18 April 2016

Love and demonology

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate for literature, is one author who knows love. His "Love in the time of cholera" is a timeless novel simply because he seems to have captured an incredibly wide range of the nuances contained in that word. Moreover, he has painted its inevitable intricacies, treasured secrets and the vacillation between unutterable sorrow and utter joy with music that is not unworthy of the phenomenon.

In the many stories that make up this novel; in the travels and travails of that most delicate of human organs, the heart; the heartbreak and elation; and the soothing salve of time that irons out the torments of memory and the tears of nostalgia into bearable proportions, all lovers of all continents discover and rediscover themselves. Such is the magic that Garcia Marquez infuses into the word.

What I find most compelling about the man, however, is that even after arguably saying everything that could be said about the subject, he was able to come up with an entirely different dimension of love in a subsequent novel, "Of love and other demons", an exquisite examination of the madness of passion and the passionate insanity of the societal gaze on what Marquez calls "the most terrible affliction of them all". Love.

Yes, love, timeless and indefinable, understood only in the extremities to which it drives those it possesses, is a leveller second only to death. And if the story of Sierva Maria and Fr. Cayetano Delaura is anything to go by, there are times when even death fails to stop the powerful currents of love. Saliya and Asokamala, we note, are still alive and not just in the Ranmasu Uyana.

Love makes the waves. Unceasing ones too. This is why the assigning of a day for the celebration of this mercurial, capture-defying thing, is strange. Saint Valentine’s Day is not about love. To claim that it is would be an insult to that one idea that refers to the inexpressible commerce between human beings. St. Valentine’s Day is about a different kind of commerce and it has nothing to do with love outside of prostituting the word.

This VD (Valentine’s Day) syndrome hit us only recently. I suppose one could explain it as a result of desperate capitalism running out of ideas with which to market products we really don’t need. "If we can’t sell love, let’s see if we can use love to sell what we have" might have been the logic of spreading VD around.

VD came and went several months ago. But don’t worry, it will come again. In the meantime, a lot of people seem to have got hot under the collar about love, VD and what are perceived to be associated social diseases. Puritans have called for a banning of VD. The argument is as much against the commercialism that gives the young a wrong message, as it is a comment on social propriety. What concerns me is not so much the call for banning VD, but the ideology that fuels the demand.

As has been editorially pointed out in The Island, VD cannot be "banned" for very practical reasons. It is not an official holiday. It is not a political party engaged in activities that threaten the sovereignty of the nation (even if this were the case, VD advocates will probably get off citing the love-affair that the government is having with the LTTE). VD is not an "event". It is nothing less, nothing more, than a commercial gimmick. VD for business is what Murali is to Janashakthi (no offence to Murali of course). Both situations are pregnant with iconography, marketing and profit. In a country where these things are almost articles of faith (unfortunately, I might add), nothing less than vast structural changes will be required to alter the equation in favour humanity, dignity and decent social intercourse.

The "Ban VD" call does not arise from a concern about the general process of which VD marketing is but one expression. If that were the case, all these anti-VD voices would have been raised in unison to strengthen the slogan "Out with the WTO, IMF and the World Bank". That has not happened. No, the protests have more to do with certain misconceptions about love and social propriety, running through which are undeclared but clearly apparent hang-ups about sex.

This is not the place to locate the relative merits and positions of love and sex in their inter-relatedness. What we can talk about is the merit of the moral universe within which these things lie, for these are the parameters that are referenced in the objections raised.

Our society’s fixations about things such as the virginity, sexual experimentation, the sanctity of marriage, divorce etc., have no base in our traditional cultural ethos. Sinhala society, for example, was always liberal. The West had to have a sexual revolution to liberate itself from the straight jacket of Victorian morality.

Our society, on the other hand, was always "revolutionary" in these things. They were part and parcel of everyday life. Our women, through norms of inheritance and cohabitation, were far more emancipated than today’s western woman, and this included matters pertaining to sexuality as well. 

The British introduced the registration of marriages not to "civilise the heathens", but to systematise and control property arrangements. Male chauvinism seized the opportunity for it enabled men to exercise a control over women that had not been possible previously. That was the beginning of Victorian Sinhalaness. And it is this deformed and ill-willed creature that the purists are trying to fatten.

A long time ago, a friend of mine lamented about present day children not being able to develop their creativity. He argued that whereas we made our own toys from material obtained from our immediate environment, today’s kids are hooked on plastic. Another friend, begged to differ: "nirmanasheelathvaya plastic vinividinava" (Creativity transcends plastic). True love, similarly, rises above crass commercialisation, and is able to differentiate the real thing from the colourfully decorated fake item.

A mature society forms its own norms about the acceptable level of public expression of love. Such a society will not emerge until such time we decide to unload our colonial baggage about these things. A society that does not have hang-ups about sex does not necessarily snowball into one where people have nothing else to do but fornicate at the drop of a hat.

Love, and its expression, cannot and will not be imprisoned within the high walls of morality and certainly not by legal edict. The admonishing such tendencies imply, bring me back to Marquez’ novel.

Sierva Maria, the rebellious only child of a decaying noble family, is bitten by a rabid dog on her 12th birthday and is made to withstand therepies indistinguishable from torture. Believed to be possessed, she is imprisoned in a convent where she meets Fr. Cayetano Delaura, who has been sent to oversee her exorcism. Fr. Delaura, a protege of the Bishop, is unprepared for the transfiguring passion that Sierva Maria awakes in his soul. And neither state nor church can sunder apart the immortal bonds they have tied their hearts together with.

Surveillance, high walls and finally excommunication, all fail in exorcising love from their hearts. Their love is improbable, deeply moving, and defying - even in death, the constraints of reason and faith. And as the violence of the god-squad increases in tempo, so too rises the tenderness of their faith. The ill-conceived order of worldly things, wrapped in pretensions about divinity, is turned upside down. The church, intent on exorcising perceived demons, gradually becomes the demon, and divinity takes up residence in the young hearts of the tragic lovers.

Things such as love, in all its forms and all its expressions, defy capture and triumph over all efforts at containment within rules and regulations. Such things have a natural aversion to divine writ as defined by god-squads. And they occur not only in Garcia Marquez’ novels, for their truth cannot be confined within fictional boundaries. Anyone who has ever experienced love will know this. They would dismiss with a smile the sexual element and the morality that prohibits the expression of love in any and all ways possible to imagine.

V-Day in Sri Lanka was an unqualified joke. The festivities at Vihara Maha Devi Udyana (until recently Victoria Park, paradoxically, considering the love and sex that has found a willing accomplice in that garden), was promoted as a celebration and a demand for more opportunity/space for love and lovers. It had little to do with love.

Love, as lovers have always known, finds the space it needs. And lovers do not have to worry about exorcising the exorcist. Love, and the rest inevitably follows.

*This article was first published in the Sunday Island (August 4, 2002).  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.


Anonymous said...

'You cannot stop your heart from loving, really, it's like standing out there in the ocean yelling at the waves to stop'- Love in the time of cholera.

Anonymous said...

All true, But pathetically people do get blame for loving.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree. Loving has repercussions like none. Loving can be a living hell especially when it is unrequited- when one is forced to clap with one hand.

Anonymous said...

“Because, if you could love someone, and keep loving them, without being loved back . . . then that love had to be real. It hurt too much to be anything else.”
Sarah Cross, Kill Me Softly