Mary Oliver on Love, Work & the Power of Books to Save Lives

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For British philosopher Alain De Botton, “Books are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.  They are the perfect cure for loneliness.  They can be our very closest friends.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson shared the belief that books could console and offer companionship.  For him, a library was “a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world” who could miraculously make “the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us.”  Whereas for esteemed literary critic Matthew Arnold, a well-stocked library was an invaluable collection of “the best that’s been thought and said.”

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver— our era’s luminous, large-hearted champion of silence, solitude, and devoted attention— books are a way to disappear into the life of someone else.  In her spirit-consoling essay collection Upstream, Oliver recalls that in her lonely childhood, she found solace in two parallel worlds: nature and books.  In nature, she uncovered a gateway to God, an entry to the sublime and sacred; in books, the profound relief that comes from sloughing off the skin of the self. 

Because a novel is a map tracing the topography of another person’s consciousness, reading is a masterclass in being someone else, a kind of magic portal to another realm.  Between the wrinkled pages of a book, we can be suburban housewives, glamorous debutantes, poor 19th century factory girls.  Though these characters lead vastly different lives from our own, immersed in their stories— their loves, their longings, their plights, their predicaments, their nightmares, their hells— we realize, in the lovely words of Ms. Oliver, there’s an “unbreakable cord” that unites us all; in other words, we find a powerful remedy to “it’s just me” syndrome.  By reminding us of our common humanity, books not only alleviate our loneliness— they widen our circle of empathy and enlarge our hearts:

“The second world— the world of literature— offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.  I relaxed in it.  I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything— other people, trees, clouds.  And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness— the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books— can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” 

In the same way a crush often begins with slight intrigue but ends in infatuation, Oliver’s interest in books began as a passing preoccupation but became an all-absorbing obsession.  For her, reading wasn’t a mere past time— it was a matter of life or death.  In the storm-tossed sea of her dysfunctional childhood, books were an indispensable life raft:

“I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly.  I read by day and into the night.  I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes.  I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

[…]

I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty.  I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life.  I wrote that way too.” 

Why does Oliver love language?  Much like Rebecca Solnit, a staunch advocate of calling things by their true names in our post-truth world, Oliver loves language because it’s an empowering way to make life mean.  To compose a graceful sentence where— as T.S. Eliot once said— “every word is at home,” to be able to sort airy abstractions into solid semantic compartments of comprehensible meaning is a power unparalleled.  In his compelling argument against cliche, endlessly erudite Alain De Botton wrote that “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  Indeed, when we possess the words to more fully name things, we can more fully participate in our experience:  

“I did not think of language as the means to self-description.  I thought of it as the door— a thousand opening doors!— past myself.  I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”

In his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claimed work is essential to happiness.  Though as a culture we view work as the antithesis of play, work— when it’s a calling, a vocation— can be a labor of love.  Because Oliver loved writing and wasn’t simply writing to attain some result, her long hours at the typewriter were bliss rather than an interminable hell.  And because she took such delight in composing beautiful arrangements of words, she was able to commit the endless years needed to become a master:

“I saw what skill was needed, and persistence— how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page— the long labor.  I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort.  Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.”  

In a lovely line, Oliver outlines the life-affirming commandments of her own personal credo:

You must not ever stop being whimsical.  

And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

What makes a life worthwhile?  Poets and philosophers have pondered this existential puzzle for millennia.  But for Oliver, the answer is simple: love and work.

