The Awful Truth: Wuthering Bites

Knowing too much about love lets the air out of the Romantic Balloon.

Published October 7, 1997 12:26PM (EDT)

I just read "The Immoralist" by André Gide. This book wouldn't make a 16-year-old blush nowadays.

"Oh," you realize in more or less the opening chapter, "he's gay." Then you wade through 87 pages of Michel staring longingly at Arab boys and ignoring his tubercular wife, and you're waiting for him to at least BUY an Arab boy and give him a test drive, but noooo. His poor dupe of a wife has to hack up both lungs and perish of neglect before Michel has any clue what his problem might be; he keeps berating everybody with this tiresome idea of "moral freedom." Restraint and repression may be psychologically interesting, but they ain't action-packed. Get over it, I kept scowling at the book. Kiss the cabana boy already, you dippy ponce. Free your ass and your mind will follow.

I saw "Wuthering Heights" last night, the original Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon version. Knowing what we know about men and women these days, it's impossible to watch that film without being painfully aware that the author of the story was an overwrought female, despite her Brontë-tude. To our modern eyes, a grown woman can't fantasize that wildly about men without seeming like an unmarried 39-year-old Christian secretary with an ornamental Kleenex box and stuffed animals in the rear window of her car.

We understand the potholes and blind spots in men's emotional lives too well now to ever believe in a Heathcliff. If Heathcliff exists in the '90s, he's one of those guys who stalks into the office of his ex-girlfriend in full camo-gear, despite the restraining order, and empties a 12-gauge into her sweater before fitfully blasting himself up to the heathery crag on the moors.
Nowadays, men can't sustain that kind of focused, frustrated love without it festering into violence, and women still can't have it without it degenerating into some form of literature.

I finished watching the movie and went and had dinner with my childhood sweetheart, "Pete," the guy who was supposed to be the Heathcliff of my life, only he was more the Catherine and I was the Heathcliff because I was the black-hearted gypsy tomboy in the stable with the dirty hands, and he was the elegant society brat with all the advantages. We were inseparable friends who beat on each other at 10. He kissed me once on the steps of a church when we were 14, and I pushed him away.

"Don't," I said, a street lamp pulsing diamondlike in my tearing eye, violins wrestling for the throat-knot.

"Why?" he asked.

"I don't deserve you yet," I said, French horns hammering down my seriousness and sincerity. I was thinking, you're the one I need to impress in this life. I have to do great things before I'll let you kiss me again. And I meant it, too. So, like Heathcliff thundering away penniless to make his fortune in America, I ran off and started willfully inventing my career with the very real goal in mind of raising myself to what I perceived to be Pete's level.

My conviction that Pete was the other half of my divine being didn't stop. There were, I'm not kidding, 14 consecutive years of my life when I'd have flayed myself out sobbing on the rocks in a hailstorm for Pete. I sent him poetic confessional telegrams on his birthdays. I memorized this Shakespeare quote:

"... 'Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star

And think to wed it, he is so above me; In his bright radiance and collateral light

Must I be comforted, not in his sphere."

(Helena, "All's Well That Ends Well," Act I)

I used to say it to myself as a kind of mantra whenever I thought about him.

Then slowly, over years, when I had a life and finally got over my throbbing inferiority complex, I began to realize that Pete would never think of me as anything but his oldest pal and sister, and that I, somehow, had pioneered a different route to my heart, one that required more torque than was possible with Pete. That's how it is: When you've charley horsed someone in the arm enough times with all three knuckles, and seen them waddle through every unsightly mutation of adolescence, and steadfastly remained in contact through all the various diastrophisms of life, any bit of hallucinatory carnal obsession you had for that person eventually gets pounded into a purely functional, unglossy, sibling familiarity. That feeling is unwavering and permanent unto death, but it's not sexy, and that's why Emily Brontë-saurus is extinct.

Real love is more like "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." You may think you're going to die a thousand times when the train to Algeria pulls the young lovers apart, but they both get married to other people and life moves forward in that way that leaves the past shrouded, like the girl left behind on the platform, in white engine steam. Anything present is more vivid and pressing than anything past, regardless of their comparative emotional weights.

So I went out with Pete to have dinner after "Wuthering Heights," and as usual I knew we were going to talk about the girl who dumped him a year ago, because that's what we always talk about, the infinitude of whys and hows and he said/she saids.

"She wanted me to do something completely contrary to my nature, she wanted me to betray myself."

"She wanted you to crawl."


"But it wouldn't have been right for you to crawl, because if you had, you'd still be together, and now that you're not together, you realize that it's RIGHT that you're not together."

"Right. Because you shouldn't have to crawl for love."

"Or if you do have to crawl for love, it shouldn't FEEL like crawling. It should feel like being licked all over."


"Because love is all transformative. When it's the right thing, all of the little aimlessly orbiting components of a personality suddenly settle into this wonderful gravity and correctness."

"People are MORE themselves."

"Right. And it's ..."

"... effortless."

"Right. The right love doesn't dip and crawl through grime into light, it goes from brightness into brightness."

Pete smiled appreciatively. "You're a ro-MAN-tic. So am I."

A millisecond flash occurred to me of Pete as what I used to think he was, like a blur of winding microfiche: Pete as my history, my Other, I see a subliminal slide of us talking on a couch when we're 70. Then it stops.

"Yeah, you'll find it. You just need a haircut," I tell him.

"You too," he says.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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