A policeman and his captive climb up a hill.
They come across a local man, and the policeman shouts at the local man that he is to take the captive off his hands and deliver him to prison. The local man asks the policeman what the captive had done to deserve such a fate. He refuses to perform the public service on hearing the policeman’s response. Angered by this, the policeman forces the man to sign custody papers, tells him that now he has no choice, and goes on his way.
Once the policeman has gone, the local man takes the captive back to his home. Next morning, having eaten breakfast, the two men walk to a fork in a road. The local man tells the would-be prisoner that he can either go south, and hide in the mountains, or he can go east, and turn himself in. The local man walks off and leaves the other alone to his decision. Looking back, he sees the man walking east.
These are the brushstrokes of Albert Camus’ ‘L’Hôte’, or ‘The Guest’. The story tells us that not making a choice is still a choice – the neutral position the local hoped for himself was taken from him by the captive, who, although facing a seemingly impossible decision, nonetheless managed to move from the fork in the road. And it’s in this spirit I think we approach love: as a prisoner does, walking slowly towards the guillotine after a long ordeal.
Love exists. That much we should agree on. While some might not have had the feeling, and a psychopath might not even be capable of imagining the feeling, even a psychopath has only to look around them to recognise that people feel something. The Cynic of Love, the person who claims that to say “I love you” is meaningless because of the subjective nature of the experience, is in the same position as the Porn Cynic who claims we cannot speak about porn because of its definitional difficulties.This can be made clear rather easily. Even if only one person in the world claimed they needed the word “love” to capture the feeling, and really did claim love as an experience unique to them, them doing so would not make that person a solipsist. The real solipsist is the person who thinks their imagination to be so great and so all-encompassing that they cannot bring themselves to recognise an experience they haven’t yet had. An act of love is certainly harder to demonstrate than other acts, (such as an act of kindness, say), but this doesn’t detract from the objective reality of what is a highly subjective state. Rather, it confirms it.
In any case, we don’t live in a world where only one person professes to having experienced being in love. That some of us can say, “we’ve felt it,” is enough evidence to be going on with. Determined Cynics can stop reading at this point, I think we really must part company here, but reassurances can still be made for the reader sceptic. Any claims about something as complex as love are well met by the robust raise of the proverbial eyebrow – after all, those claiming to be in love can and often do renounce those same claims at a later date. Sure, those people might be wrong to renounce their claim, because for all intents and purposes they really had been in love at the time… but what if they were right to have doubted their past self… just saying you’re in love doesn’t automatically mean you are… does it? After this realisation and several ex-lovers, we arrive at the worrying conundrum of ‘true love’ – a subjective experience so strong that it makes us re-evaluate all our past loves and flirt with the fatalistic idea of a ‘soulmate’. We have come to the other end of the horseshoe – all the way from the crypt of the Cynic of Love to the palatial residence of the Custodian of Love.
The Custodian of Love is the person who tends to disparage their past self; the person who sees love in the world but who confesses true love to be a rare thing; the person who, whether they will admit to it or not, implies when they speak of this higher power that someone else’s love is not true love. In its more passive aggressive formulation, they often end up holding to the idea that someone else just wasn’t ready for love yet. It seems highly probable that some people can be misguided like they say, but to say this about any one person with any sort of confidence is to completely disregard the essential subjective nature of the experience. It also exposes a vulnerability. It could quite reasonably be supposed, for example, that when any Custodian focuses their attention on the fragile love of some other person, they do so to buttress their own loveless relationships. In short, there is nothing worse than a middle-aged fart who talks about an amorous adolescent from the safety of their matrimony settee. “She’s in love… or at least, she thinks she’s in love.”
The French Philosopher Alain Badiou once called love the most powerful way to engage in an intimate relationship with another person. He also set down a challenge to “Defend love as a real, risky adventure.” The first attempts to do such a thing were by philosophers who tried to ‘Platonify’ Love – by which I mean that they assumed the existence of love in the abstract before then using this foothold to find ways to defend its pursuit. Can one simply define a thing into existence though? In order to arrive at a genuine understanding of how to pursue love as a risky adventure, shouldn’t we use science and experiment to know what we’re talking about in the first place? There have been many attempts in the scientific age to find love – to find it so as to net it, to net it so as to point at it, and to point at it so as to say, “there it is, that’s what love is.” In the 20th century, ‘Relationship Scientists’ began by using MRI scans to try pinpoint love. In the 21stcentury, this tactic was used to more interesting effect by the ‘Biologists of Love’. However, the problem with these empirical studies has and will always be that they try to unpack the unpackable. They are never going to find the ‘love gene’. What is love? – err… strong… so they say. Obsessing over the hard science is to stoop down as if to pick up Alain Badiou’s gauntlet only to fix your shoelaces. The only way to talk about love with any meaning is to keep your conviction that something exists in the forefront of your mind, and circle the topic without tipping over the edge into the black hole itself.