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet.  But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating.  And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”  

Proust on How to Be Happy in Love

lovers“Who, being loved, is poor?” witty master of aphorisms Oscar Wilde once wondered.  Though it might be an overstatement to say “all you need is love,” ancient philosophers and contemporary science agree that satisfying relationships are a crucial component, if not the crucial component, of human happiness.  In one of the longest studies of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development followed 724 men in hopes of discovering the secrets to a good life.  Over the course of nearly 80 years, they observed their defeats and triumphs, their careers and love lives.  What they found was astonishing: more than IQ, social class, or genetics, quality relationships, particularly marriages, were the number one determiner of a fulfilling existence.  Not only did a harmonious matrimony dictate their overall life satisfaction— it had a far-reaching impact on their health.  Those in loving marriages, not those who had achieved wealth or prestige or our societal ideal of social status, were found to live longer than both their unmarried and unhappily married counterparts.  In fact, those who were most satisfied in their relationships at age fifty were the healthiest group at eighty.  Marital contentment was even a better predictor of later health than cholesterol.

Because meaningful relationships are so critical to our emotional and physical health, we should be alarmed by the current state of romantic love.  In the U.S. alone, nearly half of marriages end in divorce.  My generation is more reluctant to get married and often postpones, if not completely forgoes, tying the knot.  Though the rise of casual hookup apps like Tinder give the impression that millennials at least have red-hot sex lives, they’re actually having less sex than young people a generation ago.  Experts attribute the “sex recession” to everything from the widespread availability of porn to increasing psychological fragility and fear of intimacy (after all, masturbating to a cold blue computer screen requires a lot less vulnerability than being intimate with someone).  Still others argue the advent of online dating has made approaching the opposite sex in public socially awkward, even taboo.  The result?  Loneliness is at an all-time high with nearly 20% of Americans reporting they’re dissatisfied with their lives because they don’t have close confidantes.  

To say we in the modern era are suffering a crisis of love would be a gross understatement.  If nothing is more essential to human happiness than having a partner who can act as a lifeboat amid the sea of life’s misfortunes, it’s vital we learn how to sustain gratifying long-term relationships.  Based on our staggering divorce rates and dwindling number of sex partners, we clearly need a teacher to instruct us.  In his ever-enlightening self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we can find no better mentor than Marcel Proust, the fine French novelist who also taught us how to suffer successfully, reawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, remember the benefits and limitations of reading, and avoid the lure of platitudes and cliches.  At the beginning of the chapter “How to Be Happy in Love,” the example of the telephone illustrates the difficulty of keeping a long-term relationship alive.  When first invented, we stood before the telephone astounded at its ability to allow us to communicate across once unsurpassable distances.  Now, with just the dial of a few numbers, we could speak to someone over seven thousand miles away in Mumbai from the comfort of our studio apartment in New York.  But within a span of only a few decades, this technological wonder became just another staple of the average household, as commonplace as cutlery and toasters:

“Take the unemotive example of the telephone.  Bell invented it in 1876.  By 1900, there were thirty thousand phones in France.  Proust acquired one and particularly liked a service called the “theater-phone,” which allowed him to listen to live opera and theater in Paris venues.  

He might have appreciated his phone, but he noted how quickly everyone else began taking theirs for granted.  As early as 1907, he wrote that the machine was

a supernatural instrument whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.

Moreover, if the confiserie had a busy line or the connection to the tailor a hum, instead of admiring the technological advances that had frustrated our sophisticated desires, we tended to act with childish ingratitude.  

Since we are children who play with divine forces without shuddering before their mystery, we only find the telephone “convenient,” or rather, as we are spoilt children, we find that “it isn’t convenient,” we fill Le Figaro with our complaints. 

A mere thirty-one years separated Bell’s invention from Proust’s sad observations on the state of  French telephone-appreciation.  It had taken little more than three decades for a technological marvel to cease attracting admiring glances and turn into a household object that we wouldn’t hesitate to condemn were we to suffer at its hands the minor inconvenience of a delayed glace au chocolate.”

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Just as we take even the most miraculous technological innovations for granted once they become part of our day-to-day, we ungrateful mortals struggle to appreciate our significant others once we’ve committed to lifelong monogamy.  Recalling the narrator of Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, Botton suggests our capacity for appreciation diminishes as something becomes more familiar:

“As a boy, Proust’s narrator longs to befriend the beautiful, vivacious Gilberte, whom he has met playing in the Champs-Elysees.  Eventually, his wish comes true.  Gilberte becomes his friend, and invites him regularly to tea at her house.  There she cuts him slices of cake, ministers to his needs, and treats him with great affection.  

