Love and Ambiguity
May 30, 2010

French philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir
Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a few days, but I promised Jess I would get to this, and I’m a man of my word. Let’s talk about the phenomenology of love as outlined in Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity.

Beauvoir, like most existentialists, rejects the notion of inherent, objective value, arguing that something only has value to us in the moment that it is snatched away from us. When a thing is in one’s own hands, it is merely a tool to be used and taken for granted; but before we possess it, we can covet it, and when it is taken away we can miss it. For Beauvoir, the same thing applies to love.

In loving another person, we project towards the goal of being one with that person, of being “completed” by each other. Of course, that will never happen, and the object of your love will always remain a separate consciousness, a country with unexplored territory. This is something to be grateful for.

Why? Because, as Beauvoir says, to completely merge with a loved one would make that love impossible. It would be the end of the project toward which love projects. To be in love is to feel the exquisite ache of desiring something that is always just out of reach, but also the joy of continually inching closer to that goal.

Paradoxically, to love someone is also to wish for that person’s freedom. That’s because it is only the freedom of the object of your love that gives the project of love meaning. Only a free consciousness can freely reciprocate that love, and only a free consciousness can forever elude the possession towards which love projects but never reaches.

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Flesh and The Look (Or: What is Love? Jean-Paul, Don’t Hurt Me.)
May 28, 2010

Description unavailable
Image by diametrik via Flickr

Yes, that’s right: I will continue to shamelessly reuse the joke in the title until I’m done trying to answer the question.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre lays out a significantly darker conception of love than Aristophanes. For him, persons are forever torn between the “facticity” of their existence (that is, the factual presence and character of objects and phenomena in the material world) and the infinite freedom and nothingness of consciousness. Because this freedom is profoundly disturbing to us, we run away from it and impose limitations on ourselves, most notably by identifying ourselves with “the look” of others—the look being our own perception of their perception of us.

We can also direct the look towards others, and this is potentially an act of violence because it imposes definition on them and constrains their freedom. It draws them away from their consciousness into “flesh,” the medium by which they experience pure facticity.

So for Sartre, love and sex are just another way of acting out this struggle. Love is a way of diminishing the anguish of our internal struggle by identifying ourselves with the look of another who ostensibly “loves” us, while also directing our own look at that person in an attempt to enslave her and assert dominance.

In sex, one does this by causing such intense pleasure that it draws the other unbearably close to the flesh. And in both sex and love in general, the impulse one feels at any given moment is either inherently sadistic or inherently masochistic; one either wishes to dominate the other or be dominated.

I suspect there’s an inkling of truth in Sartre’s argument for the nothingness of consciousness, but the rest of this argument leaves me cold. For one thing, it admits no room for human empathy; everything is a power struggle. And even if you buy into such a relentlessly dark view of human nature, you have to deal with Sartre’s assertion that sex is purely about this power struggle—that there isn’t even a biological motivation. (No, really. He says that.)

Fortunately, Beauvoir is around to save the existentialist notion of love from Sartre.

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What Is Love? (Plato Don’t Hurt Me)
May 28, 2010

Endless love
Image by millzero via Flickr

My friend Jessica Roy has asked me to talk a little about the philosophy of love. It’s not a field I’m deeply familiar with, but I can think of at least two broad definitions worth writing about. One comes from Plato, and the other, which I’ll address in a alter post, comes from mid-20th century French existentialism.

Probably the most well-known philosophical definition of love comes from Plato’s Symposium. Granted, it’s not so much philosophy as it is myth-making, but then again the distinction isn’t always clear in the ancient work.

Anyway, in the Symposium, Aristophanes says that originally human beings were doubled up together like sets of siamese twins, with four arms, four legs, two faces turned away from one another, etc. But these creatures committed the Greek original sin—hubris—and so Zeus split them in two, creating the sort of people we recognize today. When you meet the love of your life, you’re actually finding that other missing half, and through reuniting with them you finally become whole again. Thus, “You complete me,” etc.

Obviously this wasn’t intended to be taken literally, but even as a metaphor I have my issues with it. It seems pretty but facile, suggesting that there is one single “the One” waiting for you out there, and that once you unite with that individual all the actual work associated with love is over. That might very well be the way it works when John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale are involved, but does anyone still seriously believe this is how the real world operates?

Leave it to the French to come up with a better working explanation. I’ll have Sartre and Beauvoir’s take on the subject soon.

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