Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland, First Love
Posted by: Liam Drain
First Love’s narrator claims his recollection (fractured by significant memory lapses and meandering tangents) of meeting a woman on a bench, reluctantly occupying a room in her apartment and leaving her as she gives birth to their child, is the story of his first love and only love. The character, drawn directly from that ubiquitous cohort of lonely, isolated, angry male characters who somehow evoke sympathy and interest again and again, might be dead. He is certainly speaking from outside of the world. As essentially misanthropic and unlikable as First Love’s sole character is, the way he understands love, his single experience of love, is so profoundly impoverished and incongruous with the conventions of romance (which may be fraught with all kinds of political complications, but they’re better than nothing and at least we get some good pop songs out of them), his claim of love raises an uncomfortable question about the intelligibility of a central human experience.
His way of loving is unrecognizable to the point of absurdity but to deny him his claim of having loved would be unjust; suffice it to say, his way is with a determination to fail, to be disappointed and find that love is as useless everything else. The big lesson to be learned from the lonely, angry men who populate so much of the western imagination is that the opposite of love is not hate but the impenetrable psychic armor that surrounds First Love’s narrator (and the rest in that cohort) and from which nothing enters or escapes. This impermeability protects him from being contaminated by the world but also forecloses any possibility of change. Love trespasses the boundaries between ourselves and another; love is a kind of defenselessness. This is why we have the corny but useful expression ‘chemistry’ for talking about romantic love: we’re sensitized to another’s communication, in all its possibility and limitation, as a (chemical) agent. Every aspect of communication is intensified, things get mixed up, heated, and a strange third party envelopes us. When we’re drawn together in this way, we are changed, exalted; this common event becomes singular, grand and wild: something brand new in the world with its own life and rules. We surpass ourselves in unexpected ways and become better by allowing another to move about freely within our subjective experience.
At a wedding I heard the Rabbi say that the origin of the tradition of the couple stepping on the glass is unknown but some people believe the shards represent pieces of a world that is not yet fully formed and the newlywed’s love is the work still to be done. For First Love’s narrator the world is all too complete. Whether or not he should be understood as a ghost, his humanity is like an echo, weakly persisting after death. The world has nothing for him. Everything is too familiar, a tiresome nuisance. He wants nothing, not even his own memories. He remembers a bit about his father, the woman he calls his love (though not her name), a significant bench and his own pains but he is undisturbed as his memories fade.
His desire for emptiness, for annihilation (because no world would ever suit him), is constantly frustrated by having to share the world with others; in everything not him he sees only contamination. There’s a poignant lesson in recognizing difference as the source of his pain. In order to rid himself of this pain, he has to remove himself from the world and the world from himself. As the woman who took him in and prostituted herself to support him is giving birth to their child, the moment he is most needed by another, he leaves, choosing to be once again alone, adrift in the world. Because he misunderstands his identity as something fixed, internal and immutable rather than something radically contingent, relational and vastly improved by having the courage to, in the words of good old Morrissey, Let the Right One Slip In, sympathy, compassion and ethical agency are impossible. The title might be better understood not as a description of the relationship between the narrator and the woman he describes meeting on a bench, but the order of what it takes to go beyond ourselves and participate in the world in an ethical way; first: love.