Drama and Melodrama

Was there anything to suggest that this was something other than a cozy breakfast between two people?

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[i]

At breakfast, Claire conveyed the message that she had had enough. She did so very gently, very softly, playing with the gold chain around her wrist, tugging a little at the sleeve of an olive-green cardigan, scratching her cheek briefly, the execution of the lover carried out in such a delicate manner that it was perilously easy to think, if only for a moment, that nothing whatsoever had happened. The tap continued to drip, the fridge to let off its intermittent shiver, the newspaper to advertise a weekend in Paris for lovers for £109 (return). Had a West London equivalent of Mount Vesuvius erupted at this moment, and miraculously preserved the physical evidence of the scene in lava, there would have been nothing to suggest that this had been anything other than a cozy breakfast between two people (surely close friends, even a couple, the museum caption would read, for did you see how close they were sitting?), in a narrow, dilapidated kitchen decorated in an erratic arrangement of buttercup-yellow and lime-green tiles.

[ii]

In the summer of 1863, the art critic John Ruskin was on a walk across a valley in the Engadine region of Switzerland, when the sky darkened abruptly to an ominous grey-black hue. Having been warned of the severity of summer storms in the valley, Ruskin ran to find shelter in a mountain hut, and from its safety witnessed a most violent natural commotion breaking overhead.

Rain began lashing down, jagged lines of lightning streaked across the sky, followed by bellowing, tearing sounds, as if the earth were opening up or the planet disintegrating. The windows shook from the sound of thunder, a nearby tree took a direct lightning strike and split down the middle, its insides smoking from the electric charge. A river that ran alongside the house swelled to bursting point, rushing by in a dark brown frenzy, carrying with it a tortured medley of broken branches.

It looked as if the end of the world had come, as if this were the moment of death and of apocalypse. But, of course, it was no such thing, it was merely a passing thunderstorm in a little valley in Switzerland, a storm which would be over in under half an hour, would kill no one, and would disappear from public memory shortly after.

The contrast led Ruskin to the idea that thunderstorms were what death, and dramatic events, generally should be like, but usually were not; the idea that our life’s dramas rarely look as dramatic as they are. Our most cataclysmic moments are typically free of gravitas, of necessary thunder; a person dies, but instead of the sky darkening and lightning striking, the sun continues to shine and the birds to sing. Someone drops overboard to their death and the sea gulls circle charmingly and the fish swim on. One person tells another that they no longer want to grow old with them, and the toast pops up.

[iii]

Claire: Oh, I forgot I’d put them in.

She turns rapidly towards the counter, removing two slices of lightly tanned bread.

Claire: Would you like one of them?

I: No. Thanks.

Claire: Are you sure?

I: Yes, thank you.

Claire proceeds to spread an olive-based margarine over the tanned slices, conscientiously reaching to cover each corner.

Theatrical lines because, in contrast to the novel, it is only what is said that one hears on stage, the audience given the crest of the iceberg and left to imagine the bulk below.

[iv]

The person (in mythology, it is always a man) who leaves his house one morning saying he is off to buy a packet of cigarettes, and then simply never returns, is usually judged the most cowardly example of how to tell someone it’s over. Why didn’t the wretch buy the Marlboros, come back home, and generously explain the issue?

Yet, for all the brutal lack of courtesy, there is something arresting, even impressive about the cigarette man, for he has pushed to the limit the saddest but perhaps most ineradicable feature of a break-up; that the reasons behind it cannot (if one is humane) ever be articulated to the rejected. Why not then resort to this mute flight, which in its Beckett-like austerity at least reflects the bleak truth of the situation?

Instead, “I just need to work out where I am in my life” filled in for “you’re insufferable” — eerie similarities here to seduction, the phoney gentleness with which bad news was broken acting as an echo of the way that in more pleasant, seducing days, there was a “Perhaps you’d be interested in seeing a play with me; The Birthday Party is opening on the weekend” — this when the concern was not so much the theatre of the absurd as an overpowering wish for an embrace.

If rejectors don’t walk out of the house like the cigarette man, it may simply be out of a childishly irresponsible wish to continue to be loved, loved even by those they no longer love. And yet how much kinder it would be to stop wanting to seem nice, and really be nice, which would mean doing everything possible to allow the rejected person to hate the rejector and thereby forget them quickly.

[v]

Which Claire was far from doing. In subsequent days, there were phone calls to check that the patient had not committed suicide.

In the telephonic exchanges, the wounded bird did his best. He enquired as to the progress of her garden, the health of the mother, asked how work was going [Liz had forgotten a file on a train, but a kindly soul had picked it up and called the firm].

Would she have suspected the flavor of the hidden thoughts?

[vi]

Herzog, the hero of Saul Bellow’s novel of the same name, has been left by his wife. Herzog is a civilised man, a thoughtful, sensitive professor of literature, yet when his wife leaves him, so does his reason. He retreats from others and, in his country house, takes to writing letters not only to his ex-wife, but to everyone he knows, even to people who don’t know him but who he is familiar with from television and the papers. These are frank letters, a chance for Herzog to abandon the half-heartedness social life imposes on us so as to tell them, all of them, what is really on his mind — and hence go a little mad.

