Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Martha Nussbaum, Iris Murdoch and Love's Mystery.

August 13, 2010 at 7:24 P.M. "Errors" inserted and corrected.

After trying to post six different images to accompany this essay, including several that I have posted elsewhere in this blog, I find that all of them are blocked. So I have decided to post this essay -- with its blocked image -- as an indication of the difference between my willingness to engage in discussions with critics as compared with their responses to my defenses of eros, sexual freedom, gay rights, racial and gender equality. We must never be silenced by inarticulate and brutal Fascists. Maybe Fascists are always inarticulate and brutal. They make their opposition look good by comparison. Their frustration is a good indication that their cause is already lost. Some paragraph spacing has been affected by this onslaught today. Such an intemperate reaction must mean that I am speaking truths that are found uncomfortable by many people. But then, Fascists usually find most truths uncomfortable. A man's interest in feminism or "women's studies" is especially infuriating, I gather, along with my willingness to respect gay love as equal to heterosexual love. It is sad that, at this late date in history, these matters and interests are still so controversial for many people. I am told that, because I teach these values or offer them to my child I am a "bad father." I disagree.

You may select an image from the following links to accompany this essay: http://www.dvdventas.com/imagenes/FILMS/VIEW/foto_2490.jpg or http://imagenes.encarta.msn.com/xrefmedia/sharemed/targets/images/pho/35a5c/35A5C19B.jpg

I. The Ambiguity of Love.

I suppose there is no subject that has received more philosophical or literary attention than love, in all of its forms, especially romantic love. Love is an experience that rightly fascinates us because it is the most intense emotional adventure or ultimate reality of our lives. Hence, it is both potentially the "key to happiness" -- or unhappiness, for that matter! -- as well as the source of the most excruciating human suffering and pain. Love ranks with the ultimate mysteries of the human condition: God, morality, freedom, and artistic creation.

For Freud, unsurprisingly and disappointingly, artistic effort is merely a "substitute" for "fame, wealth and the love of women." The only reason that "you are painting that picture," Mr. Picasso, "is that you wish to impress a young woman long enough to get her into bed," according to Dr. Freud, "and never mind about that cigar."

I am sure that we can do better than this theory in our understanding of art or love. And yes, I am also sure that we will find that these two fundamental mysteries -- love and beauty -- are related. But in what way are they related? ("Arthur Schopenhauer and the Metaphysics of Art.")

I wish to draw on Martha Nussbaum's discussion of Iris Murdoch's theory of love as set forth in Dame Iris's novel The Black Prince, for which Professor Nussbaum wrote an introduction, in order to think through some of my own reaction's to Murdoch's work on the philosophy of love. Hence, I will not comment on the novel's plot or literary quality in order to challenge Nussbaum's interpretations. Instead, I will borrow from Nussbaum's other writings on the philosophy and literature of love, especially her essays in Love's Knowledge.

I may also refer to Murdoch's earlier essays in Existentialism and Mystics and to key sections in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals in an effort to understand -- what Rebecca Goldstein may wish to call -- the "strange attraction" between love and beauty.

At the center of the paradox of love, especially in the Platonic and Kantian tradition inherited by Murdoch, who is best thought of as an eccentric and literary-minded existentialist, is the dilemma with which Nussbaum begins her essay:

"Erotic love illuminates and blinds. It reveals the sheer particularity of another person in a way that perhaps no other human experience can. And yet it also creates an egoistic fog around lovers, preventing them from seeing the other person truly." (p. vi.) (emphasis added.)

For Murdoch, the great danger in the moral life is "the fat, relentless ego." We are all comforted by self-generated illusions, most of the time. Worse, we are all narcissists. There is a danger that even in our experience of love, therefore, we may falsify the love-object, surrendering to fantasy rather than seeing the full and complex reality of another human being.

This possibility of delusion is much less of a danger where a loving relationship, that is, genuine love endures the passing of the years and "life's misfortunes and vicissitudes" (Bertrand Russell), but it is certainly a distinct possibility for infatuated "idealists" and especially for the very young.

