This Obscure Warmth of the Soul: Memory, Grief and Love

A Girl Defending Herself Against Eros. William Aldophe-Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1880.

Grief feels like a race against time while I wait for my memories to fade—the memories of a happy life, the memories of a shattered life, the memories of the pain. Distract yourself with new activities, meet new people, make new connections is the advice I am constantly given. And strangely enough sometimes being with other people makes the grief and my sense of being alone worse.

Reading Paul Valery’s writings. on “Eros” in the final sections of his Cahiers/Notebooks 1 has especially struck a cord with me as I think about memory, grief and love. Valery had an eight year love affair with poet Catherine Pozzi and much of his writings about Eros are influenced by his love for her.  I’m not surprised he used the Ancient Greek word Eros for love—Eros is a complex figure that is unpredictable; Eros both elevates men and ruins them. Many see love as a distraction or a drain on one’s time and energy but Valery suggests that real love gives us more energy to accomplish other goals in life. Valery had some of his most productive and creative years of writing when he was with Catherine and she even gave him notes and encouraged him to publish his notebooks:

Happy love mobilizes all our strength. It creates superabundance, which is the supreme good, and the need for the finest works, making them necessary, easily accomplished, a relief. The happy lover is rich. He’s a physiological and psychological millionaire. He’s the king of expenditure. 

And:

To be profoundly loved, is the greatest thing in the world. It was the impossible object of God. ‘Profoundly,’ this is not about pleasure, nor about pride. But to received this obscure warmth of the soul, to warm yourself at the life which glows only for you…

What is a true, deeply loving relationship?  What is it, exactly, that I’ve lost? Alan wasn’t a distraction from my job or my reading or writing, but instead he enhanced it.  I think he would agree that I wasn’t a distraction from his work or his motorcycles or his camping, but I enhanced and encouraged and supported these things.  I hadn’t thought about this until Alan’s death, but I realize now that our lives were intertwined in a way that allowed us to complement each other;  and since my old life has been destroyed I feel that every day is an attempt to slowly build back my own foundation—find new supports, new ways of carrying on. Valery uses the metaphor of roots and a tree to explain this relationship-as-support idea beautifully: 

Love grows like a plant and what we see of it, namely the leaves and flowers, the fruit and stem, is nothing without what we don’t see, the roots. Nobody knows them exactly, neither their extent, nor their depth, nor their precise trajectories, nor the state of them.

For nothing imaginable explains the penetration, the vitality, the development of this plant by the apparent conditions of its nature. 

Any love love which can be reduced to a few things that can be counted out, described, understood, foreseen is a small plant of no importance.

But when we lose this kind of love Valery describes having a “soul-pain.”  When he is apart from Catherine  and when they finally go their separate ways for good the intensity of his grief is unbearable—something to which I can certainly relate. He writes about it simply and concisely as, “The one thing I think of tenderly, I think of also with pain. What is that thing? It’s you or it’s me.” 

Valery feels that the only true comfort for the pain is fading memory—he calls this a “fruitful forgetfulness.” When everyone tells me what I really need for the grief to pass is time that is what they are essentially saying—as the memories fade, so will the pain.  Valery writes:

The more or less powerful faculty we have…of diminishing the importance of something by taking other objects into consideration with it, by introducing a very different scale , or a much broader angle of view, —it seems that time, of its own accord, exercises this faculty automatically through the weakening of impressions, forgetfulness. Although intense pain can scarcely be weakened by thinking of or looking at other things, by reducing it to the point of the body where it’s apparently produced, still the succession of time undoes it and cancels it out little by little.

New people, new connections, new memories; grief as a race against time…

And so, is the pleasure, the beauty, and the intensity of love worth the pain?  I keep asking myself this question over and over and over. 

The answer to this, I think, is the last thing that Alan taught me.  We were always learning new things from each other and his final “lesson” was probably his most important.  His last text message to me said, “Goodnight, I love you! See you soon.”  And my response, “I love you too. Can’t wait to see you!” If given the choice to send a final message before he was killed, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have sent this same message and sent it to me. 

I suspect that when my own time is up that I won’t think to myself that I should have worked more, or worked harder or spent more hours making money or starting a business or fixing my house, or doing one of the million other chores I fret over everyday. Today especially I’ve learned that people, connections, relationships and love are so much more important than any of the number of things or tasks we spend hours of our time and effort on.  It sounds clique and almost silly to say, but the true measure of a successful life is love; that’s what we are here for and nothing else in the end really matters—even when it ends in incredible pain and tragedy and heartsickness—nothing else really matters.

And so the natural question for me is, “Now what?” Do I close myself off to new connections, new relationships, new love? Do I want to suffer that kind of pain again?