 

“Dear Mr President, I listened to your recent optimistic message on the radio and thought that in respect to taxes there was little to justify your optimism…

Dear Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression, ‘the fall into the quotidian’. When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?

Dear Mr Emmett Strawforth, I saw you on television making a damn fool of yourself. Since we were undergraduates together, I feel free to tell you what I think of your philosophy…”

[vi]

There was an identification with Herzog [always helpful, identification, for the bookish in crisis], for I too took out a pad and arranged myself on the bed, my head supported by pillows, scribbling with a biro letters I knew would never be sent, but nevertheless needed to be written.

Dear Claire,

Only a few months ago, when we came back from Dan and Harriet’s, you were feeling particularly loving, you put your head on my shoulder, and told me — with no prompting from me [you might quite easily have broached another topic, for instance, the state of primary education in the country or the unusually clement weather at the time] that you loved me and that you would never leave me. I am sorry to be so literal, I am sorry to take words at their value, but what exactly did you mean by this declaration? Were you aware of what you had said, or was it simply the effect of one glass of wine too many? Whatever the answer, do you not agree that there is a responsibility on a person who makes such declarations? My knowledge of the law is shallow. I am certain that a jury would have no particular compassion for such a case, but have you paused to imagine that you broke a promise, broke an intention, and could hence be considered responsible for a breach of contract [at least in theory] under certain interpretations of the law? I draw your attention to a recent case in the United States in which a woman took a man to court for telling her that he loved her, only then for her to find him sleeping with another woman shortly after…

 

Dear Mrs Segwick,

Normally, it’s the child who never asks to be born — at fifteen in a rage. But, more importantly Mrs Sedgwick, does one ever ask to fall in love? Was there ever any choice with your daughter, or was it not just a form of compulsion, a biological compulsion if one is to believe a recent issue of Scientific American? May I nevertheless allow myself to comment on certain points in the education of your daughter, particularly her tendency towards emotional flight and abandonment…

 

[vii]

The idea of taking revenge has something a little old-fashioned about it. If I had lived in a different era, the tale might have concluded itself in one of the following ways:

— the spurned lover murders the new lover of the beloved [there was one, he was called Clifford (Clifford?) and worked in data management], perhaps by gouging out his eyes, or placing him upon a rack.

— the spurned lover attempts to poison the beloved with arsenic.

— the spurned lover finds a suitably high cliff, and jumps off, leaving a suicide note. The beloved, on discovering the note, feels so guilty that she too jumps off the cliff, to the distress of her friends and family.

— the spurned lover engineers a plot to bring infamy and ruin upon the house of the beloved’s parents. Destitute, the beloved beg for forgiveness from the once spurned, now-adored lover, who might at this point be sitting astride a horse.

[viii]

It is hard to say what features of the modern world have made revenge scenarios so hopelessly dated. One could suggest:

— the rise of emotional counseling and psychotherapy: Othello would now have been urged to take out his feelings on a cushion, to express his anger in an AA-style meeting, and to delve back into his past to discover the roots of his fearsome jealousy.

— the rise of irony as a dominant sentiment in much art and literature. Contrast this with what was going on in Spain, Italy, or France around the seventeenth century, a very earnest time; cloaks and daggers etc.

— the decline in murder as a useful, or indeed glamorous, way of resolving disputes of the heart.

 

[ix]

And so, in this unheroic age, revenge was limited to a decision that, if ever I ran into Clifford and Claire at a party or in a supermarket, I would ignore Clifford.

I would not shoot myself, or Claire, or Clifford. I would deliver no great soliloquies after all.

[x]

Some thoughts on the greatest jilted lover in European literature, Wolfgang von Goethe’s Young Werther. The novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was first published in Leipzig, 1774, and at once became a bestseller. The melodramatic story of a young man who commits suicide in the wake of a failed love affair proved of immense appeal to Goethe’s contemporaries. Even Napoleon, a busy man, read the book seven times. There was a Werther epidemic, people took to wearing clothes like those of the fictional character, they imitated his mannerisms, pursued doomed love affairs, even committed suicide in Werther style. One Wertherian young man in Berlin shot himself by a table on which he had opened Goethe’s book at page 218, the page on which the fictional Werther ends his life. Thanks to Goethe, it was the height of fashion to be unhappy in love and finish oneself off in the grand style.

From the outside, from our standpoint, it looks a touch melodramatic. Even Goethe felt things had gone too far. Doomed love was sad, but not that sad. Things should be kept in perspective. And so Goethe wrote a parody of the work that half of Germany was approaching with such earnest sentimental intensity. In this parody, Werther fails to commit suicide. The gun is old and a little rusty. The bullet only singes his eyebrows and frightens the neighbors. What is more, the woman Werther loves comes around to the idea of him, and so after a while, they decide to get married, grow old peacefully, and occasionally joke about that silly suicide attempt in Werther’s youth, that “beastly shot at the head” as they call it.

[xi]

Notes towards a definition of maturity: indulgence towards the drama, towards the pistol, the thunder and lightning. But also, thereafter, perspective, a touch of parody: those singed eyebrows. •

 

 

Alain de Botton is the bestselling author of such books as How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, and The Architecture of Happiness. He was born in Zurich, Switzerland and now lives in London.

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