As a literature student, I can’t escape love.
It comes crashing through a good deal of my readings, sweeping characters along for a ride, triggering wars and other disasters, and generally disturbing the social order.
Naturally, it doesn’t go easy on readers either. The emotional swells of such stories often leave me as winded as the protagonists—and swamped in a flood of difficult questions about what love means for humans.
As a literature student, I’ve read a number of classics from Chinese, South Asian, and Roman traditions. Love has featured prominently in many works: Layla and Majnun, Shakuntala, “Duval Rani and Khizr Khan”, The Peony Pavilion, Hong Lou Meng, and various genres of erotic poetry. For me, these texts raised many difficult questions: questions regarding what love is; the power of love to create and destroy; love’s toll on the individual; and love in relation to spirituality, morality, and society.
It seemed that many of the most archetypical, most foundational stories of our humanity were wrestling with these questions. And I wished they wouldn’t.
Because the potential answers are scary.
In The Peony Pavilion, for example, the heroine, Bridal Du, is so affected by the onset of romantic feelings that she pines away and dies. The power of her love, however, reaches beyond the grave. She makes her way through the underworld and rejoins her lover in semi-phantasmic form. Her lover defies social mores and exhumes her corpse, and she fully comes back to life to be with him.
Layla and Majnun, another tale, tells of two lovers who can never be together during their lifetimes. Majnun is driven insane by love and runs off to live as a hermit in the desert for thirty years. He spends his days singing of Layla and beating himself against rocks, suffering inhuman heat and deprivation. He eventually dies, and she, also suffering from love, falls ill and follows. Only in the afterlife are they blissfully reunited as saint-like beings.
Pair these deeply symbolic narratives with the evocative language of ancient poetry and prose—and you have works that blend romantic, erotic experience with existential questions, with incredibly moving (and possibly depressing) results.
From these stories, at least, it can be affecting—and unnerving—to reflect on how closely love is allied to pain, and even to death.
For me, these stories took on the topic of love with an incredible intensity, playing it alongside madness, torture, intrigue, death, and resurrection. I couldn’t help but be moved by their fantastic, almost mythological proportions of feeling.
It was this intensity of feeling that I struggled with. I didn’t want to get swept away along with the characters. Who wants to relate to protagonists whose failed love-life killed them? That seemed painful—not to mention unhealthy.
But, the fact is, I have had experiences that made the truth in these stories alive to me, that confronted me with the questions of love and life these stories contain. Many of us have felt the slight madness of a new attraction, the bliss of togetherness with a loved one, and the pain under daily living when we lose love.
The fact that we can relate to these intense stories isn’t just something to fear. It’s also something to be in awe of. Nature wouldn’t be as amazing without its storms and extremes; human nature, too, is richer for its possible depth of experience.
And, as I’ve continued reading, I’ve begun seeing that the intensity I feared is also an amazing example of the power of literature to capture truths, truer than life, and pull us in.