We Are All Sociopaths (for Love)

On the Writhing Orgy of Need and the Secret History of the World

David Zahl / 9.23.20

Do the names Jesse and Celine mean anything to you? Right now they mean a lot to me.

After years of putting it off, I finally binged Richard Linklater’s much-loved Before trilogy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. The movies trace a single relationship between an American man and a French woman over three decades. They meet on a train in their early 20s, reunite surreptitiously (sort of) in their early 30s, and then we check in on them in their early 40s.

The same actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also co-wrote the scripts) filmed their parts in three different locales, about 10 years apart. So no silly aging make-up required, just mortality itself on full display. The time-lapse continuity is something that Linklater would leverage to great acclaim in Boyhood, but I prefer these films, which are as affecting as anything I’ve seen in years.

Each installment has much to recommend it — my fave being Sunset, followed by Midnight and then Sunrise. How Linklater made what are essentially two-hour conversations between the same couple so watchable is a testament not only to the director’s skill, but the chemistry of the leads and the profundity of the material.

What comes across loud and clear in the trilogy is a truth that PZ’s Podcast listeners will be familiar with: the main thing going on in life is not work or politics or even art. It’s love. A single night in your early 20s can shape your (inner) life for the next ten or thirty years. That is, if the connection you experience is powerful enough. These kind of sparks are the closest we get to transcendence in this life. They are, by all accounts, the moments our minds return to on our death beds.

Indeed, we watch as Jesse and Celine negotiate three decades worth of careers and causes and children — all of which are important — but nevertheless serve as the backdrop of the real story. “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?” asks Celine in Sunrise.

All this reminds me of an interview I read recently with a now high-profile friend of mine from college. The subject was how he got where he is, namely, a relatively famous comedian. This is something I had the privilege of witnessing first hand.

Every detail he gave about his “journey” was accurate, as far as I knew. But it wasn’t the full truth or even close to it. I was there when he made the decision to bail on his day job and pursue his dream full-time. We talked about it a bunch — probably too much. The passion he felt for the art form, while not insignificant, was not what prompted the jump. Nor was his obvious talent.

The real story is that my friend had had his heart broken in a thousand pieces and desperately wanted to win back the girl in question, who had always loved his sense of humor. I didn’t blame him for not mentioning that (major) detail in the publication, but I walked away wondering how many other stories we tell are covers for the real ones.

Tim Kreider once characterized human beings as “sociopaths for love,” and I think that’s about right. The sooner we learn this lesson, the less confused we will be by other people and ourselves, to say nothing of God. The phrase goes a long way toward explaining the many life transitions prompted by COVID, e.g., divorces, proposals, infidelities, moves, babies, puppies. Confronted with our mortality, the true substance of life rises to the surface, and we act accordingly.

Kreider goes further in a passage from his essay “The Creature Walks Among Us”:

Whenever I overhear someone talking on a cell phone about an illicit affair or excruciating divorce, or read the anguished confessions on postsecret.com or the hopeless mash notes in the “missed connections” ads, it feels like a glimpse into the secret history of the world. It belies the consensual pretense that the main thing going on in this life is work and the making of money. I love it when passion rips open that dull nine-to-five facade and bares the writhing orgy of need underneath…

My friend Lauren once told me that she could totally understand those losers who kill their exes and/or their exes’ new lovers, that black, annihilating If-I-can’t-have-her-no-one-else-will impulse, because it’s so painful to know that the person you love is still out there in the world, living her life, going to work and laughing with friends and drinking margaritas. It’s a lesser hurt than grief, but, in a way, crueler — it’s more like being dead yourself, and having to watch life go on without you.

I loved her for owning up to this. Not that Lauren or I — or you — would ever do any such thing ourselves. But I sometimes wonder whether the line between those of us who don’t do such things and the few who do is as impermeable as we like to think.

Anytime I hear about another one of us gone berserk… the question I always ask is not, like every other tongue-clicking pundit in the country, how could this have happened? but why doesn’t this happen every day?

Love is the drug, to quote Roxy Music, and Lord knows there’s none stronger. It’ll teach you who you really are, for both better and worse.

One response to Kreider’s rhetorical question at the end would have to do with Providence. That’s where my mind goes at least. And yet, what is Providence if not another word for the God of Love, whose actions in the world often look like that of a deranged lover, willing to risk it all to win back those who’ve rejected him?

There’s monumental risk involved in that kind of love — or any kind really — which is scary. It could go terribly wrong. You could get hurt, bad. You can’t control what happens any more than you can control your own feelings. Or other people’s. This is why we use the word “fall” in conjunction with love.

I suppose I can understand, then, why people would bail on love as an answer to the world’s ills. It’s too inefficient, too unwieldy, too close to madness — and we have enough of that right now, thank you very much. So no wonder a religion of love would suffer debasement in a time marked by such thorough-going vindictiveness. There are simply too many broken hearts out there.

I won’t tell you what happens with Celine and Jesse. You’ll have to sit through the brilliant yet uncomfortable third act of Before Midnight to find out. But I will tell you that their relationship stays true to the logic of love, which is no logic at all but a path of breakdown and breakthrough, darkness and dawn, death and resurrection.

It mirrors, you might say, the actual secret history of the world. Nothing fairy tale about it.