Michael Kinnucan

Tiny Trojan Horses: On Lovers’ Gifts


Love affairs, those dangerous negotiations, are unthinkable in our culture without the exchange of gifts. This was true in the olden days of diamond rings and dowries and giving the bride away, and it's still true today: lovers exchange glances and texts and compliments and secrets and letters, they buy each other drinks and dinners, they even still sometimes buy each other rings. In a sense it's obvious why we attach so much significance to giving here of all places (as opposed to in friendship, for example, where the gift is a favor, an afterthought). All these presents are rehearsals for the absolute gift, the gift to end all gifts, the moment when one gives one's heart, one's life, one's very self away. But to understand it thus would be to explain the obscure by the more obscure, because what does it mean, after all, to give one's heart? For one thing a "heart," in this usage, isn't something that does its owner any good when he's got it on hand, before he gives it away; it can't pump blood after all. It's good for nothing but to be given away. And what good is a heart to its receiver? Someone else's heart is a delicate thing; it requires a great deal of care if it's not to be broken. From a certain perspective it's more trouble than it's worth. Of course the exchange can't be understood if it isn't reciprocal: you hold onto their heart, they hold onto yours. To accept the lover's gift is to give one's own away. The whole project is not so much mysterious as suspect: how can you give yourself, to whom would it be wise to, and who in their right mind would take you, in this way? This question—what does it mean to give love, and how might one receive it—is the one we try to answer by exchanging gifts in love. The rings, the lies, the secrets are all interrogative metonyms for the heart. Here I will explore three such question marks: the drug, the secret, and the lie.

Section 1: Love Potions

In the course of his otherwise thorough analysis of Vermeer’s “The Wineglass,” Élan Reisner kindly invites his readers to interpret the one aspect of the painting he fails to address: the suitor. I’d like to accept his invitation.

Reisner argues that our ordinary conceptions of activity and passivity, subject and object, cannot withstand the moment of courtship depicted in the painting. This point could be made most simply by asking: who has the power in this scene? Who is active, who passive? The obvious answer would be that agency is all on the girl’s side: she sits in judgment of his wine, he waits to be judged. He is anxiously turned toward her, while she looks outward; he cannot see her eyes, because the wineglass blocks his view. Her taste will decide his fate, and at this moment he can do nothing either to predict or to influence it.

Yet as Reisner points out, the painting does much to remind us of the vulnerability of her own position: she faces a bright window depicting temperance and a foreboding landscape painting. She faces a weighty decision. The judgment she hands down will determine her fate as well as his: in accepting him, she will be giving herself. If she falls in love with him, she assumes not only all the ethical risk of marriage, but the darker possibility that he may seduce and abandon her. Her position is all the more precarious because she cannot see the alternatives: her view of the window and the painting is blocked by the glass itself. Which turns our attention to the nature of the gift: it is wine, an intoxicant. It will make her susceptible, willing, reckless; the very object under judgment will impede her judgment.

And this is why the sip of wine in the girl’s mouth, the suitor’s gift, is such an appropriate metonym for the suitor himself. A lover is proverbially blind to her beloved’s faults; she’ll find ways to justify even the worst in him. The irony is obvious: the many flaws so abundantly visible to her friends are hidden from the very person who most needs to see them. A lover always has reasons at hand for preferring this particular person to all others (so beautiful, so intelligent, so caring and funny)—but they can’t be the real reasons, the causes of love, because they are accessible only to someone already in love. This is one of the reasons love is often compared to an intoxicant. If in the moment following the painting (a moment which will, of course, never arrive), the girl smiles and says she likes the wine—if she accepts the gift and with it the suitor—the question of how she would have liked the wine had she not already been buzzed on it will be as unanswerable as the question in that ridiculous Cinderella song: “Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?”

