2008-01-28 • Volume 2 • Issue 4
When I was in 11th grade, my brilliant and discouraging history teacher presented this juicy piece of wisdom: perfect love is always unrequited. I’d heard a few versions of this before, but this time it landed with a truly influential thump. Anyone who took a class with him ended up in a cult-like daze, panting for his opinions and his approval. We only made the smallest efforts to break free from his grasp, like the weak gesture of a rodent glued to a trap. When he walked into our school cafeteria, we craned our necks toward him like Mick Jagger groupies.
By 10th grade, he had most of us convinced that the world was a catastrophic mess, that nothing would ever make up for the crime of colonialism, and that Socrates was an insufferable busybody. It was impossible to win an argument with him, so I accepted the blows he delivered to Western literature, democracy, and humanism. By the time he worked his way up to romantic love, it was the only thing I had left to defend. So when he dropped the Perfect Love bomb, I became irrationally panicked, like a man who has had his entire house bombed, but becomes angry about the damage done to his garden. With my entire intellectual tradition gone, there was nothing left for me but hope for romantic love, and when he attacked that, I felt myself on the verge of an existential crisis.
I cornered him near the elevators: “What do you mean?” He explained to me, with the heroic patience of one stuck teaching a five-year-old how to tie their shoes, “When your loved one returns your affections, you experience the end of your fantasy when confronted with their flaws. You become disenchanted, and you can never really love them again.”
Had he shoved me down the elevator shaft, I could not have experienced a greater revelatory shock, a clearer Up-Twelve-Flights perspective. My deep intellectual infatuation with him came to an abrupt halt, and I saw his hold for what it was: the deep, sweeping, pessimism of an apocalyptic cult, the twisted, erotic hold of rhetoric. In that moment, he became a spinster, the bitter single aunt who equates virginity with virtue. I knew that his statement about love was not original, but I was expecting a deep intellectual probe of the clichÃ©. His simple explanation belonged with “men are rats” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
It took me years to renegotiate my thoughts on all the other topics he had so subversively influenced, but rebutting his idea of perfect love took on a particular urgency. I began to think obsessively about what he said, and why I so desperately wanted him to be wrong. I might never be shiny-eyed about democracy again, but I determinedly worked out a happier understanding for myself. The small details of what I think have been shaped and reshaped, reupholstered, revised, and discarded as I approached each new person romantically. But even in spite of spectacular failures, or in the face of unexpected and incongruous unions, I always come back to a belief in fantasy and a hope for strongly constructed, well-reasoned, passionately seasoned real love.
Let’s assume, since all the evidence seems to point to it, that we’re imperfect collectively, and as individuals. Each of us carries around with us the various marks of our families, our experiences, and our genes that make our interactions with others less than Christ-like. More deeply, however, we’re imperfect in our intellects, and what we work out in our heads and what we imagine for ourselves may be muscular, reasonable, finely wrought, brilliantly imaginative, but always limited by our imperfect vision. We’ve been taught, for the sake of political correctness, to expect bias from ourselves in our outward principles, but in spite of watching our language and our politics, we rarely examine the effects of our biases on our inner lives. If we look closely, our limited vision touches the deepest part of us, the most private and hopeful part of us when we think about what we want in a partner. Our romantic fantasies almost never ask, “what separately flawed person will complement my flaws?” or “what kind of partner will make me think and act more fully?” Instead, in a blaze of optimism, we hope for the most beautiful, the most exciting person we can think of.
That all feels perfectly natural, and I for one am not giving up my fantasy of a someone with a great scar who will carry me off to Russia, where, trench-coated, we will lead some kind of political resistance. These are always at the background, fed by a love of ourselves and of a good story. These fantasies often overlap with the one my history teacher described: the idealization of a new person in our life. Suddenly we are smitten with the shoulders or the mannerisms of someone new. After the first rush of conversation and physicality, the trouble begins. When unpleasant truths or little discrepancies begin to emerge, we must suddenly renegotiate. We drape our old fantasies, our Russian spy fantasies, onto this new person, trying to give them a skin graft that will save the infatuation. And, as my teacher pointed out, that’s almost always a failed operation. But he was suggesting that the moment of failure is the death of the act of love, and that the disillusionment that we feel will muddy the waters forever. That’s a terrible, unnecessary renunciation, and worst of all, it’s lazy. It doesn’t look deep or hard enough at who we are, and like a lot of faulty logic, it doesn’t anticipate what a perfectly manifested scenario would really look like.
Imagining this is a little difficult, but let’s say you do meet someone who perfectly fulfills your fantasy. In addition to all the standard requirements of a fantasy (my beloved is beautiful and they smell like flowers!), we’ve all constructed a fantasy that is has stemmed from our admittedly imperfect minds. What we’ve imagined for our romantic life has been specifically tailored to our biased, flawed, imperfectly seeing minds. In that case, meeting a beloved who would perfectly fulfill your fantasy is not a miracle, but an unfortunate validation of your partial vision. It’s like having only every other word of a prophecy fulfilled. Our perfect partner (this freakish anomaly) would fill in the outlines of our fantasy, confirming for us the accuracy of our original vision and giving us false belief in the reality of a complete self. As the assumptions of our fantasy went unquestioned, we would stop growing. We would be stuck behind our initial barriers, still seeing with only one eye—or bad glasses—or a slippery monocle.
Viewed in this light, the best thing our partner can do for us is to fail our fantasy. The “perfect love” my teacher imagined would be a disaster, and the desire for “unrequitedness” to save the fantasy is only an attempt to save your limited vision, to stop yourself from growing. In the face of another person’s imperfections, we are forced to make choices about what is bigger than what we once wanted, what we want now, and what we can offer when we are pushed. I don’t mean to suggest, in an irritating patriarchal way, that we don’t know what’s best for us. Rather, I think we can’t even anticipate what new pleasures, what new adventures await us at the end of the first failure of fantasy. What we can teach and give each other must be more frightening, more real, and more exhilarating than what we contrived for ourselves in our limited, un-partnered heads.
So, the next time you are hit by the giant bus of infatuation, cross your fingers that your new love will be a terrible, crashing disappointment. That will be the start of something good.
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