Ordinary Human Love: An Interview with Clancy Martin


At Work

Martin, Clancy (c) Greg Martin

Clancy Martin. Photo © Greg Martin

I first encountered Clancy Martin’s writing in NOON sometime in 2006 or 2007. He became one of my favorite writers. I looked forward to new work from him, wanting to add to the world he’d created in my imagination—a world I found endearingly and distinctively full of vulnerabilities, awkwardness, psychology; bleak, funny, and extreme situations; emotional, considerate, out-of-control characters; and other things I enjoy. I liked his calm, detached, careful, slightly deadpan narrators, and the stories they told—in his novel, How to Sell (2009), and his novella, Travels in Central America (2012)—were dark and moving and, in certain moods, funny on several different levels. 

Martin’s new book, Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love, is moving and funny but not, in my view, dark. It’s actually very optimistic, though maybe not in the way one would expect from a book about love. “To choose to fall in love is, we might think, in some way to fabricate or even to falsify love,” Martin writes. “But that’s the very notion I’m combating. I want to challenge the idea that love forces itself upon us with all the strength of truth.” He expands his argument by examining Plato, the Kama Sutra, Nietzsche, Freud, Adrienne Rich, Simone de Beauvoir, James Joyce, and dozens of others, as well as his memories of his personal experiences with his wife, two ex-wives, and three daughters. I asked Clancy some questions about love and lies via e-mail. 

One of the quotes in your book is from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche—“Love is mutual loneliness, and the deeper the loneliness, the deeper the love.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche recognizes that we are alone, and that the need for love is a mutual recognition that we are alone. Both the desire for and the desire to love—giving and receiving love—spring from this profound, unavoidable, so often avoided fact about human life. We are alone. I can’t get into your head and you can’t get into mine. Many of my memories and thoughts and feelings remain entirely private to me. But it is precisely this fact that informs our need for love. In some ways, the more I love you, the more urgent my need to know you and to reveal myself to you, the beloved, becomes, and so our separation becomes that much more intense. In Freudian terms, it’s as though we all desperately wish to climb back into the womb. And I don’t think we should underestimate the profundity of Freud’s insight on these questions, even though it’s the tired, tiring fashion lately to take him less seriously than we used to do. 

Adrienne Rich wrote that “the liar leads a life of unutterable loneliness,” and what she meant was, when we hide our thoughts and feelings from each other, we are interfering with the possibility of intimacy. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, in extreme cases. She also admits that the search for “the truth” about each other—whatever that might mean—has to be a gentle, tentative, slow, even furtive process. When we read a novel we feel less lonely, if it’s a good novel. Why? Because, despite the fact that it’s fiction—in a way, a pack of lies—we feel we are seeing into someone else’s mind. We feel, Ah! I’m not alone in feeling this way, in thinking this way, in suffering or enjoying or noticing this. For me, the process of growth in intimacy between people depends not so much on “truth” and “lie” as it does upon a kind of creative project of building love together, of writing the story, I suppose, of your relationship, your love affair, your marriage, and trying to write it together. When two people are each writing a totally different story, then the relationship falls apart—and we can all think of lots of examples of this. I do feel less alone when I am with my wife, when we’re talking, when we travel together, when we watch a movie together or read a book together—all the very, very fun things a couple can do together. But I also see that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche is right. The deeper and deeper I fall in love with her, the better and better I know her, the more acutely conscious I am of the fact that she is ultimately unknowable to me, as I am to her, and I have to accept that. It hurts, but in a good way. It makes me want to take care of her, and I think it makes her want to take care of me. 

9780374281069In a chapter on first loves, you distinguish between, on one hand, the coup de foudre set—people who say, I’m still waiting for love to happen to me—and, on the other, people “who are curious about love” and “will initiate a process of falling in love that is at least partially voluntary, that involves that person’s participation.”

Falling in love is, in my view, almost always a mixture of voluntary and involuntary components, and if you really cling to the belief that you are waiting for love to “happen” to you, you may find that it never does. Because love—all kinds of love—involves judgment, and judgment involves your will and your reason. It also, of course, involves all kinds of needs, beliefs, and physiological factors of which we are unaware or only semi-aware, and that’s why lightning bolts can and do strike people. But even when we’re “struck by the lightning bolt”—you might remember when that happens to the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, as he’s hiding out in Sicily and sees Apollonia, and one of his charming bodyguards comments, Look, he was struck by the lightning bolt—almost immediately thereafter our creative faculties kick in, and we effectively choose to fall in love.

