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High on the Sex and Death Continuum: Love’s Tightrope of a Lethal Cocktail

by Sophia Lambton

An exploration of life’s friendliest of foes ahead of The Crooked Little Pieces: Volume 3's release.

Two sisters, Anneliese and Isabel, against a roaring city. There is a red mushroom cloud, mysterious bunnies, and a tortoise in the background,
The Crooked Little Pieces Volume 3 Cover

The cover of The Crooked Little Pieces: Volume 3 by Matthew Wood; Digital enhancements by Renée Clarke.

Fracturing its characters, a four-note chord extracts their self-control; disrupting rationality. The staggers of warped notes prognosticate their fate: the task of sating passions indestructible; descent from normalcy. Malignly a voracious oboe bores into the pair twin spells of vertigo contiguous; contaging them with love’s pathology until their capture has been sealed.

These out-of-focus frolics seize the minds of Tristan and Isolde: legendary star-crossed youths first euthanised in scribe Gottfried von Strassburg’s thirteenth-century take on the Arthurian myth. The Irish princess of the title is betrothed to bellicose King Marke. En route to her sire she inspires the affection of an injured man called Tantris who conceals his name of Tristan: the arch knave responsible for slaying her fiancé. Resolute in her intention to avenge the death by killing him, Isolde is contained by maid Brangäne – who prepares a love potion to spike the duo’s consciences.

It works. In Wagner’s giant of an opera, Tristan und Isolde, the shrewd shackles rack their brains through bursts of dissonant insinuations: inharmonious motifs. Their advent in the 1850s vindicated deviations from the norm; subjecting advocates of perfect cadences to mourning.

Black emboldens the naïve rogue now indentured to these torrid horrors – saving him from burning yearning in the form of blissful night. Its blindness is a harbour void of arbitration; shelter void of indignation. Not a soul encroaches on unresting crests of ecstasy that send the twosome spiralling in eerie fearlessness through fire’s flames: a spinning, thrilling whirlpool in the reckless senses.

Death entombs a double connotation. In the eyes of Romeo it is the only refuge against day’s overcorrection: everlasting fever. ‘Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day // Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops,’ he realises before his balcony exchange with Juliet. ‘I must be gone and live, or stay and die.’1

Darkness alone has pity on those pitted against love’s antagonists. And for this reason Tristan too deferred to deathly-looking realms.

‘Like most people you’re just accustomed to regarding this in terms of the petite mort everyone says it is, because, you know…’ The Crooked Little Pieces’ Isabel considers before Croham Hurst School’s headmaster (her boss) Richard Schneider. ‘But… that’s not the way – I mean it is the way – but it’s not… It’s… er…’ wonders the musician awkwardly. ‘They reach death. And then… those molto crescendo – that’s a little peek into… the afterlife. Where love thrives.’2

As she had understood whilst playing the Romantic opera’s ‘Liebestod’:

It wasn’t that Isolde died. Love absconded with the couple elsewhere; to another world. A world that made it easier to love. A world that could be entered only via death.3

Suicide has oftentimes been equally inviting. When Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train, the scribe invokes a candle metaphor: it ‘sputtered, grew dim, and went out forever’. Goethe’s anti-hero from The Sorrows of Young Werther writes to his beloved Lotte, who is married to another man: ‘I do not flinch from taking the cold and terrible cup from which I must drink the sleep of death! You handed it to me, and I do not hesitate. So now all! all my life’s wishes and hopes have been fulfilled.’4

By 20th-century norms, however, these quaint self-surrenders had become passé. Russian roulette had spread in popularity – invoking savage minds to prove defiance before death. No longer was the act of suicide in fiction a climactical submission to the senses. On the contrary it was a statement of affront: one-upmanship on life itself. Robert Bresson’s 1977 film, Le diable, probablement (The Devil, Probably) sees a determined gang of nihilistic teenagers decide to take their lives according to the principle that life is meaningless: a misdirected tribute to Camus’ The Stranger.

In Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides a group of adolescent sisters tease their puerile and curious neighbours into coming to their house at night to take them for a ride. Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film version has Kirsten Dunst’s Lux tell the boys doorside: ‘Wait, five more minutes… We had to wait until my parents were asleep, they take forever. My mom’s an insomniac.’ She bids them enter. Wandering into the basement they encounter sibling Bonnie’s dangling legs then go upstairs to witness Mary’s head stuck in a fuming oven. Lux is found the next day gassed inside her car in their garage while seventeen-year-old Therese has overdosed on sleeping pills. The gestures are theatrical – they’re protest; zero sentiment about them.

