Saturday, January 21, 2006

Robert C. Solomon's Defense of Romantic Love.

Robert C. Solomon, About Love: Reinventing Romance for Our Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).

This essay is one of the most reproduced and plagiarized pieces on the net. I can ususally tell from what source someone took this article by whether the most recent changes in the text are included. I take it as a compliment that people wish to claim credit for my words, especially someone named "J.G. Miller." Anyway, the point of writing these pieces is to provoke discussions, so it is all good. In fact, I'm flattered.

"You have the chance to meet someone with whom you can have the most satisfying love imaginable -- the stuff of dreams. Sadly, you know that within six months the person will die. Knowing the pain that would follow, would you still want to meet the person and fall in love? What if you knew that your lover would not die, but instead would betray you?"

Gregory Stock, The Book of Questions (New York: 1985), p. 25.

The one thing most of us hope for, from very early in life (and maybe we are conditioned to do so), is that we will find that great earth-shattering romance with one other person and that it will last a lifetime. After we contemporary educated Westerners have abandoned -- at least publicly and officially -- all political and religious illusions, we refuse to give up on the hope for romantic love. I am no exception to this.

No matter how street-smart or academically successful I have felt myself to be, on occasion, there has always been that no doubt naive hope for my perfect love in my mind and heart. This hope has sustained me also, I must admit, at my worst times of failure and despair. It does offer something to dream about, a Holy Grail to pursue. I refuse to give up on it.

This is yet another excellent reason for regarding me as foolish, impractical, unsophisticated. Worse, it is yet another reason why I have no great interest in any of those much admired things that most other men seem to want, like great wealth, power, or sex with many women -- that is, if those things require me to give up on this hope for passionate romantic love with a woman who loves me. Aside from what this bizarre attitude says about me, perhaps this very Western cultural ideal of "Romantic" love is due for some philosophical examination and discussion. One sure sign that I am right about the importance of romantic love is the hostility to romance on the part of trendy psychobabblers.

In Western civilization this dream or ideal of love (cynics are welcome to adopt the pejorative term) has cultural roots which can be traced to the Troubadours of twelfth century France, and even earlier to Plato's Symposium, not to mention to the celluloid step-children of this unique literary heritage in Hollywood romances. Most movies are about romantic love in one way or another.

If this dream of love remains our one true religion, even as we deny that we believe in it and yet head out to the singles' scene or (like me) buy flowers for our wives -- and this is not gender-specific -- then is it time to abandon this final faith as well? To the extent that maturity is defined as the "abandonment of illusions" (Freud), then does maturity now require us to give up this final illusion? If so, why is it that we are unable to relinquish this possibly pathetic hope?

Most painful of all, perhaps, is to choose to love someone intensely knowing that one may be separated from that person forever, against one's will and in a manner that cannot be overcome, so that one's love is also one's tragedy, both "the sickness and its cure" at the same time.

Real love is so precious and rare in any human life, that some few of us would choose even that terrible fate to a life of only tepid emotions. Wolfram's "Tristan" chooses pain and death, even the risk of eternal damnation for "Isolde," and this risk was a real possibility in people's minds at the time of the production of that text. True, this was only after Tristan had drunk the love-potion, but all of us who have ever been in love have had a large gulp of that stuff -- the "five dollar milkshake" of love.

There are several questions to be disentangled here: 1) Do we believe that the traditional notion of romantic love lasting over a lifetime is still (or ever was) a plausible possibility or hope for persons? 2) Is it possible that even if we do not believe this, even if we expect relationships to fail, that we nevertheless strive to achieve that "most perfect union" for which we have been taught to yearn? 3) If so, should this striving be overcome?

Romantic love is now in deep trouble on several fronts, at least according to some of the most influential philosophers of the modern era: For Nietzsche and Adler, all relationships amount only to a struggle for power; for Marxists and many radical feminists, romance is a form of prostitution, a disguise for economic or sexist exploitation; for Freud, love is an illusion meant to obscure the force and pervasiveness of sexual appetite, as well as its connection with such things as early recollections of parents as lovers. Both Sartre and Lacan were deeply skeptical about the true motives for romance, to say nothing of Schopenhauer who makes Andrea Dworkin look like Doris Day.

