It’s not what you think
Either the word ‘love’ means what most people say it means, in which case it is a kind of evil, or hardly anyone knows what it means, and when they use the word, they are lying.
What most people mean, or what they appear to mean, when they use the word ‘love’, is a kind of clinging emotionality, or attachment, tinged with latent fear that the object of the attachment will one day leave or die. This attachment might be the kind of desperate, anxiety-laced ‘love’ of two young people who have just met, or it might be the stifling familiarity of a couple who have been together for a long time (‘of course I love you’), or it might be the kind of reassurance that a miser feels from contemplating his wealth, or a record collector his 78s, or it might be a more subtle kind of attachment, a morbid ‘love’ of pomp, or reputation, or knowledge, for example, or the clinging greed certain people feel for symbolic confirmation of the rightness and goodness of the group they belong to, their religion, for example, or their nation.
Here, one common meaning of the word ‘love’ shades into another, something airier than the thick sediment of emotional pleasure, a meaning more abstract and idealistic. For the word ‘love’ is also applied to a kind of over-attached appreciation, an intense form of ‘like’. This also has an emotional element, and is often invested with a fair measure of giddy excitement—‘OMG I love Lord of the Rings!’—but the emphasis here is on the idea, detached and abstract, the symbol; think of a proud football fan kissing his team’s badge. The most extreme form of this kind of ‘love’ might be the appreciation an engineer has for a well-designed harbour, or a mathematician for a beautiful proof, or a ‘lover’ of technology for the ‘sexy’ curves of a car or phone.
And here, in stroking the bonnet of a Bentley or in taking in a well-designed book-cover, we find that idealistic love is also physical pleasure, gratification for the needs of a body which ‘loves’ comfort, natural beauty, the satisfaction of its natural needs and the exercise of its natural functions. Love of pastries and steaks, and sunshine and fresh water, and soft fabrics and pleasant smells, and having a good shit and a good sleep; we might say we love all of these things. They ‘feel’ good—to the body, we could say, more than to the mind or the emotions.
Many of us would be inclined to say that we love sex, perhaps above all other pleasures, because the raw physical sensation of it is so pleasurable; but of course sex also adds emotional and aesthetic pleasure to sensual gratification, along with another common referent of the word ‘love’, as an expression of will, the activation of desire. We love to will, to act, to act on others or to be acted upon by them. The play of will in sex is one of its chief attractions. In physical exercise also, and in overcoming difficulties, and in achieving ambitions, and leading people to some kind of success, or being part of a group working together; all such activities, pleasurable to the will, we might also say we ‘love’.
This more or less exhausts how the word love is ordinarily used, as a means to refer to pleasant feelings, pleasant thoughts, pleasant desires and pleasant sensations; pleasant, that is, and crucially; to self. If self stands to gain somehow (even perversely) from something, it will usually describe its attitude to that thing as ‘love’.
There is nothing wrong with self, or in applying the word ‘love’ to emotionally warm tenderness, something like the emotion of snuggling a cute kitten, or to intense, intellectual appreciation, the kind of pleasure a brilliant witticism might inspire, or to the joy of eating a freshly caught sardine, grilled on a sunny beach you’ve just pulled your boat up onto, or to the exquisite happiness of meaningful work. I love these things, and you might too, but thoughts, feelings, sensations and actions are not love itself. They are the appearance of love, the image of it, like all the ideas and sensations our minds present to us.
So what, then, is ‘love itself’? At this point, language fails us, because readily understandable ideas, sensations, emotions and desires, being the form of love, the expression or representation of it, cannot directly express formlessness, that which ‘precedes’ or ‘transcends’ representation. As we all know, at least those of us who have learnt the lessons of a broken heart, unless formal experiences of love—pleasures and satisfactions—are filled with something else, something that reaches beyond form, they are empty, dead, as ashes in the mouth. The image of love, by itself, is obscene. Tenderness, for example, without ‘something else’ is and can only be self-gratifying, or self-indulgent, the sticky, sickly experience we normally call ‘sentimentality’, an emotion which self-ish people are not just prone to, but, to provide relief for their selfish cynicism, committed to.