Let’s first go over how not to approach love. Don’t be a rationalist. Don’t be a meritocrat. Don’t try to maximise compatibility or spread the pleasure or manage the happiness quota or whatever. There are those who fall into this trap and try to weigh-up the feelings they have for another person to come away with a granular set of results. There are those who use these results to inform their love-life decisions. There are those who include their partner in this whole decision-making process. There are even those who see relationships without this level of honesty as empty relationships that have sacrificed the ‘dangers’ of love for the easily comforts of loyalty. All these run into obvious and easily avoidable problems. This approach to love can be shown for what it is: a young (sapiosexual?) person’s game.
Problem 1: ‘The Buchanan Effect’
Such that a person feels they must constantly prove themselves worthy of their partner’s love. In a world of many people, being too unrestful in love is unlikely to tend towards self-improvement and is more likely to develop into self-destructive patterns that use other people to keep the fickle flame alive – like Tom and Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’. This can also slip n’ slide into gaslighting because rationalising about love like this means love can only really be proved negatively – that is, by verifying all the people you don’t love. At its worst, this kind of meritocratic loving acts only as a lubricant for the pathologically honest types who use philosophy to pick-up girls at bars. Honesty and openness are not the same thing.
Problem 2: ‘The Promised Land’
Such that promises become meaningless. The radical rationalist begins to see promises about feelings and intentions as binding only in the present. Why do we have good reason to react emotionally to a broken commitment, when the person across from us has made it quite clear that their only true promise was that they’d be honest, and that being honest means acknowledging they can always change their mind? They haven’t promised themselves to you, because they’ll have made explicit that re-calculations were always a possibility. But the making of promises about emotions, even those which are sometimes unkeepable, are a tried and tested heuristic. By promising yourself to someone in certain ways, by vocalising a promise to someone, you incur extra obligations – telling someone that you’ll love them forever is not the same as promising someone that you’ll love them forever. A false promise is still a promise, just as false testimony is still a testimony, as philosopher J.L. Austin pointed out.
Problem 3: ‘The Paradox of Happiness’
Such that there are very few (if any) situations in which you would be wise not to perform the aforementioned calculations about your partner. This leads to thinking about love so much that you overly focus on the method by which love is obtained. You put yourself into a position that demands that, to make love work, you have to love thinking about love. This would be, to use rationalistic terminology from philosopher Henry Sidgwick, quite “practically self-limiting.” Instead, we might want to think like a tightrope walker; like someone who knows that the last thing they want to do is obsess over their ability to tightrope-walk (especially while they’re trying to walk tightrope). As an Economist article put it, ‘Non cogito, ergo sum’. As Italian journalist Aldo Busi put it, “you do not love me and are cautious about it at the same time.” Even flirting with the idea of doing the sums might mean you’re not as entangled with the other person as you might be, and if you were entangled, you’d laugh at how silly thinking about calculations is. Much like the game-of-chicken, it might be that the only way to convincingly play the game of love is to check that the train has no breaks (no doubt part of the attraction when couples sign prenups). It’s to this far more interesting game-of-chicken that we shall soon turn.
First, however, we should line up the nails in the aforementioned’s coffin. Because irrespective of the practical problems outlined so far, approaching love with the aim of maximising each other’s happiness and minimising each other’s suffering might well be doomed even in theory. This is because of one very simple objection: that happiness and suffering are not on the same spectrum.