Medicalisation was the train of thought as knowledge of neurology grew larger. Scientists exposed the fact that suicide was not the summit of rebellion or self-vanquishment by love – but chemicals. The causes are decreed in genes or else in utero: a study of 30 widowed persons over fifty who had killed themselves within four years of losing their respective spouses showed that forty-three per cent had prior psychiatric diagnoses. Thirty-six per cent had suffered from a form of drug abuse while forty-six had previously tried to take their lives. Epigenetics – alterations to the genome that transpire in the womb and very early life – serve likewise to determine psychiatric health if infants suffer in extreme conditions.

For those less preconditioned to commit the act, there is safety in numbers – of genes. When newspapers report it even they cannot refrain from referencing the victim’s lineage. The brother of actor Richard Belzer, Leonard, jumped from his eleventh-floor apartment at the age of seventy-three two years after the passing of his wife. But his father had committed suicide as well.

In recent years it has been shown valproic acid helps prevent the evolution of a comorbidity of suicide, the psychiatric illness schizophrenia. Tests on a group of mice reduced the chemical imbalances that lay siege to its victims. Recent years have lent the argument of using prophylactic medicine to twist the arms of fate especial fervour: in the United States alone over a third of women with the BRCA1 or 2 gene – a predictor of breast cancer – have had double mastectomies to help preclude it.

So we have gone beyond what Shakespeare called ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’ into mundane lab work predicated on computer-aided foresight.

That won’t explain nevertheless why nine tenths of the sample in the aforementioned study amongst those who took their lives over four years after their loss had zero history of psychiatric symptoms… no spots on a graph predictable at all.

Extensive space exists between the peak of unreality and madness. At the helm of scribe Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights’ Cathy describes dreams that changed ‘the colour of my mind.’5

They make up remnants of a childhood spent in the euphoric throes of mutual love and hate with Heathcliff: ‘I am Heathcliff – he's always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but, as my own being – so, don't talk of our separation again – it is impracticable…’ she has to limn to Nelly, the layperson. When brother Hindley ravages her soul with scornful speech she falls ‘dangerously ill’, in his words, and a temperature ensues.6 Her symptoms call to mind a form of rabies.

Fainting couch behaviour was in vogue in novels by Jane Austen – of which Sense and Sensibility saw Marianne become diseased with putrid fever shortly after learning of her ex-beau Willoughby’s betrayal. Onlookers feared for her life; onlookers likewise feared for Goethe’s Lotte’s life.7

While Shakespeare had his love enveloped as a ‘fever longing still’ in 1609’s Sonnet 147, baffled scientists continued to explore phenomena of psychogenic fever well into 2015. They described it as ‘a stress-related, psychosomatic disease especially seen in young women’ that risked temperatures of up to forty-one degrees.

Addiction lies at the cruel crux of heartsickness. In those diseased with love excessive neurochemical reactions take place in the areas of the brain illumined by cocaine abuse, or gluttony, or gambling overdoses. Chief among them is the nucleus accumbens: bestial obsession’s boudoir. It accommodates the caudate nucleus, whose size determines memory and traits contributing to OCD behaviours. The sole ten people in the world who possess total recall – the magnificent and terrifying gift of being able to remember every second of their adult lives – have giant caudate nuclei.

In ancient Rome an aching Cleopatra – at least, in the eyes of Shakespeare – fell prey to Antony, or, as she called him: ‘Nature’s piece ‘gainst fancy’.8

Desire is a learned process. In animals whose brains are dopamine-depleted – stripped of neurotransmitters responsible for wantingthere is no libido and no hunger. Genetically altered mice left thus deprived do not engage in sex or eating. Swallow reflexes enable them to gulp down food when it’s inserted in their mouths, but they take no pains to locate it.

Mammalian brains have been conditioned for addiction. It is no surprise, therefore, that those with above-average excitation in that area – the nucleus accumbens – are likelier to stay together with their mate than their more ‘normal’ counterparts. So powerful are these effects that neural synapses adjust, adapt, become reshaped; accustomed to a level both of love and sex or on the contrary of heroin or porn or cards or vodkaanything that offers a reward. The changes aren’t ephemeral. Instead they’re sufferably longstanding.9

Whilst Byron may have counselled his love Caroline, ‘Our only hope, is to forget!10 the brain proves that rejection is no on- and off-switch. Being dumped induces the same high as being drug-deprived; despite its dolour want remains unwaning.

For that reason literature has known a myriad of mirror suicides. In 8 CE the randy Ovid’s Metamorphoses relayed the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe: lovers doomed by their condemning families never to mate. When Thisbe comes to meet her prince she spots a bloody lioness and fears becoming her next kill. Pyramus arrives and spots the cloak his sweetheart left behind. Immediately he fears the lioness has mauled her into human meal and falls onto his sword. When Thisbe then returns to see his body she inclines herself on the same dagger; finalising the precursor to the later Romeo and Juliet.

