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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


Desire and Disappointment

All for Love
By Ved Mehta ’56
Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001 • 345 pp. • $24.95

Imagine that in your twenties you meet a prominent journalist, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of some half-dozen books. Your love affair ignites violently, but flames out over months of tears, equivocation, and desperate telegrams. Thirty-some-odd years later you find yourself featured as one of four central figures in his detailed “Personal History of Desire and Disappointment,” a lover’s memoir assembled with an archivist’s eye. It’s all there, everything you’ve forgotten or suppressed in the intervening years: the flirtations, the pillowtalk, the love letters and transatlantic cables, the sexual letdowns, the neurotic scenes in taxis and restaurants, breakup’s dead dial tone. Your private experiences have not only become public, but they’ve done so as part of someone else’s story, a story in which your affair was just one in a series of romantic wrong turns, cul-de-sacs on a royal road that led, finally, to some other destination.

At least Mehta’s exes must have seen this book coming. All for Love is, after all, the ninth installment in the author’s Proust-inspired Continents of Exile series, which has been appearing steadily since 1972’s Daddyji. The early volumes tell the story of Mehta’s birth in 1934 to a well-off Hindu family in Lahore, the attack of cerebrospinal meningitis that left him blind at the age of four, his years in and out of abusive missionary schools for the disabled, his family’s hardships in the wake of the partition of India and Pakistan and 1947, and his time at the Arkansas School for the Blind. 1989’s The Stolen Light recounts Mehta’s four years (1952-56) at Pomona, where he was the first Indian student. All for Love is set in the years from 1962 to 1974, and picks up after Mehta had abandoned graduate work at Harvard to pursue freelance writing as a protégé of New Yorker editor William Shawn. It is a meditation on the natural result of a workaholic’s first professional successes: romantic catastrophe.

The first lover commemorated here is Gigi, a dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Mehta recounts his first impressions of her: “She was about an inch shorter than I was, with a dancer’s body and a serious but expressive mouth. She had long, thick, intensely red hair, but it was done up in a discreet chignon.” The intensely visual character of the description is typical of the book’s early chapters: though Mehta tells us of his blindness in the prologue, the social and logistical mechanics of his daily life as a blind person are largely absent from the bulk of the memoir. What we get, instead, are the impressions of a writer who compensates silently for his blindness with his powers of inference and curiosity, deducing and synthesizing the visual from other data and sources. Thus when he remembers attending a rehearsal for a production of Fandango that Gigi is in, he tells us the colors of the dancers’ tutus and leotards, the Spanish look of the stage set. And when Gigi abruptly informs him that she can’t marry him because he’s not Jewish, and adds that she’s leaving him to marry someone else, we encounter the sort of excruciatingly oblique reference to Mehta’s blindness that occasionally haunts the memoir: after receiving Gigi’s news by telephone at work in The New Yorker’s offices, he locks himself in a bathroom stall to spare his amanuensis the spectacle of his grief.

As Mehta remembers his four love affairs, a second pattern begins to emerge alongside his habit of downplaying his blindness toward the point of its erasure. This pattern is the psychological arc shared by one affair after another: intense flirtation lands the couple very quickly in bed; Mehta begins soon after to urge long-term commitment while using his literary work more and more as a refuge from the relationship’s volatility; his lover meets someone else, or reconnects with a former swain on the pretext of needing to get the ex-lover out of her system, and ends up leaving Mehta for the other man. Vanessa, the second love, is a Brit with a perfect Oxbridge accent. When Ved goes off on an extended research trip to England, she leaves him for a Bronx waiter. Lola, her successor, and the memoir’s most vivid and vital figure, is a highly intelligent woman who starts out as Mehta’s secretary while he is traveling in India, becomes his lover, and eventually joins him in New York. Bored and alienated by her life there, she eventually runs back to the less distinguished Gus, whom Mehta jealously dismisses as a “wretched fellow who emerged from the swirling heat and dust of Delhi like Caliban.” By the time we have watched the third affair go predictably sour, our interest in Mehta’s story has become less voyeuristic than diagnostic—not least because, in his 1960s Manhattan intellectual caste, “Freud is in the air.” What occulted trauma, we wonder in cocktail Freudspeak, is driving his compulsive repetition of neurotic love-object choices? The thrice-jilted Mehta shares our sense that he is going in circles: “The whole point of living was to learn from experience, and I seemed to have gone from one intense experience to another and come out as dense as I had gone in. It was a little like diving into a swimming pool and coming out dry.”

If Mehta fails to learn from each relationship in its immediate aftermath, he does at least recognize his need to learn, tormenting himself with guilt and regret. He walks out of the pool, not dry, but bloodied by self-flagellation. The problem is that his willingness to blame himself fails to prevent the next disastrous plunge into love. What finally breaks the cycle of breakup and fruitless self-recrimination is the fallout from Mehta’s fourth romance, with Kilty. This affair follows the familiar script with the difference that Kilty ends up on an analyst’s couch instead of in another lover’s bed. Three years later, her psychoanalyst pronounces her a psychotic and therefore “unanalyzable,” but in the interim, Mehta himself has entered psychoanalysis. With this Freudian swerve, both Mehta and All for Love jump dramatically out of their deepening ruts. Pathological romance narrative gives way to the story of its analysis, with condensed transcripts of Mehta’s sessions at Dr. Bak’s taking the place of lovers’ quarrels and telegrams. After probing Mehta’s early childhood memories, Bak pieces together his patient’s Oedipal narrative: having accidentally seen his mother naked shortly before contracting the illness that left him blind, Mehta came unconsciously to regard his blindness as the just punishment for his transgression, and sought only lovers who would eventually leave him and thus confirm his sense of his culpability, his unworthiness to
be loved.

