Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Splinters of Love

This is the final part in a six-part series.  Read the first five parts here, here, here, here, and here.

This has been a series about love and consent.  Over the course of five rather meandering essays (I use the word in the humbler, Montaignean sense) I have attempted to argue that there is something confused in our modern American fixation on consent when considering questions of what once was called love.  In the last post on the matter, I suggested that one cause of the fixation has to do with forgetting the intellect’s role in advising the will.

Of course, in a healthy society or a health individual, both the intellect and the will operate in a person who loves.  The intellect sees the good and the will provides the necessary umph to pursue it.  Take away the intellect’s sight, and the will is not freed but blinded; take away the will’s drive and the intellect is not elevated but immobilized.  The latter problem is still well recognized, though not always stated in these terms.  We understand that the emotionless, the unempathetic, the disconnected souls have difficulty in navigating the world.  But we often do not give the rational man, or the rational part of man, its due.  We have a lamentable tendency to confuse the rational man with—stereotype him as?—the solely or excessively rational man, as if anyone whose intellect offers to guide his will is a self-admitted “sociopath” like the reimagined Sherlock Holmes.

On the other hand, having loosed the will from its proper intellectual mooring, we have become increasingly concerned about other undue influences on it.  And rightly so: if the will is not guided by the intellect, but left to the influence of its own drives and the suasions of others, we are in a bad way.  We begin to suspect, not with complete inaccuracy, that in rejecting the guidance of the intellect we have made a bargain for Esau.  We have sold our intellectual birthright for a mess of passionate pottage, and gained no liberty in the bargain, but rather found ourselves more tightly bound than before; for the intellect is a gentler master to the will than the will’s lower passions are to itself.

But for anyone with eyes to see, it is apparent that even the more powerful passions of the will are not sufficient to command choice in affairs of the heart.  It is evident, in other words, that the modern conceit of the will’s liberation from the intellect is false.  The simple evidence of this is the fact that sometimes people do choose to act against romantic passion.  Frequently, when a character in a story does this (e.g., the conclusion of LaLa Land) viewers judge that his or her passion was simply not that strong to begin with (and in the case of that film, I suspect the critical viewer would be right).

But the rejection of a passion does not always signal the passion’s weakness.  It is possible to experience powerful romantic love without capitulating to it.  The reason for failing to capitulate need only be stronger, or equally strong.  I am thinking at the moment of Deborah Kerr’s character in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.  The conclusion of the film illustrates the truth as well as anything could: that it is possible to be “in love,” and rather seriously so, and nevertheless decide not to follow that love.  In other words, it is possible to be in love, and free—not merely to have free will, but to be free to choose, indeed, free to choose the Other.

If—SPOILER ALERT—you feel that Kerr’s character choice of
divine love over human is a cheater’s sort of example, perhaps because
it seems that she is following the stronger of two very powerful romantic entanglements
—well, I would respectfully disagree.  But for an alternate example, you might take a look,
caveat videntor!, at The Children’s Hour.  There’s a lovely romantic rejection
at the very end which, if my interpretation of the film is correct, has to do not
with choosing another lover but with (1) commemoration of a friend, and
(2) recognition of the flaws of the still-nevertheless-beloved.  In other words:
a character denies herself romantic fulfillment for non-romantic reasons.

Having recognized that modern love is a dish of pottage, and a dish moreover of which we have no obligation to partake, perhaps the reader is curious (as I am) to know how we got here historically.  If I am right that it is problematic to judge love healthy or otherwise on the basis of consent, and that consent is the one taboo left, and that this confusion about love is tied up with a rejection of the intellect’s role in choice, and that it was not always so—then what events, what thinkers got us here?

In a low aside of the previous post, I made voluntarism the perpetrator.  I was not entirely in jest.  But attractive as the writing of an intellectual history of the problem might be, I am underqualified to attempt the task of tracing love’s demise back to Ockham or anyone else, which would in any case involve a separate and lengthier discussion touching upon modern thought in general.  Before I finished, Kant, Hegel, and the Protestant work ethic would probably also be implicated.

Only sort of kidding.

A more practical question to ask might be, given that modern America is possessed of a societal confusion about the nature of love, how does one go about fixing it?  Needless to say, I’m not qualified to answer that either.  In the previous post I waved away concrete solutions in favor of an abstract response: reintroduce the role of the intellect in the affairs of the heart.  I am not sure how much really practical wisdom I have to offer on the matter.  But I can at least dilate upon what the intellect could do for those in love; and perhaps the mere act of divisio will bring the particulars more into focus.

The intellect, as a sort of eye, discerns what is good.  Properly educated, it discerns many goods and their relative values amongst each other.  Some of those values are absolute: only a fool or a child thinks French Fries are better than music.  Some of the values are personal: the choice of Rally’s fries over those served at Chick-fil-A, while obvious to me, is far from obvious to certain acquaintances of mine; and my preference for Schumann’s Rhenish symphony over Schubert’s Unfinished is likewise not amenable to communication via persuasion.  The intellect tells us that Schubert and Schumann beat Rally’s and Chick-fil-A; it is largely our varied tastes that tell us which fries and which symphony we prefer.

