One of the things I wanted to do with Taming the Beast
was tell a good old-fashioned love story. In other words, I wanted to write a book full of madness, violence, cruelty and pain.
The idea that love stories are bright, inspirational tales with happy endings is a very modern one; for most of western literary history, love has been associated with illness and madness. Going right back to the beginning, to the ancient Greek and Roman poets, we find that love is a thoroughly nasty business. To Sappho it is "crippling," and like a stinging insect; it is so debilitating that she cannot work or think. When she watches her beloved talking and laughing with a man, she is literally blinded with jealousy; she is feverish and begins to shake ? she is "not far off dying."
Tibullus repeatedly declares his willingness to undertake any physical trial, to endure broken blisters and sun scorched skin, to suffer the humiliation of assisting his beloved in her clandestine meetings with other lovers, just for the privilege of being able to see her. He is willing to take to "crime and bloodshed" and says that love makes him feel "like a top spinning on a flat surface, whipped by an agile boy..."
Propertius scoffs at the idea that love is tender and gentle. "In love I want to suffer or hear suffering," he writes, "To see my own tears or else yours." He wishes his enemy "a placid girl-friend," and declares that where his beloved is concerned he "want[s] no peace."
Ovid's speaker in his Amores pleads to be put in handcuffs until the "frenzy", which caused him to raise his "mad hands" against his lover, has abated. "Everyone calls me brute, they call me madman," he confesses.
It wasn't just the ancients either. In Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Catherine describes her love for Heathcliff as resembling "the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary." Catherine has no illusions that he is a good person: "He's not a rough diamond ? a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic," she says. "He's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man."
Emily's sister Charlotte created a slightly less dark love story in Jane Eyre, but even here we see Jane acting in ways that modern ideas about love would deem self-destructive. Surely were this book written today, Jane would do a Bridget Jones and marry the worthy humanitarian St. John rather than the promiscuous and deeply flawed Rochester.
And what would Dr. Phil make of Anna Karenina's assertion that "Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be"?
Taming the Beast is a modern story, but its central love affair is inspired by the classics. Oh, and by the inestimably wise Matt Groening, who knows all that happily-ever-after stuff is a crock: "Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come."