Especially when it comes to love, our emotions often come into conflict – we can feel both a profound liking and a deep disliking for the same person at the same time. The rationality/meritocratic types (I’m not quite sure who I’m addressing; but I am sure they exist) can recognise this, of course, and say that obviously humans have conflicting emotions – it’s precisely because of this that they should examine these internal conflicts as best they can. Conflicting emotions are given as evidence of the strength of people’s feelings. After all, the opposite of love isn’t hatred… it’s indifference. While this seems intuitively true, the problems caused by conflicting emotions often remain even when you work through them and come to understand them. The problem inherent in a rationalising approach to love is that even if we grant that the emotions we associate with love are mere corollaries to happiness and suffering (a contentious claim in any case), happiness and suffering should not be thought of as on the same spectrum. In fact, there is an essential asymmetry between the pleasure you derive from being around a person, and the pain you derive from being around a person. This asymmetry can be charactered as follows: in love, as in all things, although pain can follow pleasure, pain cannot proceed pleasure. Put another way, you need to stop painful sensations before you can have pleasurable ones. Even zealots of pleasure-maximisation appreciate that it’s impossible to enjoy a party with a raging toothache. Effectively responding to pain involves fixing the painful thing first, not smothering the pain with things that are more pleasurable than the painful thing is painful. Pleasure and pain are both important. But one seems to be the antecedent of the other.
Life, therefore, must be viewed as a major constraint on love; nasty and brutish and long etc as it is. Given the condition of our species, we can insist that we owe something to each other even by using the language of the lessening pain and maximising pleasure. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Paul Rudd says “we accept the love we think we deserve,” which strums to the same tune – if we don’t see pain as something to be dealt with first, then we won’t ever come to see love as being that which we somehow hadn’t to deserve.
But let’s park that asymmetry. There are many other objections that can be made against such a view, one of which concerns the proper object of your love. What I mean by this is that once someone knows they are in love, they might refuse to admit that calculations about the other person are possible any longer, precisely because of what the object of their love really means to them. That is, there is a sense in which we love the idea of being in love.
To explain this to a diagnosed rationalist, we can stoop to giving this a mathematical spin. First, reject the schoolyard rationalist’s stick that wants to rate people out of /10, or /100, or whatever. Then, tell them that if they do insist on speaking in numbers, there are only two numbers that they can care about – the number 1 and the number 0. You identify other people either as a ‘0’, (I couldn’t/don’t love), or as a ‘1’ (I could/do love). 1s will only ever be a 1 of many 1s, but 1s are nevertheless in the overwhelming minority compared to all the 0s; perhaps the kind of minority you stumble across only a couple of times in your life. This allows you move through the world knowing that once you meet a 1 then that will be it. If another 1 turns up and tempts you into comparisons, then the obvious way to separate between them is to think about the fact that you value the relationship as well. You overestimate a 1, thus preventing you from getting sucked into trying to find the 1.
We might worry here that this approach seems to want us to value our relationships because they serve a positive purpose irrespective of the people in the relationship. Given we don’t want to cause unnecessary harm, obtaining a relationship on this reading should be done with due caution. So far, this might sound quasi-religious. So far, this might sound a bit off-putting to the average partygoer. However, there are ways to safely avoid the terrible fate of existing a sexless partnership, so long as we fully explore what it means to take this approach to love. Yes, looking at love in this way does entail overestimating the differences between people, and thus could be considered the ‘healthy’ bourgeois way of doing things (old pipe-smoking broadsheet readers will doubtlessly advocate for this – reifying the idea of a relationship by valuing the relationship as far more important than the people that make it). Admittedly, this approach does seem to encourage this. However, it needn’t do so necessarily. This approach needn’t necessarily result in masturbating over a Facebook approved relationship status.
What this approach does ask is that you value relationships as slightly more than the people who are involved in them, and that you do so because this protects you from becoming philanderers of one (the 1). This isn’t a passive approach to love; it is as active as loving only for the sake of the people involved. Only, this approach requires far more imagination.
Imagine the scene:
Emily is sitting on a park bench when she sees Ross. Ross meets Emily’s eye. Fireworks. They start talking. After a while, Emily tells Ross how rare she thinks it is to find a person so open and honest. Ross, with resignation, says, “yes, but there’s always something you end up not liking about the other, so you’ll always end up hiding.” Emily pauses, agrees, and falls quiet. Ross notices this, and wonders whether she had recalled something, an example maybe, maybe something from her past, something which she had chosen not to share with him. In the silence, Ross wonders if she would tell him what she had thought of if he asked. Would he believe her if she did? As the silence continues, Ross wonders if he shouldn’t now tell her that he really doesn’t need her to tell him what she had thought about. Possibilities proliferate. Next to Ross, poor Emily is having exactly the same thoughts about an entirely different moment in the conversation.
