Monday, February 06, 2012

What the Fuck is Love?

Hyacinth and Apollo from Wikipedia
Jacopo Caraglio (16th century), Apollo and Hyakinthus (after 1527). Engraving.

Love is a smoke made with the fumes of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears;
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.

--Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.
Rainer Maria Rilke  

Because the word "love" is trite, abused, misused, sullied, and virtually meaningless in popular culture, it is the responsibility of philosophy and psychology to deconstruct love and to redefine it. Reading literature is essential in the endeavor.  To deconstruct it, we have to say what love most certainly isn't. It is not a Hollywood happy ending. It is not a fantasy in which the white knight rescues the distressed damsel. If history, philosophy, and psychology tell us anything, it is that a perfect relationship in which two people provide for each other's every need, who bring each other perpetual happiness, and satisfy the needs for sexual satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, shared interests, and pure devotion, is non-existent, whatever our doting grandparents may tell us to the contrary. Nor is love, as too often pictured in novels and in our parents' accounts, finding our soul mate who balances us perfectly and becomes our ideal mate for giving our parents grandchildren.

Continuing to deconstruct, we have to steer away from the opposite expressions of literature, film, and skeptical or cynical philosophy that equate love with negative traits, with selfish possessiveness, jealousy, domination, or mere lust and the will to power. As Leonard Cohen put it, "Love is not a victory march." Negative aspects of the human psyche arise when there is a failure to love.

The Greeks broke love down into two types, Eros and Agape which are not necessarily mutually inclusive or exclusive. Eros focuses on the passionate, sexual side of love, and includes a bit of craziness, the intoxicated, even mad side of love. Agape includes the mental, rational, intellectual, shared interests side. Possibly the most noble account of Agape, with or without Eros, is Aristotle's Book Eight of the Ethics (click). Since for Aristotle the unique quality of being human is our ability to reason, Love must be based on sharing our reasoning with a kindred spirit. The most essential elements of love are thus seeing the good in the other, wanting the other's well being as key to one's own, trust, empathy, time spent together sharing ideas, and companionship. Because Aristotle believed that one must be fundamentally good in order to be a good friend, respect for the other person's integrity becomes a key element in love.

Aquinas, building on Aristotle's ideas, found that love consists of wanting the other's well being and happiness, of finding happiness in the other's joys, and a sense of unity with the other. In modern times, the existentialists and the psychoanalysts called such unity inter-subjectivity.  In love the individual ego transcends itself, overcomes loneliness and alienation, to find connection, compassion, and intimacy with another. The wisest of these, Simone De Beauvoir, Otto Gross, Sartre, for example, rejected the false notion that one such connectedness should ever be exclusive. We find wholeness not by marriage to one other, but by a wealth, by an abundance of related connections with kindred spirits. 

As Shakespeare also wrote, Love does not alter when it alteration finds. Love is not time's fool. Erich Fromm*, and many other philosophers and psychologists have emphasized that if love is to have any meaning, it must include duration. Commitment, trust, care, acceptance of the evolution and growth of the person, are essential to love. Once we reach and cross the threshold of respect, admiration, shared values, honor of the other's personality, and desire for the other's well being and happiness, we begin to grow with, we share our becoming and are willing to experiment, to have adventures together. We embrace the Bohemian and the Beat in each other. We learn to laugh at ourselves, learn when to be serious and when to let go.This is not by any means a monogamous endeavor. Love should strive to be transitive-- life is best when those we love love each other as well. It is a difficult goal sometimes, but one that offers great rewards, as anyone who has experienced the beauty and uniqueness of a Menage-A-Trois can attest.
* Fromm considered love to be an interpersonal creative capacity rather than an emotion, and he distinguished this creative capacity from what he considered to be various forms of narcissistic neuroses and sado-masochistic tendencies that are commonly held out as proof of "true love." Indeed, Fromm viewed the experience of "falling in love" as evidence of one's failure to understand the true nature of love, which he believed always had the common elements of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. (Wikipedia)

Postcard, c. 1910