When We Talk About Love

As much as the next person, I’m a tiny bit obsessed with the notion: everything happens for a reason. I clench onto it─ I wear it, for comfort. That, in the great grand scheme of things, everything that life throws at me has meaning and purpose. There must be or else what is the point. And in places where life doesn’t hand me the luxury for answers, when it all feels like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, I take it upon myself to supply my own interpretations. It’s in these things we tell ourselves, these meanings we facilitate to the chaos inside and outside of us that flesh us out for the people we truly are. These outlooks we form determine how we sail through our numbered days.

Might be the imposter in me but I’m haunted by questions on why I’m writing this. If perhaps not to cement my wokeness, or perpetuate the same self-importance I preach against constantly. These are not just musings in my head after all, or journal entries never to be seen. I’m throwing these out there, as far as I can hoping they will be discovered. This ongoing tug of war of trying to quiet, to funnel down the words that stumble upon themselves when I speak out loud, hardly making sense at all─ and turning them into an eloquence I will perhaps never achieve in real-time. This daily chore of putting one word after the next, what is it all for? I ask myself. I like how Jonathan Franzen frames it; how writing is the closest most intimate connection you can have with another human being. I’m welcoming you inside my head and I’m telling you this is me; this is what I think and you’re letting me echo that inside yours. I choose to translate this self-centeredness of the act of writing by supplying my own meaning, turning to Rilke’s words; “Things are not as easy to understand or express as we are mostly led to believe; most of what happens cannot be put into words and takes place in a realm which no word has ever entered,”

Perhaps my writing is an attempt to say something that has never been said before. To articulate a thing someone has always felt but never found the words to.

The greatest pandemic of my generation is that nothing we ever say or think will ever be original. Our every thought might just be a refurbishing of a copy of something else and triumphant is he who in the confluence of all that he’s taken in will vomit something authentic. To say something that happened in a realm where words have never entered. A sentence they quote at random, highlight and rewrite in bold; a sentence that becomes the anthem for a community like how my community took up Jean-Paul Sartre’s: Hell is other people.

The late David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon college echoes Sartre’s words. Though my people have taken the statement as a justification of our introversion. Hell being the anhedonia of human interaction. David actually gets what Sartre meant. He says: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid person in existence. We rarely think of this sort of natural, basic, self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s basically the same for all of us, deep down. It’s our default setting, hardwired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or monitor or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

He asks us to imagine this part of life that is rarely talked about in commencement speeches. The depressing routines our lives settle into after graduating. Where you’re working a 10-hour job and you make your way home at the end of it. On your way it hits you, there’s nothing to eat at home and you need to get some things from the supermarket. You get to the supermarket and it’s almost like the whole city had exactly the same idea. It’s packed and you squeeze your way through the aisles. The place smells like an armpit. You get the things you need only to be met by this long line at the checkout counter. All the while you’re thinking about how all these people are in your way. The cashier lady looks miserable, consumed by a mundanity you cannot fathom. She doesn’t look at you and after handing you your change tells you to ‘come again’ in what sounds like the absolute voice of death. The drivers on the road cut you in the seemingly unbearable traffic. They’re all insufferable and what’s running through your mind is ‘how dare they.’ It’s like every human being was put here to torment you. The entire universe was created to serve YOU and everyone else is projecting their reality into yours. They’re dismantling your most natural fallacy and you actually have to acknowledge that all their realities are just as real as your own. That is the hell. They’re also the center of their own universes and we perhaps, hell to them. Awareness is the anecdote.

I reckon relationships are formed when we find someone, we can gladly tolerate the intrusion of their reality into ours; then we call them friendships and others more endearing we come to know as ‘love.’

In the titular story of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, two couples, an older and a younger one sit around a table and talk about their ideas surrounding love. The older woman recounts one of her previous relationships; how her partner tied her to the bed, sometimes beating her and even one day showed up with a gun to her new relationship. She described the horror of it and in the end despite everyone’s rebuttal─ especially her current partner who says ‘The kind of love I’m talking about you don’t try to kill somebody’─ she insists and swears that indeed, the guy ‘loved’ her. ‘In his own way,’ she added, ‘He was willing to die for it and at the expense, killed himself.’

