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.


  1. This is completely astonishing, especially in the significance you give to Love and Realism. You point out the superiority of Realism in Love, and yet also insist that it retain its independence from our characterizations and its proper mysticism. This is really a deft piece of philosophical writing, and is also quite moving and important for our times. Bravo.

    Do you think our current problems with Love started during the irony epidemic of the '80s? I see that period in our history as a mass embarrassment at having gotten closer to all sorts of concepts of Love in the '70s, and wanting to control and tame it, especially in its sexual forms, and thus laugh at everything high-minded and take nothing seriously. We threw out sex as a form of liberation and as a way of establishing closeness between people, but we also threw out Love I think because it made us vulnerable, and at the same time we also trashed most of the great work from the past because it was too earnest.

    In its call for seriousness, your essay seems to be a plea to return to seriousness in general, the seriousness that was destroyed not only in personal relations but in the arts and in thinking in general. And it reminds me of Krishnamurti, who was always trying to bring his followers back to being serious. He was also talking about Love, and also attaching the concept of Love to Being in the world in reality and in the quotidien.

  2. Thanks so much for your response!

    About irony I am of two minds. Well, in one way I think we actually suffer from "irony deficiency" if we take what Harold Bloom says in an interview: "Irony by definition is the saying of one thing while meaning another, sometimes indeed quite the opposite of what overtly you are saying. It's very difficult to have the highest kind of imaginative literature from Homer through Don DeLillo, as it were, and entirely avoid irony. There is the tragic irony, which one confronts everywhere in Shakespeare, that the audience, the auditor, and the reader are aware of--something in the character or predicament or inward affects, emotions of the protagonist or protagonists, that the heroes and heroines are totally unaware of themselves". That is a sort of irony which the greatest works of art are rarely without and doesn't necessarily have to take light, comic, or parodic forms.

    Having said that, there is a kind of cheap popular or even populist irony that was begat, I believe, by the first SNL crew on television and exhibited by, say, David Letterman on his talk show. There is probably too much of that.

    I think what you say about History is most interesting: that there was a shift towards a fear of love in culture more generally. I couldn't know that for sure. Are you saying that these things move in cycles? Also, I was talking about Love in the broadest possible sense rather than taking any stance on sex or the Sexual Revolution per se. It is true that, just as we were about to collect on the promissory notes of the Sexual Revolution, a kind of unthinking conservative reaction set in. On the other hand, there were many problems with that Revolution, problems which might have helped that conservative reaction take hold.

    The context of this post is my response to what I believe to be a general attitude of disbelief and skepticism and suspicion regarding Love (that it isn't real, is a fiction, is only and always, already dangerous and foolish) which I think could be a negative thing if carried too far. It seems too much an important part of our humanity.

    Of course Krishnamurti is one of the greatest and most original of thinkers and I certainly don't have his wisdom or gifts. Yet I do have sympathy with his project to the extent that he want us to see Love in its broadest sense, rather than tying it to the couple or the family alone.

    1. Love your essay! ;)

      Erich Fromm apparently was in sympathy with K:
      “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an ordination of character which determines the relatedness of the person to the whole world as a whole, not toward one object of love.”

      That, to me, is both realistic and idealistic love.

      By the way, like you, Fromm insists that love is not a feeling. He says it's a commitment, a decision.

      Also by the way Mitch, it's "loath" not "loathe," in the context you use it here.

  3. Oh goodness Jen! Thanks for your grammar correction! That stuff is so important to me.

    1. Welcome Mitch! No charge for my proofing services.

      Re this from your essay:

      "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."

      This may be apropos, from Tennyson's The Higher Pantheism:

      "Speak to Him, thou, for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet-
      Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet."

      God is Love, we are God and we are Love.