The other night I saw Béla Fleck perform on the banjo. Having begun learning the instrument when 15, this musician is now 52, and magnificent. What most impressed me as I watched this man play his instrument was the natural ease with which the instrument and he collaboratively existed. While, in music, a fatal separation always exists between the player and the played, I could still behold an intimate understanding and empathy that Fleck had for his banjo. I enviously imagined the comfort with which he would tune it and take care of it, and appreciated how it, in turn, enabled him to express himself so powerfully in his music.
While a banjo is on the mindless end of the sentience spectrum, a horse is not, so I feel that a similar situation to what I’ve described can take place with a natural horse rider, yet even more so. While I can’t relate to this, I was given an insight to it in the story Centaur of Anne Manne’s, ‘So This Is Life’, where Manne, describing the way she attuned herself to the first horse she owned in her childhood, comes to say, “I felt we were not divided and separated by being a different species, but united in creatureliness….” In this case, the horse rider – who has always enjoyed the attentiveness and complaisance of her animal consort – reciprocates, forging an equal and indomitable bond based around mutual understanding, an ability, as it were, to communicate beyond mere language. This creates an environment in which “being with” becomes a repose, an experience by which one is enriched and fulfilled.
So we have the human-instrument relationships, and we have the human-animal ones. Then there are the human-human ones. The same closeness, when it exists between persons, is something even more awesome and inspirational, but seems to me to be that much harder to realise, perhaps because we are looking at a case where ‘giving back’ isn’t something a person can undertake solely out of appreciation for what has been shared with them, but also is demanded by a need existing in the other. A need that, suffice to say, isn’t quite so pronounced in a banjo.
This is why I think that love is, necessarily, not a gift, but an exchange. Love isn’t something that you feel for someone, nor something that you offer someone, but a shared emotional perfume from the censer of understanding and connection. It isn’t born of a person, but of a juxtaposition of persons. For example, much as I admire Christine Milne, her policy and our shared views regarding happiness, I do not love her, I cannot, because I mean nothing to her. While only I can feel as I do for her, she is who she is regardless of who I am, and that which she gives to me she gives to everyone. On the other hand, a truer picture of love is revealed by Roy Croft, in his poem ‘Love’, which I am a little disappointed to find may be known to others than me:
“I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you. I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me. I love you for the part of me that you bring out.”
This love is an exchange. It is a constant back-and-forth between two, a tacit dialogue based around feeling and cherishing both another’s influence upon oneself, and oneself’s influence upon another. It is self-creation, where the self being created is a self of two, a shared self – as is the self doing the creating.
I think the most sincere seed for the love I’m talking about is being able to communicate fluently. This is immensely difficult between ordinary people. We each struggle to express an inarticulable range of emotions, desires and needs in pedestrian mere words. To speak of love, particularly, is like trying to play the piano while wearing boxing gloves: the nuance and individual cadence of emotion simply cannot be conveyed through words which are in everybody’s employ. To understand another’s expressions is also hideously difficult. In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Milan Kundera compares life to a musical composition, suggesting that, there are times when people can go about writing it together and exchanging motifs, but also that there comes a point when ones composition is “more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to them.” That is, different lives spawn different worlds, and another person’s, entrenched around them, can be that much more impenetrable.
I feel this difficulty acutely, and I’m often frustrated by having to spell things out to people. I can’t take what is inside of me and put it such that the other person can hear it and put it inside of them. This is frustrating enough when we are discussing mere ideas or perspectives. It’s painful when discussing experiences or emotions. So I feel unparalleled joy – love – when this isn’t necessary. When a companion uses words as I do, understands words as I do, and my unique experience of humanhood – my isolated and singular memories, values, hopes, and fears – can briefly be shared, intimately and delicately, with another, and I can share in that person’s own unique experience. For a time, our respective essences, the individual “I” that makes each us ourself, can conjoin, and there is not a “you and I”, but a collective “we”. I can both feel understanding and feel understood, and feeling understood is a profound experience that gives validity to my life and my person. In Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, Levin experiences this with his beloved: “She had fully divined and expressed his poorly expressed thought”, treasuring “this laconic and clear, almost wordless, communication of the most complex thoughts.”
When I ride my bike, feel it respond to my weight, feel the pedals turn under my feet, I have a subtle, inimitable familiarity with what it needs me to do, and I can tell when something is wrong. With people, this is a fair bit harder, except where those people are bikes, which is rarely the case. It’s so much harder to know another person, to feel as they feel, to know when they are troubled, or moved, inspired, encouraged, or heartbroken – but it is that much more rewarding. To find a kindred spirit in this world is to live not just through oneself, but to reap also the successes and failures of another - a separate person, with whom one can, through an exceptional understanding, live collaboratively.