Whether you’ve been with someone for ten minutes or ten years, these moments come for us all. We cannot fully enter the head of another. We are alone. We are fundamentally and inescapably alone. No matter how much we love someone, no matter how long we love someone for, we can only ever act as if we could enter their head and see with their eyes. Either we rage against this reality, or we accept it and distract ourselves from thinking about it too much. Distracting yourself from such thoughts requires a great deal of imagination, but it can be made easier by allowing things to be left unsaid, by changing topics, by abandoning strains of thought entirely. What the rationalist about love fails to see, you see, is that we can’t communicate honestly all the time (not even about the possibility of us not being able to communicate honestly). There’ll be times in our lives when it won’t be possible. But truth is, you needn’t focus on solving this. Instead, just imagine the person across from you as slightly more than who they really are. This approach encourages a playfulness which allows you to be honest about dishonesty, or, more accurately, about misdirection. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” says Emily Dickinson. None of this is to say that this approach doesn’t also lead to various practical problems as well…
Problem 1: ‘The Pained Panglossian’
Such that you ask too much of your imaginative capacity. Successfully closing out thoughts like this requires a near spiritual act of self-annihilation. Love becomes more a return to nothingness than a return to home. There is a lingering zen-like Buddhist quality to all this, and it might be that taking up this approach implies an unrealistic pursuit of wholeness. This might open a chasm onto a whole new world of pain and sadness and regret. In Men and Black, Agent J, played by Will Smith, says to the Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones: “You know what they say, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Agent K’s response: “Try it.”
Problem 2: ‘The Cul-de-sac Problem’
Such a risky bet… to foreswear the yardstick which would allow you to assess how much you love someone, even if only partially, even if only sometimes, even if only /10. This approach seems to advocate for a bet that puts all your chips down on experience and runs the risk of discounting silent evidence. For example, there are a lot of people out there in the world that you are determined not to consider on this approach. That’s a bit like boarding a train, being assigned Carriage 1, and being so pleasantly surprised by the upholstery in Carriage 1 that on the journey back you choose Carriage 1 again, without ever looking through the windows at the other choice of carriage.
Problem 3: ‘The Endlessness Problem’
Such that we end up thinking about love as if it were limitless. If we had immortal youth, or even if we just had a thousand years to live rather than one hundred, we might expect a lifetime shared exclusively with one person to be a far rarer thing. Therefore, shouldn’t we expect exclusive love to be exceedingly rare even within the confines of our shorter life spans? People talk about “everlasting” love, as if love would be shown to be an eternal force if we could only live long enough to prove it. Doesn’t all this seem too unlikely? Should telling someone you love them for the first time really be greeted with an “I love you too”? Probabilistically, what’s the chance that Ross and Emily both realise they love each other at the same moment? Are they always just sitting on it without telling each other in those instances? Or is their reason for loving each other that they loved to be loved?
The answer (to ‘The Endlessness Problem’) might be that the “I love you too” response to “I love you” makes sense for Ross and Emily precisely because they know they’re not immortal. For them, sharing a short lifetime of part-time illusion is as good as can be expected, and that’s what they mean when they talk about “everlasting” love. Some might feel philosophically compelled to rid themselves of such an illusion, but they better hope they know what they’re doing, and that they want what they profess they want, because Ross and Emily might yet wake up on the last day of their lives, astounded that they loved each other through thick and thin. This approach serves the same function as a self-help guru who urges people to “manifest” or “futurecast” their desires, which relies on them believing that such a love is attainable in the first place. Call forth from the future in a way that informs your present. Have faith. Faith is often wrongly synonymised with religion in this sense. Everyone, atheists included, rely on faith at some point in their lives, (we all use inductive reasoning when we act as if we know the sun will rise tomorrow), and it might be that we use it for love too.
Why shouldn’t you take this pill? Because, says the sophisticated rationalist/meritocrat, it’s hard to go back to deluding yourself once you’ve noticed the big opportunity cost staring you right in the face, (‘The Cul-de-sac Problem’). Ross isn’t stupid. Neither’s Emily. We know there’s a distinct possibility that the person we’re to be together (forever!) with was a bet unfortunately made. We know we might have prematurely rejected the chance to meet someone who would have changed the very way we think about love. The risks cut both ways though, because although this opportunity cost exists, obsessing about it also increases the chance we’ll miss out on someone who would have made it abundantly clear that they would never have been made to look normal… if only we’d given them the chance… the train, therefore, is a train with infinite carriages, each upholstered slightly better than the last, and either we accept the idea that a relationship based on love has some value in and of itself, or else we are doomed to wander forever between carriages without choosing our seat and enjoying the view.