Is the love that one feels a matter of wishing to possess and control another person? Or do we relish and desire the freedom of the Other? Do we truly celebrate the infinite potential "becoming" of another person? Do we experience love as the engine of "transcendence" (a key concept for Murdoch) in the psyche that liberates us from that "misguided" and egotistical self that is always too much with us? Is love that which allows us to direct our "attention" -- to use Simone Weil's term -- towards the Other rather than the excuse to indulge in self-satisfying fantasy and self-regard?

I believe that love is (when real) essentially "other-regarding." I am, as the politicians say, "for" love. Love is the guiding force in our moral lives which is inseparable from goodness or beauty. More than this, I argue that love is what we are here to do -- or to learn -- as human beings living "together" -- what is meant by "together"?

Moreover, we find the most important clues to this truth about love in art, also it is central to the teachings of the great religions, especially Christianity.

"Man is defined neither by the logos, nor by the being within him, but by this fact that he loves (or hates), whether he wants to or not." Jean-Luc Marion comments: "In this world, only man [persons] loves, for animals and computers, in their own way, think just as well as he, indeed better than he; but one cannot affirm that they love. But man does -- the loving animal. What is ommitted by the Cartesian definition of the ego ought to shock us as a monstrously mistaken description of the phenomenon that is nonetheless the closest and most accessible -- the phenomenon that I am to myself. Moreover, the fact that, of all the supposed errors for which Descartes has been taken to task, this one alone -- doubtless his only error -- has remained unnoticed for nearly four centuries, says much more than anything else about the erotic blindness of metaphysics."

The Erotic Phenomenon (Chicago & London: University of Chicago, 2003), at p. 7.

Love is not only true vision, but it is our truest vision calling forth the "best self" of the Other, and it is this alone which makes possible the emergence also of the best self in each of us, as lovers. Love calls us out of our self-absorption and directs the attention towards the infinite mystery and grace of another suffering human being. (See my story "Pieta.")

With all of its pain and misery love is life's greatest gift that is never to be relinquished at the request of envious prudes or pontificating hypocrites. For love always has its enemies. Paradoxically, love's greatest enemies are those who most envy what Nussbaum describes as "Love's Knowledge."

Artistic masterpieces have a similar power to shake us out of our inattention and distraction, so as to compel us to regard something outside of ourselves as real with the intensity of the artist -- indeed, great artists insist that we share in that intensity.

Love and beauty bring us evidence of other subjectivities. Love and beauty speak to us of the inner lives and moral realities of others as well as of our own spiritual selves. ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.")

Genuine love is possible and real, sometimes painfully so. Ultimately, love is the greatest liberator and healer in human life. Like Murdoch and Professor Nussbaum, I believe in a clear-eyed and yet intense or reverential conception of love as vital not only to the fully human life, as I say, but also for the whole of what we call our "moral faculties and capacities."

Love is true community. Together?

This is a strong or "muscular" conception of love, that is more enthusiastic than some people these days might wish, while it still may be associated with many of the insights in the work of the American philosopher Robert C. Solomon and other existentialists, such as the psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, and it will be especially helpful in our understanding of aesthetics even in an anti-romantic age. ("'Inception': A Movie Review" and "'The Reader': A Movie Review" then "'Finding Neverland': A Movie Review" and "'The English Patient': A Movie Review.")

There is also a rich tradition of theological speculation in Christianity and Judaism (also in Islamic mysticism) that may be associated with these ideas. If I am right, then this view of love will also be -- as one of my favorite philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard would insist -- "merely subjective, but nevertheless true." Professor Nussbaum comments:

"Murdoch grants that erotic love has a potential for violence and extreme selfishness; but she insists that it is also the greatest source many people can ever have of an experience of being forced out of their own ego, by the sheer blazing power of another person, toward the vision of something true outside the self. Nor is this an isolated passage. In another novel of the same period, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, a similar reflection occurs, not in the thought of any particular character, but, so to speak, in the author's own voice." (p. xvii.)

