the modern lovers: rodin, robin williams, and ryan gosling

It’s almost like he achieved his true meaning. And Drive is similar in the sense that The Driver was meant to become a superhero, and he’s denied all these things—relationships, companionship. And why would he be denied that? It was because he was meant for something greater.
-Nicholas Winding Refn

What are we after all our dreams, after all our memories?
-Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook

For William and Sadie
-Justin Timberlake, dedication to “Mirrors”

We’ve all had this moment: your friend does something both amazing and highly visible. He goes on stage, or she appears on television, or he is on tour, signing copies of his own book.

Something very strange happens, and I’m not talking about jealousy. I’m talking about the feeling that no matter how long you’ve known this person, you don’t know what to say to them, because they’re suddenly living on a different plane. They’re inaccessible. Their art, or opinions, or whatever it is, is a thing, and that reification affects them, making them another equally remote and marvelous thing. It doesn’t even matter whether you like their stuff or not – regardless, you still end up joining one of the demographics their work has created.

Of course, any reasonable person is going to brush this feeling aside pretty fast. In fact, everyone will collaborate – without needing to say a word about it – on having a “regular night out” that will restore the old roles and the old balance. The eeriness will still be in the air, though, and it leaves traces. All sorts of questions that, once upon a time, you would have asked…you don’t. Half their sentences end a full octave higher, as if to say, “Honestly, I don’t really understand how it happened either, you know me, I’m a weirdo actually.”

What’s happened is this: the person and the image have switched places. Normally, when we see someone’s image on Facebook or read something they’ve written, we treat this as a form of incomplete access to them. The image is nothing without them, which is why we don’t make aesthetic judgments about Facebook photo albums. Furthermore, if we make moral judgments, we treat the photo as utterly intentional and “successful,” even though this couldn’t possibly be true. Same goes for text.

The moment the image takes over, the model changes. Take, for example, a biography of Michael Jackson. Everything that relates to his music and persona (no matter how private) becomes important, an object of reasonable curiosity. Everything that doesn’t relate, conversely, isn’t interesting – which can be put very politely, as in “I’m not interested in the details of Jackson’s private life.” We suspend moral judgments about such people easily, without even thinking about it. The tension between these two approaches is so great that people will often downplay incredibly significant events, simply in order to deny that an acquaintance is now a celebrity. Hence comedian Maria Bamford hearing this from a former classmate, when she returns to her hometown: “I saw you on TV, or whatever. It’s just like in high school. You’re not funny, nobody understands what you’re saying.”

Furthermore, to talk about “the tension between these two approaches” is also to talk about love. Desire turns living flesh into a drawer full of snapshots, and it breathes life into sculptures. Whenever we’re enjoying a perfect consummation, seeing a dream or fantasy coming true before our eyes, we also want that perfection to end…because we want the other person to jump out of the frame and be real. Otherwise there’s no sense of getting beyond the fantasy, which, as mature people, we know is very important. Conversely, to love without slipping into dreams about the beloved, to see them without a subtle and immediate feeling of wonder — is not love. Sure, I have friends who’d disagree. To them, the highest form of love is a sympathetic, lucid companionship. But I’m not going to put love to work like that, making it toil in the service of some other ideal, such as family or serenity. Those ideals can hold their own just fine. Why should we try to reach every conceivable destination the same way, by going out on dates?

For centuries now, we’ve loved like this, marveling that the person we love can sit, and talk, and drink coffee, just like anybody else. We demand of them, in fact, that they be “down to earth.” This is Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting:

My wife used to fart when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful idiosyncrasies. You know what? She used to fart in her sleep. Sorry I shared that with you. One night it was so loud it woke the dog up. She woke up and gone like “oh was that you?” I’d say yeah…I didn’t have the heart to tell her…Oh God….aahhh, but, Will, she’s been dead two years and that’s the shit I remember. Wonderful stuff, you know, little things like that. Ah, but, those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That’s what made her my wife. Oh, and she had the goods on me, too, she knew all my little peccadillos. People call these things imperfections, but they’re not, aw, that’s the good stuff. And then we get to choose who we let in to our weird little worlds.

