(repost of a long-lost analysis from August 2009 of Philip Larkin’s “Love Again”)
A defunct form of misery, or so we might imagine. Larkin had a couple of tries at imagining it so himself, notably in “High Windows” and “Annus Mirabilis” (“Sexual intercourse began / in 1963”), which pictures the sexual revolution of the 60s as the moment when “everything became / a brilliant breaking of the bank, / a quite unloseable game”. Yet here he is, wanking at ten past three, his misery the particular misery of the sexually defunct.
The language of the poem is shocking, not so much in its direct obscenity as in its juxtapositions: “love” must live, somehow, in this proximity to “wanking” and “breasts” and “cunt”. “Breasts” and even “cunt” can be said tenderly, but here I think are not: here they name the parts on display in the Swedish porn mags sent to Larkin by his pal Kingsley, the parts of a woman’s body related to as prize or property: either one’s own or “someone else”‘s. This is a poem about coming second in a competition between men. Humiliation, “the usual pain”; and consolations that do not console (“the drink gone dead”, flat in the glass).
Why “love”, then; and why “drowned in that lash-wide stare” (rather than, say, “up to his balls in quim”)? The latter is of course quite compatible with greedy objectification: women routinely figure as both “breasts and cunt” and mysterious oceanic sex-beings in which male identity is submerged and dissolved. The speaker’s anguish here is that of being uncomfortably left alone with his “male identity”, his deprived and grasping selfhood, rather than “drowned” or “swayed” by the disindividuating force of erotic love.
There is a contradiction in how he imagines his successful rival, as both masterfully in possession (“surely he’s taken her home by now”) and ecstatically dispossessed (“drowned in that lash-wide stare”). This contradiction is reflected in his own compensating position, which is trying to make up for two incompatible privations at once.
On the one hand, there is the typical Larkin move towards knowledge as balm for disappointment, in which what is lacking in direct experience is made up for in ironic reflection: the arid satisfaction of being “less deceived” in proportion as one is less involved. Here I want to supplement Larkin with Lacan’s observation that “les non-dupes errent”: the fantasy of being “the less deceived”, of imagined aloofness and linguistic mastery, conceals the reality that the trap of experience has already been sprung and one is already writhing in its jaws.
On the other hand, the poem is an expression of profound ignorance, in spite of what it says about being unable “to be ignorant, / Or find it funny, or not to care”. The ellipsis after “Even…”: what was he about to “put…into words”? Even, I think, to feel happy for this person he says he loves (if that is what he is saying): the sequence would then run from ignorance, through amusement and indifference, to benevolence. But this step, a first step beyond selfishness, is beyond Larkin – or so he insists, in poem after poem.
Instead, the poem turns to the question of “this element // That spreads through other lives like a tree / And sways them on in a sort of sense”. “Unselfishness” might be a good name for it; but even as the poem yearns for release from selfhood, it has no name for what might open selfhood up from the inside, exposing it to the proximity of other selves in which this release might be found. “Love again” is something other than love the first time around, the primary erotic motive force that “spreads through other lives”: it is love narcissistically recaptured, as self-love deprived of the object that would have facilitated it.
Larkin’s answer, here, to the question of “why it never worked for me” seems to have something to do with attachment: the implicit narrative I think is one of a “violence / A long way back” that detached him from the sympathetic weave of “other lives”, and a subsequent attachment to “wrong rewards” – the satisfactions of poetic craft, ironic knowledge, literary fame – that belong to “arrogant eternity” rather than the temporal present through which Larkin’s imagined tree of life spreads its branches. Poetry here is not the sublimation of erotic urges, or “emotion recollected in tranquility”, but rather a usurping power, rooted in privation: the poet as Larkin presents him in this poem is not an especially sensitive individual, but rather an especially desensitised one (although unwaveringly sensitive to his own condition). It is a studiously unappealing portrait, and I am rather inclined to take it as a warning; which may after all be how it was meant.