The spiritual idealism and self-sacrifice that this approach demands, however, might be the one thing that finally dissuades us from wanting to be obliterated. I can’t think of strong rebuttals to this (‘The Pained Panglossian’) problem, and yet despite this many people seemingly aren’t dissuaded by Agent K’s warning. Look around, after all. Love is an adventure that slows into the undertaking of everyday commitments – that is the default setting of most people. “Can’t you come to dinner tomorrow?” asks Emily’s friend to Emily. “No, sorry, we can’t make it,” answers Emily. We can’t make it. Ross has been assumed. There is no further sub-division necessary – the explosion of self happened long ago. E and R are now a double-act. (To the young, this seems sexless and unfun… the romantic lava having cooled into a bourgeois, heteronormative, and maybe even ashen white, status-quo.)
The more a person overthinks, the harder it is for them to accept such a fragile illusion as this. Although intuitively appealing, there are some who, like teenagers, are too quick and nervous with their questions to accept such a costly way of loving someone else. They get stuck on points of theory, and so decide that they cannot allow for obliteration when they could be wielding a machete and calculating their way through the concrete jungle.
Solution: ‘Absurd Choosing’
You can choose the love life of the rationalist, or you can choose to reject it. But although you can choose to reject the approach I’ve outlined, there is no sense in which you can choose to take this approach.
Ross sets out to be taken by love in the way my approach recommends. Ross thinks of himself as having chosen this approach over the alternative paths (the one’s I’ve dismissed). But a determined Ross, the Ross who foreswears even the trappings of algorithmic love to give his best go at approaching love in this way, will still end up taking people’s measurements – he’ll just be making vague snap assessments so that he can eventually stop making assessments. Despite Ross’s apparent disinterest in anything other than a completely coincidental fall into love, he’ll probably not be able to help applying calculatey maxims to his daily life; albeit rough maxims, maxims such as ‘be aggressive in your pursuit of love until you find a 1’ (to account for the fact that Ross is a natural introvert), or, ‘be aware of mathematical laws such as the Fermi paradox’, (to account for the fact that very little of Ross’ time should be spent dating if he’s to successfully sneak up on love). This means that statistical scribbles are nonetheless kept in Ross’s back-pocket to make sure he’s rationally justified to not rely on rationality. Put another way, those who take this path invariably end up denouncing the tactics while smuggling in the strategy. Situations are constructed in ways that seem to encourage happenstance, and maybe they do, but in our determination to do so, the essential element of chance is still thrown into question. We end up faced with the same accusation once levelled at the calculating-type – that we do not really want risky adventure. We are accused of assuming an attitude that says that so long as something’s experienced then that’s at least better than not having experienced anything at all, (a la Agent J).
The best advice for how to solve for this and approach love in a way that truly doesn’t strategize can be stated in no more than a paragraph. Love must be turned away from. Forget this. Don’t think of it as a strategic decision. Don’t think of it as a decision even. Don’t ‘approach’. Your imagination is fickle. Your subjective preferences are fickle. And context, context is everything.
There’s a yellow-blue vase on the mantlepiece. The vase is a beautiful and delicate and intricate object, and it’s made from a thousand shards of colour. When the vase is seen at a distance, the colours merge. But although the blue and yellow puzzle pieces look like they’re seamlessly interlocked, there are rivers of soldered lead that separate those pieces, ensuring that the colours never rush into locomotive green.
