The Ballad of the Sad Cafe


First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be a man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.

Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be a stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.

–excerpt from THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFE by Carson McCullers

7 Responses to “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe”

  1. ashok Says:
    March 14th, 2007 at 7:19 pm eHmm. The excerpt is beautiful, but I think love isn’t quite as relativist or subjective. It may start anywhere, but we can judge how it evolves as good/bad, no? (Perhaps in some cases it might not be said to evolve.)

    I don’t want to posit anything just yet, just want to ask questions and hover over the topic and see if I understand everything going on. I do think I’m going to go over Auden’s “Are You There?” again, though.

  2. Jim K. Says:
    March 15th, 2007 at 12:05 am eI think this is the love that wants, the crush usually. And as such,
    it can’t help but be completely subjective. One is simply taken
    over by it. A ‘lover’s’ love is a one form. There are others,
    but that rather brilliant passage makes it pretty clear to me.

    This is one source of the blues, the craving that doesn’t fit
    your life but happens, as when BB King sings:
    “…I been down-hearted baby, ever since the day we met..”.

    Consider Eddie Albert’s tune that Ray Charles made famous:

    You give your hand to me
    And then you say, “Hello.”
    And I can hardly speak,
    My heart is beating so.
    And anyone can tell
    You think you know me well.
    Well, you don’t know me.
    (no you don’t know me)

    No you don’t know the one
    Who dreams of you at night;
    And longs to kiss your lips
    And longs to hold you tight
    Oh I’m just a friend.
    That’s all I’ve ever been.
    Cause you don’t know me.
    (no you don’t know me)

    For I never knew the art of making love,
    Though my heart aches with love for you.
    Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by.
    A chance that you might love me too.
    (love me too)

    That’s the kind of love at the Sad Cafe,
    the kind Carson was talking about.

  3. ashok Says:
    March 15th, 2007 at 8:13 pm eI’m not sure – even as I preach political moderation, and the use of reason as a restraint – that I can conceive of a love that doesn’t want. Even the thirst for knowledge directed towards the highest things I could say is a “lust” for knowledge (cf. Plato, Symposium).

    Thanks for helping me think through this, though. I like struggling with words, but sometimes things hit too close to home.

  4. Jim K. Says:
    March 15th, 2007 at 10:48 pm eThere are different strains that can blend, to be sure.
    Those advanced matching services talk about two basic
    forms of attraction,
    physical attraction, and ‘coupling’. Physical being …well, wanting to
    do physical things, and coupling being wanting to be with someone
    for all time, that pair-bonding thing. They happen together sometimes,
    but the coupling can be the subject of ‘crushes’, and focuses on a
    way someone changes their face or says words or moves. We feel we
    know someone, have a soul-mate. McCullers’ crystal insight is
    to point directly at the sad assymetry of it, usually.

    Those types are, of course, seperate from what type of person the
    attraction is fixed on. Many times, that is simply the same pallet
    on a different canvas. Mysteries that could call more for wonder than fear.

  5. John Baker Says:
    March 20th, 2007 at 2:38 pm eThanks for this. I read the book a long time ago, so long that I didn’t even recognize the style. But, with the excerpt you gave us, I remembered why it is that I think of the book often, year after year. Since that first reading it has always been near.
  6. sandra simonds Says:
    March 20th, 2007 at 5:20 pm efantastic. really made my day to read this.


  7. Patricia Says:
    March 24th, 2007 at 3:34 pm eI watched the video of Ballad of the Sad Cafe three times. The first time
    I laughed at the seemingly ignorant and dirt poor little boring town and its simple townsfolk. But as I watched the mood set in of the drama in human interactions which happens anywhere on the planet. I began to place myself into the conflicts of the main characters.

    The third time I saw the video my sentiment about it became much more pensive and felt especially regretful for Amelia as she was humiliated by fighting with a man in front the entire town. If she had any bit of femininity and womanhood for anyone, she lost it forever in that incident.

    Amelia wound up sorry and pitiful at the end of the story; and it brings to view how life is mundane – but when love or desire enter into it,
    life can become traumatic and enduring in sadness.

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AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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