We consider several different scenarios:
- in bed together, you eat chocolate, you feel happy and guilty, you eat more chocolate
- there is a deadline for a Valentine’s Day piece, but the market for articles about the fetishization of love is ironically oversaturated, and you panic to find another perspective
- alone at the kitchen table, your face illuminated by the fluorescent light of the lone half-broken streetlamp outside the window, the salt of your tears and the increasingly mushy sweetness of Ben & Jerry’s meet and intertwine in a dance that can only aptly be called sadness incarnate
- ‘what did you do for Valentine’s Day?’
‘oh do you mean Saturday? I went to the store and had oatmeal for breakfast.’
‘sounds good to me!’
This past semester I took a course on the philosophy of love. The course focused on different conceptions of love and debates about them. I am now a Master of Love and Relationships and it is now in my power to churn out self-help books and articles at will. No, I kid, I’m the kind of person that would forget his close friends’ birthdays if facebook didn’t remind him every day starting two weeks in advance, but I did think it would be nice to mark the recent Valentine’s occasion with a short reflection on a cool and interesting theory of love.
The text I want to talk about is About Love (1988) by Robert C. Solomon. Solomon argued our view of love desperately needs an update, because the way we currently conceive of it is ”paradoxical” and “sheer garbage”, and what he calls Foggers and Facilitators are the main promoters of these conceptions.
We start with Foggers: thinkers and poets like Plato have made love unreachable for us by making it a heavenly ideal that we can only strive towards but never reach. That ‘reaching-towards’ supposedly consists of intellectual discourse and – provided that it doesn’t detract from that mutual mental stimulation – a little bit of sex1. The discursive process brings us closer to truth, and is for example reflected in the modern ‘true love’s kiss’-stories; you look like a human, you talk, walk and dance like a human, but as soon as Shrek kisses you your true form becomes apparent and a heretofore unnoticed swing band begins to play catchy, celebratory music. Foggers praise love as something divine and all-important, yet fail to ever quite clearly define what they mean by the concept.
Facilitators, on the other hand, see love as ‘useful’: love is a way of avoiding loneliness, of assuring regular and dependable sexual satisfaction, of overcoming your “natural” inhibitions, or an excuse to go crazy. They turn love into a set of skills by treating romantic relationships as a game that can be won, with set rules that can be learned and used to your advantage. Solomon especially holds monthly magazines accountable for this: think of your appearance, say the right things, and remember to utilise The 17 Proven Steps to get their attention. Articles and advice texts like these implicitly promote the idea that there is a broadly applicable blueprint for successful2 romance (and, in a way, for successful interaction in general). Which is a bit silly, because maybe humanity is slightly too diverse for that to work. While there is a fair point to be made for the mastery of basic social etiquette, interaction is always between individuals with unpredictable contents and characters, for whom the content of the relationship can for a large part only be made up by the participants in the process itself.
Both of these conceptions are “garbage”, Solomon argues, and they obstruct our thinking about love and make us strive after ideas that are not worth striving after. So we should stop all our Fogging and Facilitating and reconstruct love in a way that it makes more sense and actually becomes a concept we can work with. Cue Solomon’s own take on love.
According to Solomon love is not a passion or a fleeting feeling but an emotional process in which you and the other person constantly attempt to balance your respective natural needs for autonomy and self-determination and individuality with your desire to be with the other person and to share yourself with them. There is a tension between these two goals because to ‘be with the other person’ entails a certain merging of identities and a creation of a ‘shared identity’.
If you’re skeptical about this point, Solomon asks you to think of Romeo and Juliet: it’s almost impossible to consider their names separately because they expressly aim to define themselves in terms of the other. This is even made explicit in the famous excerpt:
“Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”3
Solomon that the relinquishing of birthnames does not mean a relinquishing of individuality, but merely a mutual redefinition of the self in terms of the other person. He points out that the entire idea that there is a tension between the need for individuality and the coming-together of identities is a fantasy anyway, because it is an artificial problem that results from our isolated concept of identity: you may think you’re silly Gary, but the silliness of silly Gary comes into existence precisely in interaction, and the view other people have of you certainly influences and even creates the roles you play in day to day life.
If we agree with this, then choosing a romantic partner – or close friends – becomes something else than a coming-together by way of comprise. Choosing whom you associate with then means choosing what you associate with, and with that how you see yourself. Taking this into consideration, it’s problematic to see love as an entirely other-centered emotion when, as Solomon says, “there is no emotion that has more to do with the self.”
1That’s right, I said it! Platonic love does not exclude sex altogether, and anyone who believes otherwise should first feel ashamed for a bit and then check out Charles Hupperts’ readings of Plato’s Symposium!
2This also slyly implies that a relationship can be ‘successful’, and what that means is usually only defined by subtle implication.
3I should note that Solomon thinks it’s a shame that many people see Romeo and Juliet as an example of a true romance, because their love never actually really gets started. They merely ‘have a peek at love’ and then die before getting any chance to actually really come together in a meaningful way.