He is happy, but, soon enough, not as happy as he should be.  For so long, the idea of having tea at Gilberte’s house was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after quarter of an hour in her drawing room, it is the time before he knew her, before she was cutting him cake and showering him with affection, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.  

The outcome can only be a certain blindness to the favors he is enjoying.  He will soon forget what there is to be grateful for because the memory of a Gilberte-less life will fade, and with it, evidence of what there is to savor.  The smile on Gilberte’s face, the luxury of her tea, and the warmth of her manners will eventually become such a familiar part of his life that there will be as much incentive to notice them as there is to notice omnipresent elements like trees, clouds, and telephones.” 

At the cornerstone of both Botton and Proust’s conception of a fulfilling life is the ability to see clearly— and not just in the literal sense of visually discerning an object in physical reality, but in the deeper sense of seeing the world in all its miraculous grandeur and beauty.  While artists are experts at looking closely, we in regular life often fail to exercise our perceptive faculties.  We might “see” a night sky but never notice the way charcoal clouds blot out an erie moon, the way the silhouettes of bare branches form a sinister backdrop to a still autumn night.  We might “see” our husband or wife but never notice, truly notice, their rare ability to listen or the sweetness of their dimples or the innocence of their eyes.  It is a tragic irony that the more we see an object, the more we become blind:

“Though we usually assume that seeing an object requires us to have visual contact with it, and that seeing a mountain involves visiting the Alps and opening our eyes, this may only be the first and in a sense the inferior part of seeing, for appreciating an object properly may also require us to re-create it in our mind’s eye.  

After looking at a mountain, if we shut our lids and dwell on the scene internally, we are led to seize on its important details.  The mass of visual information is interpreted and the mountain’s salient features identified: its granite peaks, its glacial indentations, the mist hovering above the tree linedetails that we would previously have seen but not for that matter noticed.

 […]

Having something physically present sets up far from ideal circumstances in which to notice it.  Presence may in fact be the very element that encourages us to ignore or neglect it, because we feel we have done all the work simply in securing visual contact.” 

So how, exactly, can we apply these insights to be happier in love and cultivate more satisfying bonds?  In the Proustian worldview, the key to marital bliss, in fact any bliss, is looking anew: in other words, noticing, not just seeingour partners.  Rather than regard our husbands with the blasé indifference that extinguishes the flames of millions of marriages (“How was your day?” we ask more out of obligation than genuine interest only to half pay attention when he replies), we can reignite passion by pretending we’re first getting to know each other.  As Yiyun Li so beautifully articulates, the people closest to us are as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car.  Because the institution of marriage requires we live with the same person day after day, we begin to think we’ve charted the entire map of our lover’s heart; after all, after so much time together, how could any territory of his nature possibly remain unplumbed?  But this sense of familiarity is a mirage: though physical proximity ensures we literally see our partners, we rarely notice the many facets that comprise who they are.  As Mary Gaitskill observes, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  The routine nature of matrimony convinces us there’s no land of our lover left to explore when in actuality there’s still many new worlds and many new shores:

“Deprivation quickly drives us into the process of appreciation, which is not to say that we have to be deprived in order to appreciate things, but rather that we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t.

If long acquaintance with a lover so often breeds boredom, breeds a sense of knowing the person too well, the problem may ironically be that we do not know him or her well enough.  Whereas the initial novelty of the relationship could leave us in no doubt as to our ignorance, the subsequent reliable physical presence of the lover and the routines of communal life can delude us into thinking that we have achieved genuine, and dull, familiarity; whereas it may be no more than a fake sense of familiarity that physical presence fosters.”

