I’m about to do something I don’t ordinarily do, and that is to write about real people. Real people, that is, as opposed to characters based on real people. For you see, I always like to protect the privacy and feelings of actual persons I know by soft-peddling, and disguising, and rewriting to cover up people’s identities. It doesn’t seem fair, somehow, to put my own impressions about people and their vagaries down on paper for all the world to see when sometimes those same people don’t have an equal opportunity to respond about me. And of course, I don’t want to give them the chance to respond about me, because I like to think that I am as sensitive as they are, and as likely to be hurt. But now that years and years have elapsed since these people were in the same constellation of social stars (not movie stars, because we all have a tendency to believe that they in some degree deserve what they get, for putting themselves out there for everyone to see)–now that years have passed, and these people are doubtless doing other things perhaps nearly as foolish as what they once did, but with different people in tow, or perhaps some of them have learned how to do otherwise, it’s high time to comment on what I believe is the essence, philosophically speaking, of what drew them to each other, and what tore them apart. That’s a promising start for a love story, isn’t it? Telling you what’s going to happen before the ending comes. But since what I’m concentrating on isn’t the drama or the plot or the setting, but the philosophical underpinnings of their connection, perhaps you will find that you don’t mind so much. Consider it a free and edifying if not very exciting short story, if you like. And if it keeps you from making similar mistakes, you can give me a mental footnote someday!
First of all, there was a young man, a man in his mid-twenties, who had read a few too many cranky old philosophers like Schopenhauer and who found them “romantic,” though he would never have used this expression to himself, because that would’ve been “sentimental.” And if there was one thing this young man didn’t want to have a reputation for being, it was “sentimental.” No, he was a hard thinker, to his own mind, and liked to pose a bit (more than a bit, actually) as a philosopher himself. He was very fond of bringing up about Nietzsche, when lecturing (for he was a lecturer in a large university, a teaching assistant, in fact) that Nietzsche had had syphilis, and was crazed as well as inspired. It’s not, of course, that no one needed to know that, because like all facts about authors and philosophers, it’s fair game. It’s rather that he liked alerting his mostly youthful students to the facts of life, of which syphilis is certainly one, and that he liked to flirt with dangerous ideas, such as whether or not being crazed and inspired were actually the same thing. Nor is it that he wanted anyone to think that he himself had syphilis (which in one light would explain his obsession with talking about it) but that he was himself inspired and just a bit (romantically) crazed was something he didn’t mind having people think, if they really insisted upon thinking about him, which it was certainly agreeable that they should. It was even more unusual that Nietzsche should come up so often, because the young man–we’ll call him Walter–wasn’t a lecturer in philosophy, rather he was a teaching assistant in English. The students had of course heard of Nietzsche in their philosophy classes, history classes, and psychology courses in passing. But Walter’s students were tempted to titter after a few times of hearing quotes from Nietzsche applied to other texts: “Oh man, here we go again,” about summed up their reaction.
Now, if there was one thing that Walter was in love with more than Nietzsche and syphilis, it was death. He didn’t think of it as a dangerous thing to be in love with, because of course so many of the great authors were in love with it too, or gave the appearance of being. The fact that they were great and he was small and insignificant by comparison didn’t occur to him, because of course when Walter read the great authors (aloud to his students, particularly), he participated in their greatness, became as great and as noble and as dark and depressed as they themselves were, and that was all to the good, because being in love with death made life worth living. And there was an added feature of appeal: it made Walter’s young wife Isobel angry with him when he quoted from the great depressives, and it made his young female students fall in love with him. And those two things taken together were a heady combination! Why, death was the ticket to fame and fortune and love and all those other things Walter sat in his carrel in the library and dreamed about when he was supposed to be marking papers. It was Death personified who dictated a good number of those forbidding remarks and rejoinders Walter penned in black marker on the papers themselves, remarks and rejoinders that put his students in their respective places in the order in which Walter figured they understood about things that he himself valued, with Death at the top of the list and his least significant student at the bottom.
There was, however, one student who took Walter a little more seriously than the rest, and she (for it was a she) was determined to join him in his celebration of darkness and despair. She even had a motive for her feelings, a genuine motive of the heartfelt sort which Walter lacked, for Walter was worshiping Death as a concept, and Ilse (we’ll call her Ilse) had a more emotional motive for putting Death in such high regard, and it was that Walter was already taken and not available for late-night coffee klatches and romantic (there’s that word again!) walks by the pond below the campus, and–but wait! As it turns out, Walter was available for these things, only he observed a due amount of circumspection in making himself accessible to Ilse (or at least he thought he was circumspect. The fact that I can tell you about this couple lets you know that they weren’t as circumspect and proper in public and private as they thought they were being, or no one else would ever have found out).
And finding out was of course what Isobel did too, because Walter, in the wallowing in despair which he foisted upon everyone included in the situation, talked a long time about Death and sadness and lack of enjoyment of life and more about Death, until finally Isobel flattered his ego enough to pry out of him exactly what was on his mind (which wasn’t really Ilse, though he pretended it was, but was in fact only Walter himself).
Ilse’s respect for Death came about only after much suffering and sorrowing and the realization that Walter wasn’t worth the psychic and emotional “paper” he was written on, whereas Death was a real thing, a real foe, something to be feared and fought off until it could be no longer fended away. And that’s where the death of Love comes in. Because Ilse, after having experienced the love of Death second-hand through Walter, now experienced the death of Love. Which, now that I come to think about it, makes this a happy story after all, not a sad one, since it would’ve been far sadder to remain in love with Walter than to lose all interest in him, as Ilse, and later Isobel, to judge by their later courses of action, certainly did.
I’m sorry for having promised a sad story and having in fact delivered the very opposite, but since Ilse and Isobel are two happy people at this date and Walter is still alive (though still Walter), you’ll have to figure for yourself that if you want a sad story, you’re going to have to ask Walter for his version: people who fall in deep love with Death demonstrably have little or no sense of humor.