The Careful Use of Compliments: Further Notes Towards a Theory of Romantic Love

In moments of stunning clarity and insight, Isabel Dalhousie, the 40-year-old moral philosopher who is the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Careful Use of Compliments, contemplates her relationship with her lover Jamie. Isabel, once hopelessly in love with a dashing research fellow at Cambridge, knows all too well that “it was bad luck, just bad luck, to fall in love with the wrong person. People did that all the time; they fell in love with somebody who for one reason or another could never be theirs. And then they served their sentence, the sentence of unrequited, impossible love, which could go on for years and years, with no remission for good behavior, none at all.” But in Jamie, a man fifteen years her junior who tutors bassoon students in their beloved city of Edinburgh, Isabel has at last found a love that is requited. She and Jamie, though not married, are openly lovers, and they have a son together. Isabel is unable to believe her good fortune, particularly in those ordinary moments they spend together:

With the intimacy of a married couple–which they were not–but with the sense of novelty and awe of lovers–which they were–Isabel and Jamie prepared for their dinner with Cat. Isabel sat on the edge of her bed half dressed, examining a black cocktail dress and wondering whether it was the right thing to wear; Jamie came out of the bathroom wearing only a white towel wrapped round his waist, his hair wet from the shower, tousled, small drops of water on his shoulders and forearms. She looked up at him and then looked away because she did not want him to see her looking upon him. One looked upon with lust, or with something akin to lust, and one would not want to be seen looking upon one’s lover in the way in which a gourmet, sitting at the table, would look upon an enticing dish.
Jamie moved over to the dressing table and picked up a brush. Bending down to look into the mirror, he brushed his hair roughly, but it sprang back up, as it always tended to do.
“Don’t worry,” said Isabel. “It looks nice like that. Your hair sticks up naturally.”
“It annoys me,” says Jamie. “Sometimes I think I’ll go to that place in Bruntsfield, you know the barbers near the luggage shop, and get a crew cut or one of those totally shaved styles.”
“You couldn’t,” said Isabel flatly. “It would be a crime.”
He turned to face her. “Why? It’s my head.”
She wanted to say, No, it’s not, it’s mine too, but she stopped herself. That was what she thought, though, and even as she thought it, she realized that Jamie was on loan to her, as we are all to one another, perhaps.

Isabel realizes that much as she loves Jamie, and much as she would like to possess him, he is ultimately not hers. He is her lover, but she does not own him. He is “on loan” to her, like a library book — checked out and renewable, yes, but subject to being recalled at any moment. This notion reminds me of the famous story of Rabbi Meir and his wife Bruriah. The Midrash on Sefer Mishlei (31) tells of how Bruriah discovered that their beloved sons died suddenly on the Sabbath, but she hid their deaths from her husband so as not to cause him distress on Shabbat. She lay her sons on the bed, spread a sheet over them, and told her husband that they had gone to the study house. After he had made Havdalah, she posed this question to him: If someone were to lend her something and later come back to ask for it, should she return it? Rabbi Meir responded that of course she should return it. Bruriah then took her husband by the hand and led him to their bedroom, where she removed the sheet covering the bodies of their sons. Rabbi Meir began to wail, but Bruriah reminded him of his own assertion that one must return a pledge to its rightful owner. Her husband replied, “God has given, and God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The notion that those we love are on loan to us, expressed by both Isabel and Bruriah, is one I feel in every fabric of my being. I identify with Isabel as she looks upon her freshly toweled lover. Like her, I wonder — is it really my good fortune to be with you? Are you really mine? Can there really be someone who loves me in all my foibles and flights of fancy? It does not seem possible that such supreme joy could be my rightful lot. For a while I was certain that it was all just a dream, that you were a butterfly in a jar, and that the moment I unscrewed the cap you would flap your dazzling wings and fly away. I felt the need to keep you all to myself, to hide you away in a cupboard, to shield you from the prying eyes of others who would be eager to rejoice in a fortune that I did not believe was mine. On some level, I could not shake off the conviction that any expression of public joy would only become a public shame. I have never found it easy to graciously accept gifts, and I was wholly unable to accept the gift of you.

Paradoxically, it was only when I could adopt the notion of love “on loan” that I could allow myself to trust enough to be able to love you without fear. Only when I realized that you were not mine forever could I revel in the fact that you were mine for now. We have been married for six months, and every morning when I wake up beside you, watching as the sun streams in through the window and dances across your still-shut eyelids, I must pinch myself to make sure it is really true. I say Modeh Ani in the morning, thanking God not just for restoring my soul to my body, but for restoring you to me. For there you are, here with me on yet another blessed day! It is this sense of wild gratitude that enables me to love you without being paralyzed by the fear of losing you. It is, perhaps, the opposite stance of W.H. Auden, who writes of a lover who errs on the side of confidence in love’s endurance:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

I know that love will not last forever, because nothing beautiful lasts forever. An inherent characteristic of beauty is that it unfolds in time: A real flower is more beautiful than a plastic one because the real flower will ultimately wither. This is why Rabbi Elazar cries upon seeing the beautiful Rabbi Yochanan. The Talmud (Brachot 5b) relates that when Rabbi Yochanan came to visit Rabbi Elazar on his deathbed, the former pulled up his sleeve and a brilliant light fell from his arm. Struck by his beauty, which the Talmud elsewhere compares to a glass of pomegranate seeds in the sunlight, Rabbi Elazar began to cry. Rabbi Yochanan asked: Why are you crying? He answered: I am crying for this beauty that will be ravaged by dust.

As this sugya reminds us, evanescence is beauty’s hallmark. A thing of beauty is not, in fact, a joy forever. It is the knowledge that the object of our love, in all its beauty, is not guaranteed to be ours forever that renders our love so precious and so prized. We are on loan to one another, which means that sometimes we must acknowledge that “God has given, and God has taken away.” We live in spite of those moments. But there are also the moments we live for, when the impulse for blessing comes from another acknowledgement, uttered in wonder and incredulity: God has taken away, but God has also given.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.