The more that I project this new awareness to some of the fallacies of my most natural beliefs, I dismiss the notion that there is such a thing as the obvious. Our lack of originality, our ideas being constructs of other constructs, though some constructs being more valid than others, I no longer can dismiss anyone for I definitely do not know better. My beliefs aren’t the gospel and there are more rights that exist in the other’s realities.

The most talked-about thing is often expressed as a singularity and now has me tumbling down a rabbit hole: What is it we talk about when we talk about love?


Red, butterflies, 3-paged letters, flowers, train stations and poetry; these are the images imprinted in my mind when I think about love. A construct of what I’ve seen from the movies and my lack of originality just shows.

An older friend once wrote about the quiet understanding that she and her husband share about 20 years of being together and something in me recognizes that. It felt to me… like love. But before we get there, I believe we should start with where we’re at, and that is love as we’ve known and have come to expect as portrayed on the big screen.

There’s toxicity to that and I could go on and on on how romanticism ruined love for the rest of us.

On the big screen it’s all about the grand gestures; chasing a girl to the airport as she’s leaving, showing up at her wedding and confessing your undying love in the hope she’ll run away, or the soapier, John Cusack showing up with the boom box outside the girl’s window. The movies are about that one-time grand event and everything will be alright after but in real life, that doesn’t sustain itself, the gestures have to happen every day and that’s what makes love so hard.

There are times that the movies get it right though, like in The Half of It when Ellie Chu says:

Love isn’t patient and kind and humble. Love is messy and horrible and selfish and bold. It’s not finding your perfect half. It’s the trying and reaching and failing. Love is being willing to ruin your good painting for the chance of a great one.

Great cinema captures that.

My favourite movies in this whole genre have to be ‘The Before Trilogy.’ 3 movies, set 9 years apart examining the evolution in a couple’s relationship. When Richard Linklater made the first movie, he says, he wanted to capture two people connecting. The meet-cute isn’t just that, it doesn’t end with the bamboozling eye contact, you actually feel the way they complement one another and work at it. The dialogue is fluid; a conversation at it’s most natural. Nothing feels superficial and elevates the film into this otherworldly experience. The simple premise: an American boy and a French girl meet on a train and decide to get off in Vienna before they go their separate ways the following day. It’s minimalistic and beautiful and… words just cannot capture the feeling that enraptures it. It’s a vehicle of ideas and a beautiful contemplation on what it means to love and to be human. At some point into the night, the lady, Celine says:

Talking seriously here I mean… I always feel this pressure of being a strong and independent icon of womanhood… And not making it look like my whole life is revolving around some guy… But loving someone… and being loved means so much to me. I always make fun of it and stuff… but isn’t everything we do in life …a way to be loved a little more?

After their separation, they meet 9 years later in their mid to late thirties. The plan was to meet in 6 months but life happened. They meet in Paris by chance and they look so different. The guy, Jesse, is married now, with a kid. He’s kind of miserable and on meeting Celine at his book signing, they feel that spark, the magic that was, like it never left. They tour Paris for the day since he has till evening to catch his flight. They catch up on their careers, the nostalgia of the past to even breaking down at some point, the emotions being high. The conversations are everything or maybe I’m just a sucker for that. When they speak of their current relationships, Celine says:

I guess when you are young, you believe that you will meet many people whom you’ll connect with, but later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.

The next movie, Before Midnight, happens 9 years later. It begins with Jesse with his son in an airport. We learn that they’re in Greece, the son visiting for the Summer and now heading back to America. When Jesse leaves the airport, we see Celine outside with two little girls sleeping in the car. We find out he missed his flight 9 years ago and stayed in Paris. He’s divorced and happy. Now they’re older and their relationship though still beautiful isn’t as dream-like as the first movie or with the same yearning and longingness of the second one. There’s not much to admire but also… there is. It’s more tangible now and real and they bicker a lot, fight to the point of getting tired of each other. The stories are now repetitive and little bits of their partners get under their skin. It’s a vivid depiction of what love looks like after being with someone for that long. After a big fight they have near the end of the film, Jesse walks up to Celine and reminds her of what they’ve built.

