On Love – Unrequited, Political and Otherwise Redux: Desires and Prospects
February 12, 2015
By James Anderson
In his testimonial, “Days and Nights of Love and War,” Uruguayan-born writer Eduardo Galeano recalls discovering his love for writing after release from a hospital following a near-death bout of malaria.
Since, as stated before, “Valentine’s Day offers a special opportunity to reflect on love – unrequited, political and otherwise,” it is thus the perfect time to contemplate the implications of Galeano’s words.
“I thought I knew some good stories to tell other people, and I discovered, or confirmed, that I had to write,” Galeano wrote. “I had often been convinced that this solitary trade wasn’t worthwhile if you compared it, for example, to political activism or adventure. I had written and published a lot, but I hadn’t had the guts to dig down inside and open up and give of myself. Writing was dangerous, like making love the way you should.”
With language real and raw, he described consciously committing himself to the act.
“That night I realized I was a hunter of words,” he added. “This is what I had been born for. This was going to be my way of being with others after I was dead and this way the people and the things I had loved wouldn’t die.”
He claimed writing required he get his “feet wet” and invoke desire.
This meant a need to “provoke myself, tell myself, ‘You can’t do it, I bet you can’t,’” he recollected. “And I also knew that in order for the words to come I had to close my eyes and think intensely about a woman.”
More than mere thoughts, intense feeling surely provided Galeano inspiration. Affect undoubtedly filled the pages of his works.
Other authors have similarly shown how words convey passion in radical politics, challenging’s previous distinctions. Boundaries between writing, adventure and radical politics dissolve in the realm of desire. They re-materialize as one with words printed on a page and concepts communicated on a screen.
Parisian Poetics of Lost and Unrequited Love
It is often wise to defer to the French in matters of romance, and France has long been a hotbed of radical politics. Writers and radicals in France throughout history have been amazingly adept at coupling these passionate exercises.
Poet Alphonse de Lamartine, for example, garnered immense popularity focusing on the fleeting moments of human happiness associated with earthly love.
As Mary Frances Dorschell noted, Lamartine met a young married woman, Julie Charles, at lac du Bourget in 1816. The two purportedly fell into “a platonic love,” although the boundaries surrounding their actual intimacy remained opaque. They planned to meet again the following year. Charles, dying of tuberculosis by 1817, could not keep the lover’s pact.
In his poem “The Lake,” Lamartine laments the ephemeral quality of human love like theirs. He implored our unforgiving world to immortalize their mortal bond.
“And let everything that one hears, or sees, or breathes,” Lamartine epistolized in his verse, translated from French, “Say out loud: ‘They have loved!’”
He yearned for the transitory nature of time not to snatch away his human happiness.
“O time! suspend your flight; and you, propitious hours,” he wrote, “Suspend your too quick course.”
Using his oratory powers, Lamartine rose to prominence during France’s February Revolution in 1848. As part of the Second Republic government, he would later be complicit in squashing subsequent struggles waged by Parisian workers that year.
German poet Heinrich Heine also happened to be in France in 1848, slightly removed from the uprisings.
His poetry, critical of Prussia’s autocratic regime, infuriated King Frederick William IV and forced Heine into exile in Paris, where he witnessed the insurrections from a distance.
Not confined to anything narrowly political, plenty of Heine’s poetry addressed issues of the heart. He was especially well-versed on unrequited love.
“The joy that kissed me yesterday,” Heine remarks in his poem “Kitty,” “Has disappeared already; Long years ago I found it so: True love is never steady. Oft curiosity has drawn/ Some lovely ladies toward me; But when they looked deep in my heart/ They left, and then abhorred me.”
He ended the verse with exception.
“Some have grown pale before they went,” he wrote. “And some with laughter cleft me; But only Kitty really cared—She wept before she left me.”
Prussian-born journalist Fanny Lewald met Heine in France during the year of continental revolutions. She wrote about coming to see him in a sanatorium on the Rue de l’Oursine outside Paris.
