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.