Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Critique of Love

Ok, so not quite - it's a belated examination of a book I read a few weeks ago. The book is Love: Emotion, Myth and Metaphor by Robert C. Solomon, published by DoubleDay in 1981. I picked it up at a library book sale for something significantly less than a dollar, and since then the dusty hardcover had remained at the bottom of a box full of other such purchases. Coincidentally enough, when I finally dug the book from the box, the circumstances seemed ripe for what it had to say.

Solomon's main premise throughout the text is to return love from its status as either savior of the world (to the poetic) or end of the world (to the cynic) to its proper place as another human emotion, no more, no less. He does not fall into the trap of so many behavioral scientists now and call it mere biology, but nor does he follow Plato's long-tread path to defining love as the first step on the way to God.
The first part of the book is a history, if you will. Many modern historians and sociologists believe that the origins of romantic love are to be found in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century troubadours of Europe, and Solomon does not entirely disagree. The first inklings of the desire of romantic love are there, but it is not the whole story; a troubadour sang to his (often married) unrequited love from the ground below her tower, and she looked down on him with - what? - pity, perhaps, or amusement. The troubadour aimed, not for the culmination or satisfaction of desire, but for the desire itself. The desire is what fueled his poetry and his song, and as such, the object of said desire was, in the end, rather unimportant. It was true of the chivalric knights and their ladies as well, despite how much romanticism we read back into the stories of Guinevere and Lancelot with our own rose-colored glasses. It mattered less that the lady was Guinevere than it did the fact there was a lady. Adoration, idolatry, worship from a "safe" distance - these things may be present in romantic love, but they are not love themselves.
Enter, says Solomon, one of the greatest traditions of western civilization: Platonic love. We can look all the way back to the Greeks for the beginnings of romantic love, even if it was lost somewhere between then and now, and also despite the fact that it was to be found between old men and young boys. According to Socrates (as dutifully inscribed by his student, Plato, in Symposium), the love of one learned man for his young (and beautiful) pupil will eventually lead to the realization that the love may be for young and beautiful pupils in general, followed by the love of all that is beautiful, followed by the love of Beauty, which, in the end, becomes philosophy: contemplation of God. The problem arises, Solomon argues, when we try to make these "bootstrap" bridges permanent; romantic love (or a close approximation of what we know it to be in modern times) for the young and beautiful pupil need not lead to a philosophical realization, nor need it be a necessary prerequisite. While I personally have caught glimpses of eternity through such "profane" things as romantic love, I agree with Solomon: we do love a disservice by asserting that it must, by definition, lead us to such higher things. The book says much on this discrepancy between romantic love and Platonic love, but falls short of speaking to the validity of Platonic love on its own merit. While I agree that romantic love should be separated from its "sanctified" cousin, I feel that Platonic love - agape, in a sense, an abstract love for God and all God's creation - is a necessary goal for the spiritual life. But as such, it is distinct from, and not reliant on, human emotion.
Solomon, having thus distinguished modern romantic love from its predecessor adoration (from the troubadours) and its "higher calling" (from Plato and Socrates), sets out his own definition, the main points being laid out hence.

