Mates: A literary history

Matching sock, erotic target or fellow damned soul chained to your wrist? From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Kundera, a guided tour of the Big Two.

Published October 14, 2003 7:47PM (EDT)

"Mate" is a comfortable and companionable word. Its world exudes a kind of biological or metaphysical rightness: a place where human beings, like those smiling giraffes shown boarding the ark in tandem in children's books, contentedly pair off forever. It is a cosmic laundry in which no sock ever goes missing.

But the aspirant to this mately heaven is haunted by fears of inadequacy. The founding myth of the mate, after all, derives from Plato's "Symposium." In that dialogue, one of the speakers, Aristophanes, asserts that the primordial race of men and women (and hermaphrodites, but to explore that would take us too far afield) was divided in half by Zeus. Ever since then, goes on Aristophanes -- who, it should be noted, claims to be suffering from a severe hangover -- we have been destined to search for our complementary halves, without which we will not be complete. In an age in which the soul-elevating yearnings and courtly ordeals of Provençal love have been replaced by Sixty-Second Dating and sexual encounters negotiated on the Internet, this theory raises the bar of matedom dauntingly high. Hence, perhaps, the preference, in our modest age, for the neutral "husband" or "wife" or the still more poker-faced "partner," which could refer as easily to the relationship between Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley as to that between Dante and Beatrice. Still the mate ideal beckons, like a horizon.

Of course, you cannot visit a horizon -- which is one of the reasons why literature so rarely deals with long-term romantic relationships of the sort that could be characterized as mately. Byron anatomized this omission in "Don Juan": "All tragedies are finished by a death,/ All comedies are ended by a marriage;/ The future states of both are left to faith,/ For authors fear description might disparage/ The worlds to come of both, or fall beneath,/ And then both worlds would punish their miscarriage ..." In "Tristram Shandy," the first modern, smarty-pants novelist, Laurence Sterne, slyly alluded to the problem of depicting ideal happiness by inserting a blank page on which the reader could draw his beloved.

Throughout most of literary history, marriage -- particularly happy marriage -- might as well be one of those empty spots on old maps inscribed with the words "Here be monsters." For every Kitty and Levin, the lovingly observed couple in Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" who find grace as they work their way together through life, there are hundreds of Karenins, Madame Bovarys and Casaubons -- a vast, dreary entourage of miserable spouses, doomed adulterers and hideously mismatched souls. There are plenty of lusty young stallions crashing through fences, but very few mates grazing contentedly together in the meadow. As an old man, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said, "I do not feel anything when I brush against the legs of my wife, but mine ache if hers do." Though existent, these kind of poignant observations are hard to find in fiction.

Some of this void can be attributed to the uninspiring historic reality of marriage, which until fairly recently could be summed up as a business deal with bad sex. But the reasons are deeper. Stories are driven by change, not permanence: Once the hero and heroine make their safe harbor, the wind goes out of the story's sails. From a narrative standpoint, happiness is boring -- a truth summed up by Tolstoy's famous dictum that "Happy families are all alike."

There is also the uncomfortable possibility that mately happiness may be boring even to those allegedly enjoying it. We return to perhaps the world's most depressing marriage counselor, Lord Byron, who wrote, "'Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign/ Of human frailty, folly, also crime,/ That love and marriage rarely can combine,/ Although they both are born in the same clime;/ Marriage from love,/ like vinegar from wine --/ A sad, sour, sober beverage -- by time/ Is sharpen'd from its high celestial flavour/ Down to a very homely household savour."

Who would sing the joys of even the finest aged Modena balsamic when there are so many sweet young bottles of Taittinger yet to be popped? (Although it is worth noting that Georges Simenon, the great Belgian writer who claimed to have made love to 10,000 women, created one of the most memorably contented couples in literature in Inspector and Madame Maigret, who walk together in happy silence. Could it be that exhausting, Wilt Chamberlain-level promiscuity is required to direct a writer's precious mental fluids toward consideration of mately bliss?)

But even if we reject Byron's discouraging words and insist that mately love is more like aged Bordeaux than oxidized rotgut, there is a deeper reason that writers rarely explore it. Fiction's "happily ever after" syndrome betrays its deep roots in fairy tales and fables -- simple, archetypal forms that reveal both the eternal human drive to affirm a state of permanent happiness and the difficulty of doing so. Even the most sophisticated modern writers, who do not believe in fairy-tale endings, are still drawn to convey an irreducible and transcendent union between two people. But just as in fairy tales, they cut away at precisely the moment when it is to be revealed. It is as if only by looking away can one convey the unknown land denoted by the word "happiness." Like Orpheus bringing Eurydice out of the underworld, it seems the novelist cannot look directly at love without losing it. The light flashes only out of fragments.