“If you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”

What could’ve been, what was and what is, is how Linklater describes his 3 films respectively. It’s the full package on the faces of love we don’t see in rom-coms.

Communication will be key to anything and the death of love is not communicating your expectations. In Don Jon, a superficial extremely attractive couple meet. The male with his projections that intimacy is exactly as he views it in pornography and the female, with her inclinations that love is like the romantic comedies she overdoses on. The man, Joseph Gordon Levitt makes the object of his love, the woman’s, Scarlet Johansson, attractiveness. He describes her to his friends and family as ‘the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.’ Scarlet on the other hand makes her idealism of ‘the strong man’ as the object of her love. He compares Don to all the men he sees in movies, what her friend’s partners do, among other things. He tries to change him; change his lifestyle. He has him take night classes and drowning in all the shallowness, we see their relationship crumble and die.

Still on projections, Joseph Gordon Levitt has another beautiful film, 500 days of Summer, on how we’re all looking for different things and how love isn’t just this object we can possess. Sometimes love isn’t who you thought it was. Maybe love is looking for something else.

There’s a scene in Horace and Pete where the man says:

Just accept that love is rare… and it probably won’t happen to you, ever.

Before that, he says, we call it falling in love because we don’t fall on purpose.

Love is this huge contradiction you see. And when we streamline it, we aren’t really saying anything.

One of the strangest premises to a love story must be ‘The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ by Charlie Kaufman. We’re introduced to a couple who are presumably meeting for the first time. It’s beautiful while it lasts but it comes to an end. The man, Jim Carrie, when he tries to meets his ex-girlfriend to make amends, she doesn’t recognize him. Only to later find out there’s a company that can delete someone from your memory and the lady chose to have him erased. He decides to do the same and move on only that when the procedure begins, he’s clenching onto every memory of her as reality crumbles inside his head. Sometimes love is like that, holding on even when you have no reason to. Even when everything hurts and seems futile, it feels bearable compared to losing your person. We later find out that’s a circle they’ve gone through time and again and always find their way to each other. A kind of pre-destined sort of love. The title of the movie comes from one of Alexander Pope’s poems:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resigned.

It’s the kind of poetry that Bukowski would hate for the need of interpretation. But to beat it down, happiness, in this case, love is only sweet and true when it’s new. In this story, Joe and Clementine are only meant to be together for short periods before they find each other insufferable, and sometimes love is like that.

Or maybe it evolves into that ‘Marriage Story’ type of Love, loving someone even when it no longer makes sense.

We could deconstruct more movies; Silverlining’s Playbook, About Time, or use Pablo Neruda’s poetry. We’d still be gathering the foam of the ocean because no one really knows the extent of what we’re talking about when we talk about love.

I made a friend this weekend and he was telling me that after a few years in marriage, there no longer is love, you just become so used to the presence of another human being.

In a way, I know, that is more than love. Or perhaps what we aspire to when we talk about love. That quiet understanding of someone else.

love, Movies

Hassan Kassim

Hassan Kassim is a Mombasa-based Creative non-fiction writer, recently longlisted for the Toyin Falola prize, blogger and translator of Kiswahili work. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa and the European Union(E.U), and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management. Hassan writes about the ill-documented Communities of Coastal Kenya. His work has appeared in Writers Space Africa; his 2 non-fiction stories published in the anthology 'Twaweza,' a collaborative effort of 12 African writers on the African identity and set to appear in the forthcoming anthology for the Toyin Falola prize.

Comments (3)

  • You really know to movies! I was hooked from beginning to end. And yes, love is so many things and movies just one way to try understand it. I remember how disappointed I was when the leads didn’t get back together in ‘Marriage Story’ but then isn’t that how it is most times? Keep writing!

  • It’s true that most of the movies you mentioned portrayed love to be this imperfect blurry emotion which rarely works out as we’d like it to. Kind of like what happens in reality as opposed to the normal boy meets girl fall in love happy ever after cliché. Really enjoyed the read.

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Hassan Kassim is a Kenyan-based Creative non-fiction writer, blogger and translator of Kiswahili works with over 2 years of experience. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa, and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management.


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