July 11, 2022 § Leave a comment
“Para mi el tango es amor.” Juan Lencina
The entry for “love” in my copy of Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary (second edition) occupies a little over six column inches of space (small type) for the noun and the verb, with several senses recorded for both forms of the word. It is certainly not the longest entry in the dictionary but it is substantial. The definitions provided reflect the ways in which we generally use the word in everyday speech, but like many words that are part of our common vocabulary, it has escaped the boundaries established by professional lexicographers.
There is a well-known passage in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, where he introduces the idea of language games to explain the ways in which words are associated with meanings in everyday speech. He writes: “Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all—but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all ‘language’” .
The best known example and the one Wittgenstein cites here is the word “game” and the ways it is used in ordinary speech. As usual, he has interesting things to say about this. Rather than commonality, what he finds most characteristic of such words is that they form a cluster or constellation of related meanings rather than one clearly defined sense. Again, from the text: “And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing; sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.” He argues for the contexualization of meaning, which is to say, that the meaning of a word (or a sentence) can only be understood within a specific context of use.
Outside the dictionary, in everyday life, love assumes broader and more malleable proportions. We can love our spouse, our children, our extended family, but in different ways, ranging from amatory to affectionate to protective to respectful. There are depths of feeling here but their dimensions are different. We can love our neighborhood, our city, our town, our homeland, in which case we are also patriots. Many people love their pets, no surprise there. Some of us love good food or good wine, others simply love food, quality be damned. We love to eat. There are lovers of sunsets and sunrises, of moonlight, daylight, twilight, even starlight. The Romantics loved wild pastoral mountain landscapes. We can love to fish, to surf, to sail, to swim. Any kind of sport, really, can be the object of our admiration or devotion. We can even love to hunt, which involves killing other living creatures. This seems an odd kind of affection, almost antithetical to the germ of empathy found in familial love, especially when not done out of absolute necessity (in which case love would have nothing to do with it). Some of us love the arts—books, paintings, music, theater, dance—or good architecture, or fashion, mostly as spectators but sometimes as participants. The love of shoes, for example, has been widely attested, even fetishized. People often seem to “love” things randomly; it could be almost anything. Apparently, it is easier to love things or animals or sensations than it is to love people. Easier to love a good meal than the person sitting opposite you. We can often be unloveable.
Modern ideas about romantic love in the West are largely derived from the idea of courtly love (fin’ amors). First developed among the feudal clans of western and southern France in the twelfth-century, the concept traveled eastward from Aquitaine to Languedoc and Provence, and surrounding areas. The precepts of courtly love were spread primarily through poetry and song—that of the troubadours, or trobars, who attended the courts of the local nobility. There were troubadour poets in Lombardy and Spain as well, and there are clear connections to Arabic musical and poetic forms practiced in Andalusia. Troubadours were mostly found at courts whose occupants had the wealth and leisure to maintain or host visiting poets and musicians. This was, by and large, a well educated and cultured society, one in which women now played an important, sometimes a dominant, role in the life of the court. In The Double Flame, Octavio Paz writes “The appearance of courtly love would have been impossible without the change in the status of women. The women of the aristocracy in particular enjoyed greater freedom than their grandmothers had in the Dark Ages. . . . In that world [of twelfth-century France] constantly at war, war at times in distant lands, long absences were frequent, and feudal lords had to leave the governing of their realms to their wives. Marital fidelity was not strict, and examples of extramarital relations abound” .
In works by poets such as Bernart de Ventadorn and Arnaut Daniel, much of it set to music, it is the love of a poet for a lady of the court that is most frequently expressed. That their ardor was often unrequited almost seems beside the point. What we encounter is the poetic expression of a love that was pure, devoted, and highly aestheticized between two individuals of different social stations. Love was a form of initiation and a kind of trial with the poet as supplicant and the lady as an object of veneration. “We must not forget that the ritual of courtly love was a poetic fiction, a rule of conduct, and an idealization of social reality. It is impossible to know, therefore, to what extent its precepts were obeyed. We must also take into account the fact that during the second period of courtly love, which was its zenith, the majority of the troubadours were poets by profession and their songs expressed not so much a personal, lived experience as an ethical and aesthetic doctrine” .
Alas, I thought I’d grown so wise;
In love I had so much to learn:
I can’t control this heart that flies
To her who pays love no return.
Ay! now she steals, through love’s sweet theft,
My heart, my self, my world entire;
She steals herself and I am left
Only this longing and desire.
Deep in despair, I’ll place no trust
In women though I did before;
I’ve been their champion so it’s just
That I renounce them evermore;
When none will lift me from my fall
When she has cast me down in shame,
Now I distrust them, one and all,
I’ve learned too well they’re all the same.
From “The Skylark” by Bernart de Ventadorn, trans. W.D. Snodgras .
When learning tango, men are instructed to protect and care for the woman with whom they are dancing, to treat her with respect. She is often referred to, metaphorically, as a “queen” and queens, as we know, are not only worthy of respect but powerful in their own right. As were the ladies of the courts to whom the troubadours and trouvères devoted themselves. There is something of the chivalric aesthetic here as well, an element of courtship, elevation, and deference—without the differences in social station. An ethics and an aesthetics. Recall that courtly love itself was characterized by “the ennobling force of human love … the elevation of the beloved to a place of superiority above the lover … and in the conception of love as ever unsatiated, ever increasing desire” . (There is no small irony in the fact that the lyrics of tango rarely, if ever, reflect this idealization of the beloved or the sublimation of sexual desire. If anything, women are often portrayed as deceivers, duplicitous heartbreakers, and creatures of questionable social mores whose behavior is the cause of a man’s undoing. In that sense, the opposite of the sentiments of courtly love, notwithstanding Ventadorn’s own self-pitying lament given above.)
