Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Nelly, I am Heathcliff!

Adolescence is a metamorphosis and, if you think about it, most novels for teenagers are about identity. ‘Who am I?’ asks the teenage protagonist. And: ‘Who am I becoming?’ Then, just when they think they have a grip, the rules change. For example, nothing threatens identity like love.

In the most famous lines ever written about young love, Juliet beseeches Romeo to give up his name, give up his identity, and offers to give up her own:
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name!
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.”
Love brings both of them to a famously sticky end. And no wonder. Recent research suggests that love is a powerful drug – almost literally. In the teenage brain it lights up the same neural pathways as cocaine. Love is addictive and powerful, especially young love. ‘I can’t live,’ wails one 70s power ballad, ‘if living is without you.’

Sigmund Freud thought romantic love was a kind of disorder. He believed that to love someone romantically is to put yourself at risk of being consumed by the object of your love, in other words, you become the thing you love. ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff,’ cries Catherine in Wuthering Heights.

Maybe Sigmund had been burned by love. ‘We are never so defenceless,’ he wrote, ‘than when we love.’ Love bleeds. When we love we breach containment, we spill over into the world. Love springs from our unconscious, from our deeply embedded instincts and impulses. The object of our love is, according to Freud, really a part of ourselves, walking out in the world, utterly exposed and at risk.

Writers have written about bad love for centuries, this love that threatens to annihilate us. And yet love isn’t bad – quite the opposite. Phillip Larkin wrote, ‘What will survive of us is love.’ What it means to love is an issue relating to our human existence. It is a question of philosophy, a question that writers, poets, musicians and artists – rather than scientists – are best equipped to handle. The mystery of love makes it an inexhasutable topic. Love exceeds simple biology. Love ignites our souls. Love endures.

In the ancient Song of Solomon, the sexiest book in the bible, the female narrator raves, ‘His mouth is full of sweetness. This is my beloved and this is my friend.’ It’s a beautiful line, and it tells us something about good love. It’s sweet and delicious, it’s heady and physical, but it’s also real and down to earth. It’s a love that Freud would say is curbed by the reality principle – desire meets practicality. This is the love I would wish for all my young characters: exhaltation, sweetness, friendship, love, keeping their identities intact.


  1. I wish I had been one of your characters as a teenager, then ...

    As a teenager, I was hopelessly insecure (aren't we all) to the point where when a boy I liked tried to kiss me when I was 14 I pushed him away because I was afraid I didn't know how to do it properly. Sigh. My first real kiss was when I was completely smashed a year later and I was so embarassed when I got teased after the weekend that it took my months to speak to the boy again, even though I did like him and vice versa. Double sigh.

    Love is a force for good; the throes of being 'in love' can be horrible.

  2. Oh Ariel, you SO have to read Indigo Girls - Tilly does exactly that (pushes the boy she likes away)!

    Being a teenager is so hard, I'm glad it only happens once and that it ends.

  3. Okay I will ... off to Readings I go!


  4. how nice that Larkin could rise above himself long enough to say that: it's hard to imagine the Larkin of the famous umbrella at the bus stop story saying that.....you also have to wonder how the Song of Solomon didn't get edited out of the bible.

  5. It is very unLarkin, isn't it?

  6. Anonymous8:43 AM

    Ah Penni, this is why I go to blogs: a place where Freud and Philip Larkin can rub shoulders with Harry Nilsson.

    But like a woollen jumper on a barbed wire fence, I'm caught by your closing phrase, 'keeping their identities intact'.

    Is that really so, or are identities more fluid and changeable, and less an 'essential' thing? Do the conflicts of adolescence create and form our identities? Discuss.