It is a rule of human nature that desire begins with denial, infatuation with inaccessibility.  After all, who consumes us with the most ardent longing: our husbands whom we’ve managed to acquire or the sharply-dressed guy in the break room we barely converse with but see once in awhile?  In high school, who was our helpless obsession: our sweetest, most considerate guy friend or the hot punk we only observed from afar?  What lies just beyond our grasp is what most tantalizes us.  Proust was well aware of this fact.  “There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free,'” he once said.  Why is it that the rebuff of a dinner invitation makes a love interest all the more attractive?  For Proust, the answer once again rests in this idea of seeing vs. noticing: because our capacity for appreciation is gradually dulled by the habitual nature of domesticity, we merely see our long-term partners instead of notice them.  If couples don’t make a conscious and consistent effort to stoke the flames of romance, the intensity of desire they once felt will most certainly wane until what was once a lustful blaze will be smothered by the monotony of routine.  Our lovers will no longer hold interest for us because we know them too intimately (or, that is, we think we know them too intimately).

The man in the break room, on the other hand, will continue to allure us because he carries an aura of mystery.  Because our desire for him has not been fulfilled, he remains enticing.  The fact that he’s a distant crush and not a husband explains why he’s a source of fascination: the moment a lust is gratified, the moment when what we desperately yearn for is finally possessed is almost always unsatisfying— at least, not as satisfying as we imagined.  Attainment is ultimately disenchanting.  It is the delay of gratification, it is the not having that makes everything from a potential lover to a pair of shoes appealing.  In Search for Lost Time demonstrates this lesson through the characters of the Duchess and Albertine: 

“Both Albertine and the Duchess de Guermantes are interested in fashion.  However, Albertine has very little money and the Duchess owns half of France.  The Duchesse’s wardrobes are therefore overflowing; as soon as she sees something she wants, she can send for her dressmaker and her desire is fulfilled as rapidly as hands can sew.  Albertine, on the other hand, can hardly buy anything, and has to think at length before she does so.  She spends hours studying clothes, dreaming of a particular coat or hat or dressing gown.  The result is that though Albertine has far fewer clothes than the Duchesse, her understanding, appreciation, and love of them is far greater.

[…]

Proust compares Albertine to a student who visits Dresden after cultivating a desire to see a particular painting, whereas the Duchesse is likely a wealthy tourist who travels without any desire or knowledge, and experiences nothing but bewilderment, boredom and exhaustion when she arrives.  

Which emphasizes the extent to which physical possession is only one component of appreciation.  If the rich are fortunate in being able to travel to Dresden as soon as the desire to do so arises, or buy a dress after they have just seen it in a catalog, they are cursed because the speed with which their wealth fulfills their desires.  No sooner have they thought of Dresden than they can be on a train there; no sooner have they seen a dress than it can be in their wardrobe.  They therefore have no opportunity to suffer the interval between desire and gratification which the less privileged endure, and which, for all its apparent unpleasantness, has the incalculable benefit of allowing people to know and fall deeply in love with paintings in Dresden, hats, dressing gowns, and someone who isn’t free that evening.”

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Now let’s turn to a more controversial topic: sex.  What did the legendary French author have to say about getting busy between the sheets?  Throughout time, women were told chastity was a requisite for finding a husband.  Even after the feminist and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s, our mothers still clung to the conservative belief that we should wait as long as possible before engaging in the ultimate act of intimacy.  “Why would a man buy the whole ice cream truck if you’re giving away the popsicles for free?” they cautioned.  In other words, why would a man ever exchange vows to remain faithful in “sickness and health” if he already achieved his ultimate aim?  

