On Being Human: What is the Barbaric Impulse?
I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational. Oscar Wilde
I sat in Professor Root’s office and he asked me if I had ever read ‘Troilus and Cressida.’ “No, I haven’t.” Truth was, I hadn’t even heard of it, but I wasn’t going to cop to that. He continued, his head tilted slightly to the side, his eyes boring into mine, “A tale of woe that reduced me to such sorrow that I could weep, even now, just thinking about it.”
So I went home and read it. It’s a love story, like all stories. But (Spoiler Alert) this is no rom-com; it does not have a happy ending.
The basic gist: Troilus mocks love and then the buffoonery of the men in Troy who are taken in by love. Then, naturally, he falls hard for Cressida. Pride goeth before the fall, and all that. Cressida is, to put it colloquially, hot, and luckily for Troilus, she’s hot for him. They share a night of awe and wonder. But, alas, she’s sent away from Troy as a pawn in a game of wartime politics. She promises Troilus, though, that as soon as she’s able, she will come running back to him. But she doesn’t. She resigns herself to her fate and her new life and forgets about Troilus entirely. And all’s not well that doesn’t end well: Cressida lives in an ether of forgetfulness, Troilus’s despair consumes him just as love consumed him.
Love lost and despair will both, of course, bring us all to tears and tear us apart. But perhaps what Chaucer captures most poignantly and pointedly is how love sought and even love attained consumes us! Troilus, in his love for Cressida, is struck sick. He loves Cressida with a madness, a fever, a frenzy that bends his brain and body to breaking. And it rings perfectly true, for isn’t this what love is? A frenzied madness, threating to tear us apart? No doubt it was this familiarity with the sting of love—not the sting of unrequited love, even, but the consumption of love itself—that burned Professor Root’s eyes. It burned mine, too.
The Greeks understood something about love’s power: before they borrowed Aphrodite, the goddess of love, from the Babylonians and changed her name, she was called Ishtar. But the Babylonian goddess Ishtar was not just the goddess of love, she was the goddess of war. Isn’t that wild? How could a god of love also serve as a god of war? Aren’t love and war completely at odds with each another? But of course, it makes perfect sense: What can we liken to the frenzy, the frenetic, the crazy of battle, with its adrenaline and sweat and bloodshed, but the terror and panic we experience in love? Love is barbaric. It rips us apart. There is a reason we call it falling—not ascending—into love. There is something out-of-control about it. There is something visceral in the way it lays waste and consumes us, even as it free us, and even as we cannot help but admit our desire for it.
I have felt something of what Troilus felt. On the playground, third grade. Jessie Gallaway. When she walked by, every time she walked by, I felt absolutely sick. And flying. My body buzzed and hummed. My mind constantly drifted into imaginings of her face, her aspect…her ponytail. What would I say if I had the chance? The possibilities allured and terrified me. It was wonderful.
In Junior High school, I listened on repeat to Garth Brooks’ song, ‘Learning to Live Again.’ It was a song about divorce and I think I vaguely understood that, but I was twelve. I had no idea what he was singing about, no experience with it. Still, it wrecked me. Made me weep like a baby. Made me weep like Professor Root.
There is something barbaric in our capacity for love. When that capacity is touched (even if we are receiving loved, not having it taken from us!), it makes us quake. There is a longing that tears us apart when we even come near to it. And of course, when love is taken from us, it’s a complete rending. So we spend our life reaching for it and running like hell from it. This is the great paradox of being human: what we most desire most terrifies us.
More to come (soon)