In Love, Alfred Hayes
Harper & Brothers, 1953
The Alfred Hayes novel In Love is an intimate study of an emotion that has confounded poets, writers, and lovers for ages. What does it mean to be in love? A concise answer does not come easily. Language reveals itself to be inadequate. I am reminded of the Raymond Carver short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which at first glance is a rather wordy title for a writer known for being a master of the succinct. Within the stories, Carver’s characters talk circles around the subject at hand without ever zeroing in on a clear and universal definition. Which is exactly the point. In matters of the heart, one size does not fit all. Give it a try. You may just find that in the end you understand far less than you assumed you had before being put to the test.
I wondered what it would be like if finally we ever understood everything. I thought of the times I had experienced something like the feeling the dark ocean had given me, a feeling that came when one was just on the point of falling asleep, and how in the morning you had a feeling that the night before you had really and finally understood something. But evidently it was too difficult a thing for the mind to hold or keep, or perhaps it was too dangerous a thing for the mind to hold or keep, and we always fell asleep just where the knowledge we were about to acquire became dangerous to us.
A television is tuned to a game show. “Top five answers on the board—We asked 100 men and women: What is most important to you in life?” The matriarch of the Jones family beats her opponent to the buzzer and exclaims, “Good health!” The game show host’s equally emphatic shout-out to the board above indicates he approves of her answer. “Can you give me some good health?!” And so it is. “Good health, the number 1 answer.” When the dust settles, the final tally is revealed:
1. GOOD HEALTH
5. FAMILY/RAISING CHILDREN
Unlike love or even happiness, good health is easily defined and quantifiable because it is, for the most part, diagnosable. Similarly, family and money are concepts easy to nail down. But love and happiness lend themselves to far more subjective, nuanced definitions based on who is doing the defining. Further muddying the water, it may even be exposed upon cross-examination that for some, the pursuit of love or happiness is not part of the endgame at all.
And happiness: the suburban hideaway and the bedroom with the chintz curtains; wasn’t it possible to aspire to something else, wasn’t it conceivable that happiness might not be the single goal? But what was it, then, I wanted?
In our search for clues, oftentimes we turn to the foil of those around us, for better or for worse.
I’VE ALWAYS thought there is nothing quite like the sight of a man at eight o’clock in the morning, dressed in a business suit, and with his face shaved and his tie knotted and a brief case under his arm, having a quick coffee at an orange stand where already the frankfurters are glossily turning on a hot griddle. I’ve always thought there is no face quite like the face of a young girl, with her lipstick on and the exact pencilings of her eyebrows, coming up out of the subway and trying to make it to the office on time. I’ve always thought there is nothing sadder anyplace than seeing what people look like early in the morning as they go to work.
If it is sadness extracted from the blend of workday faces on trains, buses, and avenues, perhaps it is in the pattern of predictability that emerges—individualism be damned—as if the likeness reveals that life even in a free society despite all its promise and opportunity may actually be fairly well confined, maybe even calculable akin to a Fibonacci sequence: Monday surrender, Monday surrender, midweek haggardness, Friday pep. Or, perhaps the true sadness in this picture is in the willingness of its subjects to mask true identities and dreams in favor of subscribing to blind hope that fate will one day deal a favorable hand.
For, after all, this passion for prediction was perfectly natural for her: what she wanted more than anything else was some reassurance that tomorrow would be better for her; that some reward awaited her; that a fulfillment of the dreams she thought she kept so well concealed from others was possible.
Except that hope or belief in fate can lead to a crippling complacency that blindsides the unsuspecting into realizing too late that things do not always turn out as planned.
Then why was everything so difficult? Why did the diffident palm return empty? Why were the alms she asked, the simple alms, refused her? Why, being beautiful, and why, being young, and why, being reasonably faithful and reasonably good and reasonably passionate, was it so hard to gouge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness?
A conundrum. The pursuit of love and happiness lends itself to more than a few strikeouts along the way. But with each passing whiff, it becomes increasingly difficult to swing for the fences. Nevertheless, if goals are to be reached then failure must be embraced and quitting isn’t an option anymore than merely stepping up to the plate is. If failure is part of the equation then one must learn to fail harder. Fail better.
The whole point is that nothing can save us but a good fall. It’s staying up there on the wire, balancing ourselves with that trivial parasol and being so pleased with terrifying an audience, that’s finishing us. Don’t you agree? A great fall, that’s what we need.
Regardless of the particulars underlying our deepest desires, each new day provides new opportunity to grab hold of or get closer to fulfillment sought. But it’s not easy. Human nature can be a sabotaging force. Maybe it is love’s powerful and poetic mythology that pushes its seekers off course, leaving them incapable of understanding what it or happiness truly entail in the context of their own lives.
It was a very convenient and fixed and unvarying idyll I had in mind, a simple sequence of pleasures that would not seriously change my life or interfere with my work, that would fill the emptiness of my long evenings and ease the pressures of my loneliness, and give me what I suppose I really thought of as the nicest amusement in all the amusement park: the pleasure of love.
Being blinded by the fantasy of ideals is a deterrent than can leave anyone incapable of appreciating blessings afforded even if such riches walked right up and bit them in the face. Opportunities are casually discarded as if a deep and endless well of such treasures exist to be tapped as desired.
Instead, we complain in small voices. Complain we’ve married the wrong girl, taken the wrong job, lived the wrong lives.
Wandering eyes remain on the lookout, poised to discover something better that surely must be out there waiting in the wings.
And what pitiful attempts we make at cures: we raise vegetables in ridiculous gardens, we apply for membership in athletic clubs, we promise ourselves to read again all the important books we’ve neglected. We think that what we want is a simpler life, and a more active, a more external one, and every Wednesday we diligently attend the square dances at the local schoolhouse imagining that a Virginia reel is the way back into a friendly community, and that denims and a checked shirt will restore communication with the stranger who lives next door.
Conversely, it isn’t a question of settling. It is simply to say that the search for love and happiness begins within, where self-realization paves the foundation of accountability, discernment, and wisdom. If you do not understand or cannot reveal who you are to even yourself let alone to others, all attempts at happiness and love will be built upon a house of cards.
And was this, we say, later, when it’s over, really us? But it’s impossible! How could that fool, that impossible actor, ever have been us? How could we have been that posturing clown? Who put that false laughter into our mouths? Who drew those insincere tears from our eyes? Who taught us all that artifice of suffering? We have been hiding all the time; the events, that once were so real, happened to other people, who resemble us, imitators using our name, registering in hotels we stayed at, declaiming verses we kept in private scrapbooks; but not us, surely not us, we wince thinking that it could ever have possibly been us.
In the end, although there is no tidy, universal definition of love or happiness to offer up or to subscribe to, the answers nevertheless exist within each of us. To borrow a bit of famous advice offered up by the wise old Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet: To thine own self be true.