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Debotri Dhar
An Indian Abroad

Debotri Dhar is a visiting fellow and lecturer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The mind may have its limitations, not the heart

Historically, romantic love has played out as a gendered performance across many cultures.

Roland Barthes

"Love? You're kidding," says a student, upon learning that the last section of our transnational studies course concerns precisely that oft-used-and-abused word. Love. "There's a method in my madness," I protest. The class has just completed "Homes and hybridity," a set of articles in the syllabus which interrogate real and symbolic borders and boundaries; and "Lost in translation," where we talk about the near-impossibility for individuals and collectives to completely comprehend ideas, experiences, cultures and contexts different from our own. I have designed the final section of the syllabus to suggest that the most human way to fill this gap, globally, is not by abstract reasoning but through love, romantic and otherwise. For the mind may have its limitations; the heart does not.

Historically, romantic love has played out as a gendered performance across many cultures: man the active pursuer, woman the passive pursued. Thus wrote the 19th century Victorian poet Constance Naden, exasperated by her times: "My logic he sets at defiance, declares my Latin is no use/And when I begin to talk Science, he calls me a dear little goose." The roll of the dice is a bit more equal now, but in heterosexual games of the heart, a woman's brilliance is still a bit of a liability just as her physical beauty is an asset. "Especially in arranged marriages, like in India. When will these conservative ideas end?" a student in my introductory class opines. "Well, marriage itself is a conservative idea," I say, with a laugh. "Everywhere, the rhetoric of marriage ranks the unimaginative comfort of sameness higher than the personal growth obtainable through engaging stark difference. Also, read Chela Sandoval's Methodology of the Oppressed. It critiques the Western narrative form of 'falling in love,' the institutionalization of love into law." Silence. "What then?" someone asks. "Revolutionary love," another student murmurs.

Yes. I'm thinking of A Lover's Discourse, where the famous French literary theorist and cultural critic Roland Barthes had spoken of love's "artful un-anchoring," the language of lovers that punctures everyday narratives tying us to dulled social worlds to permit a "gentle hemorrhage that makes anything possible." For Barthes, love is a "place of life," between narrative forms and beyond ideology, a wounded space, a site of shifting. It reminds me of the African American poet Reginald Shepherd's "Therefore You," which has some of the most lyrical lines one has ever read on love. ("...Home is nowhere, therefore you/a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all/and free of any eden we can name.")

According to Barthes, romantic love is not the same as revolutionary love, but can access it, by freeing citizen-subjects from ties that bind. Revolutionary love: a stormy place beyond language, beyond mediocrity and institutionalism, a place of passion, excess, madness. Pablo Neruda is playing in my head now: "The morning is full of storm, in the heart of summer/The clouds travel like white handkerchiefs of goodbye/The wind, travelling, waving them in its hands/The numberless heart of the wind, beating above our loving silence/Orchestral and divine, resounding among the trees/Like a language full of wars and songs."

From the personal, it's a fairly short route to the political. I'm reminded of the Urdu poet Jigar Moradabadi's glittering gem "Ek lafz-e-mohabbat ka, adnaa yeh fasanaa hai/simte to dil-e-aashiq, phaile to zamanaa hai (The word love tells a pithy tale/When it shrinks, it is the heart of a lover/When it expands, it encompasses the entire world)." Or Dagh Dehlvi's retort to our worthy friends on the far right: "Ashiqui se milega ai zahid/bandagii se khuda nahin milta (God is obtained not through pious worship but through courtship)." Or, on similar lines, the Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's lilting "Bhalobashi bhalobashi (I love, I love)." An open-ended love, an objectless love, love as social ethics, love as the global practice of freedom. So far, so good. But I can't seem to recall why I have titled this section of the course syllabus "Death, life and love." Ah, yes. Neruda again: "If nothing saves us from death, at least love should save us from life."

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