MAY 19, 2017
“LOVE IN ITSELF is childhood. Lovers are children. Children do not have children,” the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes in her Letter to the Amazon. “One cannot live off love,” she continues. “The one thing that survives love is the child.”
While Tsvetaeva’s adult life was riven by tragedy, she maintained a childlike capacity for love. She had passionate epistolary romances with two other legendary poets of her time, Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke. She also kept up a lively, often revelatory correspondence with fellow exiles, patrons, literary protégés, scholars, intellectuals, and potential lovers. A case in point is a letter from 1932, addressed from Paris — where Tsvetaeva was living as an impoverished émigré — to Natalie Barney, a glamorous heiress to an American railroad fortune. Translated by A’Dora Phillips and Gaëlle Cogan as Letter to the Amazon, it is exemplary of Tsvetaeva’s intense epistolary style. Vacillating between confrontation and seduction, it poses a challenge to Barney, a champion of romantic and sexual partnerships between women. Women lovers cannot have children together, Tsvetaeva says — that is “the only weak point, the only assailable point, the only breach in the perfect entity of two women who love one another.”
The theme of same-sex partnership was the focus of Plato’s most famous dialogue on love, the Symposium, in which the comedian Aristophanes tells a myth about original humans, split in half by the angry gods. The initial violent fission causes each of us to look for the other half to make us whole again. While most original humans were androgynous (man-woman), some were composed of two women, and others of two men. In Aristophanes’s view, this explains why some of us can only recover our original wholeness in same-sex unions. Socrates, as usual, makes a more radical claim. He believes that our erotic pursuits are driven by the fundamental human desire — to possess the good forever. While most heterosexual unions tend to satisfy this desire biologically — by producing little versions of us, mortal beings with a limited lifespan — the best forms of union result in more lasting and more beautiful progeny, such as acts of heroism, works of art, and laws. These children are more worth having, Socrates says, because they satisfy their parents’ desire for immortality more fully, and they do so regardless of their parents’ sex or age. Wouldn’t each of us prefer to father or mother the Iliad or the US Constitution, rather than a regular human child? Isn’t there something passive about letting our erotic impulses be channeled into sex and childbearing, the defaults set by our animal nature?
Tsvetaeva’s argument in her essay — that a loving relationship between two partners can only be brought to completion by a child — should strike the seasoned readers of her writings as surprising. In her other writings, Tsvetaeva had always insisted that, insofar as she is a poet, she has the right to “shake off” the natural givens, including her own female body. Nature has no absolute authority: its claims on us should be questioned, resisted. Yet in concluding Letter to the Amazon, Tsvetaeva brings in nature to bolster her argument: “Nature says: no. In forbidding it to us, she protects herself. God, in forbidding us something, does so out of love; nature, in forbidding us, does so out of love for herself, out of hate for all that is not her.”
To put it bluntly, nature is selfish. It does not care about us, our reasons and motivations, our love and our integrity. Human nature, she suggests, anticipating Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976) by four decades, only cares about reproducing more instances of itself. But if that is the case, then why should we heed nature? Tsvetaeva’s answer is that young women do so “without thinking, by pure and triple vital instinct — youth, perpetuation, womb.” Our instincts, in other words, are sufficiently powerful to disrupt some of our most cherished projects and deepest commitments. Hence, Tsvetaeva positions same-sex love as an affront to nature.
It is a strange thing for Tsvetaeva to write. She had had open, intimate relations with women. Her “The Girlfriend,” a cycle of 17 poems dedicated to her lover, fellow poet Sophia Parnok, contains some of the most breathtaking love poetry in the Russian language. Yet here, in her Letter, she dismisses love between women, and her case is compelling. What makes it compelling is the psychological mini-drama Tsvetaeva stages between two lovers — the Younger and the Older. She lets us glimpse a series of episodes, as if through a crack in a door, during the course of which the Older Lover recognizes the Younger’s increasingly articulated desire for a child, for “a little you to love,” and distances herself from her restless beloved, pushing her to leave. From the plausible description of a particular mini-drama, Tsvetaeva draws a generalizing conclusion: similar tensions plague all instances of romantic and erotic love between women. Yet this move could be merely a provocation. Barney was wealthy and well connected, a potential patron. Far from wanting to alienate her, Tsvetaeva’s thinly veiled confessional tone suggests that she intended to tease the woman she called “the Amazon” and “my female brother.” She wanted to get Barney to respond.
The notion that Tsvetaeva’s argument is a seduction, and the mini-drama a form of bait, is further supported by the Letter’s opening paragraphs. Tsvetaeva describes an ability to resist nature as a form of achievement:
Renouncement — a motivation? Yes, because controlling a force requires an infinitely more bitter effort than unleashing it — which requires no effort at all. In this sense all natural activity is passive, while all willed passivity is active (effusion — endurance, repression — action). Which is more difficult: to hold a horse back or to let it run? And, given that we are the horse held back — which is harder: to be restrained or to allow our strength free rein? […] Each time I give up, I feel a tremor within. It is me — the earth that quakes. Renouncement? Struggle petrified.
Nature cannot be disciplined completely — it will keep breaking through, and sometimes it may win. Instead of going along with its controlling force, we must strive to cultivate self-mastery. It is our own nature, after all, that rebels against the ends we set for ourselves.
In her insightful and rich introduction, scholar Catherine Ciepiela writes that Tsvetaeva’s “passionately stated case may now feel sympathetic to gay and lesbian couples who are fighting all over the world for the legal right to bear children and build families together.” By identifying the drive for biological reproduction as issuing from “selfish nature,” whose authority over us we have reasons to resist, Tsvetaeva’s essay also encourages us to reexamine our assumptions about marriage and family, and to keep thinking about other ways of being together — and of having and caring for children.