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Love Is Violent; Love Is Mundane
The truth of love lies in the contradiction where two fully assume “the fall”
The following is the second of my three-part essay series on love, why it matters and the dire need for its reinvention. You can read part one here.
I recently came across a so-called “motivational video” on Instagram where the speaker said, “I told my wife when I got with her, ‘Look, I will do anything for you except one thing. I will not give up my dream. If I got to surrender my dream, I’d rather be alone.’” And then, unsurprisingly, he went on to say you should make a lot of money. The first question that crossed my mind when I came across his sentiments was, does this man truly love his wife? It certainly was presumptuous of me to have such thoughts, given that he’s a stranger; plus, he’s been married since 2004, which is admirable in our libertine times. But I questioned him because I could think of many scenarios where I’d immediately give up on my dreams for those I love: if, for instance, I had a partner and she got, let’s say, pancreatic cancer, my dreams would be subservient to her needs. Even if we leave aside extreme examples (like the aforementioned one) - in our customary daily life, when in love, we constantly make sacrifices for each other without batting an eye. It’s convenient to say (especially on social media) that you could be in love and yet not make sacrifices or give up on your dreams. But the truth is, notwithstanding our culture’s endless berating to “be yourself”, if love’s authentic, it’ll radically change a person. And sometimes, this change entails learning to dream differently.
I also question his love because one could be in a long and relatively happy marriage and yet be loveless. As Camus writes:
“Of course, true love is the exception: roughly two or three instances a century. The rest of the time, it’s a case of vanity or boredom.” (The Fall, P. 36)
True love is an absolute imposition on you: it’s a violent storm that subverts one’s life where everything else seems insignificant compared to your lover. So to be in love is perilous and perhaps even a nuisance in our self-absorbed times. Therefore, Camus’ diagnosis was accurate. Modern people treat love as a commodified accessory which has given rise to the love-industrial complex. Love’s treated as a consumable amongst the slew of commodities thrown at us in the free market. It’s unsurprising, then, to see terms such as “relationship/sexual marketplace” or “sexual market-value” used in our culture so uncritically. Most of us choose to be in relationships or get married for convenience because life can be a bore. Despite our ostensibly permissive times, we’re lonely, and as Billy Joel sings, “Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness. But it’s better than drinkin’ alone.” Loneliness, though, is different to boredom. One could always find some stupid thing to temporarily overcome one’s boredom, i.e., take upon a new hobby, get involved in politics, do CrossFit etc., but loneliness is a terrible curse; it’s a dispiriting malady to our existence, and it cannot be tackled with a mere lifestyle change. Yes, solitude is needed for our sanity, but to be wholly recluse and isolated without companionship makes one unhuman—not inhuman, that is cruel, sadistic and misanthropic but “unhuman” as such: in not being with others, we stop being human altogether because, as Hegel1 realised, we find our subjectivity and identity in others as they do in us. While love can be a catastrophe, what’s even worse is being lonely. So Nietzsche was right (mostly) to proclaim:
“Ultimately, one loves one’s desires and not that which is desired.” (Beyond Good and Evil, P. 106)
No wonder then we seek love without the fall to fulfil our unfulfillable desire: As Žižek2 writes in our ideological edifice, “we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... And the list goes on: what about virtual sex [pornography] as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare? [...]” In fact, we never needed “Big Tech” to create Virtual Reality as, according to Žižekian theory, we already live in one: “Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance - in the same way, decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like the real coffee without being the real one, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one.” (A Cup of Decaf Reality, Lacan.com) And, accordingly, we want to be in love without the malignant (and messy) properties of deeply and passionately falling in love.
Does this mean true love doesn’t exist? Certainly NOT! It DOES! But first, one has to understand its nature as a metaphysician because it’s been misunderstood in contemporary times. Contrast what the Instagram motivational speaker said about his wife, who he supposedly loves, with what Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw says about her lover, the destructive Byronic hero, Heathcliff:
“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. [...] My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I AM Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” (Wuthering Heights, P. 69)
The love portrayed by Brontë, in all its ardent, havoc-inducing violence and toxicity (to use a voguish term), does exist, albeit rarely. And it’s very much a part of love despite our attempts to conceal it. Case in point: the French ecologist and philosopher André Gorz and his British-born wife Dorine have such a story with an affair spanning almost sixty years. They met in 1947 in the Swiss town of Lausanne, where he’d been sent for safety at the outbreak of the Second World War, and the 23-year-old Dorine was travelling for adventure. They fell in love, married in 1949 and moved to France. In Dorine’s old age, she developed a debilitating neurological disorder. “Sometimes, at night, I see the silhouette of a man walking behind a hearse along an empty road in a deserted landscape,” wrote Gorz. “I am that man. I don’t want to attend your cremation, I don’t want to receive your ashes in a bowl.” And in 2007, the couple committed suicide together by lethal injection, having decided that neither wanted to survive the other’s death. Here’s an instance of the violence of love, where one goes all the way to the end.
Of course, love’s absoluteness isn’t always as dramatic as André and Dorine Gorz’s story. Notwithstanding the self-destructive violence of love, what matters most isn’t the act of suicide by the reticent couple but rather everything that happened in their relationship beforehand that never got the spotlight. Because authentic love also and predominantly exists in the mundane.
For instance, I recall a story of my paternal grandmother (ācci in Sinhalese), who lives in Sri Lanka and has been married to my grandfather (sīyā in Sinhalese) for over sixty years. They probably aren’t even aware of me, one of their grandsons living in Australia, anymore. In their agedness and senility, neither one of them does or says much and fully relies on caretakers for daily functioning. Like most nonagenarians, they are imprisoned by their own body. And yet my dad told me that ācci, who rarely talks, still remembered sīyā’s birthday months before and asked her caretaker to prepare Kiribath (a traditional Sri Lankan dish) for the occasion. Isn’t this a simple example of love’s modestness? My grandparents probably don’t even explicitly say they love each other nowadays, but love still exists in the small gestures, daily rituals, and in my grandmother’s case, unostentatious requests.
Herein lies yet another paradox of love: it encompasses metaphysical qualities that at first seem contradictory; nonetheless, love’s absoluteness is found in the contradiction itself. As we saw from André and Dorine Gorz, love is violent, violent to the point of suicide. But also, as we saw in my grandparents, love is mundane, mundane to the of being unnoticeable. The truth of love lies in the contradiction where two fully assume “the fall”, the absolute unconditional necessity of the other person for our being, and building a new truth together with daily habits, rituals, conversations, etc.
In James Cameron’s Titanic, the actual test of Jack’s (Leonardo di Caprio) and Rose’s (Kate Winslett) love would be if the ship never sank. Then the affair would continue, the ship would reach New York and as Rose passionately says, “she will leave with him [Jack], preferring a poor life with her true love to the false corrupted life among the rich; at THIS moment the ship hits the iceberg, in order to PREVENT what would undoubtedly have been the TRUE catastrophe, namely the couple’s life in New York - one can safely guess that soon, the misery of everyday life would destroy their love. The catastrophe thus occurs in order to save their love, in order to sustain the illusion that, if it were not to happen, they would have lived ‘happily forever after’”3 So the iceberg, which seemed like an obstacle, in fact, saved the love affair by not letting the typical 20th-century bourgeois life challenge their love. Of course, if the miracle of love were to exist, though, the young lovers would take onto themselves their mistake (the transgressions of illegitimate sex and crossing the class divisions) and, despite their stark differences, patiently build a new life together without the excitement of a clandestine affair on a ship, not just any ship, but the Titanic.
You can read part three here.