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Lovelorn Millers and Interstellar Incels
On Unrequited Passion
Something my friend Tom Nash (an exceptionally inspiring person: I’ve written about him here before) told me when we met in Sydney in February has dwelled in my mind ever since. Tom was describing the agonisingly slow and excruciatingly painful experience of recovering from a life-threatening bout of meningococcal septicaemia, which left him with severe scarring and necessitated amputations on all four of his limbs. “When there are so many people rooting for you,” he told me, “you have an obligation to make the best of things.” I take this to mean that there is a duty to be as cheerful and resilient in misfortune as possible. Being happy—as opposed to miserable—is not simply something that passively happens to you, an unchosen response to external events and circumstances: it’s a virtue.
I’m not sure how to square this with my radical non-belief in free will. (I plan to write about in my next instalment of The Second Swim, but to explain briefly, although we cannot help feeling that we have agency, at a more profound level, inaccessible to conscious thought, I believe that we do not.)
I’m not even sure I can reconcile it with the intuitive sense that I have no control over what I think and how I feel; I can only choose what I say and how I act. The Zoroastrian mantra good thoughts, good words, good deeds, like most religious injunctions, is both deceptively simple and impossible to put into practice. My thoughts are frequently unwelcome intruders; I have no defences against them.
Nor do I believe we owe it to others to try to stoically endure any amount of pain. My dear friend Bruce ended his own life in 2016 (I’ve also written about this in an earlier post). In an email he wrote to his friends, scheduled to arrive in our mailboxes after he was already dead, he acknowledged that many people loved him and would be deeply sad at his choice, but that he had to weigh our feelings against the intensity of mental suffering he was undergoing every day. I have never felt any anger towards Bruce for this. I’m grateful for the time I had as his friend: it would be as churlish to be resentful that that time ended prematurely as to be enraged at a captivating singer for ending her set because her throat had grown hoarse. And I don’t think anyone could have blamed Tom either, had he refused treatment and chosen death as he lay in that hospital at the age of 19, in physical agony and contemplating life as a quadruple amputee—though I’m extremely glad he didn’t and so is he. Ultimately, we are the owners of our own lives.
But I still feel that there is a basic duty to remain cheerful—even though extreme circumstances and severe mental illness may sometimes make it impossible. And there’s one scenario in particular in which I think the duty to try one’s utmost to avoid wallowing in self-pity is particularly salient: unrequited love.
Last night, I heard Die Schöne Müllerin again. In a huge auditorium at Snape Maltings deep in the Suffolk countryside, filled brimful with snowy-headed men and women—I was one of very few audience members under the age of seventy—I listened to Roderick Williams deliver Schubert’s song cycle with the intimate precision of someone relating a story. I thought I was completely heartwhole after my most recent disappointment in love, but from the very first song it shattered, like a beloved old china teacup whose cracks have been glued and reglued a dozen times.
As is so often the case with music, Schubert’s beautiful setting elevates a fairly banal text into something that seems profound. But I was still very aware of how immature the subject of the poems is. Stripped of their musical stolen valour, the words tell the tale of a young man who falls in love with his employer’s daughter, has a very brief and chaste romantic relationship with her, discovers that she has fallen for someone else and drowns himself. Written at the height of the German Romantic period in 1831, Wilhelm Müller’s poems, which Schubert set to music as The Lovely Miller Girl, repeat a story told in Goethe’s bestselling 1774 novella of a half-century earlier, The Sorrows of Young Werther: that of the apprentice who kills himself after his very first disappointment in love. The apprentice of the song cycle is almost comically petulant at times: green is his mistress’s favourite colour, and he gives her a green ribbon to wear in her hair. When she proves unfaithful, he is at war with all things green: he wants to pluck the leaves off every twig and wishes he could bleach the lush summer grass until it was as pale as his forlorn face, by dousing every stalk with the saltwater of his tears.
The spurned lover who commits suicide is an extreme example of attention-seeking behaviour from people who feel wronged in love. I don’t use the term attention-seeking as a slur here. The withdrawal of attention is—for me at least—the most painful aspect of this kind of rejection. It feels almost insulting: the extreme imbalance between how much you think about your indifferent beloved and how little they think about you.
Like the miller’s apprentice, I am the hero of my own story and I long to be listened to as I tell it: to be heard, observed, witnessed, understood. Coming to terms with the fact that your love is not—or is no longer—reciprocated means accepting that you occupy far less space in someone’s thoughts than they do in yours. It means relinquishing the demand that they notice you. To me, it often feels as though I had handed someone the novel of my life and he had simply stopped reading mid-sentence. It’s still there, on the coffee table, with a bookmark jutting accusingly from its pages. It’s not yet destined for the charity shop. Maybe he’ll leaf through it from time to time, in fleeting moments of boredom. But he’s no longer engrossed.