It’s good to have an image that can stand in for the concept love. That way, even when you’re thought-inarticulate, you’re able to point with finger. But what really matters is that people who are in love use the language of reciprocity when they talk about their respective images. You need to be able to say that you love each other and mean it. The “I love you too” response to the “I love you” bombshell might come from a person who doesn’t mean what they say, but two people can think very differently about love and love each other still. An honest person can reply, “I love you too,” having kept the truth hidden because they weren’t ready to give it up, and the person they love can love them back because of this secretive side of them. Or maybe a person does realise they love a person in the moment they hear they’re loved, because it is suddenly true for them, they do love that person, partly because of what the person in front of them had been able to say. Reciprocity is complicated. Perhaps we can think of the “I love you too” moment as a momentary transaction. It’s awkward. It’s gross. But acknowledging this moment as a transaction means that people can get on with the loving part, and, when a crisis comes a-knocking, that they had that momentary transaction can remind them that we’re perfect lovers second, and flawed humans first. We can’t afford to be puritans here. A relationship bursting with irregular intensity might be thought as more worthwhile than staid long-term alternatives, but remember that just because what you’re feelings are facts about you, this doesn’t mean they are more true just because they’re more intense. Love mostly depends on things you have no control over. If we, like Odysseus, were raised in a society that made us reliant on the goodwill of strangers, then ‘Xenia’, the Greek’s idea of a host’s love for their guest (which doesn’t match with our notions of love like ‘Eros’ does), might be a force unto which we would have no say. Born Odysseus, we might be stringing the bow to clear the manor rather than meditating about Cupid’s abstract arrows. Born Odysseus, we might well experience love as an actual duty, a duty which came and went with each person who sat around our hearth in conversation.
Only half of the story is the falling into love part.
Unfortunately, once the euphoria passes, once the contentedness sets in, and the boredom, and the seamanship, you or they may fall overboard, and that’s not anyone’s fault. Sometimes the glassware shatters.
The most profound thing I’ve ever heard said about this came from John Berger, who said: “If you have to cry – and sometimes you can’t help it – you have to cry afterwards, never during. Remember this. Unless you’re with those who love you, and only those who love you, and in that case you are lucky, for there are never many, who love you, then if you’re with them you can cry during. Otherwise, you cry afterwards.”
I’ll stop pretending I have anything more to say.
Returning then, to Camus’ story, it might be worth admitting to some omissions and adding some crucial context. The local man in ‘L’Hôte’ was a teacher, and his name was Daru. Like his author, Daru was a French Algerian. When the unnamed captive (accused of an apolitical murder) chose his eastward path, he walked towards the Tinguit prison during a time of heightened political and ethnic violence in Algeria. At the end of ‘L’Hôte’, Daru goes back to his classroom, and finds written on his blackboard a violent threat against his person for handing over a political prisoner.
Camus’ message is clear. Do not ignorantly scrawl on blackboards. Recognise yourself and others as constrained by the contexts in which you and they exist. Do this, and you can walk through people and places and skylines, until the earth begins to crackle beneath your feet once more.
This type of pop-philosophy love blog was always going to be written by a young person stupid enough to try. Also, what follows is not for the ‘I saw, I conquered, I came,’ types. You’re more likely get something out of this if you believe you have been ‘in love’, are ‘in love’, or would like to be ‘in love’.
This French film was released to acclaim in 1958. The film tells the story of a woman who rediscovers what it is to love through an adulterous affair. Due to its sensual depiction of sex, the film became the subject of a legal dispute in the US – it was banned by the State Supreme Court of Ohio (on the charge that obscenity was not protected under the first amendment), before this decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court in 1964. It’s from this ruling that we get Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark about how he defines something as hard to define as pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Something similar might be said for love: “I know it when I feel it.”
“If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.” Quoting the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel points to what might also be said of love – that it’s not that we cannot know what it’s like to be (a bat) the person who says they’re in love, it’s that we can never fully take the point of view of (a bat) the person who says they’re in love. The very idea that bats have subjective experience is dependent on the idea that there is something that it is like to be a bat, but as far as this can be imagined, this only tells you what it would be like for you to be a bat, not what it’s like for a bat to be a bat.
The most powerful microscope of 20th century Relationship Science turned out to be neuroimaging. MRIs can be used to monitor brain activity, from which it was demonstrated that if people are shown photos of their romantic partners, then a high level of activity registers in areas of the brain associated with intense rewards. But just imagine you yourself are a participant in such a study, and when under the MRI your reward system refuses to fire when shown your partner’s photo. Would we take the result of the MRI over your word, if you gave it, that you did love your partner? MRI results face the same reliability problems as the polygraph test. (Indeed, given the unfortunate situation described above, we might resort to a polygraph test after the MRI results come in, so as to assess the subject’s claim that they really felt what the MRI said they didn’t feel… and wouldn’t that be ridiculous.) Then there’s an even more troubling issue: apparently, the regions of the brain scanned by MRIs are the same regions that perk up when introduced to cocaine. The question, therefore, is whether cocaine could be used to facilitate biological expressions of love? Why not play with our neural receptors until we create the perfect love experience? The problem with treating love as a rat to be supercharged with dopamine is that humans don’t only care about what they appear to engage in, they also care about what they actually engage in. Love exists whether or not cocaine exists; a fact not easily forgotten.
