Sunday, February 19, 2012

Realistic about Love

What do we mean when we label a thing? How real is the label, and what of the question of that label's correspondence to reality? These are old and good questions.

We have an assortment of words to try and capture a few significant differences between one kind of a thing and another, to draw and define a boundary.

When it comes to words of affection or positive drive towards an external object in the world however, we appear to have but two words: love and like. Presumably the difference is one of an intensity. Presumably to say that I "love" a thing is to be more attached to it than to say that I "like" the same thing. Yet it admits of no clear measure. It remains an eternal mystery, as it should remain since humans have the foolish notion that explanations are always a sign of progress and enlightenment.

I remember attending a lecture by the late, great philosopher Robert Solomon, where he pointed out the problem that we can say on the one hand, that we "love our car" and on the other, if we happen to be husbands, that we "love our wife". How would an uninformed, alien species, in attempting to translate our language, make sense of such a pairing? How could we make clear to the aliens - if we are husband with both a wife and a car - that our wife, a human being, is of course, always, already more loved (one hopes) than a machine?

Another thing Solomon said about the words love and like was that those two words practically comprised the linguistic limits of our positive regard for a thing. Solomon implied that such linguistic narrowness was connected to an equal lack of imagination or even shallowness about objects in question, at least among English speakers. Of course what would be required or demanded is some non-verbal expression of the difference between love and like, something externalized. There is the work that context can do as well.

Human life is a mess and a confusion. We have so many kinds of relations that we ought to keep discrete and separate yet we have interchangeable words for them - as in love, hate, and like.

If I were to describe my attitude towards the word of the month - Love - it would be summed up by the adjective realistic.

Now in common parlance - the lingua franca of the man and women in the street - the realistic is always opposed to the idealistic. Presumably an idealist is filled with passion and romance and has a vision to improve the world: it would seem to be a good thing to be an idealist in love, it would seem more seductive and attractive to aim high, as it were. Realism, by contrast, would appear to have to do with settling, with limitation, with the terribly dailiness, even a lack of imagination. Is not realism synonymous with practicality and thus the very enemy of passion?

Yet when I say I am realistic about Love I have in mind a rather more academic, technical, and in this one instance, better use of the word "realistic". Here is what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Realism:

"There are two general aspects to realism, illustrated by looking at realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties. First, there is a claim about existence. Tables, rocks, the moon, and so on, all exist, as do the following facts: the table's being square, the rock's being made of granite, and the moon's being spherical and yellow. The second aspect of realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties concerns independence. The fact that the moon exists and is spherical is independent of anything anyone happens to say or think about the matter."

Now if I say that love - that often mercurial, shifting, evanescent spirit - is real, as real as tables, rocks and other material things, then whatever else I may be accused of, I certainly could never be accused of evading or denying the power and value of love. Love is not a mere feeling. It is not even a metaphor for passing chemical states of brains. Still less it is an umbrella term for a group of good feelings that enable us to bond or live together. Describing Love as a verb is not sufficient either since that tempts us to seeing Love as a mere metaphor again rather than as the substantive thing it really is. No, Love - in all of its forms and varieties, for Love is not a singular, but rather plural thing - is as real and is as certain as the clothes on our backs and the blood in our veins.

More controversially, I hold Love to be utterly independent of our perceptions of Love. Try as we might to ignore it, but Love has a will of its own, perhaps represented by polytheistic wisdom about the Gods, or, more typically, Goddesses. That is why we were unwise to stop believing in Aphrodite. Since we banished Her, with the establishment of monotheism, we have been suffering so ever since. She exacts her revenge: in divorce, and in abuse, and in wars and poverty, and in Global Warming. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

We don't invent Love; we don't exactly discover it: rather like Cupid's arrow, it discovers us. Love is not just a word we use to symbolize whatever we might fancy, though too often it is merely that. Love has claims upon us. Love is as solid as the earth upon which we inhabit.

We are not used to thinking of Love this way. Especially among our moralists and psychologists we are used to seeing Love as a kind of madness or an illusion. We are also fond of dividing healthy from unhealthy Love.

One of the unfortunate trends in contemporary culture is to deny the reality of venerable values. Yet our words for these values - Love is not the only one, for there is Freedom and Justice, and still others - nevertheless point to real things. We have been tricked or seduced by a partial truth. Because each of these values has a history, because ideas about them have grown, changed and been revised over time, we assume, falsely, that these values are mere acts of human construction and will, that they have no independence from our perception. Many of us, I hope, would be loathe to treat our ethics in this way. If something is evil for us now, it should have been regarded as such in the past, even if it were not.

So it is with Love. I have no wish to define it. Too damn much has been written about it, much of it mediocre. I simply want to imagine what Love would look like if we took it to have the kind of reality and stubborn presence in our lives that the most tangible, physical thing has: as real as our own skin, our own sense that we exist and that we matter.

I can't tell you, dear reader, what to do about Love for I lack any wisdom to do that. I can only tell you to take it as seriously as your own existence.