It’s tempting, in such a situation, to make some kind of dramatic gesture that will seize the beloved’s attention by force. Not many people—thankfully—would drown themselves in a German brook. But if you have remained friends, you still have a weapon in your arsenal that you can detonate at any time. Perhaps if you break off all contact, it will hurt him a little—even though it will hurt you far more. There is also the option to try to provoke and pester him—like a kind of emotional mosquito—since any close friendship offers a thousand tiny opportunities to be snide, countless ways to mumble your gums at him, even though your bites are as harmless as those of a toothless geriatric spaniel.
My favourite sci fi show, Babylon 5, set on a space station, features two contrasting unrequited lovers, two space incels with very different fates. There is the swashbuckling Marcus, whose survivor guilt has left him with a profound fear of intimacy, which he conceals with ironic humour, and which has kept him an improbable virgin (despite the actor Jason Carter’s Hollywood heartthrob looks). His love for feisty bisexual Commander Susan Ivanova is never returned. But in the end, he sacrifices his life for hers, in which act, one of the other characters remarks, “he finally found his purpose.” Marcus’s love is ennobling. The story is heartbreakingly poignant, but also uplifting.
Lennier’s (pron. Len-EAR) character arc is quite different. From his very first appearance—as a wide-eyed ingenue, fresh from theological training at a monastery, beguilingly portrayed by the then forty-year-old Bill Mumy—his life is completely dedicated to serving his ambassador, Delenn. He is forced to be a witness to Delenn’s snail-paced romance with station leader John Sheridan and, among other things, has to cook an elaborate dinner for them both and is even obliged to listen outside the door, along with other dignitaries, as they finally consummate their relationship (a ritual requirement for a high-caste Minbari bride). He cannot even drown his sorrows since alcohol provokes violent psychosis in the Minbari. (One character analysis I came across is aptly titled “5 Times Lennier Wishes He Could Get Drunk.”)
Lennier is an extraordinarily noble character. He risks his life on multiple occasions. He saves one of the show’s major villains, the war criminal Londo Mollari, because to him “all life is sacred.” He willingly allows himself to be sealed into a quarantine zone in order to comfort the sick and dying—even though he does know whether or not Minbari are susceptible to the deadly disease they carry. He is ready to take on every dangerous errand. Yet, with the striking exception of his heroic action in saving Londo, all his valour is inspired by Delenn. He has “sworn himself to her side for life”—a choice Marcus rightly warns is “dangerous.” He joins elite military and espionage corps The Rangers in order to become more like the kind of man she might love (by this point, she is married to Sheridan).
Finally, he faces the ultimate test of his honour and fails. He finds Sheridan trapped in a sealed room that is rapidly filling up with toxic gas. For a few tense seconds, he stands at the other side of the door of the room, simply staring at him. Sheridan urges him to operate the access panel and release him, but he refuses, thus condemning both Sheridan and a fellow Ranger, who is in the room with him, to death by suffocation. (Sheridan is able to escape in the nick of time, but without his assistance). Unable to face his shame afterwards, Lennier flees and in his final scene he is in a shuttle, listening to Delenn’s voice pleading with him to return. We watch in sorrow as he switches off communications and flies out into the cold darkness of space.
Bill Mumy felt that this ending was a betrayal of Lennier’s character. But, as the show’s creator J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) has put it, Lennier is Lancelot to Delenn’s Guinevere throughout—and that is a story that cannot end well. The tension that builds within the narrative has to find its resolution in tragedy. The logic of storytelling demands this. There is no possible comic dénouement: Lennier could not have happily married someone else; Sheridan could not have died, freeing Delenn to realise that she had loved her aide all along. No happy alternative would have made sense.
The only other option left to JMS would have been to leave the Lennier storyline frustratingly truncated (and to have thereby also criminally underutilised Mumy’s spellbinding powers as an actor). Instead, he let it reach its inevitable catastrophe, teaching us—among other things—that there is no such thing as a love that is passionate but completely pure and selfless. Lennier deludes himself that his feelings for Delenn are like this. He tells Marcus his love is “not romantic love as you know it. It is higher and nobler: a pure perfect love” and Mumy agrees: “He would have saved Sheridan as a gift to Delenn because his love was truly pure.”
But romantic love can be debasing as well as ennobling and perhaps especially so when someone’s genuine, natural feelings are repressed in this way. It is easier to save someone loathsome—as Londo is at that point in the show—than to save a love rival. Love can be selfish, jealous, demanding, rapacious and ferociously sexual—even in someone raised by monks. To deny that truth is to invite disaster.
Luckily, though, you and I are not characters in either a song cycle or a space opera. We don’t have to die to serve the narrative. We can let go of obsessive love because we’re not trapped in a single story. Our lives don’t usually take the form of the grand multi-season arcs of Babylon 5; they are more often episodic.
Even as I walked along the Sailor’s Path from Snape to Aldeburgh crying a little bit in self-pity at the young miller’s fate—that miller’s apprentice, c’est moi!—I was glad of this. You can let your presence in someone’s life quietly fade into insignificance as gently as the summer evening light drains from the sky above the salt marshes, as the gleam leaves the scattered periwinkle patches of inland waters and the last withered rhododendrons pale from lilac to their night-time grey.
It’s not only possible, but you owe it to the world.
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