Two of the prolific and polyglot scholar Ilan Stavans' previous books are titled On Borrowed Words and Dictionary Days, so it is no surprise that his latest work, a disquisition on love in the form of a dialogue with the translator Veronica Albin, is also replete with word clusters and etymological burrowings, and connects the emotion and its expression with the title Love and Language.
This is because for Stavans, the limit of our language is also the limit of the world - an idea that led this reader back to Allan Bloom's complaint in his book Love and Friendship, which covers roughly the same territory as Stavans' volume but through a focused reading of a dozen great texts, that "there is an impoverishment today in our language about what used to be understood as life's most interesting experience, and this almost necessarily bespeaks an impoverishment of feeling."
Although Stavans is not as agitated as Bloom, implicit in his work, too, is the notion that an antidote to love's debasement as both word and feeling may be supplied by literature, mythology and the history of ideas. Stavans avers that humankind's understanding of love is in constant flux ("Who can prove what Cleopatra felt for Antony is the same as what Heloise felt for Abelard?"), demonstrating in an enthusiastic and sometimes idiosyncratic survey how economic and social conditions, religious strictures and literary and artistic tropes have led to love being understood very differently across time and across cultures.
Stavans sees romantic love, which is what the word "love" brings most immediately to mind in our culture, as being only the third of a set of concentric circles, flanked by self-love and love of family on one side and love of God and love of community (or in its modern form, of country) on the other. This is useful not just for the aptness of the geometric metaphor - the circle is the most pervasive emblem of love, such as Plato's theory in the Symposium of love as two sundered halves meeting - but also as a reminder that desire must be schooled by the tough demands of self and family before it can successfully engage with the other. Stavans quotes Alexander Pope: "Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul."
Yet the thrill and the thrall of romantic love are unlike that of any other. The marvel of it is not just that we are so powerfully, and sometimes enduringly, sucked out of our orbits by another human being; there is also the extent to which, belying all logic, we venerate and idealize the loved one, finding beauty in his or her simplest word or gesture. As Simone Weil wrote, "Two things cannot be reduced to any rationalizing: time and beauty." Stavans rightly criticizes reductionist explanations of love based on biological or psychological theories. Freud, he asserts, may have revolutionized our understanding of sexuality, but not of love. On the contrary, his theories drain love of its sublime element.
The metaphors of poetry, Stavans suggests, may provide a more accurate map of love than any scientific treatise. This brings up one of the central ideas of the book, which is that love and literature are inextricably connected. Drawing on Octavio Paz (to whom he has been compared), Stavans notes how the erotic act and the poetic act both have their roots in the power and fecundity of the human imagination. "Imagination turns sex into ceremony and rite, language into rhythm and metaphor." And it is to language - a system of sounds that gives material expression to nonmaterial things - that we turn, even if inarticulately, to give expression to the ravishment of love.
If there is a fault with Love and Language, it is that Stavans is perhaps too erudite for his own good. This creates two related problems. One is the rambling and associative nature of his meditations. Digression is, of course, more typical of dialogue than of writing, but while the ones here are diverting, they not always productive. On a number of occasions, names and incidents are called up in a somewhat perfunctory fashion, as if more from serendipity than choice. Sometimes the many peripheral details supplied by Stavans ("Walter Benjamin, called by Terry Eagleton 'the Marxist Rabbi,' who committed suicide in Port Bou, Spain...") unravel the tension of the text.
The other problem is that Love and Language is essentially a work of intelligent synthesis, and therefore a little more placid than is ideal given the fevers and disquiets prompted by its subject. Other than his contention that Socrates was not so much a tragic hero executed on a motivated charge as a highly aware martyr, Stavans does not really get his hands dirty. He has backers for all his ideas, and so his inquiry becomes a little too bookish. There is plenty of talk of love in this work, but the shock of love is sometimes too much at a distance.
An excerpt from Love and Language can be found here.