Berlioz’s Song: A Brief Dialogue on Love and Wanting
Persons: François-the Cynic, and composer Hector Berlioz-the Romantic
The Scene: The deck of a ferry, crossing the English Channel to Britain. January, 1831.
THE CYNIC. Pardon me, sir, I don’t mean to interrupt your writing, but are you Hector Berlioz?
THE ROMANTIC. Ah, yes, I am. Always a pleasure to meet an admirer, please sit down! I’m merely composing a brief letter to my muse.
THE CYNIC. Thank you, and I am indeed an admirer of your music; I was in attendance at the premier of your Symphonie Fantastique in Paris last month. But, with all due respect, Maestro, I think your philosophy is rather troubling.
THE ROMANTIC. And what, may I ask, is that philosophy?
THE CYNIC. Throughout all five movements of the symphony that simple melody recurs. In your program notes it is called the ideé fixe, the hero’s obsession for his beloved, which strains higher and higher yet every time falls in despair upon his rejection. This is, maestro, a poor vision of love!
THE ROMANTIC. Does my song make any philosophical assertions? I fail to see what you mean. Perhaps you looked too closely at the program notes rather than listening to the orchestra! That symphony is an experience of my love. It is my call for a sympathy among souls, souls who know the pain of unrequited love. Have you ever felt that pain? When you wake up and instantly gasp, clutching at your chest? No? Well, then perhaps I am not a very good artist. But think with me, of the enormity of the task I face in describing my experience of love.
For example, could you describe to someone, blind from birth, the brilliance of the Mediterranean from the cliffs at Capri? You tell him about the shallow aqua regions and rich deep navies expanding before his dim eyes with the texture of smooth leather or rough skin, meeting at the horizon with the azure dome of the heavens, all of it mixed with wispy horse-tail clouds above and billowing opaque ones below…and he cannot understand a single word.
And if you climb back down to the beaches, won’t you, master wordsmith, please describe for our blind friend the beach dune’s playful sunset shadows? Could you adequately illustrate the merging shades of gold and maroon and navy and pink and the sorbet-like orange with the gulls circling, spreading their wings to soar higher and higher over the endless water moving in its pattern of uniform imperfection? What a futile assignment! The terms are just parts of the whole, each unbeknownst in itself.
Can you sign to the deaf man the sound of a Bach fugue; will the motions of your hands capture the counterpoint with the same majesty as the booming organ? Could he ever—
THE CYNIC. Why Berlioz, these examples are ridiculous! Of course not.
BERLIOZ. Well, such is the inadequacy of explaining love! You, my friend, simply cannot appreciate what it means to have an obsession for the one you love. Perhaps this analogy is better: imagine you are an Olympic runner. Think of the glorious straining in your legs as you sprint across the finish line and raise the laurels overhead for a victory lap…will the paraplegic ever know that grandeur? Surely, you might sympathize with such a man, but you cannot know the reality of his anxieties. His greatest obsession is desire to move, knowing that he will never climb a tree or kneel in church or stand at altar and await his bride with upright posture. What a wedding that would be! At the reception, could he know the pleasure of leading his wife, the love of his life, out for a long, slow, dance with her face in his chest and his arms around her shoulders? No, and so his soul salivates with want.
This is my experience of love. This feeling of wanting is as instinctual to man as swimming is to fish or as suckling is to piglets. And so I think of my beloved…with her coral lips I cannot kiss. Oh, to kiss, my ideé fixe! How this want consumes my waking moments and pervades my restless hours of sleep! No, no, it is more than a mere want; I need that kiss. I need to feel her lips press against mine so that I can hopelessly attempt to understand this feeling, comprehend this humanity, this infinite unceasing pressure to show love to the one that whets my appetite for completeness!