Of course it’s possible—even likely—that the girl in the painting was already in love with the suitor before he offered her wine. If she hadn’t already liked him, she could have said she was busy, or gracefully accepted the wine and left it in the parlor, or not responded to his texts. She needn’t have put herself in such a dangerous, potentially compromising position; the fact that she did surely implies that she wants to be compromised. No doubt she’ll praise the wine, now, even if it’s execrable, just because it’s from him. On this interpretation the painting doesn’t precede a decision, it follows one: in accepting his gift, she has already accepted him. But this only pushes the question back: when and how did she decide to grant him her favor? What gift was sufficiently impressive that she decided to give herself?

The wine as gift is a kind of Trojan horse: you let a small thing in, a statue, a symbol, but it contains that which can open the gates and let everything in, or out. (The geometry here is complicated: falling in love is letting someone into your heart, or giving your heart away.) Before you accept the gift, it’s too soon to judge the giver; after you’ve sipped it’s too late.

Pickup artists have developed a technique which exploits this confusion: start touching the woman immediately, with a hug when you first meet and a small touch of affection when she makes you laugh or does something cute. The reasoning is as follows: women believe that, broadly speaking, the men they allow to touch them casually are also men they’re willing to sleep with. Naturally a woman won’t consider the fact that you hugged her when you met a decision on her part to sleep with you, but an accumulation of casual touches will make it seem to her as if she has decided to sleep with you. By the time you lean in to kiss her at the end of the night, she’ll have come to assume that she has already decided to sleep with you—after all, you two were touching all night! Note the structure of decision here: the many small touches were always before any decision had been made, while the kiss happens after a decision has been made. The decision transitions smoothly from future to past without ever encountering the present.

This technique reminds us of everything that’s wrong with pickup artists, of course: it’s manipulative, it’s cowardly, and one wonders whether the women who fall for it would be worth pursuing in the first place. Yet it captures on a small scale the strange nature of the seducer’s gift, and the indefinite consequences of acceptance.

Section 2: Can You Keep a Secret?

“Look, I want to tell you a secret, but first you have to promise never to tell anyone ever, no matter what.”

What a strange thing to agree to! After all, the secret could be anything. Before you know the secret, you don’t know enough to promise to keep it; after you know, you’ll already have promised and it will be too late. Of course you may decide to break your promise and take the risk of telling, or you may keep your promise and keep quiet. What you won’t be able to do is wash your hands of the matter. You’ll be responsible for the telling or complicit in the silence, but either way you’ll be involved.

Early in The Brothers Karamazov, in a chapter entitled “Another Reputation Ruined,” the young and mischievous Lise Kholakov assumes the role of seducer. She sends her childhood friend Alyosha a love letter. The letter says, in essence, “I love you I love you I love you marry me,” but its last line is strange: “So, I’ve written you a love letter, oh God what have I done! Alyosha, do not despise me, and if I have done something very bad and upset you, forgive me. Now the secret of my reputation, ruined perhaps forever, is in your hands.”

On reading this letter, Alyosha is at once overcome with anxiety—and naturally so. Is there any gift more frightening than a love letter? If you’re already in love with the sender it’s of course a wonderful surprise, and if you’re indifferent it may be merely irrelevant. But if, as is more frequently the case, you’re unsure, you’re suddenly in possession of immense responsibility: someone has dropped their heart in your lap. You can keep it or throw it away, and each choice is fraught with consequences. The recipient of such a letter—even if, in the end, he’s inclined to accept—may well rebel against such a gift: after all, he never asked for this!

Lise makes this newfound responsibility explicit in the line quoted. But what, exactly, is “the secret of my reputation”? A woman’s reputation was a reputation for not having fallen in love or been seduced before—for chastity. To lose this reputation was immensely shameful, and yet it was not shameful for a woman to fall in love, precisely; on the contrary, this was a woman’s entire purpose in life, to fall in love with a man, marry him and then go right on loving him. Ideally, an unmarried woman’s whole life was a love letter, but one with a blank space where the name should be. Such a woman would have no secrets; she would not be in love. Only at the moment when the letter was sent did the reputation become a “secret.” If the love letter met with approval, if she married, the letter would be no blemish on her reputation; if it did not result in marriage she would have done something shameful, something for which Alyosha might justifiably despise her, for which she might despise herself.

