Monday, January 08, 2007

Love's Confusions

At a pivotal moment in The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch's protagonist is deserted, suddenly and without explanation, by the woman he loves. He reports this experience in a sentence I have always found breathtaking, despite the cliché:
You die at heart from a withdrawal of love.
What crushes the jilted lover is the unintelligibility of love's withdrawal. How could someone's feelings change like that? By what right? It is as if we want to hold our ex to account: justify yourself.

Taken this way, the demand is one of love's confusions, since it asks for reasons where reasons are not required. No-one needs an argument for falling out of love. In pressing the demand, one protests not only the loss of a particular relationship, but the implacable nature of love itself.

The example would be pleasing to C. D. C. Reeve, whose recent book about love begins with themes that have preoccupied me here: whether it can be promised or given at will, its relationship to work, and the perplexities of loving God. He is emphatic about love's passivity: recognizing that one's happiness depends on someone else is "more central to love than the desire to confer benefit – an acceptance of our lover's power, rather than an expression of our own." And he is a relentless critic of rationalism about the source and sustenance of love.

On Reeve's loosely Freudian account, love is never fully liberated from its infantile and "alimentary" origins. This poses difficulties for those who want to integrate sex with respectful loving commitment: sexual excitement may continue to depend on the politically incorrect – fantasies of dominance and abjection, or of being treated as an object.

I am less interested in the details of this speculation – on which I refuse to comment here – than in the incipient role of philosophy as therapy. "Dear Professor Reeve: my wife and I both work away from home, and believe in sexual equality. But things are falling flat between the sheets. What can do we do to spice them up?" Though they are not exactly framed this way, answers to this question appear throughout the book: exploiting jealousy or flirtation as a stimulus to desire, experimenting with other partners, keeping gender politics out of the bedroom.

Reeve is not alone in trying on the therapeutic form, even if he does so in a specially provocative way. He has a nice blurb by Paul Woodruff, whose book about the virtue of reverence – which manifests itself in feelings of awe for what surpasses human limitation – approaches the oracular style of the self-help manual:
Reverence is not enough by itself for a completely good character. You will need to develop other capacities in order to live a morally good life. But you may find that reverence is necessary – as is courage – to the regular exercise of all other virtues.
If one has doubts about the philosopher as moral guide, one is liable to be even more suspicious when he tacitly adopts the role of relationship counselor. I am reminded of Harry Frankfurt's nice response to a question about contingency that followed a series of lectures he gave at Princeton some years ago.
Audience member: What I can't see, on your account, is how there is any assurance that my wife will continue to love me.

Frankfurt: I'm sorry, sir, I'm afraid I can't help you with that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it was also in the question period of those lectures that Frankfurt summed up his view by quoting Garbo's Ninotchka: "Love is a chemical reaction."

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know that the demand for love is one of love's confusions.

Suppose it so happens that you stop loving your mother or child. If they realize that and protest, would you think that such a protest rests on a mistake?

If not, what exactly is the difference between this case and the case of falling out of love with a spouse? Certainly not that one concerns a chemical reaction, while the other - a deliberative issue!

10:40 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I agree about the urgency of the protest in the cases you describe. But it does seem puzzling to me.

It makes sense to complain that someone never took steps to prevent the waning of their affection, or to sustain intimacy. These are things that one can do or fail to do for reasons, and can be called upon to justify.

What is less clear is that love itself is an attitude one has for reasons, so that its emergence and fading are subject to the demand for justification which the protest apparently contains.

I said a bit about love and marriage in an earlier post, but I don't have a firm view about any of this.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see the hunch; but I am not sure about what follows. If a child, mother or spouse looks at you with reproach and says: "You don't love me any more", is it that what they say makes no sense? Should they, perhaps, correct themselves and say, instead: "You never took any steps to prevent your love for me from fading"?

That would be a little odd, and not only because we are not used to talking this way. Of course, the protest makes sense because there are steps which you could have taken (if the love is gone, on the other hand, as a result of brain surgery, they most likely won't protest; and in any event, it won't make sense for them to protest, not against the person who stopped loving them at any rate.)

But, for one thing, the things one can do to prevent one's love from fading are unlike the steps one can take to repair the house roof - the difference is that, while the latter could be seen by anybody, the former cannot be so seen: others don't, generally, see whether and to what extent we are making an effort to keep loving them (that effort includes things like calling memories of beautiful moments spent together to mind, or of moments when the other person stood by our side in hardship). Since they don't see this, they can't protest on the ground that it's not there.

For another thing - I don't see anything particularly counterintuitive with the idea of having reasons to love. I believe becoming a parent gives you such a reason and if you don't love your child immediately, then you have to try to learn to love.

Becoming someone's spouse gives you such a reason also, a reason to keep the love you have and even to try to make it stronger and deeper.

Indeed, if there were no reason to love other people, how could there be a reason to either try to inspire in oneself or else try prevent love for them from fading?

1:46 PM  

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