31 March 2012

The only dangerous thing

Even during his affairs with women he had always tried to avoid that phrase of the theatre, 'I love you'. He had been accused often enough of cruelty, though he preferred to think of himself as a painstaking and accurate diagnostician. If for other terms, he would have unhesitatingly used the phrase 'I love', but he had always been able to attribute the emotion he felt to a quite different malady — to loneliness, pride, physical desire, or even a simple sense of curiosity.
The Honorary Consul published by Vintage
The passage refers to Doctor Eduardo Plarr, a half English, half Spanish doctor in Argentina who is having an affair with the wife of his friend, Charley Fortnum, the British honorary consul mistakenly kidnapped by Plarr's other friends.

He moves within the world of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul. While the novel is propelled by a political action (the kidnapping of the honorary consul) and is constantly questioning the functions of religion (through one of the kidnappers who is a former priest), it is heavily an examination of love by the doctor.
'I'm not quite sure what the word love means. My mother loves dulce de leche. So she tells me.'

'Has no woman ever loved you, Ted?' Fortnum inquired. A kind of paternal anxiety in his voice irritated Doctor Plarr.

'Two or three have told me so, but they had no difficulty in finding someone else after I said good-bye. Only my mother's love of sweet cakes isn't likely to change. She will love them in sickness and in health till death do them part. Perhaps that's the real true love.'

'You're too young to be a cynic.'

'I'm not a cynic. I'm curious, that's all. I like to know the meaning which people put on the words they use. So much is a question of semantics. That's why in medicine we often prefer to use a dead language. There's no room for misunderstanding with a dead language.'
I share with Doctor Plarr the same apprehensions about love and incidentally the need for an affair:
In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains? One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself — everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger. Her body has been scrawled over by so many men you can never decipher your own signature there.
An affair, however, is not an easy alternative. Fatal obsession, also misnamed as love, can all the same be the fate of those who refuse to love:
I will not be the victim of an obsession, he thought. The attraction of a whore-house is the attraction I sometimes find in trivial shopping — I may see a tie which momentarily attracts me, I wear it once or twice, then I leave it in the drawer and it becomes overlaid with newer ties. Why didn't I try her out when I had the chance? If I had bought her that night at SeƱora Sanchez she would be lying safely forgotten at the bottom of the drawer. Is it possible, he wondered, if a man is too rational to fall in love, that he may be reserved for a worse fate, to fall into an obsession?
No matter how strong Greene's main character's distrust for love is, his book believes in it. 'Caring is the only dangerous thing,' claims Doctor Plarr. But he cares. He cares enough to save Charley. The story ends not with the characters finding genuine love, but with the least hope for genuine love in hand.

Whether it's for a woman, a friend, country or religion, love is always subject to suspicion. It's material to most monsters we have created. Yet even the painstaking and accurate diagnostician, Doctor Plarr admits jealousy for Charley Fortnum, for his friend loves and he does not.

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