Falling in Love with Love

Falling in Love with Love is an old song that most of us are familiar withIt was originally written for a Rodgers and Hart musical in 1938 and made into a movie in 1940.  It was incorporated into the 1957 TV musical Cinderella, reproduced in 1965 and 1997.  Sinatra sang it in 1961.  A Broadway production of Cinderella, still with the same song, is scheduled for early 2013.  With such a history, you could say it’s on the verge of becoming a classic:

Falling in Love with Love is falling for make-believe!
Falling in Love with Love is playing the fool!
Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy!
Learning to trust is just for children in school.

There is a cynical thrust to these lyrics, but it has been interpreted in two different ways.  One simply disregards the apparent contrast of the two senses of “love” and the song is taken to mean that falling in love is “make-believe,” an illusion.  The other, more complex, seems to be challenging those romantics who are not only in love with the person who is the object of their affection, but also with the idea of love as a kind of platonic abstraction, an end in itself.  In this form it evokes the mediaeval troubadours who sang of courtly love as something to be pursued for its own sake, reducing to the absolute minimum any of the personal and interpersonal realities that would make the relationship a serious human challenge.  Such a “love” could certainly be said to qualify as “illusion.”  And as it played out in practice, the “lady” in question (the pursuer was always the knightly male) was usually someone seriously (conveniently?) out of reach.  The illusion was to be in love with “love” but not with a real human being.

But I am inclined to say that you cannot really love a real human being unless you fall in love with love. 

The marrow of the thesis is reality — human imperfection and the ephemeral nature of our feelings.  I realize that statement is seriously deficient by reason of overgeneralization.  It is a euphemism for all those things — near infinite in number and category — that make love difficult and sometimes impossible. 

We are in the realm of “romantic love” here, and the context implies a high degree of emotionality fueled by the involuntary impulses — feelings — that arise from the human organism.  Sexuality isn’t the only operator, though many would argue that if attraction is present the sexual dimension cannot be entirely absent.  Be that as it may, human interests other than sex often dominate the phenomenon, at least at the conscious level.  They are all quite involuntary and grounded in organic functions.  There are, for example, the maternal-paternal instinct, the bonding of the hunting band, the cooperative instinct, the esthetic reaction, the reaching out of the desperately needy, the childhood-dependency reaction.  These and many others are all instinctual spontaneities that provide the energy and initial focus for love.  Every one of them, and here I include the sexual, can be derailed by things that deactivate the feelings that happen to be in play in any given situation.  To whatever degree love was dependent on these forces, negative factors can inhibit or even nullify it.  

Hence, it has been the perennial opinion of mature humankind that If love is to endure, it cannot be totally identified with these organic instincts; they are too unreliable.  They are not illusion; but while it is probable that love cannot arise without them, it must somehow also transcend them and be able to function in their absence.  What causes love to endure — the “love” we are in love with — must reside at a deeper level. 

I realize at this point, I have not yet asked what love is.  It’s not an easy question to answer.  We feel sure we know what we mean by it even though it is most likely different for each one of us.  But however subjective it might be, no one for a moment will allow that it lacks objectivity.  If there is one thing indubitably true about humans it is that we know and appreciate “love.”  Love is what we’re after.  Human society itself is built on families, that means every individual came from a sexual love relationship and a long period of loving care through childhood.  And sexual love and family also seems to be the natural fulfillment of the individual.  Love is probably the single most important word and concept for humankind.  How could the one thing in life that we all agree is the desideratum above all others not be objective?  How could it be possible that we do not know — and all agree — on what it is?

Yet, it seems impossible to define.  We sometimes try by using “other words,” like “benevolence,” but they have no more explanatory power than “love.”  “Love” may be to be one of those things they call qualia: exclusively subjective objects of experience, like colors.  How do you define “red” in other words?  You can’t.  When Socrates confronted his interlocutors with a similar problem regarding “justice,” in their perplexity they sought recourse in an example: “the gods are just,” they said.  But to say that “God is love,” as our religious tradition does, is no solution, for now we have two words that are undefined.