A reputation exists only to be offered; it is no good except to give away. Yet giving it away entails the possibility that it may be ruined. “The secret of my reputation” is not a “secret” until it is told; before she tells Alyosha she loves him, Lise has nothing to hide. Now that he’s read the letter, her reputation is his, to save by keeping the secret or destroy by throwing it away.

Lise’s situation might be taken as an illustration of Jacques Lacan’s definition of love: to make a declaration of love is “to give something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” To write a love letter is to place everything you lack in someone else’s hands, to make them the possessor of what you yourself don’t have; from now on you’ll be able to get it only through them, through their love. Not that you had it before you gave it away, except in a negative way: it was what you didn’t even know you lacked, what drew you outward into the world to seek it. Now you know where it is, because you’ve given it to someone else. They can’t know whether they want it before it’s given; they’re faced with a choice. They can reciprocate, offer you love, make you what they lack, or they can refuse. The “secret of Lise’s reputation” was nowhere before she whispered it in Alyosha’s ear; now it is in him, he must decide whether to destroy it or not.

A yet better illustration of Lacan’s dictum can be found elsewhere in The Brothers Karamazov, in the story of how Dmitri and Katerina Ivanovna became engaged. Dmitri was in the army, and Katerina was his colonel’s daughter. She was a proud, well-educated and beautiful woman who inspired in Dmitri the kind of hateful desire a man feels for a woman whom he feels to be better than him and who seems to feel the same way. So when Dmitri learns that Katerina’s father has been loaning out the regiment’s money for his own profit on the sly, and that he has lost to the tune of 4500 rubles, he is grimly pleased; he informs Katerina’s sister that he knows all, and that he himself will put up the money so the truth doesn’t come out—but only if Katerina comes herself to collect it. Wink wink. Her sister tells him to fuck off, but weeks later a superior officer arrives, the truth is about to come out, the colonel almost shoots himself—and Katerina arrives on Dmitri’s doorstep, flushed and silent, to save her father’s honor.

Dmitri considers demanding sex for the money, of course. He would even do what in that benighted era apparently passed for the right thing to do once you had blackmailed a woman into having sex with you and offer to marry her the next day. But he realizes that she’s too proud for that: perhaps she’ll be ashamed of what she’s done, but she’ll only despise him all the more for having made her do it. She’ll never marry him. He considers laughing at her and turning her down—but exercising this petty power will only prove how base he is. At last, in one of those bursts of magnanimity to which fundamentally good-hearted drunks are prone, he simply writes her a check and opens the door for her. She bows all the way to the floor, takes the money and runs away.

Would for Dmitri that this had been the end of the story! Alas, Katerina can’t forget the event: she writes him a letter offering her hand in marriage, saying that he doesn’t even have to love her, she wants to be his furniture, the rug he walks on—and so forth. Dmitri is very naturally terrified: what could be more frightening than a beautiful, noble woman who will devote herself to you even if you don’t respond? You can never deserve such love, and you can never escape it either. Dmitri spends the bulk of the novel trying to find some way to get away.

How can we grasp the strange economy of this event? Katerina starts out with a secret worth more than money, more even than virtue: her father’s shame. Dmitri possesses this secret and the money to keep it a secret, so he possesses immense power over her. But he realizes the limits of this power: he can make her do anything he wants, but he cannot make her love him. To abuse his power would make him all the more unworthy of his love. So he gives her what would be worth anything to her, for free, and walks away. Katerina finds herself in his debt not only for 4500 rubles but for all she would have done for that money at that moment; she owes him her virtue. If he had taken her virginity they would be square, she could despise him, but he took nothing, so she finds herself in an absolute debt. A less proud girl could simply forget about it, pay him back with interest and walk away, but not her: she knows what she owes him and must pay with her whole self. She’ll be the rug she walks on. As Dmitri understands very well, her need to humiliate herself before him is but a mark of her pride; it’s got nothing to do with him, and he wants nothing to do with it.

There’s something almost unbelievably presumptuous and cruel about saying you’ll keep loving someone even if they don’t love you back. “I’m giving you what I don’t have—and I don’t care if you want it or not.” It’s a debt you can’t even default on. Katerina’s love letter is an act of aggression: she has been humiliated, she has had to accept charity, and she’ll make Dmitri accept it too whether he likes it or not. His every attempt to get clear of her will only make her love more admirable, his debt more vast.