I would argue strongly that one can also make intellectual judgments about music,
but experience tells me that these require a tremendous degree of precision and
information and discipline amongst all the parties concerned.  And oftentimes
at the end of the day, such arguments conclude with a realization that
there are certain musical first principles upon which the parties of the argument
disagree—thus, in the end, reducing the arguments to taste,
or something equally incommunicable, after all.

Now obviously when it comes to passions for people, as opposed to fries and fiddles, one is in a different league of goods altogether.  The taste does not say smooth or rough, salty or spicy; nor does the intellect judge that the ear delivers more pleasure than the tongue.  A vast, seemingly endless array of goods opens up under the intellect’s piercing light.  Good humor, generosity, wit, kindness, magnanimity, drive, patience, cheerfulness, courage, status, providence, prudence, intelligence, fortitude … Love is blind to the beloved’s faults only because its eye is blinded by so many virtues!  And this endless array of goods calls forth an endless array of ways of loving: laughter, proximity, cooking dinner, sharing secrets, sharing work, sharing children, comforting, nursing, advising, rebuking, listening, defending … the list goes ever, ever on.  “Love is a many-splendored thing.”  Consent is but the tiniest splinter of the many-faceted jewel.  And if the whole jewel appears paradoxical to us, appears really splintered instead of faceted, it is partly because we have become used to operating in the single logic of consent, of choice, and neglecting all the variety of details that make a person, and make a person worth choosing.

The other reason that love and its qualities may appear paradoxical to us, is that our intellect is forced to grasp things discursively, in bits and pieces.  We feel we can grasp what things are, but hardly define them.  The more complex a thing, the more our logical brains have difficulty cataloguing its qualities.  Thus we have difficulty envisioning the unity behind “dirt” and “tree” or (heaven help us) “dog” and “man” or (heaven help us more) “justice” and “love”.  For most things, comprehension belongs less to the philosophers than to the masters of paradox, the poets.  Most people, for better or for worse, learn more about love, justice, man, the animals, and even vegetative creation from life and stories more than from philosophers and scientists.  And it is not because most people are too stupid for science and philosophy, but because science and philosophy are too slow for reality.

The paradigmatic case of this concerns the knowledge of the love of God.  St. Thomas remarks that we have revelation of truths knowable by philosophy because, while such truths are discoverable by human reason, they require so much precise and accurate rational activity that they could only be independently discovered by a few men after great effort and with much doubt.  Simply to know the love of God (that is, to know God, because—as St. John tells us—God is love) is impossible for the human intellect.  But the intellect might be able to see the shade of a shadow of the Love that is God, if steeled and schooled with a right understanding of human love.  If, on the other hand, we cannot accept the mysteries of human love, we will certainly be incapable of accepting its Divine form; we will, instead, fall into the terrible mistake of supposing that St. Teresa in her Ecstasy is a paramount case of Stockholm syndrome!

I haven’t seen the article yet, but I’m sure it’s out there.

Rounding the circle and returning in the opposite direction, it is also an unfortunate fact that losing the fuller, poetical, paradoxical understanding of love not only erodes our understanding of God, but also our understanding of ourselves.  We are made in the image and likeness of God.  There is more than one possible interpretation of the phrase (some less legitimate, perhaps, than others); I would argue that one of the legitimate meanings is that, since God is love, and we are made in his image and likeness, somehow we too are all about love.  If that is so, then a flattened understanding and experience of love is not merely an incidental tragedy, one of the many casualties of the modern era.  It cuts to the core of what it means to be human.

This perhaps is part of why mean people often seem less human, less real: one-dimensional, and why kind people (if we get to know them properly) are interesting.  The cynics will say it is because we like the kind people and dislike the mean people that we attribute dullness to the latter and interestingness to the former.  But really, it is because the mean people have less going on inside them.  Their love includes only what interests them; their love, their self, is flattened.  Kind people’s love includes everything that interests those they love; it is eclectic because it is diffusive, but eclectic in the way that a good book is eclectic.  As a good book integrates many diverse characters in a unified story, so a good person integrates the many traits of those they know together, the unified story being love.

We have, of course, left behind the realm of romantic love at this point, and are swimming in even greater waters—great enough that my discursive mind is having a little trouble holding them together, and even my poetic mind is beginning to wear thin.  I have just enough vision left to sense that this is where a great many things come together: Aquinas’s fourth (?) way, Ubi Caritas et Amor, Blessed are the Pure of Heart, Dispersit superbos, questions concerning the nature of male and female and the family, and probably a great many other things which float dimly in the distance just beyond my mental horizon.

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