Romance, at short notice.
Jeffrey Eugenides has a short story in The New Yorker, “Extreme Solitude,” that is a study on love for writers, academics and all those predisposed to either tell themselves stories, or to look too cerebrally at matters of the heart. Madeleine, his protagonist, is a naive college coed struggling through the texts of Derrida and Eco in her Semiotics seminar, while ultimately learning how Semiotics works outside the classroom, when it starts to work on her.
There are a few aspects of the story that I take issue with, chief among them that Madeleine struck me as a ridiculous – and possibly even unkind – caricature of precious, privileged, Amelie-esque little girls lost. “Madeleine,” like the little French girl in two straight lines, loves clean sheets and peanut butter but hates tobacco and her roommate’s diaphragm. She’s an English major because she just, gosh, loves stories! but is snubbed by the weirdos in her Semiotics class, who prefer reading about subjects like Hermaphroditism (is that a deliberate dig coming from the author of “Middlesex”?) Really, each additional sliver of information about her prompted a renewed “What the fuck?” from me, and by the end of the story, when she frolics over to her boyfriend’s apartment in an apple-green baby-doll sundress with a bib, I barely registered the fact that, yes, the author actually put her in a bib.
But I’ll overlook the absurdity of Madeleine because the subject of the piece, Semiotics, specifically Semiotics and love, is so rich in and of itself. There is a self-indulgent lure to philosophizing about love (as anyone who has read the essays of Alain De Botton would have observed first hand), so I’ll try to refrain from doing so myself. But I think Eugenides’ story alludes to the idea that because we have all been assured that love is the definitive cure to “extreme solitude,” we seek it in desperation, and we have to fight the tendency to delude ourselves into believing we have found it. And somewhere along the way, we have come to believe that the process of finding love is the weighing of signs – if we only knew which signs to pay attention to.
What signs does Madeleine interpret in her relationship with her boyfriend, Leonard? She (and the story) pay only cursory attention to signs which might otherwise be considered fatal for any budding relationship: the obviousness of their incompatibility; that he doesn’t want her to leave her things at his place; that he deliberately makes her uncomfortable; that he is only too sure of her feelings for him. Nonetheless, she becomes convinced that she is in love based on other signs: the coincidence that she understands Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse” when she waits for him to call; that she is more concerned about his sexual pleasure than her own during their first night together; that he makes her anxious; that he pulls away.
There are two ways to read this, as I see it. First is to focus on the fact that Leonard is sort of a jerk and, typically, that is precisely why the insecure Madeleine foolishly “falls” for him. Leonard no doubt establishes himself as a jerk at the end, but not through his smirking rebuff of Madeleine’s “I love you.” Rather, because in that same scene he discloses that he, unlike Madeleine, understood their situation perfectly all along – both his own feelings as well as hers – yet let their sexual/romantic relationship progress without any sort of compassion or responsibility towards (what he knew to be) her misguidedness.
But I think this reading is wrong; it degenerates into a sort of misogynistic “He’s Just Not That Into You,” a warning for other silly young women. But more to the point, it ignores the fact that Eugenides actually furnishes Madeleine with an adequate explanation as to why she put up with unhappiness and chose to read the signs as she did. Namely, because she understood from Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse” – assigned reading in her Semiotics seminar – that “extreme solitude” is precisely how one feels when one is in love.
But only a singularly silly young woman would ever buy into that nonsense, right? Perhaps. But what other philosophy on love is preferable?
How about this one: Many years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine regarding two of my past relationships, where I paraphrased this quote from the very irreverent Jasper Fforde, “I hadn’t been in love with [one]. I knew that because I had been in love with [the other]. When you’ve been there you know it, like seeing a Turner or going for a walk on the west coast of Ireland.”
Ha. What a comforting thought! I’m amazed at my own folksy wisdom at the time. I’d have been at least as unhelpful to Madeleine as Barthes was. I would have given her an equally illegible roadmap.
My thesis in all of this is that I don’t believe Eugenides is saying how poorly equipped some are to read signs in the context of love, which might effectively recommend Semiotics as an ally. Actually, quite the reverse. I think he is simply saying what Barthelme wrote, in a quote I posted on this blog a short time ago: “We read signs as promises… But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.”