THE CYNIC. But Berlioz, my friend! What if fate hears your pleas? The fall to despair of your ideé fixe melody will no longer be a fall of futility, but of vanity. It will no longer be an attempt to express the feeling of heartbreak; it will be an expression of the uselessness of pleasures that never bring fulfillment. This wanting you feel—it is desire for a transient, evasive pleasure that will amount to no more than another addend in the infinite sum of partial completeness! Do we find ourselves in what we want? In your kiss will you find your identity? Will you reach a plateau of constant, unhesitating perfect peace that never stagnates but grows exponentially, forever satiating every want as quickly as your mind craves them? What comes after the blind man’s eyes are opened, and he sees the seas spread out before him, the light performing sorcery on its surface? Will he ever want to close them so he can sleep? Will the four voices of Bach’s counterpoint ever grow stale to the ears of that once-deaf man? Does the once-paralyzed man ever stop running, or at some point will he seek to be sedentary? Berlioz, aren’t these murky inductions indicative of the most self-evident of axioms? Indeed, our dreams, our wants, our hopes and desires, we latch onto one but cast it aside as soon as it’s discovered, like a child opening gifts on Christmas day. Like the fall into despair of your song.
If you get the thing you want, you will not find in it endless joy. No dose of opium can ceaselessly course through a man’s brain, giving him an eternal high. You cannot laugh in a shady hammock with your beloved until the eschaton strikes, casually watching the Lord’s creation of the New Earth. I mean honestly! At the premiere of your symphony, could the conductor have held out the final fermata for so long that your glory and pride might never fade, each moment dividing infinitesimally into millionths, billionths, trillionths of seconds? No, certainly not. And so why do you cast such expectations of ceaseless serenity onto love?
I do not mean to attack your character, Berlioz, but how can you, a man hurting so badly, continue to be such an idealist! Do you really think that if your beloved accepts you on your death bed the stars will align and every wish will be fulfilled as a quilt of eternal peace is tucked around you? Your anxieties will not fade if you can somehow seize the thing you want. You wallow in rejection and continually pursue your beloved for the sake of wanting itself. Berlioz, this isn’t prudent patience, this is tarrying in Bunyan’s Vanity Fair.
THE ROMANTIC. I think you simply don’t understand what this feeling really is! I want her, I want my beloved! I love her so much that I must be what is best for her! And I despair that she does not feel the same way. I despair that she feels such disgust for me, when I feel nothing but devotion to her! I would do anything for her, is that not love? Am I not waiting as an act of loving devotion?
THE CYNIC. Devotion? Nothing about what you feel is devotion, Berlioz! Why does everyone think that loving someone is an act of possession! “I have you and you have me?” What rubbish. Oh, stop sniffling. Your melody falls to despair because it embodies the fact that you don’t get what you want. It is selfishness, and not love, for love is not about attainment. Love is about giving of yourself, not taking from another. Love is service; it is making yourself less and the other more.
THE ROMANTIC. I don’t know what to think….Is wanting her the same thing as loving her? Oh, I’m exhausted by my wanting, and I weep because I have simply ignored the fact that in pursuing my beloved from every direction, I have suffocated her and burdened her and unfairly expected her to satisfy my wanting.
But you are wrong to think that love is removed from one’s passions. It is reductive to think of love as only giving of yourself. To belabor our analogy, it is wrong for the blind man to obsess over desire for sight, but it is also wrong for any man to blind himself if he thought it an act of devotion. Love is not making oneself subservient, for that too is not mutual.
And if to love is not to want, and it is not to give the other person whatever they want, I think I know a way that I can still love this woman: I must make the highest good for her life the thing that I want most. I must stop wanting her, and start wanting what is best for her. And as I sit here, the best thing I can give her is separation from myself. I have an obsessive desire to both possess her and give her the world, and therefore I will act to keep her apart from myself, because that is how much I love her. She knows she cannot pour into me all that I want, so I will stop drowning her with my oceans of desire. I will go back across this channel, apart from her indefinitely, which is the hardest thing I can do. It is the highest demonstration of love I can give. And with that, I tear this letter and let it fall to the sea, just as the melody of my song falls from the heights of impassioned scales to the bleak cadence on treble C.
Ryan Pfeiffer is a senior studying English.