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Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2001 / 21 Shevat, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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A collection of valentines -- FOR at least 24 hours, a truce now has been called in James Thurber's endless war between the sexes. It happens every February 14th. What perfect timing: "In the midst of winter, you can feel the inventions of Spring ... .'' That opening line from Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet'' is so lovely he could have been writing about baseball.

Speaking of which, no dissertation about love would be complete without citing the late ur-Southern poet, sage, philosopher and good old boy Lewis Grizzard.

An interviewer once asked Mr. Grizzard the standard Venus-and-Mars question: "What's the main difference between men and women?'' It was the perfect opportunity for the Dr. Kinsey of Dixie to reveal his blinding, if rambling, insight into that perpetual question:

"Women,'' he explained, as if anyone could explain women, "have absolutely no idea, no comprehension of the infield fly rule. The infield fly rule is one of the reasons that the planet keeps turning. If you didn't have the infield fly rule and you hit a pop-up, the runners on first and second wouldn't know whether to run or not, and the infielder could screw around and not catch it on purpose ... it would be chaos! When I try to explain the infield fly rule to women, they look up at me and say, "The what?''

With that kind of profound understanding of the feminine psyche, no wonder Lewis Grizzard was married at least three times. "I don't think I'll get married again,'' he decided at one point. "I'll just find a woman I don't like and give her a house.''

It need not be emphasized on this day of the year, but one can fall out of love even more quickly than in. John Barrymore defined love as "the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.''

But if there is one thing sadder than the lovelorn, it is the unloving, especially today. There is indeed something fishy about them. As if they were moving about in some dark subterranean darkness.

Happily, it's that day of the year again when (ital)homo(unital) supposedly (ital)sapiens(unital) must be reminded of love; sex we have with us always. It leers from the ubiquitous telescreen; it advertises everything from the internal combustion machine to toothpaste; it has been customized, condomized, clinicized, and cynicized. Thanks to the wonders of sex ed, love has been reduced to physical hygiene and disease prevention. By now it must have acquired all the appeal of flossing.

Jane Austen's version of feminism, despite her popularity as a screenwriter in recent years, would now surely be declared politically, sexually and socially incorrect. "All the privilege I claim for my own sex,'' she once wrote, "is that of loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.''

Which is why Miss Austen's is the stronger sex. Or at least it was till it became fashionable for women to insist on stepping down to equality.

But love is stronger than death, as has been observed since biblical times. It outlasts the lovers. Perhaps that is why Jane Austen has been such a rich source of literary and visual images in recent years. Along with Shakespeare. Who says there's no hope for pop culture? The current surfeit of sex has created a great demand for love, if we can just remember what it was. Happily, those who have just fallen in love need not be reminded of its existence; for them there is nothing else. Theirs is a sickness that one can only wish would last forever, though it would wreak havoc on the Gross Domestic Product -- not to mention the incessant flow of news.

It was a German poet (no, that is not a contradiction in terms) who observed that one of the great advantages of being in love was that one lost all interest in newspapers. The proliferation of 24-hour news channels, talk radio and the general delusion that Politics-Is-Life does not augur well for the continuation of the species.

It was a Russian poet (no, that is not a redundancy) who understood that even when love is absent, it is present. It's just waiting to strike. Waiting is the title of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's old and ever young love poem: "My love will come ... in from the pouring dark, from the pitch night ... and when she drops her overcoat on a chair, it will slide to the floor in a blue heap.''

Yevtushenko could write like that when he was still a young rebel, before prudence supplanted love, when he was still a poet rather than a visiting academic.

Happily, love turns out to be inseparable from the human condition; it may lie fallow for the longest time but there's no telling when it will crop up, or what will set it off, or whom it will strike. A smile, a glimpse, a memory, a gesture, an old son, a hint of perfume may bring it all back -- like Proust's madeleine opening a world. (''The way you wear your hat/the way you sip your tea/the mem'ry of all that/No, no, they can't take that away from me ... .'')

Love is such that even the memory of it can ache. The sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, who made a career of cynicism, could define love as "the delusion that one woman differs from another.'' Yet when his diaries were released 50 years after his death, they showed an utter devotion to his wife, Sarah Hardt. "Love is like war,'' he once observed, "easy to begin but very hard to stop.''

Mencken's diaries stop for two years after his wife's death, as if he could not bear to go on. That hard-boiled iconoclast couldn't bring himself to mention her until years later, as always with tenderness and yearning.

"My days with her,'' the old curmudgeon remembered, "made a beautiful episode in my life, perhaps the only one that deserves to be called romantic.''

So much for curmudgeonhood. It is not only music but love that soothes the savage breast. Indeed, music is a kind of love, or is it love that is a kind of music? I give up. There is no reasoning about love.

Ah, sweet mystery of love. Its workings are almost as complicated, as elegant, as esoteric, as enraging, as engaging as ... the infield fly rule.

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