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There are those who'd bet, love comes but once—and yet...
  • There are those who'd bet, love comes but once—and yet...
Regrets? I’ve had a few. But why kick off Regrets Week with an amateur?

If we’re going to explore the dark side of romance, we need to be guided by a professional. Ambrose Bierce was the Izaak Walton of cynicism: he turned the pastime of lesser men into his livelihood. And here’s what he had to say about true love:

Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Marriage. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

Bierce’s misanthropic credentials were impeccable. A bloodied civil war vet from Ohio, he wound up in San Francisco doing journalism and writing short stories. His marriage didn’t last—one son died young of drink and another even younger in a brawl. And no cloying goodbyes for Bierce: In 1913 he set off for Mexico to cover Pancho Villa and disappeared. His death is still a mystery.

On this Valentine’s Day, here's the message from Bierce I want us to consider.

He who says he has loved twice has not loved once.

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

At first blush, it’s a pretty sour idea. Apparently anyone who thinks love is better the second time around didn’t go around the first time. That old thorn in your heart you’re hoping someone unimaginably fine will one day pluck out and toss away is there for good. Or—and this news is even worse—it’s not a memento of lost love at all but of some sick obsession you can’t get past. Which you’ll know when true love finally comes, although a pathetic bundle of neuroses such as yourself shouldn’t expect it to.

Of course we balk at Bierce’s message. When we think about how fragile love is, how easily and in so many ways it can go fatally wrong, how every romance in our lives ends badly but the last one (and good luck with that!), isn’t it delusional masochism to tell ourselves that only once is it even real? Surely we love more than once; even in a long and lasting marriage, the love that begins it is not the love that sustains it.

Or maybe Bierce was right.

Bierce saw to it no one mistook him for a mere pessimist. His most famous work, The Devil’s Dictionary, was originally titled The Cynic’s Word Book. Our quote of the day comes from a booklet he called A Cynic Looks at Life. Yet Bierce was not the author of the most famous words ever written about cynicism.

“What is a cynic?” wonders Cecil Graham in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan. And Lord Darlington replies, “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

It’s an immortal epigram, but it’s wrong. There’s a reason that we say of our most gleaming intellects that they’re “witty and wise.” Neither presumes the other. To be witty is to be clever, and to be clever is to be superficially impregnable. For instance, intelligent design is a witty rejoinder passing as a theory of everything.

Wilde himself knew better than Lord Darlington. Bartlett’s doesn’t tell us this, but Cecil Graham promptly came back at him, “And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing.”

Darlington has no good response. “You always amuse me, Cecil,” he says. Point for Cecil Graham.

Bierce would have sneered at Lord Darlington. First of all, Wilde wrote the line, and that would have kiboshed it for Bierce right there. Bierce heard Wilde lecture in San Francisco in 1882 and was appalled. Bierce wrote a column called "Prattle" in a journal called The Wasp—his next column began: “That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers.”

More importantly, Bierce would have recognized the obvious, which is that the cynic isn’t the man who knows the price of everything; he's the broken idealist now certain such men run the world. Or, to put this in terms that suit Regrets Week, a cynic doesn't just love and lose; he then concludes—as perhaps Bierce did—that love is only for suckers anyway.

But on one point Bierce and Wilde might have agreed—the perfectly turned phrase is just a phrase. This brings us back to the line we began with: “He who says he has loved twice has not loved once.” That’s the money quote, the Lord Darlington quote, but Bierce, like Wilde, had a little more than that on his mind about his chosen subject. The whole passage turns out to be longer and more complicated: “Although one love a dozen times, yet will the latest love seem the first. He who says he has loved twice has not loved once.”

In other words, the second time around always feels like the first. Every love affair is so derangingly original that we swear nothing like this has never happened to us before.

That seems to me to be what Bierce is saying with a straight face. It’s preposterously romantic, and my guess is Bierce meant it. Anyone who demands that each new love affair wipe out every trace of the old ones is bound to wind up a cynic.

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