There is very little stardust in all of this. Yet the cynicism engendered by these thinkers, while pervasive, does not diminish the hope for romance that many of the same persons who state these views take with them to clubs on Saturday night. Mick Jagger has said that romance is "bullshit," and yet he has been married several times, on one occasion describing himself as "besotted." Dismissals suggesting that the quest for romantic love is a disguise for the hope to score on Saturday night are unpersuasive. I fervently hope to "score" on many nights with one specific woman, even as I yearn for romance. To combine the two aspirations is perfection and I won't tell you her name -- both of them.

Maybe the cynicism is justified to the extent that people hope for a Hallmark Cards notion of romantic love. Incidentally, some of my favorite cards are made by Hallmark. I do not want to be charged with unfairly singling out that fine company. Any concept of romantic love that fails to recognize the pain inherent in all real loving, the suffering that goes with the joy, is inadequate.

Love is never a walk on the beach holding hands and nothing more. Every human being has some pain to carry by the time he or she reaches adulthood. Some persons have a whole world of pain to live with, so that to love such a person is to let yourself in for an equal share of some major agony.

I think that each partner's pain is "community property" to be divided equally between lovers in a genuine romantic relationship. Loving another human being is willingly making ourselves vulnerable, accepting the other's pain and sharing our own. It is also, as the British novelist Evelyn Waugh suggests in Brideshead Revisited, "the beginning of all wisdom." To reject love because of the pain of loving, is to reject life.

What is essential to romantic love, I think, is "not the pathetic longing of frustrated poets, nor the pretentions of divinity with which these feelings were sometimes rationalized" (Robert C. Solomon is the source for my understanding of this issue), "not the intrinsic degradation of women that has been charged by some feminists, nor the prudish gloss over nasty sexual lust" ("lust" is something which I think is quite nice actually) that has been diagnosed by the Freudians. Crucial to the lingering hope for romantic love is the formation of "bonds of personal attachment in the absence of established interpersonal identities."

As we become less defined by publicly shared aspects of the self (nationality, party affiliation, religious membership), we grow more devoted to the communities that we create in -- and through -- loving, communities, sometimes made up of only two members and created merely by loving, thereby achieving a kind of "transcendence" of our contested particularities.

I live on a planet with very few other residents. The same is true for many persons, including quite a few people who refuse to admit as much. Frederic Raphael's protagonist in The Glittering Prizes, speaks of living on a planet with only one resident. If we are lucky, then we may manage to discover that one other person -- or maybe more than one -- in that inner place where each of us really lives, all alone and still together. (This last sentence has just been altered by hackers objecting to romance, perhaps, and corrected by me.)

Romantic bonds need not be openly sexual; they need not involve what we usually call "intimacy" (another strange modern invention and term), but they must be formed freely among persons who, at first, are almost strangers, yielding anew the powerful connection that our excessively mobile, restless society continually insists on disrupting. People who are really "in love" recognize in each other a shared loneliness, suffering, mortality that simply is the human condition.

I think that we love others not because of their "perfections," but for their "imperfections," because of those unique foibles and embodied characteristics that make us ourselves. I recall Peter Ustinov saying something similar in a Dick Cavett interview. Only one woman in the world can devastate me just by placing her hands on her hips and smiling. I have no idea why this should be so or why I am so utterly captivated in this way by this one woman, but I accept that it is so and always will be. I am not willing to make many claims of certainty, but one of those claims is that there are a few people I cherish (and especially one woman) that I will love romantically until the day I die.

Ask me at the pearly gates "who" I am, in a metaphysical sense, and I will answer that I am a man who loved at least one woman -- and probably more than one -- more than his own life. I know, I know ... Jane Austen would laugh at this, but only because it takes one to know one. I have no regrets about the love that I have felt, whatever happens.

There are many kinds of love in our lives. And all love is welcome and good, and yet this mysterious and all-powerful, "sweet bewitchment" that we call romantic love is reserved, usually, for only one person in a lifetime.

My beloved is someone I recognize from my dreams -- dreams of "homecoming," completion and rest. Lovers confirm one another's identities only within the loving relation, allowing both to "choose themselves" (Kierkegaard), their best selves and each other forever. Gore Vidal writes: "two can face the darkness better than one." Two can face the hard truths of the world and of themselves better than one. So the chance for real love must always be worth the risk -- no, even the certainty -- of pain. In the words of E.M. Forster, "Only connect." Love is always worth it.

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