“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence”

Writing and love don’t mix. Romantic love* gives its victims a blanket permission to be silly, and this silliness too often takes literary form. In the worst case scenario, lovers may write poetry. This should be actively discouraged. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a particularly egregious case or, in music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – but everyone will have their own favorite examples of creative work done under the influence of emotional intoxication.

Nobody can write sensibly while in love. If the love is truly passionate, and mutual, the sexual demands alone should leave a person incapable of raising his/her hands to the keyboard, let alone having an original thought. The critical faculties are necessarily suspended, not just in relation to the loved one, but in relation to everything. People in love can’t drive, type, or even prepare a meal with proper concentration. They are, as the ancient Greeks knew, temporarily insane.

Scott Fitzgerald said: “It’s easy to be loved, but hard to love.” This is true. It’s fine to write while being loved. Being loved is a confidence booster. Loving is an energy drain.

Writing about love is easier, but not much. The language of literary romance is very restrictive, rather like a computer code. Bosoms heave, hearts pound and flutter, breath is short, eyes cloud over, and the victim suffers from weakness, faintness and a sense of fatality. These are very much like the symptoms of a real heart attack. The trouble is, you don’t get rushed into intensive care to fix the problem.

That’s why lots of writers prefer to write about sex, and let love take care of itself. But sex raises a different problem. The language is richer but the content is more limited. It’s like writing about car mechanics. As the guy in your local repair shop will tell you there are lots of different models of cars, some more desirable than others. But they are all based on the same mechanical principles and they all work the same way. This doesn’t make for great literature.

I have a theory that the best writing about relationships happens just after those affairs end, when the mind snaps back into focus. Some authors manage to stay angry for a lifetime on the basis of a single failed love affair. This can be very productive – for example the comical revenge novels of Fay Weldon. On the other hand, love that sticks around and matures can produce some very fine writing, such as the biography of Iris Murdoch, Elegy for Iris, by her husband John Bayley.

The question of a writer’s Muse is bound to come up here, because the Muse is imagined to be both an object of love and a source of creativity. Muses are female by definition. The original nine Muses were daughters of Zeus, a good pedigree, and their job was to be patron goddesses of the arts. The Greek Muses were not love objects, they were organizers, like chairs of academic departments: Erato controlled love poetry, Terpsichore was in charge of dance, and so on. No fewer than four of the original Muses were concerned with poetry. Comedy and tragedy each had its own Muse, but nobody was assigned to essays or general non-fiction.

The contemporary Muse is very different. She is a living, loving inspiration. She must still be female, because men don’t have the special skills needed for this job. But this kind of Muse is also dying out. Women are too busy following their own dreams – and the Muse’s task is both exhausting and, perhaps, demeaning. The best kind of Muse may be an ex-lover living several thousand miles away, who can safely be idealized. But the most useful kind would be a woman like Vladimir Nabokov’s wife Vera, who so fiercely protected his writing time and his privacy that she made his astonishing output possible.

The decline of the traditional Muse is undeniably a good thing. Lacking this source of inspiration, men are less likely to launch into romantic writing. Men, of course, are the true romantics in this world, because they can’t help themselves. If you don’t believe me, check the romantic literature. Women are the voice of reason, the organizers of male emotions. For a really rational fix on love you have to go to female authors, like Jane Austen, who had absolutely no illusions as to what the Great Game was about.

These reflections lead to four clear conclusions:

1. Never write while in actively love, and especially not during the early high-fever stages of the malady.

2. Write about love only in case of urgent financial need, and with tongue firmly in cheek.

3. Only men should write about love. Women should write about its consequences.

4. When it comes to love, there are no clear conclusions.

*A Footnote on Definitions: Love is like patriotism. We are not supposed to deconstruct it in case it vanishes in a puff of post-modern smoke. So I will not attempt an exact definition of love here. You will have to wait for my forthcoming twelve-volume treatise on the subject (with CD-ROM) provisionally titled le Cauchemar de la joie (ok, ok, The Nightmare of Happiness – but it does sound better in French). Once we have agreed on a nice, clear definition, we will all find love much easier to write about, and to live with. Don’t hold your breath.