"Love is an emotion, nothing else." But emotions are not to be confused with simple "feelings," either. Emotions, Solomon explains, "are neither primitive nor 'natural,' but rather intelligent [though not necessarily conscious] constructions, structured by concepts and judgments that we learn in a particular culture, through which we give our experiences some shape and meaning." Love is not the only emotion; hatred, anger, pity, envy, etc, are all a part of our "toolkit" as well, and this toolkit varies based on culture, society, etc (just look at the Victorians!). A direct consequence of this portion of the definition is that, in the end, we choose love - sometimes we choose badly, sometimes well, but it is a personal choice.
Romantic love has been made explicitly possible by our specific, modern western society and culture. Independence and mobility are of utmost importance, and so our traditional ties to family and clan are broken, and we seek that intimacy elsewhere. However, not everyone need replace family and place with a single person (or string of single persons). As Solomon states, "love is not everything, and not for everybody."
Romantic love includes intimacy at its core; intimacy consists in "shared identity." Two distinct individuals come together and try to create a single coherent whole, which (by definition) is impossible, and so romantic love can be seen as a dialectic, the way two people attempt to "define themselves and each other both as individuals and as a shared identity."
Romantic love is not to be confined to one particular relationship: one man, one woman, "completing" each other. Romantic love can easily exist between two men or two women. While there may be "roles" within a romantic relationship, they are constantly changing, and have nothing to do with gender. This gender non-specificity also applies to the concept of love: it is not a purely male or female construct, as it exists today.
Love is not a "commitment," it is not forever, and it is not without reasons. One cannot truly be loved (romantic love) "no matter what" (here is where Christians, especially, seem to get confused - if we are to love all men equally as sons of God, how can we if some are better or worse than others? The common answer is to "love the sinner, hate the sin," but in practice, how does one actually do so without some kind of favoritism, which is against Platonic love in its very nature?). We may glimpse eternity from within our romantic love, but that is not the same as the love lasting forever. If a person changes substantially, his or her lover may not love him or her anymore, and this is to be expected and not vilified. If romantic love is a human emotion, like hate, it can easily change and even end, like hate. An interesting corollary is that, as one can hate several people at once, can one love several people at once? I would argue that this is, at least inherently, possible. If we truly do love for reasons (and of course we do, if we are honest with ourselves), we could love one person for a subset of those reasons, and another simultaneously for a different subset of those reasons. Replace the word "love" with "hate," and we have no problem accepting this; it is the weight of love's tradition and haughty history that causes us to blush at the thought of there being more than just "the one." This is not, you may notice, a biological argument - it has nothing to do with procreation. It pertains to romantic love, only one of the aspects of which is sex (but sex need not be the traditional, biological copulation, as any couple knows), and as such is psychological and sociological, arising within the "black box" of the human mind and human reasoning. Consider, also, we allow that, should a person become "all consumed" by hatred, it is a bad thing, for them and for others, but we do not similarly apply this to romantic love. In fact, all our fairy tales and books and movies suggest that one should become all-consumed by love, and when the honeymoon period ends and we are looking at our lover face to face, wondering what happened to the passion, we are let down all the more. Shakespeare knew that Romeo and Juliet had to die, lest they fall into the boring and mundane daily routine of "married life." We buy into the lie; we want love to be a cure-all, a panacea, the key to happiness. It isn't.
That said, the cynics are not all right, either. Love is not irrational - it is people who are irrational, and love is one of their inventions. Romantic love is not a tool for men to repress women, although unfortunately it has been used as such. Romantic love has been puffed up, but once deflated, it is not reduced to nothing. It is not merely an excuse for, as one feminist put it, "lifelong prostitution." Solomon spends a good deal of time refuting specific arguments against romantic love as laid out by some prominent feminists of his time; he is not anti-feminist, but he does insist that romantic love, as the roles within it are constantly changing for any given relationship, is not intrinsically a way for men to keep women "tethered." I agree with him, even in spite of my own unfortunate past in this respect. No human emotion can be perfect, just as no human can be perfect, but this need not mean we give up on the whole thing as a lost cause.
I disagree with Solomon's chapter on the weighty meaning of the phrase "I love you" - as my readers may remember, I subscribe to Huxley's statement that words are not the things which they represent - but the chapter is still humorous, poking fun at so many conversations in so many romantic comedies. The statement has gravity only for the reasons we give it; our meaning imbues the words, not the other way around. I am not prone to using the phrase myself, having overused it in earlier times, but I see no harm in it. These are only words, and not to be feared.

All in all, the book was quite interesting, and seemingly ahead of its time. Though one has to accept Solomon's definition in order for his main thesis to ultimately be correct, it is a relatively easy definition to adopt. If we do not see love for what it really is, we become trapped: "The miracle of love becomes a myth, and the religion [of love] becomes but an extravagant facade for lust, an opiate more powerful than religion precisely because it is entirely personal; we must always blame its failures on ourselves."