Some say we don’t need words.  We know love when we see it, and we see it from inside; the definition is secondary anyway.  If I even consider defining it, it’s because I have loved and I have been loved.  Definition follows experience, not the other way around.  Despite Socrates’ displeasure with the poets whose words he found confusing and irrational, the poets are the only ones who seem confident in what they say about love.  But, the poets’ words only make sense to those who can confirm them.  That means we are still confined to the subjective.

Why this obsession?

But rather than try to describe what it’s like to love, which will be very personal to each individual in any case, perhaps it would be more fruitful to look at what grounds loveWhy does love dominate our lives?  What is it about us that explains this obsession? 

Some, inspired by Sigmund Freud, are convinced that the key to understanding ourselves and why we love love is our sexuality.  But in this regard Freud’s view expanded over the course of his life and he came to see sexuality in a much larger context.  The sexual drive, he said, was just one facet of an overriding passion of all organisms, including the human organism, to live.  He called it Eros.  Eros for him was the very definition of life.  Sex was only a subset; all organisms are driven to reproduce themselves as an essential part of being alive and staying alive

He wasn’t the first thinker to move in this direction.  Schopenhauer in the early 1800’s used the word “Will” and said it was the foundational characteristic not only of animal organisms like ours but of all reality living or not.  Spinoza in the late 1600’s called it the conatus, the instinct for self preservation — the involuntary need to continue to exist implanted in all things (not just living things).  He explained it by saying that everything is an emanation of Being itself, and the conatus is the echo of that provenance.  Being was “God;” it had to exist.  But Spinoza recognized that “God” had to be “an extended thing,” the ground and source of matter, hence everything material that emanates from it — like us — is characterized by the same drive: we are driven to exist by our very bodies, by the very organic matter of which we are made. 

We love being-here and we love being what and who we are.  Whether you call it Eros, Will, or conatus, it explains a lot of things.  It explains our instinct for survival.  It explains everything we do, positive and negative: why we tend to put ourselves first … our greed and selfishness.  It also explains why we promote our own people and our children even if it means we diminish, because we identify ourselves with them and our bodies insist on expanding the species.  That’s why the sex drive is so insistent.  The body rules.  If we happen to fall into a coma, the organism pushes on without our conscious consent; even if we want to stop existing, our bodies put up a fierce resistance: it is not easy to kill yourself.  These drives arise from the matter of which we are made.  They are natural because Nature is the energy of existence.  The very urges and instincts that earlier we recognized as the engines of love are born of our thirst to be-here, the existential energy of matter.  Self-love derives directly from the self-embrace of material existence.  We love ourselves because we can’t help it.  It’s embedded in our bones.  We are in love with being-here … that is the ground of it all.  Aristotle, writing 350 years before the common era, said it famously: “friendship towards another arises from friendship towards oneself.”

The remainder then, the transcen­dent element we were looking for is here, in our understanding.  Our rational consciousness gives us the capacity to look at our urges without being under their control.  But while understanding is not driven by these urges, it is not separate from them either.  Understanding is the body’s self-aware­ness.  Because we understand love — its origins and its ground in our organisms — we can direct it: we can reinforce it; we can embellish and adorn it; we can surround it with cultural significance and use it to symbolize who we have decided we want to be.  We make it work for us.  And we do that not by creating some new tool, but by elevating what we already possess into a symbol that then works to construct our social reality.  Our obsession with love is who we think we are as a species.

Similar to the way we take the organic urge to eat and transcendentalize it with our savory recipes and ingenious combinations of food and drink and then set it as the cultural center-piece of our family-love so that “feeding” is transformed into a meal, a banquet, a feast, a symbol of our sharing with one another and the joy of life, … so too we take “love” in all its manifestations as driven by all our various urges and clothe it with cultural adornments so that it serves to symbolize and thus enhance who we think we are.  To say it another way, we use it as a symbol for what we have decided we want to be.

If we are “in love with love” it’s because we have chosen to understand what being-here — our organic urges, the Eros of life, existence — means to us.  We have interpreted life as family-love.  But I want to be clear about this.  It’s a cultural choice.  These are virtual realities created by our symbol making power.  There is nothing set in stone here.  There is no obligation.  We are not even bound to family love as we have known it.  Reproduction and child rearing, as Plato suggested millennia ago in The Republic, could conceivably be socialized by the State.  To reproduce by family love and to use sexuality as its natural symbol is a primaeval choice of our ancient ancestors.  It determined the direction of our pre-historic social-biological evolution.   Our sex-orientated bodies were molded by those choices.

Not everyone has continued to understand life in that way, however.  For a thousand years the Roman Church by requiring celibacy of its dedicated servants has tried to separate love from its natural origins in sexuality and family life.  And ironically that same Church today condemns homosexuals seeking family love on the grounds that they cannot reproduce sexually.  There is apparently no end to what we may imagine ourselves to be.  There is nothing to prevent us from reinterpreting existence and the meaning of Eros in terms other than love.  What a change of that magnitude would eventually do to us is anyone’s guess. 

The song that began our reflections, written a year before the outbreak of WWII, ends in prophetic disillusionment:

I fell in love with love one night when the moon was full
I wasn’t wise with eyes unable to see
I fell in love with love with love ever after
But love fell out with me.

That final line is not set in stone either.  We might wish, and may even imagine, that the issue was settled long ago … that we didn’t have the burden of choice in this matter.  But we do.  To love we must choose to love.

3 comments on “Falling in Love with Love

  1. theotheri says:

    Tony, I read this post with increasing enthusiasm and delight as I went along. I thought your explanation of conatus was by far the clearest and most accessible of any I have read. And I appreciated that you are among the minority who understand Freud’s more mature understanding of eros. Above all, I think your suggestion that the fullness of love may require its involuntary organismic roots, but must also grow beyond them to a greater richness.

    Then I read your concluding paragraphs, and I wonder if somehow I missed altogether what you are trying to say. So this might sound like a very stupid question, but it is sincere: I understand that love is a choice. Life in its fullness is a choice. I can see that we can choose death rather than life, we can choose to shrivel rather than to love.

    But what baffles me completely is your suggestion that “there is nothing to prevent us from reinterpreting existence and the meaning of Eros in terms other than love.” What a change like that might produce is beyond my imagining, but it’s because I cannot imagine any other concept, love/conatus/eros as you define it that could possibly support our existence at all.

    Could you give me just a hint of the kind of thing you are thinking of?

    • theotheri says:

      In relation to what love is, I’m inclined to see, as Bob does, that life and love are co-extensive, even identical. Like you, I also don’t think love is a metaphysical reality. But I’m not sure it’s a choice in the sense you are using the term either. I think love is an adaptive evolutionary reality. Living organisms cannot survive in total isolation. It is blindingly obvious that humans cannot. A baby will not survive at all without some modicum of caring, and in different ways that remains true for the rest of our lives. Therefore, in order to survive at all, the human species developed a corresponding need to give love.

      Like our physical and mental development, our need for love and our ability to give it change with development. A baby’s need for and ability to communicate love are quite different from those of the adolescent or the middle-aged adult, or for someone in their last years. Similarly, just as physical and mental abilities are manifest in a huge variety of different ways, and just as sometimes they are stunted or damaged, so too is our capacity to give and receive love. We are getting an inkling (although just an inkling) of some of the factors that damage this ability to give and receive love. Our motor-neurons may, for instance, be deficient, interfering with our ability to put ourselves in the place of others. This might be caused by genetic factors, or by a variety of environmental ones such as childhood abuse, or, as you suggest, materialist cultural values..

      I also am not as convinced as you that love is a choice. Up to a point it clearly is not. We are born with the innate tendency to love and to seek love. The question seems to me to be the same as the question of free will. It is an ultimately unanswerable philosophical question. There are some of our responses over which none of us have control. There are other behaviors over which I feel I do have real choice. But whether this is an illusion or a reality, I do not know. Like most other people, I live as if these choices for all of us are real. But there are boundaries to free will, and I do not know where those boundaries truly lie, even in myself. I would say the same thing about love. I do think I love some people deeply. I have made choices, sometimes hard choices, out of what I think is my love for them. But I’m not one bit convinced I can actually take credit for those actions. That I have been able to engage in apparently loving behaviors at all may be a pure gift.

      Having said that, it seems to be clear if we largely lose or even seriously damage our abilities to give and receive love that we cannot survive as a species. We are all in this together. On that we are totally agreed!


  2. rjjwillis says:

    Tony and Terry,
    I would say that love and life are identical. As such the energy of existence is both. In that sense, it is not possible for life to yearn for anything but relationship.

    That being said, I agree that, in practice, for us human beings to love is to choose to love.

    I once had a man in his late twenties in therapy. He came from a severely deprived background. As a result he only had one regret in life: that he could not have been born in Nazi Germany so that he could have been an SS officer. Since he was deprived of this, he went on weekends to poorer areas of New York City. There he sought out unaccompanied old people. He would attack them, knock them down, hit them, then run. It gave him a thrill and a sense of power. When I asked him about how his victims might feel, he had no response and really no care what they felt. He was a sociopath, with no sense of conscience or of empathy. So, even though he was “loving” his own life, he only did this as an isolated individual. He chose to be self-encapsulated rather than to be in relationship to others. [He is the only person with whom I ever refused to do therapy. I referred him to three other possible therapists. I knew I could not be in relationship with him so no amount of therapy with me would work.]

    Pat and I recently watched “Haven,” a movie starring Natasha Richardson. It chronicled her attempt to bring a thousand Jewish refugees from war-torn Italy to the United States as the Allied forces freed that occupied Country.. These people had experienced the worst of atrocities from Nazi thugs in uniform and out. One either must say that the whole of Nazi Germany was sociopathic (like my patient) and thus insane, or that they chose to love themselves, Germany, and Der Fuhrer while cancelling all human feeling and relationship to the Jewish men, women, and children. In this latter case, then, their tribal instinct and desire to be self-protecting and self-promoting overcame love. They simply refused to choose to love these other human beings.

    In the second part of the movie, the refugees get to America, and are shepherded (by train!) to a temporary concentration camp (!) in Oswego, New York. The voiced justifications for this atrocious inhumanity ran from “they need to be interrogated for valuable information” to “there may be Nazis among them who are here to sabatoge America” to “letting them in is just a ploy to bring in a lot more Jews” to “why should we care about Jews anyway?” In this regard, the Americans were just as “unloving” toward the Jewish refugees as the Nazis were to the Jews. They refused to choose to love them even in their darkest need.

    Currently, we have an epidemic of gun violence in the United States. Innocent men, women, and children die constantly, individually and in groups, because of the criminal behaviour of sane and insane people who can readily obtain firearms. As we as a society try to put in reasonable restr5ictions on gun ownership in order to protect the innocent, the NRA raises a violent ruckus because that is “taking away their 2nd Amendment rights.” They refuse to care about, they refuse to love, the innocent in favor of their own selfishness. Are they sociopathic?–undoubtedly some are. Are they tribal”–undoubtedly many are. Are they unloving and choosing not to love?–undoubtedly.

    I agree with you, Tony, perhaps it is too late; perhaps the human race has forsaken love. If so, it will die out–just another branch of the evolutionary tree that did not deserve to continue on because it had refused to be in community. If you deny your very being, that is, if you deny life/love, then you aren’t alive and deserve to die–even though this is simply redundant.

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