What would Penelope have done if Odysseus never came home?

A dear, kind, astute friend write to me recently and gave me an answer that has changed my thought process: “Consider the Universe and his possibilities,” he said.

 

 

 

17 Comments

Filed under Essay, French Literature, Opinion Posts

17 responses to “This Obscure Warmth of the Soul: Memory, Grief and Love

  1. What a lovely and thoughtful post, Melissa, and I think you’re right to pick out how our lives become intertwined with our loved ones – that *is* what makes the pain of loss so much stronger. But I think the love is worth the pain – or else it can be an empty, half-lived life. And I think that if you are the kind of person I think you are, you will be open to what life brings you – and I’m sure it will bring you the right thing when you are ready for it. x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a beautifully expressed post, Melissa. I think you’re right: love is the most important thing in life. I watched my father go through the grief of losing my mother when I was nineteen. Eventually, he was able to open himself to new possibilities and found happiness. I hope you will, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Douglas Penick

    Thank you so much for your generous and moving post.

    I don’t believe we can elect to fall in love, and have only a bit of control about with whom. But, there is no question to have such a deep and fruitful life with someone is immense good fortune. Pain, as the Buddha had it, is simply a property of life here. I am utterly fortunate right now in being married to someone with whom I share so very much and deeply. Knowing what I know about the future, I still cannot hold back from this at all, and would not want to.

    But I’m at a time of life (75) when, even with this happiness, so many people close and dear to me have died, are dying. I can almost get used to my physical decline, but I can’t get used to losing so many loved ones and the worlds they brought to me every time I saw or spoke with them. But actually, in my mind stream if not in the outer world, they are still here. They may not be continuing here, but our relationship is. Now, it’s just in a different register.

    The loneliness and abandonment within gets deeper and richer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t think we can choose whether or not we fall in love either. But how we choose to act on that love is what’s most important.

      The sudden loss of Alan is so bewildering. It’s maken me take stock in all my relationships.

      Like

  4. Dear Melissa,
    thank you for your reading, quotes and thoughts of Valery as well as sharing your own experience with questions and answers.
    Good wishes
    Bernd

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kury

    It is a difficult time of year, of life. Be gentle with the bookbinders daughter.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s not strange to feel worse when you are surrounded by others who have what you don’t have any more.
    My worst moment, the time that completely undid me, was when I was invited by kindly neighbours to a BBQ, and I was fine until she was suddenly blindsided by one of her migraines, and he went to her straight away and helped her into the house. And I was overwhelmed by the realisation that I didn’t have anyone to look after me any more. I had to go home and howl.
    Of course it was never true that I’d always had someone to look after me. There were plenty of times when I had dealt with Stuff all by myself, and when he let me down, and anyway I was always a capable, independent woman who doesn’t depend on someone to look after me.
    But that’s what grief does. It idealises, and it makes us doubt our own capacity to get by. And it often does it when we are not alone, because it’s when we are alone, that we see through the fog that we are getting by, even if it’s very painful.
    Keep seeing your friends but try not to idealise what they seem to have.
    Hang in there, Melissa, good wishes to you from across the miles, Lisa

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s when people invite me over and it’s obviously out of pity that makes it worse. The handful of people I’m very close to are wonderful for me to get around.

      Like

      • It may not be pity… most of us are inexperienced in dealing with bereavement and grief, and people just don’t know what to do and say. They care, but they get it wrong. In this case, they’re possibly making the assumption that it’s better for you not to be alone, and to signal that you are still going to be part of their social group.
        For all the reams of paper and advice columns there are about grief, most of it is useless and contradictory, because grief is so personal. What seems like a supportive response might work for me but not for you.
        Other people who get it wrong can be one of the most awkward things to negotiate when you are grieving, because it can make you feel very angry. I used to feel judgemental, as in judging them for their complacency, but (I hope!) I didn’t make that obvious.
        I’m probably getting it wrong myself right now…

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Melissa – your have beautifully articulated the blending of souls and the power of love to connect, cherish, build, embrace, encourage, hope. Thank you for the gift of this post .

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I just enjoyed your post very much, Melissa:) I would add to what has already been said, that love gives us a sense of life:) Many thanks and have a good day.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Dearest Melissa, thinking of you and wishing you the very, very best.
    What follows sounds possibly harsh and singularly unhelpful, so feel free to ignore it but Tennyson said:
    ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
    Than never to have loved at all.’
    I have never known a loving, mutually supportive relationship with a spouse, despite having been married twice. And I don’t think I ever will now, with age and negative experiences making me very reluctant to ever believe or commit again. I don’t like that in myself, that my heart is so scarred now that it won’t allow itself to love again.
    I hope your heart will heal and be more open than mine.

    Liked by 1 person

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