Monday, 7 December 2015

On Being an Imperfect Idealist.

I just finished reading the story of Lancelot and Elaine in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. There’s a point at which Elaine has saved the injured Lancelot’s life by her diligent and loving care, and we already know that her love for him is pure, unconditional and total. His love for her, however, is a love born of gratitude and respect; it is the love due to a friend and sister, but not a lover. For he is bound by dedication to his adulterous love for Guinevere, wife of his King, and that’s the point at which Tennyson gives us these lines:

His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true

A magnificent piece of writing craft, but that isn’t the point. The point is that such is life for imperfect creatures mired in a systematically imperfect existence, replete with ironies, contradictions, and the consequences of ethical failure. I know the situation, vaguely. I know what it is to have the occasional flushes of success and pride in honourable achievements ever borne ignobly away on the black tide of guilt.

The pure Elaine dies of a broken heart. The impure knight lives on in sorrow. The adulterous Guinevere seeks Lancelot’s forgiveness for her jealousy. Reality survives.

(The closest I ever came to the purity of Romantic love was ended with the words ‘There is nothing to be done.’ They weren’t mine on that occasion, but they were inevitable.)

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