But what has this to do with the modern world of tango, the twentieth century and beyond? The sentiments described by Juan Lencina and others are not sexual, not erotic, but they aren’t quite courtly either, notwithstanding the romantic—often bittersweet—inflections of the music. While Lencina may speak of love in the abstract, it is not the cerebral, aestheticized, idealized love of the court poet. It is a search for a kind of reciprocity, a sense of physical repletion or completeness achieved through the embrace of the milonguero. One that is immediate and physical and transient. Lencina is not alone among his peers in speaking of tango as a form of “love,” as something that must be danced from the heart and cannot be faked. (There’s a video of Carlos Gavito giving a class in which he ridicules the tendency of dancers to feign emotion where it does not exist, an outward display not associated with any internal state or deep connection to the music or the culture that gave rise to it.) While Lencina’s statement speaks to the milonguero’s longstanding commitment to the dance, such a definition incorporates a bundle of amorphous associations involving the music, the social actuality of the milonga, and the relationship of the partners. It is a reflection of a depth of feeling but one not clearly delineated or identified with any particular aspect of the dance. Can we be more precise in determining what Lencina and his contemporaries were getting at? Does the performative aspect of the dance truly express the way we feel? Can such feelings be conveyed non-verbally? Are sentiments and physical expression distinct phenomena or so intermingled that they cannot be distinguished? Certainly, tango has often been portrayed in such a way that the physical expression of the dance is seen as the outward manifestation of a feeling. Common visual portrayals of tango dancing range from the overheated renditions of sexual passion found in film and stage performances to the subtle, nearly invisible ebb and flow of emotion found in traditional Argentine social tango. This knotty relationship between emotions and the dance often finds expression in definitions or descriptions of tango, such as the following by composer and lyricist Enrique Santos Discépolo: “A tango is the intimacy that is hidden and the naked cry that is revealed.” While Discépolo allows himself considerable poetic license here, his “definition” is typical of many and is suggestive of something essential to the dance.
Dancers, when asked what is most important to them in tango, often speak of “connection.” Vaguely (if ever) defined, it is, nonetheless, felt to be a necessary component to a fulfilling dance, the glue that makes tango so compelling. What does this fuzzy concept mean, exactly, aside from the need to remain alert to the physical presence of our partner—how they move, how they respond, how they feel? There is, of course, something intrinsically comforting and consoling about the tango embrace itself, the abrazo, which is unique to tango and the thing that sets it apart from all other dances. There are no lack of studies demonstrating the ability of touch to convey emotion  and the critical importance of holding and hugging infants so they feel safe, secure, and loved, and to ensure their healthy psychological development . But by “connection” we imply more than touch, more than awareness. Is it a question of empathy? Care? Sollicitousness? Could it be one of the forms of love described above? One that is spontaneous, diffuse, temporary. A way of projecting and receiving emotion in the immediacy of the embrace? A way of cherishing the man or woman in our arms? Of trying to bring ourselves closer through the music? It would be foolish to deny the sensuality of the dance, of course, but almost any form of couples dancing provides that to some extent. But something other than desire or sensuality is at play here, though they may be present. A state of unity, maybe, one that makes it possible to convey how we feel and what we feel through the music so that we can enact it together. Maybe it’s a form of trust, even a form of surrender—to the music but, more importantly, to our partner. Through surrender we can put our ego aside and reveal enough of ourselves to let the other in. The only way we can really hear what they are saying. Maybe it’s a kind of love that is really a way of reaching out to someone, even a stranger, perhaps especially a stranger; of taking the risk of opening ourselves up and disclosing our emotions. Of trying to convey our feelings to another through our interpretation of the music. Of using the beauty of the music to tell someone we care—just not in so many words.
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G. E. M. Anscombe (Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 27.
2. Octavio Paz, The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, tr. Helen Lane (Harcourt Brace, 1996), 92-93.
3. Ibid., p. 106.
4. Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadors, ed. Robert Kehew (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
5. A. J. Denomy, “The Heresy of Courtly Love (1947),” quoted in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton University Press, 1974).
6. Sabine Zubarik, “Touch Me if You Can: The Practice of Close Embrace as a Facilitator of Kineshetic Empathy in Argentine Tango,” in Touching and Being Touched: Kinesthesia and Empathy in Dance and Movement, ed. Gabriele Brandstetter, Gerko Egert, and Sabine Zubarik (De Gruyter. 2013).
7. “Touch is central to human social life. It is the most developed sensory modality at birth, and it contributes to cognitive, brain, and socioemotional development throughout infancy and childhood (Field, 2001; Hertenstein, 2002; Stack, 2001).” M. Hertenstein, D. Keltner, Betsy App, B. A. Bulleit, and A. R. Jaskolka, “Touch Communicates Distinct Emotions,” Emotion, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 3, 528-533.