When Robin Williams says it’s the imperfections he misses most, he is voicing a nearly universal sentiment. He’s also telling a story, and stories are capacious enough to contain both dramatic and ordinary moments, and to celebrate both. At one point in his story, his wife is a divine, elusive nymph, and at another, she’s Lucille Ball. If she was sitting across from him, she couldn’t possibly be both, but she’s not. She’s dead, just like the woman in The Notebook, who is immured by Alzheimer’s, or like the man in Justin Timberlake’s new video for “Mirrors,” who’s a ghost.

Consider, along with these examples, that of Rodin. Rebecca Sheehan, in her terrific article “The Time of Sculpture: Film, Photography, and Auguste Rodin,” tries to understand why Rodin wanted so badly for his sculptures to move, or at the very least be affected and altered when the world moves around them. Sheehan writes of Rodin’s “The Three Shades” that, “…we see particularly…that Rodin appears to be walking us through a process of perceiving a single figure, a process produced or set in motion by the work contained within the work itself.” She’s referring, of course, to the artist’s labor, here described in a way comparable to what the lover does to “perceive a single figure” by imagining — via unstable, mutable images, that follow each other in rapid succession — the beloved’s daily life, the beloved’s body, the beloved’s reply.

Sheehan quotes Helene Pinet, describing Rodin’s photographs as “a series of fleeting moments, transitory stages in the creative process that were destroyed.” This is the experience of love par excellence: the series of perfect, fleeting moments, each of which has to be destroyed by “Life” in order to fuse life with love, thereby affirming life.

That’s the long game, after all. The ultimate goal of traditional romantic love is not ecstasy, or procreation, or intimacy, or any other unique emotion or arrangement. The goal is to live happily within time, even while suffering from it, and to affirm life, no matter what form life takes. The painful unknowability of the future becomes the thrilling mystery of the beloved: what will he say to me? Will she come tomorrow, as she promised? Alone, the lover is accompanied by dreams, and later that loneliness is justified, retroactively, as devotion. The narrative of love reconciles the extraordinary parts of life with the rest of it – the former is the sign of love, and the latter is its proving ground. Sheehan describes Rodin’s sculpture as “entangled with the reality it represents,” and I would say the same of romantic daydreams, in that they’re designed to be a little deluded, a little bit false. Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss raises an interesting question: why are the lovers sitting on top of such a huge clump of formless, irrelevant stone? The base of the sculpture is like one of those optical illusions, where one picture is undecidably doubled (for example, the old woman/young woman cartoon). The raw stone either represents pure materiality, which Rodin has reduced and seduced into beauty, or else pure spirit, Rodin’s creative will, finding purpose and shape through love, becoming incarnate as body and pleasure. Either way, the dialectic is the same, and so is the meaning of the uncarved rock. It always gives the lie to the lovers: their beautiful embrace will end, but the rock is not beautiful, the rock will endure.

Rodin, with the help of the equally traditional Baudelaire, sends us right back to Robin Williams and his dead, farting, lovable wife (emphasis added):

Rodin’s viewer attempts situating herself in relation to these figures which betray no ground from which to start and, through this receding origin and their future in multiplicity, without a sure place to end her contemplation and relation. In fact, Baudelaire depicts the result of neglecting the fugitive and transitory element of modernity, as a “… tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the first woman before the fall of man.” Modernity might also be conceived of by Baudelaire’s logic as a happy Fall for man. The eternal that opposes the indeterminacy of beauty before knowledge is here found in the mundane details denoted by naming, the separations inaugurated by man’s exile from Eden, a location in the details of the profane marked ironically like the “tumble into abstraction” by the displaced nature of the Fall.

But is this, really, such a happy Fall? Do we really choose, of our own free will, the “concern with loss” which responds, in Rodin and Baudelaire, to an anxious and incoherent existence spent “trying to locate an eternal form from his collection of contingent particulars”? Sheehan’s article comprehends Rodin and Baudelaire so well that accepting their “solutions” to modernity becomes very difficult. Baudelaire sounds like an old man, growing confused and forgetful, rifling through his attic: “I used to have an eternal form, it’s around here somewhere, I just have to remember where I put it.” This is no accident. His is an old and frail attitude, made palatable by a young poet’s vigorous style. In the same way, the old man in The Notebook gets to become young once again, courting a pretty girl, back for another ride on the Ferris wheel.

