Monday, March 30, 2009

Love as an Act of Inference

My bedtime reading these days is a novel by Emily Listfield, Waiting to Surface. I'm only a few chapters into it so far, but it's making me wonder how well we can ever really know the people we love. The book's premise is that the husband of the protagonist, Sarah, disappears without a trace at a moment when they are estranged from each other and on a fast track to divorce.

While she's trying to digest the initial, nauseating news of her husband Todd's disappearance, Sarah reflects on something that resonated with me even though I'm pretty confident I'll never go through a comparable experience. (Listfield apparently based the book on her own real-life experience - a fact I'm trying hard to repress because it so horrifies me.)
People offer up fragments of themselves to friends, spouses, lovers, leaving each person to create the remaining whole according to what they have in hand, forensic scientists all. But no two pieces are precisely alike, some barely have any resemblance at all. Love, it seems, and understanding, are largely acts of inference.

(Emily Listfield, Waiting to Surface, p. 37)
Since I don't watch CSI but I did spend enough time in archives to warp my personality, the only metaphor that doesn't work for me in this passage is the "forensic scientist" bit. I'm picturing instead the archaeologist, holding shards of a life. Or even more pertinently, the historian, skimming through reams of documents that time's ravages have rendered fragile and frustratingly incomplete. The history of emotions is especially hard to reconstruct; in my dissertation research, for instance, I typically had to rely on doctors' accounts of how women reacted to giving birth, sometimes reading the doctors' descriptions against the grain.

We assume that the people we know are a whole lot transparent than that. Yes, people lie. But that's not what Sarah/Listfield is saying. She's insisting that it's in the very nature of relationships that we cannot fathom the other in his or her fullness.

In this novel, this unknowability and ambiguity lays the ground for (apparent) tragedy. Even in the absence of high drama, however, I think that our fragmentary understanding helps explain how a partner can demand a divorce, or have an affair, or suddenly declare themselves unhappy with the couple's division of labor - or maybe all of the above - and their partner may be blindsided.

Yet I suspect that recognizing love as an act of inference explains more than just the death of love. It may also hold the promise of greater happiness? Might it also be a call for humility toward our partners, which could liberate us (by, for instance, erasing the expectation that we'll always automatically be on the same page)? Might it open the possibility of continually discovering new and wonderful aspects in them? Might it suggest that terminal boredom in a marriage or other long-term relationship just means we've closed our eyes to how our partners are fundamentally unknowable?

I don't know the answer to those questions, but they remind me of Esther Perel's prescriptions for keeping a marriage erotically alive in her book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Much of her message is to cultivate a healthy distance and mystery. What Listfield suggests is that this mystery is always there, always present. Our task is to recognize it and celebrate it.

Perfect crocuses (which have withered since I took this picture behind my house). Relate this to the post as you will.


isabel said...

this post immediately called to mind one of my favorite quotes of all time, from a tale of two cities:

A WONDERFUL FACT to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life's end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

i dunno. i'm the sort of person who's okay with something being impossible if it's impossible for everyone; i don't mind continual process as long as i can believe failure to reach the end is not a mark of weakness on my part. it's scary sometimes, this idea, especially applied to those we love, but aren't most things worth doing a little scary in some way?

or to i guess riff on how you close your post: you could say, how terrible that we'll never know all or even most. or you could say, how wonderful that eternally there is more for us to learn. & neither of these is wholly wrong or wholly correct. but i think the latter is somewhat more true.

Emily said...

Hi...I'm so glad you're enjoying my novel, Waiting to Surface. The idea of how well we can ever know another person has always fascinated me. (And yes, the novel was based on my life.) I have a new novel coming out in May, Best Intentions, that comes at the same question from a different angle - What happens if you think you know the person you love - and you're dead wrong (literally.) It's about how you may think you know what the person you love wants (friend, lover, spouse) and act accordingly, but if you don't have good communication you can go about it all wrong - with deadly results. It's the first novel to come out set in the economic freefall we're in and examines the effects of financial anxiety on a marriage. Let me know what you think of it! Best Emily or join me on facebook

Sungold said...

A wonderful quotation, Isabel! I'm okay with the process, especially as a shared process. In fact, when I try to imagine someone who could know me perfectly - be it a friend or a parent or a lover - I'm creeped out by the very idea.

It's possible, too, that those "glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged" are more beautiful than seeing everything that's hidden.

Personally, I think the continual process you describe can be thrilling. So yes, scary too, but often in wonderful ways. Of course that holds true only as long as there's trust and a bedrock of good will in a relationship. If that bedrock crumbles, then secrets quickly start to seem malign.

Thanks for a lovely extension to my post.

Sungold said...

Emily, how nice of you to stop by! I'm very sorry to hear that the premise is so close to real-life events. You've managed to transmute the pain into a thing of beauty - at least on paper.

Yes, I'm loving your book. I'll watch for your new one, because Waiting to Surface has really impressed me so far. It's beautifully written and it's making me think, which is an intoxicating combination.

Emily said...

It means so much to a writer to know you have given someone something to think - and feel- about. It's funny, but reading your blog (and the comments) made me think that another main theme in the book is dealing with uncertainty. Mine was an extreme case, but it's something we all have to come to terms with in various aspects of our lives - romantic, parental, certainly financial these days. It can be one of the toughest things, but a universal part of the human condition. Anyway, it made me write about it on my own blog:

Sungold said...

I think I have an inkling how you feel, Emily, because teaching is a little like that too. Often I don't hear from students after a class ends. So when I do get personal feedback, whether it's at the end of the quarter or even a few years later, it's really meaningful. The handful who are unhappy confine their comments to anonymous course evaluations, so that helps!

I went over and read your blog post, and I agree that uncertainty is a major theme in your book. (Quite obviously it is in your life, too.) I commented over there, but I guess I'd like to say that the unknowability of a person is one part of uncertainty - but only one part. And I agree that it's universal. Not even the rich and highly privileged are immune.