Stendhal helpfully distinguished between a first and second crystallization. He got the idea from the salt mines at Salzburg. Love is like the salt crystals that form on a twig that falls into the mines—the twig is transformed! That’s the activity of your imagination in love. The first crystallization may be involuntary, or partially involuntary, though it’s still very much your imagination, your mind at work on the beloved, that is making the love happen. The second crystallization—as the love matures—is a much more actively chosen process, a process we might call the “fictionalization” of the beloved, or the choice of seeing and understanding the beloved in a particular way, from a particular perspective. This is not simple, straightforward self-deception—but there is rarely such a thing as simple, straightforward self-deception. That’s one of the things I am trying to argue in my book. We are not “struck” by the truth. We create our own truth—and that sometimes is mistakenly described as a simple lie. It’s much more nuanced than that.

The characters in your novella, Travels in Central America, are romantically involved—and lying to themselves, and others, heavily. But Love and Lies has a happier ending, I think. Does that have to do with it being nonfiction?

Love and Lies is a kind of commentary on Travels in Central America. The first version of Travels was a straight memoir. It was called Love, Lies, and Marriage, and it told the story of an affair I had. I wrote it mostly in a monastery in the Himalayas. I showed it to a couple of friends and they said, If you publish this, think of the damage you’ll do to yourself and possibly your ex-wife, not to mention your daughters when they get older. What will they think? I saw the wisdom of this observation—uncharacteristically—and it also influenced the way I wrote the final version of Love and Lies for publication. A chapter about the lies children tell, and a lot of material about my past two marriages, was not included in the book so that I wouldn’t do any lasting damage to anyone, if possible. Then I rewrote Travels as fiction and resolved to make Love and Lies more analytical—a mix of memoir and some thinking about love stories that had influenced my view of the relationship between love and truth. The ending of Travels as it stands is a true story, I suppose—that is, it reflects what actually happened in my life at that time. The ending of Love and Lies is a true story, too. They happened at different times in my life. So you’re right to compare them—in a weird way, they are the same book, written very differently, and from two different perspectives. Travels can be read as a cautionary tale about love and lies, whereas Love and Lies is written in praise of ordinary human love.

So instead of one book—Love, Lies and Marriage—there are now two books, one optimistic and one pessimistic, or at least troubling or bleak. 

That’s how love is. And maybe I am more optimistic in ordinary life than I am in my fiction, or maybe one of my self-deceptions about ordinary life is cheerful optimism, and in fiction I am, perhaps paradoxically, more honest. But I think both perspectives on love are important and accurate. It’s very hard to assess my own narrative position, especially on such intimate questions. 

Love and Lies is, I think, an obviously optimistic book. I try to argue for the good of love as most of us actually live it and experience it. I don’t think love has to be revised or improved—I don’t think we need a Human Love 2.0. But that means looking at the way it really works in our lives, not at the way we often pretend it works, or at the way we argue it ought to work or some love guru says it’s supposed to work, truth equals transparency equals unconditional love equals trust equals intimacy, some such ludicrous equation. I very much admire the writing of Bell Hooks, and she argues a version of this view in her terrific little book on love, All About Love—that we need to become better lovers than we are.

But that takes all the fun out of it! We’re great lovers just the way we are—when we are being lovers, we’re so good at it, in all of its crazy messiness. It’s when we get into this “absolute truth” nonsense and other forms of unnecessary dogmatism—telling people how they ought to be, and it’s always how other people ought to be and to behave—that we get ourselves into trouble, that we become dangerous or boring or stupid. 

Do you ever view Love and Lies as a tool, a motivator for your current love life? I imagine that you, having published this book, have even more motivation, or pressure, to practice love and become more skillful at it. “Loving requires at least as much practice as tennis,” as you wrote.

Love and Lies is emphatically a motivator—it’s an exercise book for me, in learning how to be a more caring person. I have to learn how to be as careful as possible. I see Love and Lies as an important part of that project. I hope, of course, that some other people might find it to be helpful for them. Or at least entertaining. 

Tao Lin is the author of Taipei and other books.