  1. Ah- very nice! I am reminded of Dulcinea, the chivalric (and imaginary) object of Don Quixote. I found most of Don Quixote quite tedious, but the Dulcinea gag was a perennial source of depth, pathos, and fun.

    I would go to a biological argument on the issue of love being directed to one object at a time, usually. Nothing in bio-psychology is absolute, but while the hatred of many is perfectly sensible, especially in the setting of war, the love of many, in the intense form of romantic infatuation, crowds out others and focuses relentlessly on the one, since one can only have sex with one at a time in the normal course of events. Thus the common occurrence of sequential Lotharios. Multiple loves tend to result from sequential loves with residual entanglements, one might say. But multiple simultaneous loves happen too, I just think they are quite rare in the true romantic sense.

    And one can get into the oxytocin system and bonding, etc. to explain some of this in more detail (though not fully the 1:1 nature of bonding). For instance, the issue of mothers bonding so strongly to their new infants that the fathers feel jealous, sometimes exiled permanently from the wife's most intimate affection, even while most parents have some way to separate romantic from parental loves.

    Lastly, the feminist issue- romantic love is a mechanism for the enslavement of men just as much (or more so) than the enslavement of women. It is rules of property and divorce that entrap women in the wreckage of expired romance. But romance itself, well- you had Antony and Cleopatra putting life and empire at risk for such love. Without romance, men would neither be tested for their ardor, nor stick around long enough to make breakfast.

    That is one reason why Arabic Islam is so fearful of women- their charms and guiles render men mindless, helpless, (whether out of romance or pure lust is debatable), and heedless of their pre-existing obligations!

  2. Burk: I agree that there is some biological basis, for infatuation or lust, at least. But there are obviously relationships which "outlast" the biological explanation, and have become purely a matter of will (but whether that will is motivated by "love" or "duty" or whatever is unimportant in such a context). I do agree with you, though, that most "multiple loves" are either vestiges or else extremely rare. But so too is "true love" extremely rare (in this context, even, where "true love" could only be described as romantic love which has the good fortune to outlive its two adherents).

    It's interesting to me what you mention about mother-child bonding. One might not classify the mother-child relationship as one of "romantic love" (perhaps even be loathe to do so, leftovers from our Freudian past), but with the definition given by Solomon, you could reasonably assert that it is a form of romantic love. It is a love which exists between two individuals, complete with need and (at least a desire for) intimacy, as well as a desire to "express" that love and intimacy through physical touch. In this case, it's hugs and kisses and pats on the head, not sex, but the desire for a mother to hold her child is still there and quite obvious, and yet in no way Oedipal. I had a discussion with Evil Dr. Pain recently about parental vs romantic love - that I could love and raise a child without the need for a husband, in essence. The two things (husband-love, child-love) seemed distinct to me. Perhaps they are not distinct, but in fact so similar that one can replace the other. Interesting.

    I think you'd have a nice chuckle from reading the book, if you can find a copy somewhere. Solomon spends more time refuting the feminist arguments likely because they were more prominent (and a bit more cynical) at the time of publication. Your point is well made, though: "love" can enslave whosoever it will.

  3. I enjoyed the post.

    "our meaning imbues the words, not the other way around."

    Amen to that- I think it's something we all have to remember all the time. Words are our imperfect servants, not our masters.

    That said - there is lust/love and then there is the caring, parental/love, and then there is the excitement of identifying with another person so deeply - it's probably associated with a dose of serotonin in the brain - but it is the feeling of fresh air on your face, it's adventure all the way! And it renders lust impotent in comparison.

    I have often that that a partner is one whom you can view as a parent and as a child, and this mix of the two is what creates a lasting partnership. Just one of many aspects, however.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  4. Thanks for this post :-) I've been thinking a lot about it.

    I've at last put my thoughts together, but they're too long to post as comments. You can read them here.


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