First Love and Last Things
Much initially — and ultimately everything — depends on where one puts the stress on First Love. For the moderns, who arguably made First Love their primary erotic myth, the emphasis falls on the first. The first, that “mot terrible” in Stendhal’s lexicon, couples, but also confuses precedence in time with the hierarchy of feelings. This confusion is productive. It conducts the first-time lover to the threshold of a new, more vital and — for the moment! — more exalted order of existence. In Spring Torrents, Turgenev explicitly compares this threshold to a barricade from which youth ”sends its ecstatic greetings to the future, whatever it may hold — death or new life, no matter.” This indifference to the very future it so rapturously greets is one of the most salient, yet unexpected aspects of First Love. Why this indifference to the next moment, to the time-to-come, at the very moment when Love triumphs, when self seems reborn into a world freshly made in hope and joy? Nor can we say that this indifference to death is assumed, or that it reflects the lovers’ naïveté. On the contrary. This blithe unconcern with the difference and the distance between first and last things is presented as First Love’s greatest psychic achievement. The feeling that all and nothing matters represents a different spiritual and emotional inclination than the “repressed longing for death, for self-experience to the utmost” that Denis de Rougemont divined as the passionate motive of the Tristan Romance, the key myth of Love in the Western World. First Love is not a myth that expresses what de Rougement called the “sadistic genius” of the Western psyche. The genius of First Love is syncretic, as expressed in the formula: either death or new life, no matter; the equipoise, this prime moment, is all. This Either-Or, which provided the foundations of Kierkegaard’s original interpretation of First Love, continues to intrigue and confound me. Given this opportunity to entertain “second thoughts” about First Love, I am struck by how the end, as the beginning, of First Love is finally of no matter and yet of the utmost importance, a thought I will pursue through a reading of Turgenev’s and Beckett’s novellas of First Love.
Maria DiBattista is professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton University; she specializes in twentieth century literature and film, the European novel and narrative theory. Her books include: Virginia Woolf. The Fables of Anon; First Love. The Affections of Modern Fiction (1991); High and Low Moderns. British Literature and Culture 1889—1939 (co-ed. 1997); Fast Talking Dames (2003); Imagining Virginia Woolf (2008).