Sentimentality is an emotionally over-involved, over-focus on the surface of love, the image of it; on the, ahh, the starving Africans, ahh, the innocent pups, ahh, the snows of yesterday, ahh, my dear, dear children. The object of sentimentality must be distant—one’s rose-tinted youth, the tragic victims, my poor dead mother, our glorious leader (or prophet)—because presence is not a form, and cannot, in its wholeness, be abstracted into a deified symbol, an idol. Sentimental people weep over photographs, over letters, over their sleeping children, over symbols, never over the thing itself, unless that too has been safely ‘distanced’ through ritual or narcotic.
The obscenity of sentimentality reveals the hollowness of mere form. The city of life can be papered over with the form of love, it can be full of the represented things of love, and yet be loveless, a wasteland. We can be surrounded by sweetness and affection and emotional warmth, we can have, at our fingertips, every kind of wonderful, fascinating, inspiring experience, we can gratify our every physical need, we can have a ‘lovely’ family, and have a ‘lovely’ job, and engage in all manner of ‘lovely’ activities; and be without love, estranged from the ground of life, dead inside.
It is the elephant in the room, and it is the room,
and it is all of us squashed together in it.
Witness the rich and famous, those who have ‘made it’, who have everything they wanted, who have used their success to fill their lives with what they, we, believe ‘love’ is. If the message of their lives is not, explicitly, disappointment and despair—‘it’s not at all as I thought it would be’—then it is compromise, the sludge-life of the comfortable, evidenced by the fact that their work is a flavourless caricature of what it once was, just as their faces are.
It is instructive, in this respect, to compare the love-filled work of a genius with an epigone, or even with the same creator when his inspiration has failed him. Mozart wrote that ‘Neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love: that is the soul of genius.’ We read, to take one example of many, Don Quixote, and we sense, under the highly imaginative story, a sweetness, a brightness—a love—that all the events of the story seem to flow from. Cervantes’ masterpiece spawned innumerable imitations, but these had nothing of the lovely charm of the original, the love at its heart. A more recent example might be the television series Twin Peaks, the first six episodes of which touched eternity. This was followed by Picket Fences, Wild Palms, Happy Town, Wayward Pines and even Twin Peaks itself (i.e. most of the second season and all of the hollow third), all of which had ‘a lofty degree of intelligence and imagination’, but nothing of the love which pervades the original.
We might also compare the works of Hayao Miyazaki, of studio Ghibli—Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Ponyo—with those of his partner, Isao Takahata—Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko, My Neighbours the Yamadas and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. The difference between them is simple; Takahata had the bigger heart, by far, and that heart found its way into his work. Miyazaki’s films contain ‘a lofty degree of intelligence and imagination’, buttheir spell does not penetrate, nor does it linger, nor does it touch those with heart, which is why Miayazaki is the more famous of the two. His work is more exciting to the self.
The dreary cover version, the tasteless sequel, the derivative imitation, the flashy cinematography, the clever-clever plot, the big ‘wow’; all this reminds us of quality, makes us feel warm and cosy, or titillates the senses, and yet they leave us hungry, un-nourished, because these tricks are only speaking to self. This is why every great story that has ever been told—love story or otherwise—is founded on sacrifice, on giving up self in order to experience that which cannot be understood, much less possessed or managed, by self. This might be an obvious self-overcoming of the hero, or it might be in the presentation of a comic or mystic character who is in a state of absolute selflessness which transforms the world around him. Or the story might be of a tragic nature, in which a character cannot sacrifice self and, through his resistance, is broken by fate, finally revealing, with death, the mystery he has betrayed. Or the text might suggest a beguiling enigma which it refuses to resolve.
We seek out such stories, we love to read of them, we love to watch, in film or on the stage, a character we care for, give himself up and let something new grow. This giving up he does for what his self cannot grasp—what the author cannot directly speak of—but which something else, something ‘beyond’ self, yearns for. We love to vicariously experience characters meaningfully change because we know that they do so through contact with the self-ineffable root of life, a contact that is only possible in selfless sacrifice.
We know all this in our own lives too, men particularly, whose egos are mercilessly attacked by the women in their lives, but all of us at some time or another must give up our fear and pride and selfish desire in order to strike down, below the surface of our selves, to love another and live with them in love. Sometimes such sacrifice can reach the epic, the heroic, as we are called upon to give up our life for something or someone else. This might mean throwing one’s self in front of an oncoming train to rescue someone, but, more usually, and far more impressively, it might mean working for twenty, thirty, forty years for one’s children, or for humanity, or for nature, without hope of reward.