Helen Fisher came up with the idea that romantic love is at its most basic an attraction system for mate choice between mammals. Again, MRIs were used to support this claim, but this time there were some interesting insights, such as Fisher’s argument that love must have some sort of biological component, given that its antecedents were observable across lots of different mammalian species. For Fisher, love boils down to biologically driven ‘mate choice’. Insects are ‘cold choosers’ who select their mates without regard for how much sensory pleasure they’ll get out of their choice. Mammals are ‘hot choosers’, as shown by their changing pleasure levels that can be recorded by way of oxytocin, vosopresin, and/or dopamine. The hypothesis is that females compare potential male mates based on their traits and choose from this. For example, when a female vole mates with a male vole in laboratory-controlled conditions, the dopamine levels in the female vole’s brain rises by 50 per cent. When dopamine antagonists are introduced – the female vole no longer has any time for the poor male vole. The hot/cold chooser distinction might bridge some aspects of the human/animal divide. However, this Darwinian story does not solve for important differences between humans and animals. The main problem with using animal pair-bonding to explain human love is that comparing the two does not seem to compare like with like. We might assume vole’s have some semblance of self-awareness, but it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that voles have knowledge of what dopamine is and from this can make a causal connection between it and their changed state. Were a human to be subject to the same experiment as the vole (not that such an unethical experiment could ever be done), then that human would obviously have a high incentive to reject their new dopamine suppressed lack of urges. Anyway, questions surrounding sexual selection in the animal kingdom are far from settled – the crucial role that genes play in all this is a highly contested debate, and genes must be the things that inform an animal’s preferences – just check out the literature on the selective function of Peacock tails.
The philosopher David Benatar proposes this asymmetry. Consider uninhabited Mars. We don’t consider the absence of pleasure on Mars, (absent, because there are no sentient beings on Mars), to be a bad thing. But we do consider the absence of pain on Mars (absent, because there are no sentient beings) to be a good thing.
Incidentally, there are no good words in English that truly encapsulate pain and pleasure together in this way. The best comes from the Portuguese, ‘saudade’, although this refers more precisely to a confusing state of sadness and expectation, rather than merely pain and pleasure in equal balance.
By the great poet Robert Frost, this poem tells the tale of Silas, an elderly and reliably unreliable labourer. Mary, who wants her husband to hire him again, describes home as “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
A principal objection to the rationalist’s love proposal is how ridiculously unserious their claim to seriousness is. Love, with its infinitely complexities, isn’t to be talked about in the same sentence as expressions such as “well, you’re my type on paper” and reality TV shows such as Love Island (that girl of girls). However, Love Island does give its contestants a license to be ruthless. Given that here the complexities of Love are cast aside from the outset, there’s some benefit to a show that shows how love is very different from desire. In this sense, Love Island is quite an adventurous exploration of love.
The relevant philosophical term here is ‘doxastic voluntarism’ – that it’s possible to choose what we believe. Although not exactly a commonly held belief about beliefs, there might be some contexts in which beliefs can be chosen in order so that they might be substantiated later. Take the double-split experiment as an example of something absurd that needed some degree of belief that it was possible before the test could ever be done to prove that it was possible. More pertinent to love, though, is the placebo effect. That which doesn’t have any intrinsic effects, and yet works anyway, even if the taker knows it doesn’t have any intrinsic effects. Consider approaching love as we do when we take a pill that we know doesn’t work but that we might as well take anyway?
A more uplifting version of the type of pursuit I am advocating for can be found in Plato’s ‘Symposium’. Philosopher types, including Socrates, discuss the topic of ‘Eros’ at a banquet. The most beautiful account of love comes not in the form of philosophical disquisition though, but from the playwright Aristophanes, who gives a eulogy for love. His story describes how humans were once whole but were riveted down the middle by the Gods; he says it is from this origin that we come to think about finding wholeness through another person. Others choose reason and logic, but Aristophanes tells us a fiction, and it is the choice of mode that’s the interesting thing.