Like Lamartine’s love Julie Charles, Heine suffered from tuberculosis. It affected his spine, confining him to the bed much of the time. Yet, Lewald recounted, his doctor said Heine had been writing for hours that day and the day before she visited.
“I realized how interested I was in him, how grateful for all the hours of immense reading pleasure I owe him,” Lewald wrote. “I would have been so happy to have known or done anything that would give him relief, distraction, or joy. Because I always saw him as a young man in spirit, I do not want to give you any picture of his bodily suffering. He is somewhat crippled and complains bitterly about this condition, which has robbed him of the use of his eyes to the extent that he can write only a little and cannot read at all.”
When he spoke of writing in front of her, Heine said it had become impossible – but for reasons unrelated to his condition.
“Oh, I can’t write any more,” he said facetiously. “I can’t, because we have no censorship! How can a person write without censorship, if he has always lived under censorship? All style will cease, all syntax, all good habits. When I used to write something stupid, I would think, ‘The censor will strike or change this’; I relied on good censorship. But now I feel quite unhappy, unfocused. I keep hoping it is really not true and censorship still exists.”
Louis Blanc, Language and Labor: Ideological Inversion over Time
Another revolutionary in Paris in 1848, Louis Blanc, was tangentially part of the provisional government that replaced Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy and abolished censorship after the February Revolution.
Blanc advocated a top-down socialism, facilitated by the state. But, the author of “The Organisation of Labour,” also supported communal living and “social workshops,” envisioned as producer cooperatives. Those worker-controlled organizations should be funded by the state, Blanc thought. The government would support cooperatives to eliminate economic competition, which could theoretically put an end to authoritarian structures of the state.
Neither the provisional government nor the Second Republic gave Blanc the chance to implement his ideas. Instead, he established the advisory Luxembourg Commission. Bereft of state power or funds, under Blanc’s auspices the Commission still created the first workers’ congress and served as a forerunner to the Russian soviets.
With odds against him, Blanc would be marginalized by the government. Soon enough, workers repudiated him for his complicity with state power. Blanc, “with his dark eyes and shining white teeth,” historian Priscilla Robertson explained, “was only a bit taller than a dwarf,” and his love was largely unrequited.
Nevertheless, Blanc defended the “right to work,” or “droit au travail,” a popular working class campaign at the time. Back in 1848, it meant the right to employment for all who wanted it, with fair wages and decent conditions guaranteed.
Joseph Varga, an assistant professor of labor studies at Indiana University, analyzed the ideological inversion of the “right to work” phrase over time. The meaning of the maxim changed in the US around the time the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was passed. Coeval with the legislation, Varga suggested, concentrated power renewed concerted efforts to undermine workers’ rights, mutilating the language of labor.
Mark Gius, professor of economics at Quinnipac University, explained how in its new incarnation, “right-to-work” refers to laws prohibiting “unions from compelling workers to join unions in order to secure employment, hence greatly reducing the ability of unions to organize and retain members.”
Showing no love for labor, some 24 states have passed present-day versions of the “right-to-work” laws. Occasionally using another euphemism, “employee empowerment zones,” Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner supports today’s distorted version of “right-to-work,” reframed by the UAW and others as the “right-to-work-for-less.”
Passion for Women in History and the Radical Imagination
Women have perpetually been hit hardest by the kind of untrammeled capitalism epitomized by present-day right-to-work legislation. Historically, women have hit back the hardest too.
In nineteenth-century France, women were at the forefront of working class causes.
In her book “Revolutions of 1848: A Social History,” Robertson revealed how this radical politics incited passions of all sorts.
Insurrectionists in Paris, Robertson documented, erected more than 1,500 barricades throughout the city streets on February 24, 1848. After Parisian radicals released prisoners from the Château d’Eau, they burned the military post down and continued their rebellion against the monarchical regime.