To read more lovely essays…
Not that we need to go through the fires of hell to grasp the existential truth of sacrifice. Basic courtesy is a series of trivial sacrifices which express, albeit in a ‘reduced’ form, our love for each other. My self would prefer to go first, eat the last chocolate drop, leave the toilet dirty, keep someone waiting, talk over you or be brutally direct about not wanting or liking something; but I mortify my self, and its urges, in service to the ease of the other, the harmony of the moment, which leads to the attractive quality we call grace or dignity.
This is why people (and peoples) who are emotional or distracted—temporarily or inherently selfish—are so rarely courteous, at least in anything but the most coldly mechanical sense, why insincerity and ingratiating flattery, queueless hordes fighting for the best seats, conversations in which nobody is really listening to each other, rather firing opinions into the ether at maximum volume, transparent greed, offensive slovenliness, harsh tones and thick-skinned insensitivity to the mood of the room disgust us, those of us who are conscious, and why they appear so selfishly undignified.
Sacrifice of self then reveals the root, or the whole, essential truth, of love, which, despite manifesting as the fruit and branch of self, grows deep beneath it. This is why love cannot be directly spoken of, because direct speech, direct representation, is of self. Literal representations of ‘love’ strike anyone who is in contact with love as unbearably sentimental, or profane, or obscene. No poet or author or painter who is sensitive to the truth of love ever presents it directly; he presents sacrifice, or he presents some kind of paradox or obscurity that the listener or viewer must sacrifice himself to enjoy. Literal speech, factual writing and analysis — including this very essay — cannot get close to the novel, for example, or to great myth.
I Love You
Two people who are really in love say ‘I love you’, without the slightest idea of what those words mean. The words indicate or manifest the truth, but what that truth is, is a mystery so profound it terrifies the external mind; which is why man is so keen to dredge the depths and bring love up to some kind of manageable, light-of-day definition or contract. Think of Heathcliff, in Wuthering Heights, indicating the calendar he has marked and complaining that Kathy doesn’t love him because, look, she has spent fewer days with him than with his rival, Edgar. Or think of the misery of Jude and Sue in Jude the Obscure, unable to disentangle love from the social form of it. Or think of Paul Morel’s confusion in Sons and Lovers, as he tries to rescue the truth of love from what merely seems like it. Literature is full of characters who have to release their compulsive need to somehow quantify or grasp love, or who are trapped in a formal ideal of it.
Many fear saying ‘I love you’ because ‘they don’t know what the word means’, which is to say, they know that if it means anything definable, it’s not worth the paper it is printed on. It’s just that, tragically, they cannot experience the indefinable. This same guilty knowledge is why we avoid using the word ‘love’ to describe desire for money, or for sex with prostitutes, or for an impressive arsenal. We know in our waters that the word has to refer to something beyond self, which is why bullies, paedophiles, psychopaths and cold, controlling parents everywhere are at pains to justify their so-called ‘love’ as selfless. What they do is ‘for your benefit’.
What value is there in giving a sword to a blind, angry man?
We feel guilty at our lovelessness, a guilt we cannot face, and so we rebrand our shame as irritation or depression. We are afraid to inspect the feeling, or we are just too busy, but when we use the word ‘love’, and there is no love there—the sing-song ‘I love you!’ at the end of the hurried phone conversation, the weirdly empty ‘I love you’ that you hear parents pack their children off to school with, the desperate, clinging ‘I looove you’ that the broken heart wails—somehow, somewhere, we know we are lying, and something tightens inside. After enough of this, we start to look tight, a sure sign that love has left the building.
We casually fling out the word ‘love’—it’s hard to think of a word that is more widely or constantly abused—but the easiest thing is not to speak of it at all. Few use the word, at least meaningfully. There are now more ‘conversations’ going on than at any time in man’s history, a constant, immeasurable stream of ‘communication’ which ‘connects’ everyone to everyone else. And not a word of real love. Politicians do not use the word, newspaper columnists, alternative media commentators, feminists and gender theorists, comedians, artists and culture-makers. It is the elephant in the room, and it is the room, and it is all of us squashed together in it, but we pretend otherwise.
Love is not spoken of for almost exactly the same reason that we pretend death does not exist; because we feel guilty about being alienated from our own inner nature—and because we are afraid of giving up the imaginary ‘life’ we cling to, in lieu of love. The system compels us to inhabit this image, and we submit to it, which is why love and death have departed from the world; neither can be found, wherever we look. For many, the horror of this is impossible to imagine; self and image have become one and so there is no standpoint from which to see and judge their nightmarish confinement. For others, ‘I have no mouth, but I must scream.’
