My love has only one name, one form./
Everything disappears. All mouths cling to that one.
– from “No, Love Is Not Dead” by Robert Desnos
Thousands of years ago, when fields of grass stretched across the earth as far as the eye could see, and the sky was as blue as the inside of flame, the first man met the first women and felt something he’d never felt before.
He’d been hungry, of course, and cold. And when a predator was near, he felt fear. But upon seeing the first woman, a rush of emotion overtook him like a hurricane and left him whirling. He set down the sharp spear he used to kill meat. He stopped thinking about fire to keep him warm at night. Inside him, something had ignited and began to consume him.
Thousands of years later, when men could put their feelings into words, they tried to capture that same inferno of emotion. Men like Ovid and Shakespeare and Petrarch were more successful than many. But still, it was a feeling that no one could perfectly pin down.
Not quite so long ago, in a small village in a country not far from here, another man met another woman and felt like he’d been run over by an elephant. He’d never felt such a thing before, and wanted to name it, turn it over in his hands and study it, shout it out from the roof of his house. He had a logical, scientific nature and went about interviewing people to find out just what it was he’d felt.
Again and again he met people who knew exactly what he was talking about. But everyone called it by a different name, or described it in a different way. One man said it felt like he’d been kicked in the kneecaps. One man said his whole body turned to liquid. One man said he was stunned into silence. One man said it was like standing in your basement while a twister lifted your house into the air. One man said it was like birds singing. One man turned to stone. One man burst into flame. One man started crying and couldn’t stop.
Yes, yes, said the scientist. He agreed with everything they said. In some ways, he felt as they had. But while the scientist could recognize this feeling in their descriptions, he knew there was something missing. They were sculpting a figure of this emotion, but it wasn’t yet finished.
Many men would have given up. But the scientist decided to approach this emotion from a different angle. Instead of trying to name it, he would try to name everything else. And once he had names for everything else, this emotion would, by elimination, be what was left. In this way, he would sneak up on it from behind.
It was easy in the beginning. He hired an assistant and the two of them walked around their village pointing at things and cataloging their names in a series of notebooks. The assistant had tidy, elegant script and took his job very seriously.
The scientist would point at things, recite their names, and the assistant would write the name in the notebook. When the scientist didn’t know the name of something, he would ask the people nearby. If no one could name it, a council was called and a name was decided upon. Sometimes it was difficult to decide on a name. It took the council five days to reach a consensus on apple. Shell was very close to being called sea ear, but the council didn’t like the double “ee” sound in such close proximity. Cucumber was easy, as was rose. Other things, no one could decide on, so he ended up with sofa, davenport, and couch.
The scientist was very diligent. He pointed at rocks, then he’d point at the loose gravel surrounding them. Then he’d point at the grubs beneath the rocks, and the blades of grass just pushing through the soil. His finger grew weary of pointing, and very stiff. For his birthday, the council gifted him with a long stick he could use to point at new things. He called this stick pointer and the assistant wrote it down in his notebook.
Along the way, he came across a few favorites, and these he wrote down himself in a special book. Dangle. Goose. Krill. Ebony. Frond. Agapanthus. Meridian. Paw. Luminescence. Glee.
After six decades, the scientist had catalogued nine million four hundred twenty two thousand nine hundred eighty five items. He had seven thousand five hundred thirty nine notebooks full of words. He’d gone through seventeen assistants and twelve thousand thirteen pencils. And he still didn’t have a word for the feeling he’d got the first time he saw the woman who was now his wife.
All these words, and none of them is the right word, he lamented. He’d grown old, and so had his wife. But he still admired the way the candlelight caressed her hair, the way she chewed her lip when she was thinking, the fine hairs on her knuckles.
Perhaps some things just cannot be named, my dear, his wife said. She was sad for him, because he was so frustrated with his quest. He’d worked so long and so hard at it. Now he was too old to walk around pointing at things. Plus, there were very few things left in the world that he hadn’t seen. He’d been to jungles and deserts, glaciers and savannahs. He’d been in cities and villages and wide open spaces. He knew more than any man she knew.
But of all the things in the world, this deserves a name most of all, he said.
Let’s just call it love, she said. That’s what the masters say.
But it’s just a placeholder, he said. It’s not enough.
His wife pressed her face to his neck.
It’s enough for me to feel it, to hold it here for a moment, she said, her voice muffled by his skin. Can it be enough for you?
Her breath was warm and disturbed the small hairs on his neck. Her hair tickled his cheek. Her hand was soft, although the skin was wrinkled and her fingers bent and swollen. I suppose it can be enough for me tonight, he said.
He never found what he was looking for, and eventually he gave up. The village council organized his seven thousand notebooks into a library. People came from hundreds of miles to look up the word for something they couldn’t name. But the scientist stayed at home, leafing through his notebook of favorites, smiling at the memory of a particular find. Unguent. Wren. Crepuscule.
Shortly after the scientist passed away, his wife died too. They were buried together on a hilltop, with a view of the village and the broad canvas of sky. The village council put some money together for a headstone. It said,
Here lie the scientist and his wife. What they felt for each other was so great it couldn’t be named.
As far as I know, it’s there to this day.