Unlove: a Literary Break-Up List

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To list all the poetry and prose concerned with love and/or anti-love would be to write a list of all the books ever written, and so below is an extraordinarily incomplete list of a few very good links I’ve recently enjoyed that are either straightforwardly or obliquely about breaking up.

Good enough to make This American Life‘s short list of favorites, episode 339, the Break-Up. It begins with writer and dumpee Starlee Kine using Phil Collins as inspiration and mentor to compress her love and heartbreak into song. “Music is important; it transforms words, unites the universe together.” Here is a bit of Kine’s torch song: “I loved you, and you loved her, and I sorta loved her ‘cuz I love everything you loved, and then she stops, stops loving you, and glory hallelujah, somehow you start loving me, and I don’t know why I love you, I just do. I really do. And it doesn’t do me any good, in fact, it does me bad. And you’re oh so gone, and I’m oh so sad…Now it’s just the three of us, the names may have changed, but the sorry facts remain the same that I love you, and she loves you. I’m okay with second best, just love her more and love me less…” Also, listen to the special Web extra that features other break-up-song writers.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, is a “project which proceeds from the assumption that objects, i.e. matter as a whole, possess integrated fields–‘holograms’ of memories and emotions.” The museum creates “a space of ‘secure memory’ or ‘protected remembrance’ in order to preserve the material and nonmaterial heritage of broken relationships,” including love letters and other trifles. A more detailed philosophy behind the museum begins, “Lasting love relationships–more or less happy or unhappy, superficial or fateful–engage our time, our thoughts and afterthoughts: by their very existence in the present, we enjoy them, they occupy us…” and so on. That which we thought was intangible and (so hard to capture with words) now has its own Web domain.

Poem by Elizabeth Bishop: One Art.

In 2007 Harrell Fletcher & Miranda July published this book: Learning to Love You More, which came from their Web site of the same name. Both are “comprised of work made by the general public in response to assignments” such as “Write your life story in less than a day,” “Act out someone else’s argument,” and “Draw Raymond Carver’s Cathedral.” Here’s some learning to love you less.

For those who self-diagnose or who see obsession as a synonym of passion, Lennard J. Davis’s book Obsession: a History seems exciting. However, Brian Dillon’s review may quell any anticipation in his first sentence when he describes the book as a “fascinating but flawed study of morbid fixation.” I offer a condensed reading of the book as gleaned from the review (and edited for its focus on lit. and love):

  • A partial history: “In 1810 the physician Jean-Étienne Esquirol named [obsession] “monomania”: a form of partial insanity that left the patient rational but helpless to stop himself reasoning in the wrong direction. Poets and painters, Esquirol believed, were especially susceptible to this form of heightened but misdirected attention”
  • Presently, “On the one hand, OCD (just like addiction or obsessive love) is genuinely agonising and disruptive; on the other, it is no more than a specific form of a behaviour we otherwise value highly in a colleague, an artist, a lover or a doctor”
  • Our unknown future: “Behind the statistics, argues Davis, lies a deep ambiguity about what constitutes obsession, why it hurts and what we might be getting out of it.”
  • Ultimately, if not surprisingly, “It is as if Davis is insufficiently gripped by his own subject, not quite fixated enough on compulsion.”

Dear Old Love

And although I can’t link to it, Lydia Davis’s short story “Break It Down” from her collection of the same name, is a really beautiful story of a man trying to break it all down: quantify the dollar-amount of love (“every time she looked at me, that was worth something,” maybe a few dollars) and decide if she’s really worth knowing after factoring in the tolls and totals of what it cost to be together. You can listen to this on episode 88: Numbers (Act Five) of This American Life, around minute 43. Ira Glass warns before the reading: “This story mentions the existence of sex.”

Love/unlove just fuels the best writing.


Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. She teaches humor writing at The New School and Catapult. Follow her on Twitter, and visit elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →