On Love

I will be up front with you:  this post is a failure.  If I were able to comprehend, understand or express what it is I have been struggling with myself to grasp and communicate – I would also have the expressive powers to irresistibly beckon my love.

Like many poets and artists, I am not a stranger to great expressions of love.  Tales of romance, of idealism, of sacrifice and charity.  Of endurance, persistence, obstacles and joy.  Of passion, beauty, devotion and charm.  Many of us spend the bulk of our lives searching it, attempting to become both loving and lovable, generous and worthy.

What I have wrestled with this past week is how I might convince all of you who have an interest in its meaning, its practice, its enjoyment and its pain that a book I have spent much time reading and reflecting over the past two weeks is worth your full attention.  It is entitled The Conditions of Love: the philosophy of intimacy and is written by John Armstrong.

Armstrong - Conditions of Love

For a while now I have been making effort at examining the “intolerable vulnerabilities” that intimacy evokes in us.  Armstrong addresses these in a deep variety of ways, such as “love craves closeness, and closeness always brings us face to face with something other than we expected.”  Upon meditating my way through his profound expository book, I have added “incalculable equation” to my sense of love.  “Most people are, it goes without saying, sometimes pathetic and sometimes quite competent…reciprocity requires us to hold in mind a complex image of our own nature.”  My felt sense upon concluding his words (and those of so many others he includes ever so skillfully) – was a strange sense that love combines the profound gravity of grief and the profound levity of hope.  

It is instructive to understand what Armstrong intends by a philosophical account of intimacy:  “One of the things which philosophy can do is to try to flesh out, with as much precision as the case allows, just what is at stake in the concepts we use.”  And he performs this so deftly.  “Hence the more subtle our thinking about love, the more intelligently we discriminate ideals from reality, the more interesting our autobiography becomes.”  His is the thinking of the ‘pandoxist.’  “A pandoxist doesn’t locate all the important insights and truths about life in a single system, but tries to seize upon the multitude of truths and insights which are located in many distinct – and often antagonistic – positions…most great systems of thought are founded upon lasting insights…but we generally don’t need to be completely consistent in our thinking…we are attempting to enrich our repertoire of ideas…thoughts which will be helpful at different times and in different situations.”  The Conditions of Love satisfies this expertly.

The book has been written.  I cannot possibly improve on it, and, although I’d dream of trying – what I most desire is that more humans will engage it toward the extension and enrichment of their lives and the relations they involve .  With that in mind I will simply copy some of my underscored passages from Armstrong’s writing – hopefully to successfully convince you that it could benefit you, too.

“The suggestion that love is deep carries the implication that it emerges from deep within us and that it reaches something deep within us.  It carries with it an image of the personality as layered.”

“Love isn’t a single thing but a complex of different concerns gives rise to a vision of some of the problems of love.  When we try to love we are not actually trying to undertake a single endeavour; rather, we are trying to do a whole range of different, and sometimes not very compatible, things simultaneously.”

“We need love, we have an inbuilt need to love and be loved, yet the two sexes have divergent evolutionary and genetic notions of how love works.  The unhappiness of love is the fault of the evolution of the species…which undertakes to show how extremely complex emotions and thoughts are enacted in material processes.”

“to show that love is natural is not in fact to show anything very important…what is given by nature is not necessarily good, and what is achieved by artifice is not necessarily worthless…the experience of love is open to change, but only in some ways.”

“Compatibility is an achievement of love, not a precondition for love…there is no such thing as perfect compatibility, therefore all loving relationships must accomodate some degree of incompatibility.”

“Perhaps the most fundamental fact of human experience is that the experience of being oneself differs radically from the experience we have of others…no other person can complete us…this is something we have to do for ourselves, even if we are lucky enough to find another person who is helpful and supportive and whose character tends to bring out the best in us.”

“friendship is a species of love…there is something about their mode of being, about the texture of their inner life, which seems familiar…it is when we discover, or suspect, some intimate correspondence between our own secret self and that of the other that we begin to move from liking to loving.”

“the very needs which take us into love play a role in the souring of love.”

“love involves a reorientation of our concerns.  We are in the habit of being immensely preoccupied by what immediately concerns our own well-being…yet caring for something, or someone, other than oneself can be immensely liberating.”

“the irony is that the more we invest in love, the harder it can be to love successfully.  To love another person often requires that we have further and independent sources of satisfaction and security in our lives.”

“of course it can be disturbing, even terrifying, to admit insufficiency to ourselves.  ‘Why do I need another person? Because I cannot be happy on my own?’  For some people at least, that is too painful an admission.  We sometimes avoid our need for love because it casts us in a vulnerable role…It suggests how deep the need for love goes in us, how hard it sometimes is for us to recognize what it is we are looking for, and how hard it is going to be for someone else to satisfy those needs.”

“infatuation – can be driven not just by a mistake about the other person (thinking they are nicer than they really are) but by a mistake about oneself (wanting to be other than one is)…in infatuation, we use another person as a prop in a fantasy about ourselves.”

“many persons imagine that it is the quality of current feeling that matters; in fact, current feeling is no guide for behaviour under multiple strains and stresses.  What infatuation does is to consecrate the present feeling and protect it from serious investigation.  Imagination paints a charming view of the future, conveniently adapted to the demands of our current situation.”

“Cupid is the name of whatever it is in us which, without our consent or recognition, provokes the intense longing for attachment which we call falling in love…the fear of love as irrational is not simply the fear that love is in its genesis outside of our control, but that it is not amenable to reason once it is up and running.”

“the forces which make us long for another person to love – loneliness, the need for warmth and tenderness – can be so great that we behave as if we were starving…desperation overrides discrimination…the process of falling in love may be governed not by the intelligent sense of what is good for us but by unconscious forces which cause us to get attached to someone with whom we can – like an addict – repeat a self-harming pleasure – ‘this person is for me’ may be, ironically, true and yet true only in that we have identified a potential source of our preferred misery…a relationship does not start the day two people meet; it starts in the childhood of each partner.  for it is long before they meet that the template of their relationship is established.  We learn to love as children.  Or, more accurately, we learn a style of relating which governs our adult behaviour when it comes to love.”

“much depends on the way in which we find in them someone with whom we can continue the unfinished business of childhood…there is something about this person which coheres with an earlier pattern…Falling in love, then, is a result of two thing coming together: the longings which we have and the workings of our imagination.”

“Our sense of who another person really is is massively inflected by our own concerns…what it is to understand a person – involves having a clear conception of what that person’s real needs and qualities are – a conception which can be radically at variance with the self-image of that person.”

“Love alone can’t make another adult intelligent, generous, courageous, persistent and sociable – unless they are very close to possessing these qualities in the first place…it is axiomatic that people can be wrong about what is good for them; that is, they can be wrong about what will make them happy.  This is one of the key reasons why there is so much unhappiness in the world.”

“To love is to interpret another person with charity…of course we habitually go beyond the facts when we find fault with or condemn another…Anger and resentment are frequently founded upon what we suppose another person has intended, rather than on what we actually know about their motives.  Charity, therefore, need not ascribe benign motives, but keeps open the possibility that one doesn’t know what really goes on in another’s heart of hearts…to step aside is human…a charitable interpretation seeks out good qualities underneath evident failings and inadequacies – and take a sympathetic view of those failings..requiring a complex image of our own nature.”

“Most accounts of existence place love at the centre of life.  We live in order to grow in love – that is the meaning and purpose of each individual life.”

“Love requires the integration of all our powers: we have to be sensual, but also understanding; we need to be able to relax with our beloved, but must equally exercise self-control; we have to mix spontaneity with foresight; passionate, devouring sexual desire has to be tempered with respect…”

“What is wrong with capitalism is not so much that it fosters an unjust distribution of wealth but rather that it damages the personalities of all those who live within it, cutting each individual off from the realization of the true nature, giving rise to internal – as well as external – obstacles to love…If we have to devote our best energies, almost all of our time, to making a living, and if in doing so we have to become competitive, or ruthless, we don’t have much of ourselves left over for love.  We can only love on the margins of our lives and with the residue of our capacities…Love, which stands as the natural goal of living, is massively subordinated to the pursuit of the means of living.”

“the reality, here, is that we invest the people we encounter – particularly those we get close to – with characteristics which are not really their own but which derive from our own earlier relationships…construction and transference is an unconscious process – one which we are not only unaware of but which we positively resist becoming aware of.”

“Love, then, can never be the coming together of two perfectly compatible creatures.  We are not like jigsaw pieces which can, if only we find the correct piece, lock together in perfect accord.  It is as if each person actually belongs to several jigsaws at once and hence fits perfectly into none.”

“Much of the resulting pain of adult life can be traced back to the ways in which the child deals with ambivalence…it is impossible to have a loving relationship which does not involve negative aspects…because a perfectly right partner will still evoke fears and anxieties in us, will still – because of connections back to the roots of love and fear in childhood – become an object of envy or jealousy, will still be the privileged object of our aggression and disappointment…”

“Sex is direct, whereas love is diffuse.  Sometimes we need love to be made obvious – and sex is one of the most powerful ways in which this can happen…the troubling fact is that two positions are correct: we are inherently jealous and sexual desire is distinct from love.  To accept both claims is to admit a degree of incoherence in human nature…this is an invitation to be more imaginative about dignity.”

“Recuperation is essential to the survival of love because it is inevitable that love will come up against serious difficulties…the point is that even within a good relationship there are continual sources of hurt and disappointment which have to be overcome if love is to survive…their overcoming is actually the growth and development of loving…it is, therefore, extremely important that we work with a vision of love which sees problems not as the end of love, not as a sign that love is over, but as the ground upon which love operates.

“This is the internal tragedy of love.  If love is successful, if our love is returned and develops into a relationship, the person we are with must turn out to be other than we imagined them to be…security can put us off our guard…the notion of maturity is humanity’s attempt to retain an optimistic picture of love in the face of disappointment and difficulty.”

“Maturity is our name for the hopeful strategy which is open to us when faced with something which is both an object of high value (a source of happiness) and, at the same time, threatening, difficult, disturbing..the very things which draw us into love and enable us to invest so highly in another person, to wish to bind our lives together, themselves give rise to disillusionment, frustration, disappointment, and evoke some of our deepest fears and most primitive defences.  What we mean by maturity is a change of perspective.”

“In this book I have tried to argue two things…Firstly, the need to love and be loved is deeply placed in human nature – we long to be understood, to be close to another person, to matter in another’s life…the factors which draw us into love also constitute the roots of love’s difficulties.  We long to be understood, but it is often awkward to have another see too much of one’s inner troubles…we do not go through life with a coherent set of desires, and anyone who charms us in one frame of mind may be annoying or threatening in another.  Secondly, love is an achievement, it is something we create, individually, not something which we just find…and yet it cannot be forced simply by effort…it is dependent on many other achievements – kindness of interpretations, sympathy and understanding, a sense of our own needs, and terrible vulnerability…each requires patient cultivation – we have to take whatever fragile presence each has in our lives and build upon that…in order to unlock our passions, recognize our need for another, and see our present loneliness…”

and so on – i simply took a quote or two from each chapter – hopefully you can imagine the depth of the whole…and will enjoy it for yourselves….!

see also:de Botton - On Love