Theories concerning love are littered with binaries: good love vs. bad love, true love vs. not love, natural love vs. unnatural love. Some of these binaries have more to say than others, but although they all ‘believe’ in love, they tell you nothing about what to do about love. In 1949, the philosopher Simone De Beauvoir made a more useful division of love along the lines of gender. Her binary: that men were “sovereign subjects” in love, as love served them as only one part of their busy lives; whereas women had to submit to love totally, as if it were their master. We would like to think this binary no longer holds true, and, to the extent that it does, that we can fight against it. If we depoliticise De Beauvoir’s assessment though, (and please, tell me that we can still talk about love without talking about politics?), we might question whether this division has automatic beneficiaries. Can a man not want to be utterly dominated by love, and find happiness in it? Can a woman not actively pursue love as one element of a round and fulfilling life, and yet wind up feeling unsatisfied with what she finds? Whatever the nature of love happens to be, we agree that there is something there to obtain, and so the key question is – how do we go about getting love, so that, either way, dominant, submissive, or however else we decide to frame it, we all end up the beneficiaries?
As philosopher Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, there is no other active verb that so completely encapsulates the sensation than “to fall”. We do not climb into love. We do not sink into love. We do not patiently skip down into no valley of love. We fall into love. Our legs are taken from us; love leaves us babylike. Technology has resulted in Instagram DMing and Tinder swiping, practices which involve trying to control for the randomness in our love lives. Many would agree that arranged marriages involve (at best) being pushed into love rather than falling into love. Although using apps to curate love is not quite equivalent to a push, it does seem equivalent of falling on purpose. (I don’t know if you have ever tried falling on purpose, but it’s pretty hard not to break your fall).
An explanation of these maxims can be found in a short and accessible work ‘The Mathematics of Love’ by Hannah Fry. The book utterly neglects the dangers of wasting time on dating apps, and isn’t practically useful at all, but it does make clear a key distinction between normal distribution and power law, which in turn makes it clear that there is a far wider range of possibility than we like think when it comes to our lovers. (Nassim Nicholas Taleb might resent being used in advice-giving philosophy like this, but he’s far too clever to read this stuff anyway, so just don’t tell him that what I’m telling you is to approach love like it’s a Grey Swan.)
This might stem from a naivety as to the pain that can come from love and the pleasures that can be found outside of love, or else a deep sense of self-alienation in which we see ourselves as an object that can and has to be looked at. The famous phycologist Carl Jung once wrote about a ‘mirror stage’ during which a child gets confronted by their own image for the first time. According to Jung, from this moment the child forms a sense of their self as a self perceived by others, which engenders the capacity for self-consciousness, and, according to Jung, then engenders passionate emotion. Perhaps falling in love allows us this a second time around.
Rather than fall into Jungian apophenia, we might look instead at the philosophy of ‘individuation’, where, by giving one’s whole attention to someone other than ourselves, we can transcend ourselves. Wanting to transform ourselves from “I and You into We”, to borrow from DFW, can either be thought of as the transcendental Hegelian synthesis of the I and the You packed together into the ‘We’, or else, by taking instead the Derridean ‘We’, accepting that what we actually want is to be forever in flux as we battle with love’s irresolvable contradictions. I prefer the latter. Not sure why. Perhaps because I think human love is inseparable from the language we use to talk about it, and love is a word that comes into life through moments of contradiction. This seems apt to me because love is simultaneously the worst and best thing that can happen to us. Cupid’s arrow is tipped with both the poison and the cure.
For a rigorous account of how the present context in which we live has had much to say about love, try Laurie Essig’s book ‘Love, Inc.’ For a less rigorous account but more enjoyable read, try Michel Houellebecq’s novel ‘Serotonin’.
One of the best conversations ever had about love can be watched online. Towards the end it’s said that there is a period of time in our lives that we can all remember, when the idea of love had not yet entered our heads, and yet a period of time when sexuality had and where everything was sexual; then, suddenly, the idea of needing someone will blossom into being. I think this is true. Another interesting point well made is whether love is contextual or not. “I can’t give a performance all day on the job, and come home and give a performance all night in the house,” says James Baldwin. Niki Giovanni demands more from men than that. I hope my position on this question has been clearly made.