Reading Shailja Patel & Love

I am enthralled by the love poems in Migritude. By these too-brief moments of suspended forever:

You licked houmous
off my fingers
which is one way
to win an argument (“Love Poem for London”)

In this room, for one hour
let’s be easy in our skins
observe ourselves
with gentle curiosity
proffer and accept
selected morsels of our lives (“First Dates in Utopia”)

What the pleasures of the past offer to the future: the “houmous” in the past a promise about futures when “selected morsels” will be exchanged.

To claim Migritude is “about love” seems like a bad misreading, an attempt to escape the violent histories of “pain and joy,” the “battle cry for justice,” the desire for “testimony” and “survival” cited by those who blurb the book. It is all those. A cry from the depths of an unending now—the prolonged scream of Afghanistan, the unceasing sorrow of mothers, the bomb-changed landscapes once called home. But it is also about love.

“Eater of Death” is about a mother’s love. About a mother who calls her children’s names, who howls them in anguish, who whispers them into tiny crevices, who croons of love given and love ripped away, who does not know how to unlove the children ripped away from her. It reveals what a certain old-fashioned English calls “terrible love,” the anguish of love fully given, of a heart opened in ways science will never know.

But now I’m being disingenuous, because what I really want to write about is love’s deliciousness. And about playful love. And about world-building love. Also about pleasure.

It would be a mistake, I think, to answer the “why” that Migritude asks with “because of love” or “for love,” if only because love, terrible love, creates more than simply pleasure. Yet I think Migritude risks love in a way that brings me back to Delany.

As I recently confessed, I have been staring at this particular line from Delany for a year now: “You give me so much pleasure, why should I ever want to hurt you?” This line came back with particular force in reading this line from Migritude: “Give this pain to no one else.”
Give this pain to no one else
-Shailja Patel, Migritude

If “love” could be paraphrased, I think it would be that: “Give this pain to no one else.” Wambui Mwangi reminds me constantly that women experience violence disproportionately, whether that be the quotidian violence of sexism and misogyny or the more spectacular violence of war and neoliberalism. And I think that line from Migritude is one of its most profound: Give this pain to no one else.

As uttered in Migritude, it is a prayer, a hope, an expectation, uttered to a distant transcendence, and perhaps it can only be uttered to a distant transcendence, because it asks for what seems impossible. But as Audre Lorde and Judith Butler remind me, a world-changing politics dares to dream the impossible, dares to question what is often considered unthinkable.

Alain Badiou describes love as a “cosmopolitan, subversive, sexual energy that transgresses frontiers and social status” (In Praise of Love). Let me dwell with Badiou for a little.

In Praise of Love opens inauspiciously, by tethering love to marriage and the heterosexual couple. And this: “inasmuch as love is a pleasure almost everyone is looking for, the thing that gives meaning and intensity to almost everyone’s life, I am convinced that love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.”

(“there is nothing more alienating than having one’s pleasures disputed by someone with a theory”)

[T]he conventional narratives and institutions of romance share with psychoanalysis many social and socializing functions. As sites for theorizing and imaging desire, they manage ambivalence; designate the individual as the unit of social transformation; reduce the overwhelming world to an intensified space of personal relations; establish dramas of love, sexuality, and reproduction as the dramas central to living; and install the institutions of intimacy (most explicitly the married couple and the intergenerational family) as the proper sites for providing the life plot in which a subject has “a life” and a future. (Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love)

“The second threat that love faces is to deny that it is at all important.” (Badiou)

The world is full of new developments and love must also be something that innovates. Risk and adventure must be re-invented against safety and comfort. (Badiou)

[L]ove really is a unique trust placed in chance. (Badiou)

The reduction of life’s legitimate possibility to one plot is the source of romantic love’s terrorizing, coercive, shaming manipulative, or just diminishing effects – on the imagination as well as on practice. (Berlant)

Love involves two. (Badiou)

Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world. (Badiou)

One has to understand that love invents a different way of lasting in life. That everyone’s existence, when tested by love, confronts a new way of experiencing time. (Badiou)

The fantasy forms that structure popular love discourse constantly express the desire for love to simplify living. (Berlant)

[A]s long as the normative narrative and institutionalized forms of sexual life organize identity for people, these longings mainly get lived as a desire for love to obliterate the wildness of the unconscious, confirm the futurity of a known self, and dissolve the enigmas that mark one’s lovers. (Berlant)

When I first read Badiou’s In Praise of Love, I was so infuriated by its couple-centric heteronormativity that after having read the kindle version, I subsequently deleted it. It could live on the “cloud,” not on my “device.” Berlant’s Desire/Love speaks back to Badiou, even though I note that she doesn’t cite him. But she doesn’t have to, because he simply exemplifies the problem of the romance plot when it is taken as “love.” In Desire/Love, Berlant is interested in the love plot or the romance plot, but I wonder if there’s something else, something more useful to be said about love, something more interesting that can look at the edges and beyond the edges of the love plot (or romance).

Can there be other narratives?

I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

One can love.
– Richard Bruce Nugent

I have been thinking about love and the radical black tradition—one that includes innovative aesthetic practices and committed political actions. One recent (or recurrent) strand of black thinking insists that blacks have always participated in the love plot: romantic love and forms of hetero-commitment have always been central to black life, in slavery and in freedom. While I understand the value of this scholarship, I’m not very interested in it. If only because I take as banal, as ordinary, as unexceptional the facts of black love and commitment.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousand of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. – James Baldwin

We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. – James Baldwin

Away from, and alongside, the love plot: love as survival.
What is the work of pleasure?

I turn to “First Dates in Utopia” to find a glimpse of the possible: the “one hour” of being “easy” in one’s skin. What that one hour permits one to dream. How that dream enables other dreams. How dreams unfold into possibilities. How possibilities become tethered to risk. What it means to risk love when faced with evidence of life’s disposability. And to continue risking it.

I return to previous writing on love:

Loving creates scars, and those scars can turn into keloids. Loving produces blisters, and these blisters can turn into calluses. In fact, many of us believe that love wounds, and so we approach it callused, cynical, dismissive, considering it a game in which the winner is the ‘dumper’ rather than the ‘dumpee.’ Listen to young Kenyans discuss love, and you will often hear a profound cynicism, in which there are “no good men” and “no good women,” and so one has to “settle” or get someone “financially secure.”

We rarely hear about love, about the kind of love that makes us vulnerable, that dares us to risk our hearts, our lives, our commitments. We rarely hear about the love that allows us to transcend divisive ethnic politics. We rarely hear about the intimate, risky forms of loving that have the power to transform our social and political worlds simply by being public and daring to exist.

I am experimenting with love. With making the word public, trying to make it circulate, insisting that it can do something. I am insisting that it must be part of any radical politics. And that the pull of radical politics must do something to our conceptions of it, our desires for it, our claims on it.

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