Murdoch says in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:

"Falling in love is for many people their most intense experience, [certainly my life is incomprehensible but for this event,] bringing with it a quasi-religious certainty, and [it is] most disturbing because it shifts the centre of the world from oneself to another place. A love relationship can occasion extreme selfishness and possessive violence, the attempt to dominate that other place so that it [will] be no longer separate; or it can prompt a process of unselfing wherein the lover learns to see, and cherish and respect, what is not himself." (p. xvii.)

And in On God and Good, Murdoch draws an analogy between lovers and artists in order to suggest that:

"... led by the clue of art, we ask further questions about the faculty which is supposed to relate us to what is real and thus bring us to what is good, the idea of compassion or love will be naturally suggested. It is not simply that suppression of self is required before accurate vision can be obtained. The great artist sees his objects (and this is true whether they are sad, absurd, repulsive or even evil) in a light of justice and mercy. The direction of attention is, contrary to nature, outward, away from the self which reduces all to a false unity, toward the great surprising variety of the world, and the ability to so direct attention is love."

Existentialists and Mystics, p. 354.

In this passage and many others, Murdoch brings together her philosophical sources (Plato and Kant) with her literary ones (Shakespeare and Tolstoy). I will now borrow a page from her book and turn my attention towards Shakespeare. Specifically, I shall quote some of his finest poetry that inspired the not dissimilar reflections on art of Ernst Cassirer in his classic Essay on Man.

II. Lovers and Madmen.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to
heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. ...

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, scene 1.


The lover's delusion in this passage rests on the belief that "Helen's beauty" may not, in fact, be found in "a brow of Egypt."

But why not? Where might it better be found? Love renders or yields a truer vision of the beloved by allowing us to see the ways in which what we might have ignored before love's "knowledge" becomes beautiful and good, insisting upon our concern and attention, as a result of what we feel. ("Is it rational to believe in God?" and "Is this atheism's moment?")

If false love only falsifies; then true love intensifies and reveals with the passage of time. If illusory love deceives us by causing us to look for the abstract and general in what is concrete and particular; then true love does the opposite by allowing Romeo to see the abstract and general -- say, beauty or goodness -- as "instantiated" in what is concrete and particular, his Juliet.

Would the author of Shakespeare's Sonnets "for" the mysterious "Dark Lady" have found it difficult to find "Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt"? Would not the opposite be the case? And would that young man writing the Sonnets not fit the description of "lover, lunatic and poet" all at once?

Anyone who is in love may be described in such terms. What we detect in this verse from A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fragment of emotional autobiography mixed with ironic distance.

We are not blinded to the faults and imperfections of those we love; rather, are made to love them more BECAUSE of those imperfections and faults. A person that we love is not a commercial product to be "returned" if an imperfection is found, but is a human being to be cherished and loved more deeply in his or her brokenness and frailty, BECAUSE of his or her wounded state and its likeness to our own pains.

Shakespeare is gifted with an almost superhuman mercilessness in seeing and depicting humanity in all of its comical and tragic absurdity and pathos, in its doomed condition on the page, yet he is infinitely accepting or even amused by what he sees and represents, by what he discovers in himself, perhaps, yet always somehow forgives. That acceptance and forgiveness of frailty and pain is called "love." (See "The Art of Melanie Griffith" and "The Art of Robert Downey, Jr.")

Imagine God contemplating the vast circus-like reality of this bizarre creation with infinite tolerance and forgiveness. This too might serve as an "ideal" (I use the word advisedly) of love.

Love need not be falsification, then, but it may be the greatest intensification of the real, of true vision. Professor Ernst Cassirer commented that the artist, like the lover ...

"... is just as much a discoverer of the forms of nature as the scientist is a discoverer of facts or natural laws. The great artists of all times have been cognizant of this special task and special gift of art. Leonardo da Vinci spoke of the purpose of painting and sculpture in the words 'sapere vedere' ['know how to see']. According to him the painter and sculptor are the great teachers of the realm of the visible world. For the awareness of pure forms of things is by no means an instinctive gift, a gift of nature. We may have met with an object of our ordinary sense experience a thousand times without having 'seen' its form." An Essay on Man, p. 159.

