The Words of Love We Lack (Or: "You Bury Me, Baby")
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
So anyone who's ever really thought about love knows that our techno-liberated world is pretty weak on talking about love and death. We're either too vulgar or too vague. It's not that relational life has disappeared, but we just don't have the words that correspond to the longings that sustain it.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his always-getting-more-true Democracy in America, recommended that those responsible for democratic language (the "literary class") learn to read the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages in order, among other things, to write about love more precisely. The technical and scientific words that become popularized in democratic times—such as feedback and networking—do less justice to what the human experience really is than words we can trace to Plato and Aristotle (and other "ancient Greks") such as opinion and friendship. So who today follows Aristotle in writing about the kind of love that is the friendship between husband and wife in joyfully carrying out the responsibilities they share in common? And who today writes about the erotic tension that animates the friendship between two or more intensely gathered together to pursue the truth in common?
Anyone, as I said before, whoever is really interesed in acquiring the vocabulary required to really know the world as it actually is will turn to the classic texts and distrust flattened-out translations.
But Katy Hall has schooled me and Tocqueville on our narrowness. She's searched the globe for basically premodern and mostly not-Western words that correspond to kinds of love we still experience but can't name. She very instructively gives the word from another language and adds a pop cultural place where we can see the experience that corresponds to the word being displayed.
From Katy, I found out about the Arabic word "Ya'aburnee" It literally means "you bury me." I can't imagine life without you, and so I can't help but think I must die before you. It goes without saying that it's possible that Katy and especially me are missing a lot of nuance here.
Her astoundingly up-to-date cultural reference is to the surprisingly moving (or genuinely sad) last episode of Girls.
Hannah agressively seduces and then plays house for a few days with a rich and handsome older guy. This successful physician is (doubtless temporarily) lonely because he just separated from his wife. The desperate Hannah lets him be the object of her fantasies. She opens up to him: I've been wounded since childhood, I'm deeply lonely, I finally admit that I want to be happy (or not just have random experiences to write about), I really believe I feel more deeply than other people, and "All I really needed was to look at someone and be, like, that person wants to be there after I'm dead."
The somewhat confused and vain quoted words connect happiness with loving and being perfectly transparent before another person who, at least in a way, is a personal connection to eternity. The physician, who was just diverting himself by playing house, was obviously deeply repulsed by her words. His look suggests to her that he now wants her gone. And so Hannah walks home more lonely and wounded than ever. She's ashamed that she didn't know the first thing about the guy she thought she so deeply loved, and he didn't really want to know the first thing about her.
So what the show showed us again is how critical it can be of our proud pretensions to liberation or "autonomy" and of the resulting impoverishment of our relational life. Hannah spoke the truth about who she is and what she wants. But she lacked both the words and the proper relational context in which to pour her heart out about love.
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