There are no poets left

I've looked all over the Internet and can't find out what it means to be "in love."

By Cary Tennis

Published September 24, 2003 7:31PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

What is it to be in love with someone? I've looked all over the Internet and cannot find one single answer that feels right to me. I guess I am hoping for some type of checklist. For almost two years now I've been trying to convince myself and others that I am just infatuated with someone. I am convinced it is absolutely hopeless, that our paths are not to cross for long. And I feel so silly confessing my feelings to my closest friends -- a silly schoolgirl crush not to be taken seriously for a moment.

However, sometimes, when I'm alone and it's late afternoon, I'll whisper to myself that I do love him. I'll feel as if my insides were being scraped out: a surprisingly pleasant sensation. I feel as if my very soul is stretched out, as if I am experiencing all of life. I hug my knees tight. I clench my fists. It scares the shit out of me.

I am very much attracted to other men, yet with this particular man, I feel as though the attraction was absurdly pronounced. It feels to me as if everything about him was made to unlock these feelings in me. Yet, God save me, I can only deny.

I try to rationalize things: We all lead busy lives -- there are no poets left. There is only sex. It is ludicrous to believe in emotions and feelings since they are only results of chemicals released in the brain or worse, an arsenal of clichés to be used in the next insincere Diane Warren song.

It is ridiculous to believe that any sane person would truly care for anyone but themselves. This is a sentiment very much declared in my circle, a circle in which this man belongs as well. He and I have never talked about the subject yet the things I've heard about him seem to embody this attitude and I've become very timid. I am convinced that I would suffer terribly if I were to ever humor my true feelings so I mask them or ignore them with short and simple conversation: with shielding civility. And yet, when our eyes meet -- and this is not hyperbole -- my soul is sucked out of my body. And perhaps I am fooling myself but his gaze lingers a bit too long as well. I am just so afraid.

This cannot be love. Love doesn't exist between two people who have never held a conversation for longer than an hour. Two people who could not come from more different places. Two people who are divided by a 10-year age difference. Love cannot exist in the heart of someone like me, someone who is still trying to figure out who she is, who is still feeling her way out of and around the crevices of life and loving every minute of it. Love cannot exist in the heart of someone who is still learning to love herself.

And yet, and all my thoughts about this are followed by an "and yet," affection has been expressed. When we walk together he'll have his arm around my shoulders or he'll place a hand on the back of my neck. And a few weeks ago he took me into his home and held me as I suffered through a terrible migraine. I find this to be a display of intimacy that challenges and contradicts what little has been said. So little has been said. But he may just be a sweetheart. Indeed, if he really was interested in me he would have just slept with me when he had me in his apartment. I am terribly afraid of believing that there is love here. I believe it is all smoke and mirrors. Everything in me tells me it's absolutely insane. And yet, when I am sitting on my sofa, silence enveloping, and dusk creeping through, it seems as if what I feel is reality. The only reality I wish to exist in. But just what reality is this?

20 and Confused

Dear 20 and Confused,

There's a time in late youth when the mind is at its fullest power and the passions are intense and green and the imagination is straining to find expression like a sleek, ungainly colt. At such a time, you need to immerse yourself in great works of art and literature. You're struggling to form maxims, to generalize from observations, to give some form to your powerful emotions, but you're working with insufficient material. You need more detailed knowledge. Your experiences and the experiences of your friends are not complex enough or rich enough to give rise to the kind of generalizations you're trying to form. Read William Blake. Read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Listen to Wagner and Copland. Go see the abstract expressionists and the pop artists. Watch Godard movies. Train yourself to question your own conclusions. Try to see how making a statement like "It is ridiculous to believe that any sane person would truly care for anyone but themselves" requires you to examine whole bodies of thought from Plato and his ideas about love to medieval courtly love traditions to the Heian Court of Japan and Lady Murasaki to Russian peasants and Celtic druids and Renaissance ideas of beauty and the Romantic tradition to Ayn Rand and her ilk.

The problems you are grappling with are huge; it is not ridiculous for a sane person to truly care about anyone but themselves, nor are our emotions trivialized by the fact that chemicals are involved in their expression. We do care about others. That doesn't make us crazy. Water is a chemical. That doesn't make the ocean trivial. You need to spend years reading and thinking about these things or nothing will make any sense to you. You need to find that world in a grain of sand that Blake was talking about. If you're in school, take a class in logic. Learn to determine the truth or falsehood of an assertion. Take some astronomy. Learn how they figured out that the earth goes around the sun. Take a class in aesthetics. Try to define beauty. Read Faulkner and Nabokov and Wallace Stevens. Read the Beats. Read Stendhal. Read Baudelaire. Read Dostoevski and Tolstoy. Shake yourself up.

You are apparently drawn to such dramatic pronouncements as "Love doesn't exist between two people who have never held a conversation for longer than an hour." I understand what you are talking about, but the truth is much grander still; it is both more complex and more simple: Love can exist anywhere, between any two people, for any length of time. You are simply going to have to do the hard work of studying emotion in its details. Read Freud and Jung. Read the Bible. Read Ezra Pound. Read David Foster Wallace. Read everything you can find. You need to get yourself anchored. You need to be humbled by the abundant genius of the world, and find your place among the geniuses.

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Cary Tennis

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