Section 3: Sweet Little Lies

Katerina turns the lover’s gift into a weapon, but it’s worth asking: is it ever anything else? Lise’s secret and the suitor’s wine seem in a sense just as invasive and just as precipitate. Who would agree to be the container for another’s lack? Who would agree to be loved? Only someone in love, of course; the gift must be returned in a recprocity of overlapping absence. Lise’s secret provokes anxiety because her love is not yet returned, Katerina’s devotion inspires terror because it need never be returned; no one wants a martyr. But what does this reciprocity look like?

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 offers a beautiful image of this:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue,
On both side thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
     Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
     And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

What’s confusing about this poem is its sweetness: the reciprocity depicted is beautiful, and yet it’s a tissue of lies. What is it that these lovers give each other, if not transparent lies that neither one believes?

The speaker’s lover lies to him not about this or that but about her lying; she claims to be “made of truth,” thus telling a lie about her lying. He believes her, or pretends to, but not in order to spare her feelings; rather, his acceptance is an implicit lie about his own innocence. He’d have her believe that he’s credulous so that she will think him young. Yet she knows very well that his “days are past the best,” that he’s old enough to see through her. In other words, she knows he’s lying when he pretends to believe her; she knows her lies are just as futile as he knows his to be.

For whose sake is each of them lying? For themselves, or for each other? On a first reading the answer is clearly that each is lying for his or her own benefit, out of vanity. The speaker wants to be thought young because he wishes he were, and if he can’t be young in fact he can at least be so in her eyes. This desire is “vain” in a double sense. First, of course, it reflects an excessive concern with and a foolishly high opinion of his appearance in the eyes of another; it’s vain the way admiring yourself in the mirror is vain. But it’s also vain in the sense of “futile.” He knows very well that he is no longer young; nothing she says or thinks will change the fact. It’s vain to try to fool oneself, because you’ll of course see through your own lies. Not that this keeps us from trying.

In this poem, however, the vanity of each is vain in yet a third sense: not only can’t they fool themselves, but they can’t even fool each other. He doesn’t think she’s true, she doesn’t think he’s young; and each of them knows very well that they’re not fooling each other. Each offers what neither has, and both know they don’t have it. So what’s the point? Wouldn’t each of them be happier with some more credulous lover?

Oddly enough, they would not—they would have nothing to offer an innocent lover, and nothing to receive. Consider the matter carefully. She offers what she does not have, her truth, to him—it’s a gift to him because it flatters his vanity. She lies to him just as though he were young. If he really were young enough to believe her, she’d have nothing of value to give him at all; he’d think her truth was valuable, but she’d know it was worthless. But he knows it’s worthless and accepts it anyway, with gratitude; he’s capable of taking it as a gift just because he knows it’s a lie. She would have nothing to give a man who thought she was true; to him she can give her falsehood and be loved for it.

By the same token, he gives her what he does not have, his innocence—a gift to her because it flatters her vanity. He lies to her just as though she’s true. If he really were young, his credulity would be no gift; it’s only because she knows very well it’s a lie that it can be a mark of his affections. To a more credulous woman his old age would be of no value, at best a failing he kept well hidden; to her, though, it can become a gift.

To find a more credulous lover would certainly help them out of “vanity” in the third sense I mentioned: she could find someone young enough to really believe her, and perhaps he could find someone who really thought him young. But what would be the point? He’s not young, and she’ll never be true. It would be vain in the sense of futile to pretend. They could get what they don’t have accepted as something they do have, for a while—each could be loved as though he or she were different. But to be loved as they actually are, for what they really lack, this they can find only with each other.

The poem thus justifies its strange claim that “love’s best habit is in seeming trust.” Even simple trust is not as good. To take a lover’s gift for what it seems to be—this is foolish. It’s always more, and always less. But to see it for what it is, and then, in seeming trust, to take it anyway—what could express more love?

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