Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: Strange Love

by Dan Froid

I wonder what a first date with Bluebeard would be like. He’s immensely wealthy but also immensely ugly. You know he’s been married several times, and that all of his marriages have ended badly. But you don’t know why. And that’s pretty much all you know about him. So if you’re on a date with Bluebeard—coerced, most likely, by the promise of wealth, if not domestic comfort—what do you talk about? Does he read? He probably has a huge library but never touches his books. I’m thinking of that scene in The Great Gatsby, where the guy with the owl eyes is surprised that Gatsby has actual books in his library, that it’s not all just for show. Do you think Bluebeard’s library is real?

Sarah Z. Wexler’s book, Awful First Dates: Hysterical, True, and Heartbreakingly Bad, chronicles a series of dating disasters. In Episode 14 of Air Schooner, “Strange Love,” she gives us a few examples. My favorite one involves a fellow writer, who’s “as handsome as you could hope for in daylight.” He presents a copy of his book as a gift:

Under the picture of a man in an apron standing over four Jessica Rabbit-like women, I saw the title: Flambé to Get Freaky. Had he been at all nudge-nudge, wink-wink, I may have been able to laugh it off. But he seemed deadly serious about his mission to help bachelors manipulate women the world over. He acted as proud as if he’d laid Anna Karenina on the table and claimed it as his own.

Hm. Sounds about as charming as Bluebeard, if less homicidal. Conversation surely wasn’t much better either.

You can blame Joanna Newsom for getting me started on Bluebeard. Her album(s) Have One on Me is a three-disc, two-hour-long exploration of the end of a relationship. If you think that sounds exhausting, well, you wouldn’t be wholly wrong. But it’s quite stunning nevertheless. One of the standout tracks, “Go Long,” presents lover as Bluebeard—although it’s a kind of reversal of the original tale. The grotesque, theatrical imagery belies Newsom’s rather sympathetic perspective:

I was brought
in on a palanquin
made of the many bodies
of beautiful women.
Brought to this place, to be examined,
swaying on an elephant:
a princess of India.

We both want the very same thing.
We are praying
I am the one to save you.
But you don't even own
your own violence.
Run away from home—
your beard is still blue
with the loneliness of you mighty men,
with your jaws, and fists, and guitars,
and pens, and your sugarlip,
but I've never been to the firepits
with you mighty men.

Isn’t it great when Newsom ends that list with “your sugarlip”? This song is meandering and pensive and full of these dark, twisting stanzas, which makes the occasional slang or silly phrase stand out. Here, Newsom’s Bluebeard is less an active murderer than a kind of passively oppressive presence: she has to leave because he can’t help but destroy whoever he’s with.

I wonder what Laura Kipnis would make of Bluebeard. He seems to be as good a symbol as any for all that’s srange about the concept. Host Rick Alloway reads from Laura Kipnis’s Against Love: A Polemic:

Love is boss, and a demanding one too: it demands our loyalty. We, in turn, freely comply—or as freely as the average subject in thrall to an all-powerful master, as freely as indentured servants. It’s a new form of mass conscription: meaning it’s out of the question to be summoned by love, issued your marching orders, and then decline to pledge body and being to the cause. There’s no way of being against love precisely because we moderns are constituted as beings yearning to be filed, craving connection, needing to adore and be adored, because love is vital plasma and everything else in the world just tap water.

Love is an all-controlling force, which becomes clear as you peruse tales and ballads. So I’m sticking with old stories today: from Bluebeard to seventeenth-century folk songs. In “I Am Stretched On Your Grave,” Sinéad O’Connor sings, over a dance track, this tale of a woman who spends her time on the grave of her lover, which is precisely as amazing as that sounds:

I am stretched on your grave
And will lie there forever
If your hands were in mine
I’d be sure we’d not sever
My apple tree, my brightness
It’s time we were together
For I smell of the earth
And am worn by the weather

Maybe because I’m morbid, I’ve always been fascinated by metaphors of love or passion rooted in the body, the earth, or death. Here, it’s not a metaphor so much as the fact: her lover’s dead, she’s miserable, and she sleeps on his grave in mourning. Maybe these metaphors are interesting because they demand that you think: Our typical standards of love aren’t so great, are they? Jennifer Perrine has a similar impulse, in “Portrait of My Lover as a Zombie,” to speak of love in terms of the grotesque:

I have no hopes to train away the shambling seduction,
This sweet disease that wishes for you to embed itself in me
Like teeth inside a brain

A disease, teeth inside a brain: why does love seem to make us feel like that with such frequency? We attach so much weight, such symbolism, to very conventional objects. Why is the grave more significant than the memory? Why must this woman wallow on top of her lover’s dead body, separated only by six feet of earth, rather than remember him? Why does love make her want to die? The song doesn’t really resolve: it ends with the same stanza it starts with, above. For me, this song is less interesting for the story in itself than for what it says about our attachments. Now, none of this is novel but this is what I sometimes think about. If our heroine had married the man, think of all the other symbols that would have meant to her, we can surmise, her very life: a ring, a dress, a home. And all the symbols for him, too: the wife, the home, the land. The life. We want stuff, more stuff! Even, or especially, symbolic stuff, which form the notches by which we mark our lives. How do we invest in a love that is not rooted in the material, or the artificial, things of this world? A love that lacks a certain kind of “thingness” but is no less important for that? A love that is, in fact, much more important? To love, then, in the abstract: what could that even mean? At least: to love such that you would not be compelled to stretch upon your lover’s grave.

For lightness, to pull ourselves up from the earth, here’s Liz Phair, whose music certainly evinces an understanding of bad dates. In “6’1,” Phair makes fun of some clueless jerk, maybe a Bluebeard, maybe a freaky flambé aficionado. Listen and laugh and maybe just read a good book (like Kipnis’s or Wexler’s) next time you’re tempted to go on a blind date.