Bak’s take on his patient’s primal scene may shed as much darkness as it does light, but other facts that surface in the analysis have a genuinely revelatory force. These have to do with the day-to-day ramifications of Mehta’s blindness, and their articulation feels like the lifting of a long censorship. Eavesdropping on the scene of analysis, we discover that Mehta’s love affairs had a semi-public dimension even as they were occurring. We learn, for instance, that he dictated his love letters—documents we read in earlier chapters of the memoir—to amanuenses rather than writing them out or typing them himself, partly because he was too embarrassed to give his lovers evidence of his poor spelling abilities. We learn that the privacy of his correspondence with Gigi, Vanessa, Lola, and Kilty was further compromised by his needing to have their letters read aloud to him by third parties. We learn that among his amanuenses were several women whose intimate working relationships with Mehta threatened his lovers. And for the first time, Mehta explores his motivations for writing like a sighted person, disclosing the perceptual gifts and compensations that have made it possible for him to write the blindness out of his books. The memoir’s earlier silence about the texture and logistics of Mehta’s disability turns out to have mimicked its author’s neurotic relationship to his blindness. All for Love, in other words, reveals itself to have been a symptomatic text, one that has been made to exhibit the same denials and displacements its writer once did in respect to his blindness, inflicting these symptoms on its readers in order that we may experience, rather than simply observe, their dispersal.

But anyone looking for the happily-ever-after of a terminable and successful therapy will find All for Love frustrating. For starters, Bak suddenly dies before the conclusion of Mehta’s psychoanalysis, necessitating a messy transition to another analyst. More importantly, Mehta is wiser than to present his analysis as the infallible answer key at the back of the textbook, solving all the problems set out in the earlier pages. Instead, he asks on the memoir’s final page, “Could I have got over any of the four women without analysis—did I get over them, for that matter? I was certainly able to get over each of them sufficiently not to be stuck in a state of mourning—bemoaning my losses and fate and then, as Bak conjectured, reading their letters in later life as a solace in my loneliness. I was also able to get over them sufficiently to write about them here as honestly as I can, and without experiencing crushing pain. But, in some sense, despite psychoanalysis and the passage of time, I am still not able to get over any of them completely. If I had been, I would not have felt the need to write this book.” Analysis can describe and even weaken the symptom, but not annihilate it; and because writing, for Mehta, is unthinkable without the symptom, all of his “Personal History of Desire and Disappointment,” and not just its early chapters, is stricken, lovesick, and knowingly deluded.

Despite the readerly prurience its early pages seem to court, Mehta’s love-memoir manages not to come across as a tawdry tell-all or as a spurned lover’s public revenge. This is only a little due to Mehta’s delicacy in disguising his lovers’ identities, and owes more to his apparent lust for self-blame, a lust that seems to have survived even psychoanalysis. But what most exonerates All for Love of kiss-and-tell exhibitionism is the fact that its candor serves an end remote from titillation, setting down Mehta’s baffled present-tense experiences of love in order to record a later sea-change in his understanding, a sweeping if imperfect transformation that makes the “personal history” seem a legitimate, and even indispensable, genre. Like the best memoirs, Mehta’s is more than the life story of a person who later happened to write it down. Instead, it understands its own being as entangled in the life it tells, comprehending that life and life-writing must endorse and justify one another with the reciprocity of lovers. It is the prehistory of itself, the story of how it came, through the very events it retells, to be, first, thinkable, then necessary, and finally written.

Curiously, All for Love ends not with Mehta’s refreshingly unfussy prose, but with a single image: a photograph of Gigi, his first great love, appearing in the title role of Stravinsky’s Persephone shortly before her affair with Mehta. Persephone, remember, was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld, where she ate four pomegranate seeds. When her mother, Demeter, begged for the girl’s release, Zeus decreed that every year Persephone must remain in the underworld one month for each seed she had eaten; thus winter was born. Whatever the photo may say about Gigi, it works as a strange twin to the frontispiece photo of Mehta in 1960—as a second, more encrypted portrait of the author, a Persephone only partially rescued from the past by psychoanalytic fiat. With a tact and economy like Mehta’s own, the photo sums up the lessons of All for Love: that some consummations, like the eating of four gorgeous seeds in hell, cannot be undone; that no mourning is ever fully terminable, however skillful the neighborhood Freudian might be; that our past lovers remain connected to us by thin but unbreakable filaments of desire and rage and regret; that they are also our emissaries in the world, sent out from a past moment of convergence into the bewildering distances of the present, across which they nonetheless send us news about ourselves; that they are, finally, repositories of parts of our selves and our pasts, and therefore to be marked and kept and even claimed, but never discharged, never erased. The photo testifies, too, to a settled man’s admission, even as he nears the porch of the underworld, that he still longs for a lover of his youth. His longing makes him look back, and even though the look will banish its object, it will also join him publicly and eternally to his longing. All for Love is encapsulated in this final tableau: the backward look of Orpheus at Eurydice.

—Paul Saint-Amour, Assistant Professor of English