Sometimes writers act like officers of the Federal Reserve Bank of Language, attempting to increase the value of the L-word by restricting its circulation. In Czeslaw Milosz's memoir "Native Realm," for example, the word "love" appears, I believe, only once -- as literally the last word in the book. It's an extraordinary and unexpected move that falls like a thunderbolt. Or take the famous last sentence of "The House of Mirth," when Lawrence Selden says goodbye to the dead Lily Bart: "He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear." The word, presumably, is "love." But the fact that Wharton refuses to name it gives it far greater power. Silence breathes the ineffable.

The ending of Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" reveals another strategy of indirection. It attempts to resolve the question posed at the outset of the book: How can you know if your decision to settle down with one person is driven by love or sentimental exhaustion -- what Kundera calls "hysteria"? The problem with questions like this is that once they are asked, there is almost never going to be a satisfactory answer. And the book's protagonist, Tomas, is nothing if not a bed-hopper and question-asker. Kundera needs to assert that Tomas has experienced some kind of romantic epiphany that has made him choose Tereza once and for all, but he is also too sophisticated to be satisfied with that answer.

He falls back first on a venerable narrative device: prolepsis or foreshadowing. The reader is told that Tomas and Tereza are both going to die in a truck crash. This omniscient knowledge bathes their last scene in a golden glow; it becomes doubled, like a vista observed by a man with cancer uncertain he will ever see it again. Yet even with this doubling, which would perhaps have allowed Kundera to get away with a sentimental portrayal of marital happiness, he distances himself. "Tereza leaned her head on Tomas' shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together. The sadness was form, the happiness was content. Happiness filled the space of sadness."

Which comes first, happiness or sadness? In this dialectical game of tag, in order for us to believe in the happiness that the author is asserting, it is also necessary for us not to believe in it. Without shadow, no light.

And then, having adjusted his chiaroscuro perfectly, in the book's last lines the author retreats altogether and turns things over to the God of narrative. Tomas and Tereza retire to bed. A butterfly flies up. "The strains of the piano and violin came up weakly from below." The greatest intimacy can only be communicated by the neutral turning of the world.

There is, of course, far more to the mately story than these kind of deconstructive and reconstructive finesses. Byron is wrong: Not all comedies are ended with a marriage -- many, in fact, begin with one. Marriage may be rarely chosen as a romantic subject, its intimacies and their meanings may be terra incognita, but it frequently serves as a kind of rumpus room, an arena where all the furniture can be wiped off, the laugh track is always going, and the wet bar is well stocked. Literature is filled with companionable, often jesting and jawboning mates, an endless procession of Nicks and Noras and Mr. and Mrs. Bennetts. Statistically, matedom is comic. But comic matedom is simply taken for granted, as background; it no longer has any meaning, any fizz. Love's daemon is dead -- and you can often discern a distinct element of thank god -- and pure vinegar reigns.

Far from indicating an era's creeping spiritual death, vinegar literature can be a sign of its maturity. It would be foolish to generalize, but ages that are only obsessed with the ecstasies and agonies of the carnal may well turn out to be intense but callow. Whatever the case, the greatest psychological novelists, like Stendhal or Flaubert, combine vinegar and wine -- the disillusioned but smiling perspective of the mate with the erotic obsession of the lover.

Standing off to the side of these romantic partners is a closely related type of mate, perhaps indeed the beau ideal of erotic mateship in its approaching-vinegar phase: the mate as friend. This mate appears at the very beginning of written literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh, written as early as 3000 B.C., recounts the love of the half-divine King Gilgamesh for his human friend Enkidu, a love that leads the heartbroken king to travel to the underworld to try to bring his dead friend back. "I thought my friend would come back because of my weeping," Gilgamesh laments, in words that echo down the millennia. A mate in this sense is traditionally male, though there is no reason the word can't stretch beyond its British nautical roots to include women. (As Octavio Paz argues in his erudite, heartfelt exploration of love and literature, "The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism," the comparative absence of great female friendships in the canon is due to social constraints on women, not to the feminine shortcomings alleged even by so great a thinker as Montaigne.)