There is also a shift within Sheehan’s article, where it transitions from Rodin to a discussion of filmmaker Maya Deren. In Deren’s film Ritual In Transfigured Time, Sheehan writes that “we are drawn to engage with the image of [a] male dancer through relating to his physicality and Deren procures this act of relation by permitting him to defy gravity.” The film slows down, as much as possible, almost to a stop, prolonging Deren’s opportunity to feel lust and joy. Sheehan argues that Deren is also “reminding us of our own spatial, earthly limitations,” but here I demur. Yes, we can hear Baudelaire, ever the moralist, scolding us for ignoring the transitory and mundane. He can only enjoy “los[ing] himself in the object” if he also “pursues a potentially endless process of figuring in relation to the space and presence of his own body.” In this way, he of course ensures that he will never really lose himself at all. Perhaps, in the presence of Deren’s montage of physical beauty, we are reminded of our own limitations, but if so we cannot enjoy them. There is no heroic moment of acclimation to the Real, no scene where the dancer is bleary with flu and we (of course) do not turn away, but instead love him…even more!

We have, sooner or later, to face up to the fact that the image is winning. There are shrill, angry documentaries about how porn affects (read: ruins) relationships. There are homemade lists of celebrities that each person in a monogamous couple is permitted to fuck, if they get the opportunity. In Deren’s images, we confront the terrifying reality of the image, intangible perhaps, but certainly real enough to make “real life” seem awful and dull. Which it is. We don’t really trade in glamour for homespun reality; on the contrary, we grow pale and fat, pretending other people are living better lives, and consuming the images of those lives. There is no bottom, no final degrading act of resignation, after which we are content. That is why any hypostasis of someone we know is so unsettling. We want to ask them, “Wait, are you one of the happy people?”

The paradoxical version of love that has reigned for so long, in which love’s alchemy turns our aching desire for beauty into a sentimental and “mature” resignation, is based on affirming what should not be affirmed, on loving what is not lovable. Can you imagine somebody saying, “it’s not the endless azure that I really like about the ocean, but the floating muck, the piles of seaweed, rotting in the sun”? Or somebody remarking, while visiting a redwood forest, “you know, on the whole, it’s banal and monotonous, but there are little fleeting moments of beauty”? Even the rotting seaweed, or a pile of deer droppings in the forest, does not make those places any less themselves, any less beautiful, any more sincere.

It may seem farfetched – naïve, pastoral – to switch from talking about love to talking about the ocean. Yet the switch from relationship to environment is already there when we switch from the figures in a Rodin to Baudelaire’s flaneur, who goes prowling for beauty through the Parisian arcades. I’m thinking partly of the ocean as it appears in a Justin Timberlake song. He doesn’t even care how ludicrous the fantasy gets:

If my red eyes don’t see you anymore
And I can’t hear you through the white noise

Just send your heartbeat
I’ll go to the blue ocean floor
Where they’ll find us no more
On that blue ocean floor

It’s a great response to his own previous song, “Mirrors.” We’re not mirrors for each other. We don’t love other people “for themselves,” and we’re not loved as ourselves either. Thinking otherwise ends in confusion, vicariousness, and wretched stagnation. Acceptance and aimless sincerity are everywhere; they’re as common as asphalt. Fleeting, mundane beauty is, from the standpoint of desire, a starvation diet. You can resign yourself to it, or you can run.

‘It is beautiful here!’ said Kate. ‘One could almost live here.’  
‘Ramón says he will make the lake the centre of a new world,’ said Cipriano. ‘We will be the gods of the lake.’  
‘I’m afraid I am just a woman,’ said Kate.
His black eyes came round at her swiftly.  
‘What does it mean, just a woman?’ he said, quickly, sternly.  
She hung her head. What did it mean? What indeed did it mean? Just a woman! She let her soul sink again into the lovely elusiveness where everything is possible, even that oneself is elusive among the gods.
-D. H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent

Love: the vision of an enduring and extraordinary world, and helping someone else become the sort of person who would live there.