“I see her the same instant she seems me, and instantly, I love her. Instantly, I am terrified, because I know she knows I am terrified and that I love her. Though there are seven girls between us, I know, she knows, she will come to me and have me wait on her.”
This was the encounter that inspired Patricia Highsmith to return home after an evening working a temp Christmas job at a department store and to write, in a frenzied fever, eight pages long-hand, sketching out an idea for a book. The resulting novel explores the subtle textures of attraction and magnetism that so impressed Highsmith that day at the department store in 1948, and the reader is submerged in the nuances and texture of love, of two people whose connection engages them in something that seems beyond themselves, deeper than their own feelings or volition. This exposure is terrifying, a relationship where all of the details of the beloved matter, where suddenly all of the subtle shifts are significant and things that look to everyone else as trite and trivial become deeply essential in a way that feels almost other-worldly.
Highsmith named her novel The Price of Salt. At one point she claimed that the title referred to Lot’s wife, who was turned to salt when she looked back at Sodom and Gomorah. At another time, however, she cited the Gospel reference: “If the salt have lost its flavor,” Highsmith wrote, “wherewith shall it be salted?—That is the tragedy with which I am concerned.”
Carol is the 2015 critically acclaimed film based on Highsmith’s novel. Using the medium of film, Todd Haynes succeeds — as Highsmith did — in making every moment matter. “At once ardent and analytical, cerebral and swooning, Carol is a study in human magnetism, in the physics and optics of eros. With sparse dialogue and restrained drama, the film is a symphony of angles and glances, of colors and shadows. It gives emotional and philosophical weight to what might be a perfectly banal question: What do these women see each in each other?” (A. O. Scott, NYT)
It isn’t just what they see in each other, I was impressed by the way the film captured the ongoing dynamic of magnetism, of action and reaction that marks the almost helpless fall into love. They see each other and gaze into each other’s lives, with an ever-deepening intimacy. No subtle texture goes unseen in the film. Even their stark differences seem to compliment each other. Therese Belivet is simple girl with the sophisticated name, while Carol is the complicated sophisticate with the simple name. In early 1950s New York City, Eden-like innocence meets post-war glamour.
I love the historical sensibilities of the film. It’s like getting to see a 50s piece that didn’t have to pass the censor board or invoke any dated cinema gimmicks. There are even a few subtle background clips of Eisenhower, the President invoking optimism in his inaugural address or else pontificating, ironically, that “the future shall belong to the free.” But this was a period of Americana where control was the cultural m.o., most obviously demonstrated by the Harge character, husband of Carol, who, after discovering Carol legally bears down on their divorce-in-process in an attempt to gain full custody of their daughter and separate her from Carol.
This is the one point of departure between the film and the novel that I felt was significant. The film presents a conflicted Harge, a Harge with feelings who, ultimately, will wrestle with the ramifications of keeping a mother and daughter apart. To me, this Harge is a bit more 21st century, but in Highsmith’s novel, in Highsmith’s America, there was no such grey area: the Harge character, like the times, was unforgiving and unwavering. In the novel, the board of morality stares down Carol, furrowed and frowning. What a waste, they think, of a beautiful woman. What a loss for her to give herself to another woman.
There is a profound difference between staring and gazing. The gaze is intimate, the stare is harsh and intrusive. While the stare invades, the gaze creates a space for grace, where the other might possibly be who they are, perhaps even become vulnerable.
Not every look is a loving gaze of grace, but when two lovers engage each other, the traces and textures of love are ever present, found in every look. For Carol and Therese this is seen so vividly in the film, from the moment they size each other up at their first lunch, to the way they share their anxieties that they will be discovered and their fears that Carol may lose her only daughter. The textures of love trace their way through every moment, even quarrels and hurtful words.
The gaze is erotic, but it is deeper. It is an act of intimacy. Attraction and eros are indivisible. We see the beloved, and it is as if we know that the beloved owns a piece of our soul. Or rather, we know that because of our love for this person, we are exposed. The eye, after all, is the gateway to the soul. It is the strength of cinema to capture this, and this is particularly true in Carol. The gaze matters. There is vulnerability and deepening mutual knowledge of each other, of the love the share, and because they are aware of their love, Therese and Carol are more deeply aware of themselves, because it is through love that we know ourselves. We have no access to ourselves without love. We are under the spell, enchanted.
The Salt of the Earth
Theologically, the texture of love is the texture of God. Love is the sine qua non of the Christian faith. God is love, and for me this means that theologically, the texture of the world itself, at its most fundamental level, is the texture of sacred love. This is why Jesus, Paul, and other other biblical writers return to love as the essence, as the heart and soul of it all. The greatest command is to love. Love is the fulfillment of the law. These three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.
In a sense, a film like Carol is a landmine for a Christian. The Christian tradition is riddled with anti-gay and anti-lesbian bias. Yet between the two characters in the film, what we see is truly love. We recognize it at a primal, soul level. Do we fall back on the anti-lesbian tradition? Or do we follow the way of love? It is not the first time that the religious tradition has encountered this conflict, and it won’t be the last. Love seems to always keep pushing the boundaries of law and tradition.
Jesus was often challenged because he broke with tradition. He countered with an instructive metaphor: for new wine you need new winseskins. It is interesting to me that this wineskin metaphor is presented in all three of the synoptic Gospels and that in each case the metaphor comes on the heels of a story of Jesus healing.
We can see it in the gaze of the eyes, feel it in the air — love between people is a manifestation of the love of God that permeates the world and gives us life, like the oxygen we breathe. Love is the new wineskin that replaces the old. This is our task of healing and of reconciliation, it is the journey of Jesus. To embark on that same mission is to be the salt of the earth.