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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

What Is This Thing Called Love

An early review of “A Sport and a Pastime,” states that to live for sex alone is to be less than human.

I don’t know. On the face of it, Dean does pursue a rather narcissistic relationship with Anne-Marie, meaning he focuses more on himself than on her. (He likes mirrors). It could be said they care for one another; it could also be said they use one another.

But—remember, I don’t think they’re real. They are imaginary characters the narrator manipulates like puppets.

‘Kay. So, it’s the narrator who creates a whole fantasy about a very sexual affair. And, it should be said, about tragedy and loss. Does the narrator’s somewhat dysphoric view of intimate connection impel him toward imagining a tragic end to love?


It’s always fun to look at definitions, so let’s look at a definition of love. Love is “an intense feeling of deep affection for someone.” (Actually, there are some pretty wacky things that come up if you google “love,” best beloved. There are, for instance, "fifteen signs of true love, including Hurt and Annoyance. You become very hurt when your partner annoys you; however, what they do never makes you mad.” You can also “learn how to test a guy to see if he really loves you.” Anne-Marie might have found that article useful.)

Here’s the narrator’s definition of love. (I think).

“By now they know something of each other. There is a fund they can draw on together. The encounter begins to have an essence of its own which neither can define but which nourishes them both, and happily, in the single unselfish ritual of love, they contribute to it all they can. Nor does it matter how much either takes away. It is a limitless body. It can never be exhausted but only, although one never believes this, forgot.”

That’s pretty good. Maybe the wisdom here is that there are different kinds of love, different definitions, and they are not mutually exclusive.

I think it’s too judgmental to say Dean and Anne-Marie live for sex alone and are, as a result, less than human. Or, that the narrator, who is imagining them, is less than human. They behave, not as “real” people do, but in the way that fantasies behave. They are idealized, the sex they have is idealized. They are not romantic, although what they do is romantic. They are like actors on a stage who are asked to show certain things and to hide others.

Dean and Anne-Marie are shown acting out a love affair. So are they really in love, or not in love? Neither, they're not real. What “A Sport and a Pastime” does do is to show a lonely man imagining passionate connection (an intense feeling of deep affection for someone). He imagines the thing that is missing in his own life, the thing he seems unable to produce. Perhaps he is incapable of love. He imagines a young man who has an affair with a young woman who will, on the surface, do anything for him. She is an equal and enthusiastic partner sexually. She is not idealized, she is shown as a real human who occasionally has bad breath and flatulence. She is the subject of Dean’s attention, a vehicle for pleasure. He is uncomfortable when she voices her own needs. In this way, he is like the narrator. Dean—the narrator’s creature—confirms the narrator’s own deficiencies. He runs from his feelings for Anne-Marie. The reader doesn’t really know how she feels about Dean—there are hints, but we have no access to her consciousness. She is not “real.”

Maybe it’s a love story, maybe a story of the kind of relationship young people tend to have—“starter” marriages and love affairs. It would be a mistake to generalize and say the book makes a grand statement about love. It is a particular kind of love that’s shown. A pretend, as-if kind that presents how people think and act and feel when they’re in that kind of love. Against this background, the story shows different currents, deeper ones. Dean and Anne-Marie play at being married; the tragedy is how lonely and needy they both are.

“A Sport and a Pastime” is a work of fiction that shows us a certain perspective. It makes no claim to be the absolute truth.

However, is there a value judgment here? A sour view of love?

The title is not neutral. The story is about “a sport and a pastime,” an illusory thing of the world, set against a truer, different world of the spirit. Love is of the senses, and so is not as important as the spiritual world. Perhaps that’s what the reviewer meant when he said to live for sex alone is to be less than human.

Big shocker—I think to live without sex is to be less than human.

(Stunned silence.)

Tennyson said it best. “Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” Maybe that’s the message of “A Sport and a Pastime.”

Even if you have to dream it all up.


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