Monday, January 25, 2010

The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief, by David Plante

Luigi Galvani was wrong. Alessandro Volta had the right idea. Being scientists, they argued, politely, like the 18th Century gentlemen they were, not about what it was that made the frog's leg twitch on the dissection table when static electricity was applied to the nerve, but about the origin and meaning of the interaction. Volta, to prove his point, and refute Galvini, invented perhaps the first electric cell or battery, to show that electricity existed and functioned independent of biology, or "life force," as it was then understood, and that the distinction Galvini insisted on, between the vitality inherent in life and an external force, was false. Volta proved his point about "animal electricity" being indistinguishable from "heat electricity:" a biochemical reaction, and nothing more. Volta was so gracious as to name the reaction "galvanism." Nice, that, but in the process, he undermined one of the principle poeticisms of vitalism, In which Galvini stubbornly believed; the idea that animation, life, is not reducible to physical and biochemical processes, but inherent in and superior to physical interactions. I don't know enough about any of this to suggest that Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta killed the soul, but it is tempting. I will say, reading about all of this a month or so ago, my sympathies were all with Galvini. One wants him to be right somehow, at least I did. The idea that we are our biology, and that it is as reducible to impulse and reaction as anything else, is... distressing. No reason it should be of course, other than the habit of thinking otherwise. The mysteries are by no means vacated by a better understanding of life. Indeed, if anything, for the casual reader of science and history like me, the enigma of it all only deepens the further I try to follow such superior, scientific minds into the labyrinth.

Which is why I ought not to even try to summarize such things here, let alone draw conclusions or elaborate metaphors from things I barely understand. The temptation to do so, to use science, most unscientifically, as a vehicle for amateur speculations about such woolly human abstractions as the persistence of memory and love, is obviously strong, but should probably have been resisted. (Everything I read in contemporary popular science tells me this is so, and nothing seems to so consistently madden physicists and chemists, particularly, as this habit among the unqualified of borrowing the bits of scientific history that might lend a note of seriousness to such chatter as mine, that in so doing, I do myself no favors and do a serious disservice to both the science and the history so employed. I grant the distinct possibility that I may already have betrayed my disqualification from so much as mentioning the likes of Galvini and Volta in any context, let alone this. Setting aside the questionable taste in bringing up the work of Enlightenment anatomists in a brief review of a new book by David Plante entitled The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief, the last portion of which at least is a sometimes brutally frank examination of the physical decline and ultimate death of Plante's partner of forty years, I can only excuse my introduction of that long ago debate into this entry by admitting that reading the one book frankly made me think of the other, that one, a celebration as much as a commemoration of love, helped me understand, a even perhaps explain, the strange, irrational melancholy I experienced, and in an even stranger way, the sympathy I continue to feel, when I finished reading the story of Galvini's persistence in the face of scientific proof that he was wrong. That life, even by extension human life, that my own, begins and ends not in a spark or hint of divinity, but in facts, is unanswerable for me, except perhaps in the example provided, somewhat ironically, by Plante's memoir.)

It is ironic that such a short book as Plante's seemingly fragmentary memoir, made up as much by succinct, even bald statements of biographical history -- his lover's and then of their lives together -- as it is by Plante's more obviously meditative passages, should so reassure me. There is little or nothing in it to suggest that either Plante or his partner, Nikos Stangos, though they shared a common curiosity about religion, and a respect for each other's religious traditions, would willingly have their lives, or their life together, put to any such use by the reader. Plante's Roman Catholicism, and his lover's Greek Orthodoxy are mentioned in the context of their mutual exploration, as but one of the mysteries each found, and found himself, in Plante's case, in love with in the other. Orthodoxy was, for Plante, but one aspect, and not necessarily even the most interesting or exotic, of his lover's biography and culture. Like the beautiful, and moving biographical vignettes of Stangos' childhood in WWII Greece with which Plante begins his book, every mention of the differences in their backgrounds and personalities, every offered detail of his lover's life independent of their life together, is not a statement of fact intended to so much inform the reader, or even used as the means of just reconstructing or understanding the lovers' relationship as an objective narrative, but rather, each isolated memory, each question arising from these scenes and impressions, is addressed consistently throughout to "you," to Stangos himself. This memoir then is not the traditional recapitulation of the author's life, or even a biography of his lover. Instead, Plante has allowed an audience into his meditations on grief, into his ongoing conversation with his past, and with the lover he lost. This in not a book in which reassuring conclusions are offered as proof against the potential or real losses of the reader. The author's loss is not just recent, but present, his grief persistent, only the past, and that only in pieces, accessible to him now. The power of this book, what made it impossible to the first friend to whom I recommended it, was, I suspect, this immediacy.

