Love and War, Series 3 No.7

By Helen Constantine, David Constantine

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Eros and Thanatos, love and death, loving and killing, love and war, are ancient in us, and opposites. Life is a continual struggle between the two and it is not only finally but very often along the way that Thanatos wins. Some lives are lived in thrall to death and only serving death, and the physical end of such lives is only the conclusion of a serial.

Love in literature – and there must be grounds for this in real living – has from the first adopted the imagery of war to say what it feels like and to describe and further the lover’s means and ends. So Sappho begs Aphrodite to be her ‘σύμμαχος’, her fellow-fighter, in love’s war. With her aid she hopes to win. And Wyatt, after Petrarch, moves to and fro in a similar imagery: ‘I find no peace, and all my war is done.’ Love, like an army, camps, spreads its banner, lives or dies ‘in the field’. Mostly, in literature and the life it springs from, it is the man who plans and campaigns; who makes advances; who is repulsed; who counter-attacks. It might be love they are writing about, but the language is often that of calculation and, in the end, of force. It is getting, not being. The woman, the citadel, is taken. The Liaisons dangereuses, written by an army man, is one long extended and literalized metaphor: love as war. The love of the two chief opponents, Merteuil and Valmont, spreads into their relations with all others, involving them in their own mortal combat. Kleist’s verse play Penthesilea, the very thought of which gave Goethe the creeps, radically and thoroughly stages the metaphor of love’s war – on the battlefield outside Troy, Achilles against the Amazon queen. She wins, tearing him with her teeth, proving on his flesh the proximity of kissing and biting. In German the words rhyme, as she observes; and the realization, the dawning consciousness of that closeness and that she has enacted it, kills her, having killed him.

Would any writer still want to play with war, real war, in the expression of love? Was Apollinaire the last? In the poems we print here he revels exuberantly in the imagery of the battlefield, thinking of Lou. In a poem absent here, his ‘Si je mourais là-bas’, strange companion-piece for Brooke’s ‘If I should die …’, he imagines (after a shell falling and opening like mimosa) a rain of blood further reddening the lips and nipples of his beloved, a sort of drenching of the universe, for a greater vitality, with the red precipitation of wholsesale slaughter. Strange and troubling conceit, Eros against Thanatos, erotic imagination against the ugly fact of overwhelming and mechanical death. Would anyone still want to write like that? After the last century’s wars and the wars we started this one with? Countries, like women, taken; and rape, real rape, at the heart of it, and not just as excess and accident, but as enacted policy. War was always like that. But it is omnipresent now. Remote from the current war-zones, we know their images. And we know to the point of nausea the pornography of men in suits and uniforms salivating over phallic weaponry. We know, we know. The pictures themselves, the official and sanctioned pornography, should be enough to deter us from mixing love and war. 

Marx thought capitalism intrinsically belligerent. Trade wars become gunboats and invasions very naturally. Many seem to think, after our famous victory in the Cold War, that capitalism is the one true faith and the right and natural form for all human dealings, endpoint and summit of humanity’s evolution. Others don’t think that and hope that those who do won’t always prevail. There was a man from Vodaphone on the Today programme not long ago. He was talking about the new markets just opening up to his company in India. India, he said, is only thirteen percent penetrated. He was excited, there is no other word for it. He said it again, amazed and excited: ‘Only thirteen – that is ONE THREE – percent penetrated!’ Europe, on the other hand, is more than a hundred percent penetrated. 

Love played with the language of war; war and belligerent capitalism hijack the language of love and sex. It matters, what language you use. Metaphors get literalized very easily.

‘Make Love not War’ is unequivocal. Good monosyllables, easy to understand.

David and Helen Constantine
March 2007

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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One hears in these poems a voice, or rather, voices that had scarcely reached the ears of any public, let alone one given to reading poems. David Constantine

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