How much more true is this last sentence when applied to human beings, especially to those we love. We feel a need to shout to the world: "You do not see her, but I do! I see her because I love her!" And the person that I see exists, is real -- if dormant -- in the woman that I love, but that others only judge. (See my short story "The Sleeping Prince.")

Furthermore, she emerges (this "truest" version of the woman that I love) only when seen and called forth by that love itself that I bring into the "dialectic" of our interaction, just as my best self emerges in the very act of seeing her and having the courage to affirm her full reality to the world. ("Is this atheism's moment?")

To continue the association between theology, moral philosophy and aesthetics, it may be useful to recall Albrecht Durer's aphorism that the "artist elicits beauty from nature," including persons as natural beings. Loving a person is a way of eliciting that person's beauty, by which I do not mean simply physical attractiveness.

In an amusing passage Professor Nussbaum writes of meeting Iris Murdoch at home:

"I did not know Murdoch well. I met her when I gave a speech in her honor at the New York Art Club in 1985, and she then invited me to lunch at her house in Charlbury Road, Oxford, where she and John Bayley lived at that time. I went round to the house, very nervous and awkward, and sat for two hours in the chaotic kitchen being scrutinized, as I felt it, by her sharp, probing eyes. ... All the while, I felt that her very intense gaze went, as it were, straight through me, to something that was not me at all, but to which I was somehow related. More than once I had the ... thought: 'You don't really see me.' " (p. xxiv.)

My guess is that Murdoch saw Nussbaum as a "sexual object" or as a "type," while very much taking in her particularity. Not in the way that a lover would, more as fodder for future novels perhaps. This experience leads Professor Nussbaum to a crucial insight that also illustrates some of the points that I have been making:

"And yet I think there is something more to loving vision than just seeing. There is, for example, a willingness to permit oneself to be seen. [emphasis added] And there is a willingness to stop seeing, to close one's eyes before the loved-one's imperfections. There is also a willingnes to be, for a time, an animal or even a plant, relinquishing the sharpness of creative alertness before the presence of a beloved body. Does the artist's vision have about it these aspects of vulnerability, silence, and grace? [emphasis added] Or does the artist's eye, like an eagle's soaring above us, look down with something like disdain [or amusement?] at the muddled animal interactions of human beings with one another, so abtuse and so lacking in nuance?" (p. xxv.)

I opt for the "amusement and interest" of the artist and lover, not to mention of madmen. I mentioned earlier the affection and even love of artists for their creations even as they provide us with a laugh at the expense of their creatures. All great satirists seem to have this gift, Gore Vidal and Jane Austen are good examples. Neither one of those writers is ever cruel. Both are always most compassionate when they laugh at human foibles. For me to see you I must stand naked to your gaze, vulnerable, "enacting" my humanity for you. This is to define the artist's task and what philosophers' must understand.

What does it mean to be "together"? Maybe this mutual "seeing" is essential to community, togetherness. Such seeing cannot be forced on another person, since it invites an always voluntary act of revelation. ("The Art of Melanie Griffith" and "'Holy Smoke': A Movie Review.")

III. Give the Cynics Their Due.

"Love ... yuck! ... it's one of those things they've erected [Freudian slip?] ... A bunch of nonsense ... What's important is why they did it."

Marilyn French, The Women's Room.

"There's nothing like being in love."

Marilyn Monroe.

We live in an age that is dismissive of emotions and passion. We are "scientific," preferring to speak of what we can "grab on to," as it were. We prefer "masculine toughness in thought to feminine sensitivity." The thought that such scientism may only amount to choosing stupidity in the realm of human meanings is dismissed out of hand. We like our cynicism and pragmatism because they show us to be "sophisticated" and "realistic." Tough-minded.