Though as a culture we no longer hold the outdated belief that a woman needs to remain “pure” to be attractive, Proust might say our mothers— for all their antiquated ideas of gender roles and offensive double standards— were in some ways correct.  “Women who are to some extent resistant, whom one cannot possess at once, whom one does not even know at first whether one will ever possess are the only interesting ones,” he once wrote.  Now, before we condemn Proust as an unforgivable misogynist, he believed this principle equally applied to men.  If love is three quarters curiosity as quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, love wilts as familiarity grows.  Compare your attitude toward where you live to an exotic locale.  What do you look at with more longing: the cobblestone streets and sparkling waters of Venice, Italy or the well-trotted roads of your daily route?  Obviously, the former.  However, if you could too easily secure the object of your desire, if because of an overflowing bank account or an abundance of frequent flier miles, you could fly halfway across the world to gaze upon St. Mark’s Basilica with little difficulty, the experience would be less satisfying.  Within an hour of suffering the impossibly long lines of Italy in summer, you’d be dreaming of yet another faraway destination: the idyllic English countryside, perhaps, or a breathtaking beach in the Caribbean.

This elucidates the basis of Proust’s theory of desire: we are incapable of appreciating what can be obtained with little effort.  If we sleep with someone on the first date (or even the second or third), there’s no more mystery, curiosity: the once exciting possibility of traversing the societal boundaries of clothes and exploring the forbidden territory of another’s body becomes as boring and predictable as our well-trodden route to work.  For Proust, this was the fundamental problem with the prostitute: “because she both wishes to entice a man and yet is commercially prevented from doing what is most likely to encourage love— namely, tell him that she is not free tonight…the outcome is clear, and therefore real, lasting desire unlikely.”  So if we want to captivate our lovers, we must maintain the mystery.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is Not All”

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LOVE IS NOT ALL (SONNET XXX)

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,

Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,

Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,

I might be driven to sell your love for peace,

Or trade the memory of this night for food.

It well may be. I do not think I would.

One of my guilty pleasures is Chris Brown and Jordan Spark’s “No Air.”  I have many an embarrassing memory of my best friend and I blasting this cheesy, over-the-top love song during senior year.  Devastated that she lost the “love of her life,” Sparks opens the song with crooning melodrama: “Losing you,” she insists, “is like living in a world with no air.”  

But is it?  

19th century poetry and sappy top 40 love songs tend to exaggerate the role of love in our lives.  This idealized vision of love is just what modernist poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is rallying against in her lovely, understated poem “Love is Not All.”  Though Millay uses none of the unorthodox pyrotechnics of her modernist contemporaries, she still manages to undermine convention, albeit in a more traditional style. In this Shakespearean-style sonnet, Millay resorts to none of the time-worn cliches about love and instead subverts such familiar platitudes:

…it is not meat or drink

Nor slumber, nor roof from rain;

Nor a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,

Nor clean the blood nor set the fractured bone” (Millay 1-6).

Here, the profusion of negation suggests Millay is more interested in revealing what love is not than in defining exactly what love is. The poem’s very title- “Love is Not All”- refuses to offer a concrete definition, only explaining love in terms of what it is not.

For Millay, love is not adequately described by the banalities of cheesy Hallmark cards and rom-coms. The objects Millay chooses to name in her illumination of what love is not- “meat”/“drink”/“slumber”/“roof”-represent necessities essential for physical survival. Though gushy love songs may proclaim that “love lifts us up where we belong,” Millay reveals such hyperbolic language a farce: however giddy and exciting the experience of love, it can never, she argues, sustain us. And despite popular claims to the contrary, love is not redemptive: it cannot reawaken our “breath” or heal a “fractured” bone. We can be pretty certain that Millay would disagree with the Beatles’ sweet-if naïve-assertion that “all you need is love.”

So is Millay just a coldly rational, love-bashing cynic? Interestingly, no. In the tradition of the Petrarchian sonnet, “Love is Not All” sees a major shift at its 8th line:

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone” (Millay 7-8).

So though Millay aims to refute the prevailing misconception that love is “all”, she is not negating its importance all together. Sure, love might not bring a drowning man to shore but it can still provide solace in a lonely world.

 Millay’s problem, then, is not with love itself but its exaggerated importance in our minds.  You can profess genuine, profound love for another, she’d say, but please, for the love of god, don’t claim that living without them is like “living in a world with no air.”