Exam Reading – What Is Love?

In 1691 a reader of John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury (also called Athenian Gazette and Casuistical Mercury) posed this question for the periodical’s writers: “What is love?” Since the question was included in one of the early issues of the periodical dedicated solely to “ladies’ questions,” we can presume that this question was, indeed, posed by a woman. Not having looked through every question of the over 200 issues of Athenian Mercury printed during the periodical’s run, I can’t definitively say whether or not this was the only time this particular question was posed. Perhaps it was posed again in a later issue with a different answer offered in response, but I don’t write on this query here to compare various answers across the span of Mercury’s years in print. What I do, however, want to do here is think about how this question and its offered answer might provide a survey on the status of “love” in late 17th century England. Printed in a short (single-page back and front), exceedingly popular (the prefaces of many year-end bound volumes of the periodical beg readers not to send in any more questions until the hundreds backed-up are responded to) periodical in response to a question by one of the many readers of this text, it seems plausible to consider the question/answer pairings in Dunton’s Mercury to be representative of standard thought and practice among the population that made up his audience (who that group was, of course we can’t know for sure).

With this tentative sense of the commonplace in mind, let me turn now to the actual response posed:

Question: What it love?

Answer: Tis very much like Light—a thing that every Body knows, and yet none can tell what to make of it: ‘Tis not Money, Fortune, Joynture, Raving, Stabbing, Hanging, Romancing, Flowncing, Swearing, Ramping, Desiring, Fighting, Dying,—though all those have been, are, and still will be mistaken and miscalled for it. What shall we say of it? ‘Tis a pretty little soft thing that plays about the Heart—and those who have it will know it well enough by this Description. ‘Tis extreamly like a Sigh, and could we find a Painter could draw one, you’d easily mistake it for the other: ‘Tis all over Eyes, so far is it from being blind, as some old Dotards have describ’d it, who certainly were Blind themselves: It has a Mouth too, and a pair of pretty Hands, but yet the Hands speak, and you may feel at a distance every Word that comes from the Mouth, gently stealing through your very Soul—But we dare not make any further Enquiries, least we should raise a Spirit too powerful for all our Art to lay again (Athenian Mercury, 2.13 [July 7, 1691]: Question 2).

This response is remarkable on several levels. First, it seems interesting to note, especially given the political climate of the time, that the responder assumes (and quite rightly, I think) that the question writer is asking specifically about love in its romantic and intimate context. There are no politics here – no love of country, love of king (or government by this time), love of family. The prose instead paints a notably poetic portrait of exactly the kind of fluttering, affective response that have become synonymous with love in our own day.

But what is more exciting about this response is its absolute inability to describe anything remotely concrete about this affective relation. It starts out sounding concrete enough (even as it resorts to an analogy in order to express this initial “concrete” response): love is like light. But immediately the responder feels the need to supplement his own initial response, for what exactly is “light”? Well, he explicates, it’s something “that every body knows” but no one can really “tell.” In this first sentence, then, the responder calls attention to the failure of his own response. How can he spend a paragraph describing love if it is, indeed, something “none can tell?” Switching tacks, he begins to define love in negative terms: “’Tis not Money, Fortune, Joynture, Raving….” But this list of negative signifiers is equally, if not more, problematic than the opening analogy. Sure, we can see how money and fortune make the list; “love of money” or “love of fortune” are fairly common expressions even now. But “love of hanging?” “Love of flowncing?”

From here, the response gets increasingly vague, ultimately digressing into the responder’s finally despairing, “we dare not make any further Enquiries.” Love is defined throughout the remainder of the passage as “a pretty little soft thing that plays about the heart,” “like a sigh,” “all over eyes,” “far…from being blind,” a figure with “a mouth” and “a pair of pretty hands,” and, potentially at the end, a “spirit all too powerful for…art to lay.” What I find most amazing about this passage is the tension evident between the viscerally material and ghostly abstract formulations of love. For this responder, love has a “mouth” the generates words and “hands” that “speak,” but love is also “like a sigh” or “like light.”

The play between concrete and abstract here is nothing new for early modern scholars who often note the Renaissance’s fascination with allegory and the parsing out of both material and abstract concepts. But what I love about this response in Dunton’s Mercury is the complete lack of actual “parsing out” that goes on here. The writer, in trying to answer what seems to be a simple question, three words, “what is love,” gets completely jumbled in his own response. And in that jumbling, he manages to evoke exactly the display of love the question looks for. It is in the very confusion of his answer, the attempt at various avenues for parsing, the back-and-forth between material and abstract, that we can locate a late 17th-century notion of “love.”

There is more to be said here. But in the spirit of keeping these blog posts to a manageable quick-read length, I’ll end just with a few questions. Does this exercise of reading the representation of love within the larger structure and “problems” of the writer’s response hint at a way to read “love” or expressions of it in other early modern texts? If we read for confusion rather than for clarity, does it provide an inroad to intimacy and relations in texts that can’t be sorted out through more “careful” reading practices? How might the periodical responder’s short passage on love function as an uniquely illuminating starting point for reading versions of love by the “painters” and artists, poets, playwrights, etc. of his contemporary moment?

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