Love is merely "sublimated sex drive," we are told. You speak of poetry and music; I speak of lust, says the Freudian. Biochemists speak of even less: love is a mere "chemical reaction" that is said to be equal to the consumption of "large amounts of chocolate." And evolutionary scientists dismiss love, somewhat defensively, as a "defense mechanism."

Radical feminists attack love and romance as dual illusions to mask male domination. Some

"Scientific Marxists" attribute love's folly to a capitalist plot against workers who may be deceived into purchasing flowers and chocolates from monopolistic providers. Conservative economists, who assume a theory of persons as essentially self-interested and materialistic "consumers," dismiss love in terms set forth, for example, by Philip Slater in his Pursuit of Loneliness:

"Romantic love is one 'scarcity mechanism' [is that all it is?] that deserves special comment. Indeed its only [emphasis added] function and meaning is to transmute that which is plentiful into that which is in short supply. ... Although romantic love always verges on the ridiculous (we would find it comic if a man died of starvation because he could not obtain any brussel sprouts) Western peoples generally and Americans in particular have shown an impressive tendency to take it seriously."

Robert C. Solomon, Love: Emotion, Myth and Metaphor (New York: Prometheus, 1990), pp. 85-85.

Apart from the lack of hilarity, for me, in the thought of anyone starving to death, one wonders what Mrs. Slater ("brussel sprouts"?) thought of all this -- except that, strangely enough, Professor Slater appears to be divorced. Perhaps women are not as "plentiful" in his life as he might wish. I suspect a shortage of "sprouting" for the good professor. I certainly could use one more "sprout" in my memoirs, though this is unlikely to happen. Professor Slater is mistaken. This is because, like all of us, he yearns for love and acceptance while being dismissive of love.

It may well be that love's absence or loss prompted these less than galant reflections on Professor Slater's part. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, when sex is available in most of our cities at the drop of a credit card, even the most sexually fortunate and satisfied persons among us speak of hoping "to meet the right person" and falling in love, or "settling down." Porn star Jenna Jameson, once said wistfully, "I'd like to meet a nice guy ... but I'm always working."

We all know the difference between sex and love. It derives from the undeniable truth that human beings are not merely animals with standard sexual drives, which I am the last person to deny, but that we are also spiritual beings -- so that love, romantic love especially, is a spiritual need as much as sex is a physical one, a need for recognition in the gaze of the Other. It is only with love that we are most truly and completely seen.

I have used the phrase "moral nakedness" to refer to a great actor's achievement of spiritual truth in a moment on screen. It is at such moments of communication between artist and recipient, for example, that beauty and love become one.The symbols of unity that come to mind at this point are obvious: Star of David, Crucifix, Koran, Enlightened Buddha and Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. ("'The Reader': A Movie Review.")

It may be that this need for love has much to do with our profound unhappiness in the public social arena of politics, but it certainly expresses the source of dissatisfaction in human relationships today. We need, we must, love one another or we shall certainly suffer, regardless of how much sex or other material success we achieve. Those things are nice to have, but love is better and it is blessedly independent of "things."

In his recent book entiled, The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning (San Francisco: Arcada Books, 2000) Peter Gabel explains:

"We are all animated by a desire for mutual recognition and affirmation that is as fundamental as the need for food and shelter. We have inherited a world in which that need is routinely denied, by each of us, as well as the others around us, not through any fault of our own, but through the legacy of centuries of conditioning that lead us to alienate ourselves from ourselves, from one another, and from the natural world. The conflict between our desire and our envelopment in a social environment that denies this desire [sometimes through trendy nonsense of the sort that I have quoted] ... and the distortions in human relations and in our ways of seeing and thinking resulting from this conflict, provide the key to understanding what is wrong with our existing social reality and how to change it." (p. 13.)

It is only, ONLY through love that the "spirit comes to know itself as spirit," that there is a "homecoming of the soul," a sharing in the joy (yes, I said "joy") of that mutual concern and care that only intensifies as the body decays and diminishes.

If anything remains real, true and powerful, then it must be love -- love which exposes and celebrates the truest beauty that is finally seen in another person. 

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