"I just can't put myself in a book like this right now," he told me. I understood. He faces an experience not unlike Plante's soon enough, probably, and this is not an easy book. My enthusiasm for the beauty of it I think made me insensitive to to the potential its subject, particularly when near at hand, must have, for many of us, to undo us, rather then help to strengthen our resolve to go on as David Plante has -- few of us have his art to articulate our part in such a conversation with those we lose, or his habit of making art from our loses. In this, the author is enviable. In having such a history with another human being, and with such a good man, he is enviable too.

The intimacy of grief is of a dangerous kind, perhaps more dangerous potentially to us all than we choose to acknowledge, or can be expected to bear in the company of strangers, even artists like Plante. We are used to having such intimacy mediated by platitudes and the ritual elevation of the dead and dying into something abstract and saintly, something superior to their faults, and ours, and therefor somehow more worthy of remembrance and memorialization.

David Plante's memoir, unlike so many similar books about the death of a spouse, does not allow for this comforting fiction of a life ennobled by loss, or a death made into some teachable lesson. What survives death is not love, but memory; not the thing itself, but what we can make of it, what we can shape from it, keep and use. His title then is not an exercise in the more usual hagiography of the dead, but rather perhaps explained best in his own words, again, addressed to his lover:

"To love, you believed you must love purely, which was to love free of all the transitory, free of the relative, free of history, which was to love, oh, absolutely. So you must love me by finding in me the center of love absolute. And this you did -- kept the center fixed in all its purity -- though you suffered my vicissitudes, my infidelities, my crude history, my impurity."

At the end of the book, Plante describes this love as "heroic," and indeed it must have been, must always be. Such love is a matter of faith, in the beloved, but also in the ideal. It must have been an exhilarating experience, to be loved in this way. It is certainly exhilarating to read the story of such lovers. Plante's own love, for all his confessions of inadequacy as the object of such an ideal, is no less real, no less admirable or enviable, for being more frankly imperfect, more human. Stangos was clearly a remarkable and accomplished man; a diplomat, a poet, translator, editor and friend to an impossibly wide acquaintance. Plante clearly wants the reader to know and understand this, and to understand that, in detailing his own grief, he also shows the object of his devotion to have been truly worthy of it. That Stangos, as portrayed so lovingly by his lover could also be imperious, a bit cryptic -- at least in English, admittedly only one of the many languages he knew -- jealous and occasionally pompous, and that at the long end of his life, dying tragically from an invasive cancer that left him too little of himself even as he lived on, all too recognizably, sadly impossible, in no way diminishes Plante's obvious respect and affection, or ours in reading this tribute.

While much of the book is indeed a tribute, and a celebration of love, ultimately this is, indeed, a memoir of grief:

"All feeling and all thought, all are absent in your absence, so why, why is such total absence of thought and feeling so potent a presence -- yours?"

It is in David Plante's unusual choice of the interrogative, in his willingness to question even his own grief, his own memory, and the memory of his great love, that this brief memoir is transformed into not just a powerful work of art, but consolation, at least to me. Again and again, the writer questions not just the dead or the past, but what is vital still, not just the memory of being so loved -- happy memory! -- but love's persistence, in himself, even in the midst of and after grief, if it ends. This is what he has made of their life together, this beautiful book, these beautiful and difficult, perhaps unanswerable questions.

That's a true faith, perhaps, and one from which I can draw strength as a reader, his belief not in immortality, or the perfection of love, or even in the possibility of such things, but in the persistence, the necessity of dialogue. What else is love, if not that?

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