What Is Love? A Tender and Poetic Illustrated Celebration of the Elemental Human Quest
By Maria Popova
“Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being,” wrote Rumi. “Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.”
Eight centuries later, we go on spending our lives trying to win something we don’t fully understand but are constantly defining, and we go on betting on all the wrong things: We mistake admiration, visibility, and the trappings of success for love, we mistake being powerful for being loved, we mistake needing for loving.
True maturity is largely a matter of unlearning all these confusions acquired in the course of costuming ourselves with adulthood. So it is that only the very young and the very old seem to remember the elemental truth about love — love not as a bargaining chip but as the living prize, both vulnerable and wildly tenacious, radiant with Iris Murdoch’s timeless definition of it as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”
That gladsome, reality-broadening understanding comes abloom on the pages of What Is Love? (public library) by author Mac Barnett and artist Carson Ellis — a poetic modern fable reimagining with uncommon tenderness and originality the oldest quest narrative: that ancient hero’s journey of discovery and homecoming.
A young boy, yearning to know what love is, asks his gardener-grandmother.
In a gesture that is itself the deepest solution to the riddle of life and love, she enfolds him in an embrace and tells him that she does not have an answer — but that he might find it if he goes out into the world. This is Barnett’s subtle summation of what it means to be human — we long for love, we long to understand how the world works, and spend our lives foraging for understanding as we make our uncharted way through the wilderness of being.
And so the boy goes, meeting all kinds of people with all kinds of answers — a living reminder that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, each with its own understanding of beauty and love.
The answers he encounters bewilder him — each strange and suspect if taken literally, each shimmering with the intimation of some larger abstract truth, each almost absurdly particular yet shining a sidewise gleam on some spect of the universal. Along the way, love emerges as a sculpture of understanding — the stone of all it is not, carved away to reveal the essence that is, a form delicate yet robust.
Love is a fish, says the fisherman.
It glimmers and splashes,
just out of reach.
And the day that you catch it,
if you know what you’re doing,
you give it a kiss
and throw it back in the sea.
When the boy grimaces and pronounces his disgust at fish, with their sliminess and their alien eyes, the fisherman sighs, “You do not understand,” and we are instantly reminded that while the human imagination began in the metaphor-machine of children’s minds, metaphors are, in poet Jane Hirshfield’s lovely phrase, “handles on the door of what we can know and of what we can imagine” — and, sometimes, we must first know to imagine.
And so the boy moves through the world, gathering knowledge of its variousness and of the touching ways in which its creatures go about foraging love. “Love is applause,” the actor tells him. Love is a seed the farmer holds up. Love is the night to the cat.
Love, barks the dog over its shoulder while chasing the cat, is this.
On goes the boy, meeting people clutching and carrying their loves: a chessboard, a tree, a bear, the Moon.
Love is a house, says the carpenter, with her bandaged thumbs and her competent contented smile, speaking really about the house of life.
Love is a house…
You hammer and saw,
and arrange all the planks.
It wobbles and creaks,
and you alter your plans.
But in the end, the thing stands.
And you live in it.
Last comes the poet, resembling a cross between Rumi and god, filling an infinite scroll with his bid for the answer.
As the long poem of life unspools into the setting sun, we suddenly see the boy-pilgrim grown — now a young man, making his way back to the little house where his gardener-grandmother is now a very old woman, still tending to her sunflowers.
She asked me,
“Did you answer your question?”
I picked her up in my arms.
Couple What Is Love? — a fine time-shifted addition to the year’s loveliest children’s books — with poet David Whyte’s lyrical reflection on the measure of true love, then revisit a kindred celebration of the world’s variousness in Carson Ellis’s illustrated meditation on the many things “home” can mean and her painted veneration of time.
Published January 16, 2022