A mate is no ordinary friend: He or she is a bro, a dude, a homeboy, a pard, a pally -- someone who's got your back, who's connected to you by a kind of tribal bond, like those found in Clifford Geertz or the Crips and the Bloods. Since American men notoriously pursue loneliness and bowl alone, the ur-mate is British or Australian: American male friendship tends to be too jumpy and self-centered. The most powerful contemporary portrait of mates I know is in Graham Swift's exquisite "Last Orders," the tale of a gang of aging, working-class East Londoners who carry out their promise to dump a pal's ashes off Margate Pier. These men are of the generation that fought in World War II, which is telling: One of the two quintessential mate types is the soldier. The friendships in Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" and his powerful, little-known sequel, "The Road Back," are not deeply developed, but they are unforgettable.

The other quintessential mate locale is, of course, the Old West. The friendship of Augustus McCray and Woodrow Call in Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," that rare book that is at once a potboiler and a literary masterpiece, is truly epic: It reaches sublime heights in the book's long, heartbreaking denouement when Call honors his promise and travels alone, carrying the coffin of his friend from Missouri to Texas to bury him.

The mate need not even be human. In Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "The Yearling," the love of young Jody Baxter for his fawn Flag culminates in Jody's initiation into the heartbreak of adulthood -- a passage captured in the book's beautiful closing:

"Flag -- He did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or his own child, as he had loved the yearling. He would be lonely all his life. But a man took it for his share and went on.

"In the beginning of his sleep, he cried out, 'Flag!'

"It was not his own voice that called. It was a boy's voice. Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever."

In the greatest novels, friendship becomes as rich, strange and spiritually complex as a great love affair. This is emphatically true in the greatest Western novel of all, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The relationship of Jim and Huck, with its racial audacity and the haunting ambiguity in which the slave is father to the fatherless boy and the fatherless boy is father to the slave, stands as one of the supreme examples in world literature of friendship, a friendship that breaks the bounds of our understanding of that category as decisively as King Lear and Cordelia break through our received understanding of fathers and daughters.

The turning point in Huck's understanding of Jim, and of himself, comes when he decides to turn Jim in. At first Huck is overjoyed, knowing he is finally doing a good deed that will send him to heaven; but then he gets to thinking. "And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind."

The climax of this passage, when Huck decides not to turn Jim in and says, "I'll right, I'll go to hell," is justly famous. But it is the sentence "But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind" that has always moved me, with its humility, the pathos of its involuntary love.

And unlike Kunderas couple, whose final closeness is sublime yet haunted by a hint of artificiality, Huck and Jim are together effortlessly. "It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever fee like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed -- only a little kind of a low chuckle." Nothing really happens in this scene, but it is as close to idyllic as anything in modern literature.

We have only touched on the first, second and third mates -- the Starbucks, Stubbs and Flasks of the literary world. But the gallery is endlessly, gloriously varied: Bertie and Jeeves, Elizabeth and Darcy, Prince Hal and Falstaff, Helena and Hermia, Dean and Sal, Lear and Kent, Tristan and Isolde, Hamm and Clov, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Poldie Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. (The entire plot of the most important novel of the 20th century culminates in the moment when Young Joyce and Old Joyce, having finally met, piss together -- an action that could be considered the apotheosis of male matedom.)

These pairs have nothing in common except the fact that they are together. They may be blood brothers, or conspiring fools; master and servant, or husband and wife; father and son, or the most complicated of friends. It doesn't matter: what matters is that for some reason, as they made their way through the world, they found each other, found solace, or an answer, or a wilder music, and for a moment, or a lifetime, two turned into one. Falstaff's plea to Prince Hal, who he knows is about to drop him, could speak for them all, that great pageant of lovers and friends: "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world."

This essay originally appeared in the "Mates" issue of Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story magazine, featuring stories by Louis Begley, Mary Gaitskill and Robert Olen Butler and artwork by the Clayton brothers. For more information about Zoetrope and the Mates issue, go to

ATTENTION! Zoetrope: All-Story is offering Salon readers a special discount of 25 percent off. If you want award-winning fiction delivered to your door all year long, go to All-Story's subscription page and enter the discount code 3SGS11. Zoetrope also makes a great (and cheap) holiday gift. So don't delay!

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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