Most would be comfortably relieved to know the neurochemicals enmeshing self-harm with compassion’s balm arise in few. So few, in fact, that by this point psychiatrists have labelled those whose mourning stagnates two years after loss as instances of ‘complicated grief’ (CG). These oddities show heightened interaction in the nucleus accumbens long after the dead is gone.

It isn’t without consequence. A study analysing functioning in widows’ T cells – white cells responsible for killing those both virulent and cancerous – observed the subset performed poorly two and eight weeks after loss. Inevitably those subjected to more pain risk greater illness down the line.

There are the antidotes of exercise and mind gymnastics; recommended antics apt to aid the brain in its resetting of subcortical engagement.

Shakespeare & Co. were loath to care. Not just because a feebler fable would result… but because many are resistant to the cure.

For, love and sex engage not only the imponderable nucleus accumbens, but a host of other areas whose sparks are too hard to shake off. Among them is the posterior hippocampus: mankind’s centre of orientation. Taxi drivers’ inner maps are built into this region so demonstrably it literally expands – according them greater posterior hippocampi than the general public. Data even posit that those with a higher sexual frequency with the same partner have a similar advantage.

A lover is a carnal home. Just as one knows where to turn left when picking up a kid from school; or how to read a Kindle en route to the living room without colliding with a wall; or the location of a firework from miles away so sexually initiated partners grow accustomed to each other. ‘It’s what lovers trust each other with,’ explains Henry in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. ‘Knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.’

The loss of that is parallel to a professional violinist losing tremolo; a skater stumbling in her crossovers; a race car driver blanking on the brake.

Individual differences predictably determine who is predisposed to greater love; who satisfied with blasé laziness. The quote-unquote ‘love hormone’ oxytocin – stirred up in the hypothalamus – extends to us the highest indicator, making the maths simple. When the hypothalamus is removed, humans lose interest in sex and in love.11 Lovers with extensively high oxytocin levels have been proven to possess the highest staying power. Sex is a spike of it. And Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde were clairvoyant with their petite mort.

As for the fine print, forecasts of these questionable flaws are slowly coming to fruition – but it’s still hard to predict how deeply we will finally succumb. Oxytocin is measured in picograms. According to Yale University’s Dr. Ilanit Gordon, levels per a single millilitre span a range of fifty all the way to fifteen hundred.12 Vulnerability post-loss may not reveal itself in full until long after the event; these pre-existing traits require tragedy to manifest themselves. Dr. Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge – who upholds the notion of love being an addiction – surmises that it’s ‘a reward process spinning out of control… We don’t know why some do become addicted and others do not.’13

Art predates science. ‘Desire is death’, wrote Shakespeare. The Crooked Little Pieces: Volume 3 invites my twins to enter its insatiable dangers; roam the course that let the Bard regard his mistress as both ‘fair… and bright… // Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.’14

Freudian schooling stretches the libido’s definition far beyond the bedroom: the libido is the life drive whilst its polar opposite is death, or thanatos. Sex is wanting; death is its cessation. Sometimes via too much wanting.

Or, in the more prosaic words of Katharine Hepburn, ‘Life is hard. After all, it kills you.’

This piece was first published on the writer's substack.


The Crooked Little Pieces: Volume 3 will be published on 2 June and available at all major retailers:


1 Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene V.

2 S. Lambton, The Crooked Little Pieces: Volume 3. The Crepuscular Press, 2023, p. 129

3 ibid. p. 125

4 J.W. Goethe trans. Michael Hulse, The Sorrows of Young Werther: Pocket Penguin Classics Edition, 2010 (originally published 1774, pp. 162-3

5 E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights: Oneworld Edition, 2007 (originally published 1847), p. 68

6 ibid. p. 71

7 J.W. Goethe trans. Michael Hulse, p. 165

8 Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Act 5, Scene II

9 K. Sukel, Dirty Minds: Free Press, 2012, pp. 36-7

10 Lord Byron, ‘To Caroline’. The Works of Lord Byron, Volume 1 ed. Coleridge & Prothero. Accessed at,_Prothero)/Poetry/Volume_1/To_Caroline_(1)

11 K. Sukel, p. 18

12 ibid. p. 115

13 ibid. p. 141

14 Shakespeare, Sonnet 147.


About the writer:

Lambton became a professional classical music critic at the age of seventeen when she began writing for Musical Opinion, Britain's oldest music magazine. Since then she has contributed to The Guardian, Bachtrack, musicOMH, BroadwayWorld, BBC Music Magazine and OperaWire, and conducted operatic research around the world for The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography. This richly detailed account of Maria Callas’ life will be published to coincide with her one hundredth birthday in December 2023.

Substack: @sophialambton



A well-written, interesting read! And congratulations on your new release.

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