The Double Flame: Octavio Paz on Love
By Maria Popova
We love to forget ourselves, but also to remember what we are: mortal creatures lustful of meaning, radiant with life, eternally alone and eternally longing for home — home in ourselves and home in each other. “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote in his exquisite reckoning with the interplay of freedom and togetherness in love — Rilke, who also knew that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”
The delicate, eternal, life-magnifying relationship between love and death, between union and freedom, is what Nobel laureate Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914–April 19, 1998) explores throughout his timeless book The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism (public library), composed in the final years of his long life.
In love, predestination and choice, objective and subjective, fate and freedom intersect.
This dialogue between fate and freedom permeates Paz’s reckoning with love. Love, he observes, is not merely “the passionate attraction toward a single person” but, in the particularity of that person, requires “the transformation of the erotic object into a free and unique subject.” An epoch after Rilke, Paz writes:
Love is a bet, a wild one, placed on freedom. Not my own; the freedom of the Other.
Love… transforms the subject and object of the erotic encounter into unique persons… Its cornerstone is freedom: the mystery of the person.
The transformation of the erotic object into a person immediately makes the person a subject who possesses free will. The object I desire becomes a subject who desires me — or rejects me. The giving up of personal sovereignty and the voluntary acceptance of servitude involves a genuine change of nature: by way of the bridge of mutual desire the object becomes desiring subject and the subject becomes desiring object. Love, then, is represented in the form of a knot. A knot made of two intertwined freedoms.
Again and again, Paz returns to “the conjunction of fate and freedom” in love:
Whether the relationship is the result of accident or predestination, to reach fulfillment the complicity of our will is required. Love, any love, implies a sacrifice; and we choose that sacrifice without batting an eye. This is the mystery of freedom… In short, love is freedom personified, freedom incarnated in a body and a soul.
Lamenting the deficiency of language as a vessel to hold our most oceanic experiences, he adds:
How precarious and elusive are the ideas with which we attempt to explain the mystery of love. A mystery that is part of a greater one: the human being, who, suspended between chance and necessity, transforms his predicament into freedom.
There is an intimate, causal relation between love and freedom.
Freedom, Paz intimates, is not willed but attained through that most difficult of human achievements — surrender:
True love consists precisely of the transformation of the appetite for possession into surrender.
But here is the transcendent, devastating heart of the matter: When we surrender to love, we are also surrendering to time — the entropic emperor of human destiny. Paz writes:
Human love is the union of two beings subject to time and its accidents: change, sickness, death. Although it does not save us from time, it opens it a crack, so that in a flash love’s contradictory nature is manifest: that vivacity which endlessly destroys itself and is reborn, which is always both now and never.
With an eye to our destiny as mortal creatures, “playthings of time and accident,” Paz insists that “love is one of the answers that humankind has invented in order to look death in the face.” He writes:
Love is life to the full, at one with itself: the opposite of separation. In the sensation of the carnal embrace the union of the couple becomes feeling, and feeling in turn becomes awareness; love is the discovery of the unity of life. But in that instant the compact unity is broken in two, and time reappears: it is a great hole that swallows us… Total fusion includes the acceptance of death. Without death, life — ours, here on this earth — is not life. Love does not vanquish death but makes it an integral part of life.
Observing that love is “bound to earth by the body’s gravitation, which is pleasure and death,” Paz considers the essential polarity of our richest and most life-affirming experience:
Like all the great creations of humanity, love is twofold: it is the supreme happiness and the supreme misfortune… Lovers pass constantly from rapture to despair, from sadness to joy, from wrath to tenderness, from desperation to sensuality… The lover is perpetually driven by contradictory emotions. Popular language, in all times and all places, abounds in expressions that describe the vulnerability of a person in love: love is a wound, an injury. But as St. John of the Cross says, it is “a wound that is a gift,” a “gentle cautery,” a “delightful wound.” Yes, love is a flower of blood. It is also a talisman: the vulnerability of lovers protects them. Their shield is their lack of defense; their armor is their nakedness.
Yet despite all the ills and misfortunes it brings, we always endeavor to love and be loved. Love is the closest thing on this earth to the beatitude of the blessed.
All of our situational vulnerability springs from the supreme existential vulnerability we are born into — our mortality, the haunting fact of it, the stark assurance of it in every smallest act of dissolution pointing the arrow of time at death. A generation before the poet Mark Doty observed in his superb Whitman-lensed meditation on love and death that “you need to both remember where love leads and love anyway,” Paz writes:
Love does not preserve us from the risks and misfortunes of existence. No love, not even those that are most peaceful and happy, escapes the disasters and calamities of time. Love, any love, is made up of time, and no love can avoid the great catastrophe: the beloved is subject to the assaults of age, infirmity, and death.
Echoing Borges’s timeless refutation of time and Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity,” he adds:
There is no remedy for time. Or, at least, we do not know what it is. But we must trust in the flow of time, we must live.
We are time and cannot escape its dominion. We can transfigure it but not deny it or destroy it. This is what the great artists, poets, philosophers, scientists, and certain men of action have done. Love, too, is an answer: because it is time and made of time, love is at once consciousness of death and an attempt to make of the instant an eternity. All loves are ill-starred, because all are made of time, all are the fragile bond between two temporal creatures who know they are going to die. In all loves, even the most tragic, there is an instant of happiness that it is no exaggeration to call superhuman: it is a victory over time, a glimpse of the other side, of the there that is a here, where nothing changes and everything that is, truly is.
What emerges is a conception of love not as an antidote to death but as its vitalizing antipode:
Love does not defeat death; it is a wager against time and its accidents. Through love we catch a glimpse, in this life, of the other life. Not of the eternal life, but… of pure vitality.
Love is not eternity; nor is it the time of calendars and watches, successive time. The time of love is neither great nor small; it is the perception of all times, of all lives, in a single instant. It does not free us from death but makes us see it face to face… We are the theater of the embrace of opposites and of their dissolution, resolved in a single note that is not affirmation or negation but acceptance… the presence that dissolves into splendor: pure vitality, a heartbeat of time.
The Double Flame is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of its loss and French philosopher Alain Badiou on why we fall and how we stay in love, then revisit this florilegium of two centuries of great minds reckoning with time.
Published May 4, 2023