Anaïs, I don’t know how to tell you what I feel. I live in perpetual expectancy. You come and the time slips away in a dream. It is only when you go that I realize completely your presence. And then it is too late.
-Henry Miller, in a letter to Anaïs Nin
Henry Miller could be talking about any kind of love in this letter to Anaïs Nin, but he’s specifically considering the constantly unresolved and inexplicable nature of the love triangle. The love triangle does contain a perpetual expectancy, which is where the frustrating allure resides, and where the endless tension and narrative potential exist.
From Shakespeare to Gossip Girl, from Harold Pinter (whose real life affair inspired his play, Betrayal) to every recent vampire story, from Mount Olympus to Camelot, from Flaubert to Sex and the City, for over hundreds of years, from the highest of high brow culture to the lowest of low brow, everyone is riveted by the revelations and mysteries of this shape. The geometry of the two angles facing the third is a dire sort of math. When we choose one person over another, we choose one life over another, one self over another. Most of us, whether knowingly or not, have been one of these angles. Love is full of messy, maddening entanglements and the precise geometry of the love triangle is our narrative attempt to give gray areas a structure we can understand.
I’ve always relished a good love triangle, in real life, on screen, or on the page. From approximately age 18-20, I had two boyfriends. Love letters were written, tears shed, threats threatened, dramatic entrances and exits performed. Perhaps my two boyfriends and I allowed it to go on for so long because we knew that none of us would end up together in the end. Or maybe we secretly hoped it might finally settle into a verdict of one outcome or another. I had no exit strategy. Upon reflection, I’m honestly not sure what I hoped was going to happen. I think part of me actually believed I might just end up with both of them in some sort of other-worldly, non-sleazy, impossible polygamy, a blurry version of Jules et Jim (minus the car driving off the bridge), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (minus the shoot-out) or maybe even Oliver Stone’s Savages (minus the kidnapping, drug dealing and bloodshed). While the polyamorous vision my 19-year old self cultivated was definitely ridiculous, there’s an undeniably charismatic equilibrium to the tension of three, a significant part of the triangle’s draw. Not only are we choosing between opposites, we’re creating a whole, albeit one we don’t usually get to keep.
In Godard’s Band of Outsiders, while there’s no overt romance, it’s still the fact that there’s three of them which creates the chemistry. Bertolucci’s threesome in The Dreamers even mimics the Band of Outsiders trio and their charming run through the Louvre. The nearly identical scenes (check it out in the awesome split screen above) suggest the most ideal, irreverent qualities of the love triangle, along with the accompanying refusal of propriety. In Miranda July’s short story “Roy Spivey,” a significant and intimate (though unconsummated, and not exactly sexual) encounter with a man on a plane creates a lifelong, conceptual love triangle with everyone else the woman ever loves, and everything else she ever chooses. The moment with him creates a longing to define all else against. The love triangle is that too, a trope within which we can pick two opposites to define each other, weigh those options, feel the pleasant/unpleasant sensations of longing, uncertainty and meaning.
I recently started watching Hart of Dixie (I don’t have the word count to get into my reasons and justifications here), and find myself preoccupied with Zoe’s choice between Wade and George. For those of you lucky enough to not know what I’m talking about, Zoe is an NYC doctor transplanted to the small town of Bluebell, Alabama where she’s confronted with all the zaniness of small town life (depicted as quirky but morally superior to urban living), along with the small town boys who make up her love triangle. Wade is a hunky bartender who paints her house without his shirt on, and George is a chivalrous, buttoned-up lawyer. To me, the choice seems clear. Wade is a type of country boy who doesn’t actually exist, and is oddly appealing in the sense that there’s literally no real life equivalent. Every time Zoe messes it up or doesn’t quite choose him, I’m befuddled and frustrated beyond belief. Case and point: she’s kissing the wrong guy in the amazing gif to the left. So I keep watching in the hopes that she will come to her senses (but I also hope she won’t). They’re perfect together. Yet, I must admit, there’s something essential about George’s presence, the threat of his contrasts, which adds to that perfection. If this was only the love story of Zoe and Wade, I wouldn’t care nearly as much. As long as George is there too, nothing is resolved, and everything ought to be questioned and compared.
Resolution, or lack thereof, is at the heart of the triangle. What I imagined in my own triangle was no resolution, the three of us residing in Henry Miller’s perpetual expectancy forever. Yet resolution, sought after or not, is inexorable. We know it all along, and it’s why we’re watching: our heroine (or hero) must choose. And with her choice, the triangle moves itself into a more reasonable, sustainable shape. She picks the bad boy or the nice guy. The affair becomes the primary relationship. Someone throws themselves in front of a train. She “chooses herself.” She shows preference for one archetype or lifestyle over another. She is torn between passion or obligation, between history and the new, but one of these pulls finally becomes stronger. The equilateral version of the triangle, after all, is the least sustainable type. Eventually a decision removes her from her triangle. This inherent and emblematic temporariness is a significant part of the triangle’s charms, for as long as the triangular indecision is intact, the story continues.
And we must take sides while there is still time. The Team ____ vs Team ____ phenomenon that emerged in the wake of Twilight always struck me as odd for the simple fact that it was clear the poor werewolf kid was never going to win. I didn’t understand those rooting for him, and the inevitability of the triangle’s winner seemed kind of depressing and indicative of mediocre triangle weaving. Occasionally, the choice is not clear; the choice is between two equally interesting, viable and deserving parties (neither of whom die in battle), and that’s when things really start to get interesting, moving away from symbolism into the spaces of actual risk, loss and suspense. A love triangle ought to map out the intricacy and complication of human emotion, eventually resolving itself into some final variation we are able to wish for, and wonder about, but not entirely predict, at least not with certainty. In this way we negotiate desire.
The triangle is so often the heartbreak of cheating, the torridness of a threesome, the sadness of a difficult decision, or the salaciousness of soap opera. Yet, couldn’t it also be the simple admission that our affections and intimacies are not always so clean, easy and monogamous as we believe them to be, or as they might sometimes need to be in order for us to lead halfway manageable lives? The popularity and ubiquity of love triangle depictions indicate that we acknowledge the messiness of our affections — our fears of how they might ruin us, our curiosity at how they might play out. If we could, perhaps we’d all just get in bed together, date both vampires, have the lawyer and the bartender, ask Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson to both save us from our kidnappers. That’s not to say that it would work for longer than an hour (or 20 years if you’re Henry Miller), but I wonder how our consumption and interpretation of fictional love triangles helps us unravel and process those affections and desires that might not have any other place to go, or any other way to be acknowledged.
We’ve all composed some version of the letter from Henry to Anaïs, haven’t we? We’ve attempted to explain our feelings of love that grow difficult to categorize, or contain, that moment when we’d like to grab the hands of two different people and run through the Louvre with them.