The Japanese have different words for love. To them, it’s plain weird that we love spaghetti and love our children and love our lovers, all with the same word, when surely the thing being described as love is radically different in each case.
By the same token, maybe we need different words for possession. If I say “my shoe,” do I mean it in the same way as “my life,” or “my sister” or “my husband”? We use the same possessive pronouns for everything, but do we own our lives or sisters or husbands in the same way we own our shoes? Do we own any of them at all?
There’s no easy answer to this. Arguably, I own my shoes because I paid for them, and because they are replicable commodities. But to most people, the idea of “owning” one’s sister, say, is absurd—here, the word “my” is just a figure of speech that describes, not ownership, but a relationship—the way that person stands in relation to me.
So how about lovers, partners, husbands and wives? Can the same be said of them? With romantic relationships the picture becomes murky, because for all we might try to take a liberal view of things, there is a sense of possession of a lover that isn’t there for a sister. My sister is my sister regardless, has always been and always will be and has no choice about it. This is a love quite distinct from that of a lover, with whom we fall in love, in part, because they are free and have a choice. We generally don’t fall in love with unfree things in the same way. It’s a love so very unlike the love of a shoe. When we fall in love we feel that this person is ours and we are theirs, by our mutual volition, and we know they could leave—we know that because they are free, and their freedom is part of the thrill. It’s intoxicating to feel we possess something that is free, and also intoxicating to be freely possessed.
The strange thing here is that, through the process of falling in love, we sometimes start using the word “my” in a way that is more appropriate to a shoe than to a person. We respond to that huge wonderful complexity of their humanity with a panic-stricken grasping which tries to make them into something that is owned by us and can’t leave. If they run off with somebody else, we say they were stolen—as if they are an object or a commodity. If they simply leave, or the relationship fails, it can feel like the universe (which had seemed, when we fell in love, to be so benign, fair, and providing) is itself the thief, a thing that turns out to practice arbitrary acts of injustice.
I know that many people do not feel they possess their partners and lovers. But don’t monogamous romantic relationships imply it, to an extent? Think of the language of love letters: My dear; my love. Yours; your loving wife; yours always. Those words again—my and yours. Between the salutation and the sign-off there is a period of captivity, in which the recipient is completely in the mind and imagination of the writer, completely held there.
And what of the wedding ring, which lassos the fourth finger, a symbol of eternity, but also, in a sense, of capture; when we’re in love we often want to be captured, at least in the heat of things. There is a powerful rising tide of feeling which does recede, it’s true, but in the moment of feeling it we would hand ourselves over to another lock, stock and barrel. It puts me in mind of the imploring lyric of the Jacques Brel song “Ne Me Quitte Pas”: laisse-moi devenir l’ombre de ton ombre. Let me become the shadow of your shadow. Let me be surrendered to you entirely.
But then, once this swelling tide has receded, what happens? In Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, the narrator, Charles, comments on his fiery relationship with an ex-lover, Rosina. “The interval between possession and hell was short,” he says, “though I admit it was wonderful.” His view seems to be that he always knew this covetous, jealous relationship was hell-bound, it was just a case of waiting for the happy interval to be over. Are attempts at possessing another always hell-bound? If we begin to see the other as our possession and commodity, our shoe, the shadow of our shadow, is there ever a happy outcome? But if we don’t see them with that degree of possessiveness, is it less wonderful?
My instinct tells me to side with Charles (if Charles has a side)—there is no happy outcome if we see things this way, but it is seeing things this way that creates the wonder. Falling in love gives a sense of completion and rightful belonging, that famous Platonic allegory of finding one’s other half. The electric thrill of it arises from a mix of safety and danger—safety because we’ve found harbor in another, and danger because we’ve found harbor in another.
But a thrill prolonged is a kind of hell indeed, and sooner rather than later mustn’t a relationship move on? Mustn’t it accept that what is owned, if anything, is the relationship itself and not the person? That thing we seemed to possess was not the other, but an image of them we formed—they themselves are still free. It is only when we mistake the person for the image that hell breaks loose, because the sums don’t add up. They seem to belong to us, and then they freely go—behavior very uncharacteristic of a shadow or a shoe. We are left crushed and puzzled as to how can this can be.
Perhaps our happiness in love will turn out to have been a mere interval unless we are able to love with open hands, in awareness that there must be what Charles calls, wryly, the “golden bridge for the departing lover”—the route out, which acknowledges the other is not a possession. “The golden bridge for the departing lover I have always, I hope, provided when it became necessary,” he says. “Rosina, when she saw me cooling, had no such merciful contraption ready.”