Essay: The art and law of love
I cannot think of a more radical definition of romantic love than the one taken by Lionel Trilling in The Last Lover, his 1958 essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Here, Trilling argues that the defining criterion of real romantic love is scandal. Most crucially, love can only exist in opposition to marriage, which is a pragmatic arrangement about property, offspring, and communal and political alliance.
“For scandal,” writes Trilling, “was of the essence of passion-love, which not only inverted the marital relationship of men and women but subverted marriage itself.”
What then, was a modern writer to do if they wanted to write about such love? Adultery, which once threatened the sanctity of marriage to the point of appropriate scandal, does poorly in modern times: “the very word is archaic; we recognise the possibility of its use only in law or in the past.” While the recognition of the fear of marital infidelity did it for the audience of Othello, it doesn’t cut much ice with modern audiences, for whom sexual jealousy is real but a moral assertion of that jealousy no longer sustainable. “The word ‘unfaithful’”, writes Trilling, “which once had so terrible a charge of meaning, begins to sound quaint, seeming to be inappropriate to our moral code.”
This paves the path for Trilling’s terrifying claim: that to maintain the true condition of passion-love, the writer must only tell the story that remains as far from marriage as possible, and widely out of the way of all practical consideration. Any working condition of “mutuality” would ruin everything, any concern for each other’s well being or prestige would make it look like a marriage, and hence out of bounds of true passion-love.
“So that,” Trilling reaches his conclusion, “a man in the grip of an obsessional lust and a girl of twelve make the ideal couple for a story about love written in our time.”
This is a dangerous claim at any time – which is exactly what Trilling declares his intent to be. But it is fated to come across as especially unsettling in an age where the hashtag #MeToo has deepened our awareness of patriarchal modes of sexual exploitation, and the manner in which they exclude women from the sphere of political and sexual agency.
Biographical facts may introduce disturbing tremors here: Trilling’s own gender, race, age, position of power and privilege – those of Nabokov perhaps, and why not that of Humbert Humbert? The disrupted equation of moral codes looks different surely when one is on the wrong side of the power game? Is it a whole lot easier to take aesthetic delight in the absence of “mutuality” as the marker of passion-love when the apple cart of power tilts in your direction?
What about spheres of love that have traditionally existed outside the normative codes of conjugal relation? Is their existence “outside” the very condition of their power? Perhaps not. The inquiry into their ethical condition of existence draws us into a black hole; neither is that Trilling’s concern. His real concern is that of artistic representation; the novel of romance, more precisely. The moral freedom, indeed, anarchy that nourishes the soul of transgressive art is risky business in life; it can set us back by centuries of hard-earned freedom and progress.
What happens, therefore, to literature when subjects outside the pale of normative behaviour win victories to gain proximity to the centre – legal, societal and otherwise? Literature itself maybe a tall order, its bundle of dark idiosyncrasies. But what about the literary sphere – the space of public discussion and reception, perhaps the Habermasian one?
Does the tenor of expectation from (erstwhile) works of transgressive romance change in an especially noticeable way when victories are won in societies that have been, for whatever reasons, slow to nurture conditions of liberation?
Same-sex love ceased to be a crime in the eyes of the law in India on September 6, 2018. The judges who struck down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code did so on the grounds that it criminalises consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex”.
Eyes of law, yes. The eyes of society? That’s a longer draw – and a sadder, more nettlesome discussion.
The eyes of art? They caught on quickly too! The Rainbow Literature Festival, the first-full blown festival devoted to queer and inclusive culture, was held in Delhi in December 2018. The buoyant spirit of the age guided the excited arrival of new books. Two notable memoirs published in 2019 captured the light and shadow of secrecy and “normalcy” – Rangnekar’s From Straight to Normal, and Now You Know, by editor and book-blogger Vivek Tejuja. An intriguing work of collective biography followed: Gay Icons of India, edited by Hoshang Merchant and Akshaya K Rath, profiles of 22 leading English-speaking, urban, queer protagonists of different fields of art and activism.
If such books and collections were not new, the attention given to such books now began to feel different. The private literary voice often spoke in the language of Don’t Let Him Know, the title of Sandip Roy’s moving diasporic story of closeted identity, even when communal coming together shouted Out, the title of Minal Hajratwala’s 2012 collection of queer stories from India.
Read more: Review: The Scent of God by Saikat Majumdar
But in the post-2018 world, it felt like things had come a long way: from the underground cult of Riyadh Wadia’s Bomgay to the 2019 mainstream Bollywood movie Ek Ladki ko Dekha to Aisa Laga, a lesbian romance featuring Sonam Kapoor.
For Trilling, adultery stopped being a desirable subject for romantic literature the day it stopped shocking people. Non-heteronormative sexual identities are still a shocking matter for the majority of Indians, for whom the abolition of Section 377 remains a small technical matter that is easily ignored.
The dream remains for the day when a same-sex romance occupies the same space as heteronormative romance – for the day it no longer has to be marked different. But does it stand to lose a certain kind of artistic appeal when it is indistinguishable from the normative?
Saikat Majumdar’s most recent book is the novel The Scent of God (2019)