Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Of Morrissey, Neko, and the search for ágape

In 1986, The Smiths released the Queen is Dead, an album that has remained my favorite piece of alterna-pop for over 25 years.  It ends with "Some Girls are Bigger Than Others:"
From the ice age to the dole age
There is but one concern
I have just discovered:
Some girls are bigger than others
Following their undisputed masterpiece "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," "Some Girls" is a notoriously anti-climactic conclusion to the album. While "There is a Light" manages to combine  longing morbidity with transcendent hope, "Some Girls"  plays like a throw-away dittie that ruins the climax of the record.

However, "Some Girls" also expands the latent irony of "There is a Light" by reducing its object of worship to a simple comparison: someone so beloved at one moment--"to die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die"--becomes merely "some girl" in the next moment. A lost opportunity in "There is a Light"--"I thought, 'oh, God, my chance has come at last!' / But a strange fear gripped me, and I just couldn't ask!"--becomes a "just discovered" banality in "Some Girls." While "There is a Light" evokes the agony and ecstasy of adolescent love, "Some Girls" reduces these feelings to just one of a long line of crushes.

I wish it were that easy in real life. It used to be, didn't it? The pain of unrequited love one suffers at 17 seems excruciating, but it eventually fades in time. And from the comfortable perspective of my 40's, I can look back with simple fondness on the girl with whom I was deeply infatuated at 17. After I mustered up the courage to "ask," she came to see me the same way I had seen her--but I soon realized she was just another girl. Many other girls followed -- some bigger than others. But to a boy of 17, the longing for that first one was all-consuming.

After adolescence passes--when we realize the world doesn't revolve around us--another type of love becomes possible. The Greeks called it agápe, an unconditional love. Such a selfless desire to prioritize another person's well-being and happiness over one's own is impossible for adolescents, who are simply too self-centered to empathize that deeply with another person. In my experience, it is difficult to create, but it endures much longer than the burgeoning éros of youth.

But if agápe develops first and then opens the door to éros, the results can be just as devastating as they were at 17.  The unconditional, selfless component of the love prevents it from dissipating so rapidly. One's desire to protect and nurture the other person never really fades.

All this is prompted by a friend calling me out on Twitter the other day. I tweeted something about marriage being a "sucker bet," and he wanted to know what I meant. Simply this: the odds are pretty bad. I've recently watched the disintegration of what I had thought were two ideal marriages. I've watched other marriages drift into passive resignation. Some recent weddings and engagements have left me wondering what the hell they were thinking.

We're conditioned by the ideology of "romance" to believe in the existence of one perfect person, someone with whom we'll share a lifetime (or eternity) of bliss. Our culture's narratives are full of sappy, boy-meets-girl stories, most of which end with a wedding. Maybe it's Romanticism's fault; Jane Austen IS our high priestess. She pretty much invented the modern "romantic comedy."
But Austen's characters are controlled by ideological and economic forces just as powerful as interpersonal attraction. "Fortune" means money as well as destiny. And marriage is ultimately an economic institution invented to ensure the rights of legitimate male inheritance by regulating female sexuality. That's the reason patriarchal, capitalist societies insist on female monogamy: to make sure dad's stuff gets passed on to HIS son rather than some other guy's.

So I'm cynical about marriage. Getting a girl or boy can be pretty easy, but keeping them happy over the course of 40 years is another matter entirely. Yet I've not lost my "Romantic" sensibility. Here's why: I still think choosing a mate because of compulsive éros--and expecting that sort of love to endure unabated for 50 years--is simple folly. But so too is settling for anything less.

I stumbled onto this photograph yesterday:
Some Girls are Bigger than Others
(I'm sure that my fascination with Neko is pretty much a cliché by now, but I've gotta play the hand I'm dealt.) Since this picture of my two favorite female singer-songwriters appeared on a blog named after a song from my favorite Smiths album, I started thinking about Neko's metaphors in the context of Morrissey's ironic cynicism. Here's what occurred to me: two of my closest friends are still proudly and fiercely single. So is my mom. They've managed to avoid settling for a relationship that isn't right. Maybe they've short-changed themselves out of a chance at happiness, but they've also managed to avoid consigning themselves to a life of mute resignation or profound heartbreak.

Yet they still believe in love. They still try to find it. They know it's really, really hard, that it's full of regrets which are:
 Common as a winter cold
They're telephone poles
They follow each other, one, after another
After another
But my friends are still patiently and fiercely holding out hope for a glimpse of a 17 year-old's agony, that éros which seems to awaken life:

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,
"I don't care if forever never comes
'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

The speaker of this lyric refuses the ideological imperative for marriage and insists on waiting for  a "Light that Never Goes Out." 

Maybe some girls ARE bigger than others.


  1. I think marriage is about finding the girl who's big enough. I hadn't heard this till I saw Tyler Perry's "Why did I get Married," (don't ask why I was watching this) but the characters were discussing the 80/20% idea. If you can find the person who fulfills 80% of your ideal mate(maybe not the best looking, or as tidy as you like, but is your best friend and lover), then why mess around with someone who only fits 20%(is drop dead gorgeous, but can't hold a conversation, not smart, mean spirited, etc).

    I found my 80% at the age of 14. We've had some rough spots (both of us looking for that last 20%) but we're really happy now. I can't see being with anyone else.

  2. Holy crap, I just realized that I turned 34 last Thursday, so it's be 20 years!!! Crazy.

  3. Is it wrong to want to live on your own?
    No, it's not wrong but I must know
    How can someone so young
    Sing words so sad?

    I am that big girl with the tumblr blog (tried to contact you privately, but couldn't). Of course I didn't mind being mentioned in your blog (actually it was a great self esteem booster, since I haven't that many followers).

    My advice is that we just have to avoid becoming bitter adults. The world is already full of useless humans dragging themselves around without any hope. There is a lot of sense in being cynical (I can't see any other way to be, living in this world) -- but even our favourite Steven Morrissey has a pounding heart, and he struggles and suffers now at 52 as he did at 20.
    There are bigger girls and women, and bigger boys and men.