then telling her to “shut up for once in your life. Will you do me a favor and do that for a minute?[xxxiv]” Since Mel is afraid of true love, Terri’s expression of concern scares him; so he lashes out at her in anger, unwilling to let her talk or console him. Phaedrus claims that “if you show more sense than [the Lover]…you’ll come to quarrel with him.[xxxv]” Terri obviously showed more sense than him in suggesting that he take a pill in order to feel better; but he refuses to agree with her and remains angry. When they are discussing Ed’s suicide, Terri says that she wanted to sit with Ed because he had no one else. Mel admits that they fought about it, because “I didn’t think she should see him like that. I didn’t think she should see him and I still don’t.[xxxvi]” At the time of Ed’s suicide they hadn’t been together long, so Mel was still in the passionate, jealous phase of their relationship. Not only did they come to quarrel because Terri had more sense than him; he was jealous of Ed and wanted to keep Terri to himself, just like the Lover in “Phaedrus” who will “prevent his beloved from spending time with other people.[xxxvii]”
As the room goes dark, Nick says “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we all sat there making.[xxxviii]” The symbolism of the heart as the source of love is at its strongest here. Mel “had the right[xxxix]” to talk about love, because he is a cardiologist, whose specialty is, in essence, fixing people’s hearts. Yet the entire afternoon he goes back and forth, saying he’s “just a mechanic,[xl]” and really doesn’t know what “love” is. This is obvious, because he’s never really had it. He was the “Lover,” a man ruled by his passion and lust. When that was gone, he had nothing left. He emptied his gin out onto the table, in essence emptying his own “vessel,” himself, of the false sense of emotional security he’d been holding onto. At that point Nick “could hear everyone’s heart.[xli]” He heard not just the “human noise” of the physical heart-beat, but the emotional emptiness of Mel’s and Terri’s hearts, and the true love filling his own and Laura’s.
[i] Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” (New York: Random House, 1989).
[ii] Plato, “Phaedrus,” trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995).
[iv] Plato, 10.
[v] Plato, 8.
[vi] Plato, 10.
[vii] Plato, 7.
[viii] Plato, 10.
[ix] Plato, 10.
[x] Carver, 137.
[xi] Carver, 143.
[xii] Carver, 143-144.
[xiii] Carver, 144.
[xiv] Carver, 144.
[xv] Carver, 144.
[xvi] Carver, 141.
[xvii] Carver, 151.
[xviii] Plato, 7.
[xix] Plato, 10.
[xx] Carver, 144.
[xxi] Carver, 138.
[xxii] Carver, 138-139.
[xxiii] Carver, 153.
[xxiv] Carver, 140.
[xxv] Carver, 153.
[xxvi] Plato, 9.
[xxvii] Carver, 148-149.
[xxviii] Carver, 149.
[xxix] Carver, 148.
[xxx] Carver, 152.
[xxxi] Carver, 152.
[xxxii] Plato, 9.
[xxxiii] Carver, 145.
[xxxiv] Carver, 146.
[xxxv] Plato, 10.
[xxxvi] Carver, 142.
[xxxvii] Plato, 9.
[xxxviii] Carver, 154.
[xxxix] Carver, 137.
[xl] Carver, 149.
[xli] Carver, 154.