“As the fight moved from the Château d’Eau over to the Palais-Royal a woman led a band of fifty people to the attack,” Robertson wrote. “She was dressed in a chemise and a skirt, with stockings which fell spirally about her legs. Her brown hair fell to her waist, and her shoulders, arms and most of her breast were bare. As men rushed up to embrace her she brushed them off, for all her ardor was devoted to the revolution.”
Love, unrequited and intensely political, found personification in female Parisian revolutionaries throughout history. They sparked the radical imagination.
John Merriman, professor of history at Yale, wrote recently about how one speaker at a meeting of women in May 1871, as the Paris Commune was underway, emphatically stated those “workshops in which you are packed will belong to you; the tools that are put into your hands will be yours; the gain resulting from your efforts, from your troubles, and from the loss of your health will be shared among you.”
Despite the lack of total economic transformation, women improved their status immensely in the Commune of 1871.
“Indeed, the solidarity and militancy of Parisian women, who had suffered such hardship during the Prussian siege, jumps out as one of the most remarkable aspects of the Paris Commune,” Merriman claimed about the short-lived reorganization of Parisian society. “Women, taking pride in their role as citoyennes, pressured the Commune to attend to their rights and demands and pushed for an energetic defense of the capital.”
Denouncing predominant working conditions as one aspect of “bourgeois authoritarianism,” women like Élisabeth Dmitrieff remarked the labor “of women was the most exploited of all in the social order of the past.”
She supported the right to employment, an end to economic competition and the equalization of wages for all male and female workers.
“Dmitrieff cut quite a figure,” Merriman explained. “She wore a black riding costume, a felt hat with feathers, and a red silk shawl trimmed in gold. A police description put her at about five feet, three inches tall, with chestnut hair and gray-blue eyes. Léo Frankel was probably but one of the Communards who fell in love with her.”
She was not the only Communard to stimulate desire.
Louise Michel, for example, decried the situation wherein a woman “bends under mortification; in her home her burdens crush her. Man wants to keep her that way, to be sure that she will never encroach upon his function or his titles. Gentlemen, we do not want either your functions or your titles.”
Michel and other militant Parisian “women were more concerned with economic and social reforms than achieving the right to vote,” Merriman documented.
Both revolutionary and reform measures ended in reaction. Forces at Versailles crushed the Commune in late May, killing thousands. Michel made it out alive and later led the first May Day marches in France.
French writer Victor Hugo, famous for heart-wrenching accounts of love lost and unrequited, dedicated his poem “Viro Major” to Michel.
Hugo also authored the novel “Notre-Dame de Paris,” which tells the story of the hunchback Quasimodo and his classic case of unrequited love.
In the novel, when Esmerelda, a beautiful Gypsy street dancer, is led off to the gallows, Quasimodo swings down on a bell rope to rescue her.
Esmerelda, however, never loves Quasimodo. She cannot get past his deformed appearance, which frightens her.
His love, unrequited as it was, never faltered. Quasimodo is later unable to save Esmerelda from being hanged, but he lies down beside her body where it had been thrown after execution, eventually dying of starvation.
The novel’s author weaved these narratives of unrequited love with stories of social injustice.
Past and Present Struggles, Future Possibilities
With works like “Notre-Dame de Paris,” Hugo demonstrated conditions of possibility for posterity. At present, struggles for social and economic justice can coincide with love, unrequited, political or potential.
The recent shift to a tuition-based and student debt-financed model at universities throughout the US introduced a market mentality and new disciplinary mechanisms into higher education, with all the severing of social bonds that entails.
Yet, as one stunning union militant pointed out during the two-day strike across the University of California system last April, campus can be – and historically has been – an intersection for struggles against the university’s own institutional violence.
As Eduardo Galeano no doubt understood, love often animates those struggles and the writings that enliven them. The collective challenge is to stay attentive to liberatory prospects, activate untapped potentials and realize latent desires.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee. He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.