“That seems to me to be a commonplace and to be therefore a matter needing no comment at all”: Ford Madox Ford on sexual passion

I am enthralled by stories told in the voice of an unreliable narrator, and it appears that The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) is a prime example of the technique. It is also a novel on which, almost a century after it first appear, critical opinion is firmly divided, covering the whole spectrum from “perfect” to “wholly improbable”. I’ll let you take sides; but, so you can decide whether it sounds like something you would enjoy reading, I offer you, my dear readers, a couple of pages (courtesy of Project Gutenberg). The narrator – who, you see, is quite inexperienced in these matters – is musing about the nature of love, apparently resigned to his own startling insights:

I have come to be very much of a cynic in these matters; I mean that it is impossible to believe in the permanence of man’s or woman’s love. Or, at any rate, it is impossible to believe in the permanence of any early passion. As I see it, at least, with regard to man, a love affair, a love for any definite woman–is something in the nature of a widening of the experience. With each new woman that a man is attracted to there appears to come a broadening of the outlook, or, if you like, an acquiring of new territory.

A turn of the eyebrow, a tone of the voice, a queer characteristic gesture–all these things, and it is these things that cause to arise the passion of love–all these things are like so many objects on the horizon of the landscape that tempt a man to walk beyond the horizon, to explore. He wants to get, as it were, behind those eyebrows with the peculiar turn, as if he desired to see the world with the eyes that they overshadow. He wants to hear that voice applying itself to every possible proposition, to every possible topic; he wants to see those characteristic gestures against every possible background. Of the question of the sex-instinct I know very little and I do not think that it counts for very much in a really great passion. It can be aroused by such nothings–by an untied shoelace, by a glance of the eye in passing– that I think it might be left out of the calculation. I don’t mean to say that any great passion can exist without a desire for consummation. That seems to me to be a commonplace and to be therefore a matter needing no comment at all. It is a thing, with all its accidents, that must be taken for granted, as, in a novel, or a biography, you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity. But the real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the woman that he loves. He desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped, to be supported. For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.

So, for a time, if such a passion come to fruition, the man will get what he wants. He will get the moral support, the encouragement, the relief from the sense of loneliness, the assurance of his own worth. But these things pass away; inevitably they pass away as the shadows pass across sundials. It is sad, but it is so. The pages of the book will become familiar; the beautiful corner of the road will have been turned too many times. Well, this is the saddest story.

And yet I do believe that for every man there comes at last a woman—or no, that is the wrong way of formulating it. For every man there comes at last a time of life when the woman who then sets her seal upon his imagination has set her seal for good. He will travel over no more horizons; he will never again set the knapsack over his shoulders; he will retire from those scenes. He will have gone out of the business.

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