Book Review / Love: in the hands of the poets

THE DOUBLE FLAME: Essays on Love & Eroticism by Octavio Paz, Harvill Press pounds 14.99

THE SHY or diffident lover is a staple of courtly romance, as is the faithful swain who never gives up hope. Octavio Paz had so much trouble writing down his thoughts of love that this book has been all his life in the making. Luckily for us, he persevered. The reader's gratification, being delayed by 40 years or so, is all the more intense for the wait.

Paz charmingly confesses in his Preface his trouble in coming to the point. He began this work, he tells us, as an adolescent, serving his apprenticeship as a writer of love poems; love has taken up obsessive residence in his poetry ever since. Then, in 1960, he wrote 50 pages on de Sade, an essay that began the attempt, which comes to fruition in this book, to trace the boundaries between what he saw as the three domains - those of animal sexuality (concerned with reproduction), human eroticism, and love.

Then, in 1965, while he was living in India, under "skies as blue and electric as those of the poem that sings of the loves of Krishna and Radha", he fell in love. Now, at last, he felt, he could write his "little book on love". Yet again, he abandoned it. The scrawled pages of notes from India turned yellow, or got lost. Finally, in 1992, Paz felt so gnawed by remorse that he set to and finished the book in a couple of months.

Other histories of sexuality tend to cover some of the same terrain, departing from Plato via Christianity and the Provencal troubadours to sweep through romanticism and psychoanalysis before ending up in the wasteland or paradise of post-modernism, depending on your point of view. Paz, not surprisingly, as a poet himself, trusts poets to be telling the truth, or at least trying to discover it. Rather than assert that poetry is a form of codifying and patterning motifs from a complex and strict literary tradition, he reads poems as expressions of sincere feeling. While some contemporary critics argue that mediaeval and renaissance love poetry breaks up, even attacks, the body of the lover by listing feminine charms one by one (the poet as serial killer dismembering his ideal), Paz believes the beloved woman is celebrated as whole, recognised as herself.

For him, great art cannot be tainted by misogyny. So he places in the hands of the poets the chain of love that binds us to one another through the centuries. His originality and depth emerge in his treatment of non- western sources. The esoteric disciplines of Tantra, re-uniting body and soul, offer hope to anyone crushed by Christianity's insistence on the badness of physical feelings. Paz insists throughout on the power of the imagination to transfigure experience, reconcile warring opposites, and dissolve us into a new place where we fear neither our desires nor our dependence on the object of desire. Where eroticism, he suggests, is the human being imaginatively at play with a desired sex object (of either sex), true love is founded on the recognition of the other's subjectivity.

It's heady, optimistic stuff: the best sex depends on the deepest intimacy. Paz doesn't, perhaps, explore enough how terrified we can be of this, hence our need for pornography, "pure" sex free of memory, the traces of childhood terrors and impossible needs. It is certainly very touching to read his denunciations of western capitalism's efforts to turn us all into mindless sex consumers, gobblers of sexual lollipops.

You notice how I have said "we", as Paz does. He prefers not to confront the way in which that "we" can be riven by disputes over power and consent, freedom, censorship. I don't think he's read many of the new dirty sexual realism books by women, either. In his way he's as much of a romantic as a pornographer. His star is love. He makes it sound humanly possible, which is refreshing in these cynical times. More than anything, though, this is a book which celebrates poetry and the transforming power of metaphor. Reading it, you get that good ole frisson of bliss. Just like good porno. Lie back and enjoy.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003