Our alienation from love as it is, beyond the limits of the knowable self, is why human relationships are so shallow and fragmentary. The common belief is that one must found a loving relationship on mental ‘compatibility’, on a successful match-up of the same likes and dislikes, the same ‘values’ and ‘beliefs’—when such compatibility, for all its importance, is a far distant second to love and, in the end, even irrelevant. The most compatible couples on earth often end up hating each other, or drifting apart in the modern way, while love can reach across the chasm of incompatibility with the most unlikely people.
Our abstracted estrangement from love, and mania for ‘compatibility’, also explains why everyone assumes that the more you love someone the more you know about them—when, in a genuinely loving relationship, the reverse is true; the more you love someone the less you know about him or her. The affliction of knowledge is most evident in that most depressing of phenomena, the ‘long-term relationship’, in which cosy, comfortable familiarity, and pecks goodnight, and long, barren impotent stretches of sexless friendship, have usurped the place where the terrifying, primal mystery of the other should be, the daily, laughing, worshipful bafflement at who on earth he or she is.
The betrayal of love, for the symbolic expression of it, reaches its nightmarish nadir in the horror of internet dating, predicated entirely on abstracted compatibility and the mirror of representation. The system pairs me up with someone who matches my ideal age, height, colour, religion, political affiliation and education. I meet him or her, we ‘click’ (a telling term, that; the sound of a binary switch being operated or of two hard objects coming together), we have sex and, if our lives continue to be ‘compatible’, we drift into a modern relationship. Unlikely that we’ll live together, but if we do, it will be as two body-shaped containers in which a collection of discrete beliefs, intentions, sensations and feelings jangle around like the contents of a poorly-packed suitcase.
All of this appears to be quite normal, even natural. There is now nothing which is actually natural in the lives of modern people that demands selfless participation, no craft, no community, no fractal beauty and there is no-one to bear witness to love. Great artists, wise old folk, even children are taken from us, or their innate wisdom hidden from us, or crushed before it begins to flower. Love, whenever it is found in any eminent degree, is persecuted everywhereor, generosity of spirit being so unprofitable, simply left to struggle in the dregs. So, I ask you, how are young people to even sense that their lives are barren caricatures of what love is? Why are we surprised when they put compatibility, or mere respect, in the place where love should be?
When the youth look to where all our knowledge and wisdom now repose, the internet, they find the image and betrayal of love. They find a million love songs with the same emotional content; they find angry campaigners and protesters whose sentimental ‘concern’ for others is as arid as their love lives; they find relationship ‘advice’ from psychologists who wouldn’t know love if it stood naked before them; they find God knows how many writers who talk about every subject under the sun, without ever turning towards the sun (for they know how exposed they are when they speak of love); and they find lots and lots of pornography, emotional movement where the stillness of the self should be.
We are told that, in an unjust world, we do not need love, we need a sword. Swords we may need, and ire; but what value is there in giving a sword to a blind, angry man? We are told that love is an illusion, a chemical produced by genes in order to self-perpetuate themselves; but, who tell us this? Men and women who go rummaging for the truth in their minds, and pretty sordid minds at that. We are told that love is not the solution, but tools, technology, intellect; but how are we to recognise how to use our tools or when to apply our knowledge, unless we can see straight, without the fog of fear and desire that lovelessness terminates in?
Or, conversely, we are told that in order to solve the problems of the earth—the tearing down of old-growth forests, the annihilation of wild plant and animal life, the torturing of domesticants, the horror and misery of those who make the objects we use, or who grow our food, or clean our houses, the conversion of society into a high-tech prison and the destruction of the human spirit; to solve all these problems we should hug each other, light candles, quietly pray and emit compassionate radio-waves from our heart-transmitter. In short, to embrace a gelded self-generated parody of love; safe, sentimental niceness.
Giving self away means, first of all, giving up what one is, not what one has. Love may manifest as charity (giving things, or money, away), or as caring (doing useful things to help people), or as being nice (expressing positive feelings and smiles and hugs), or it may not; because it is ultimately, like genius, morality and the consciousness from which all three ‘emerge’, indefinable. This is why love can appear shockingly unsentimental and cold, and why the objectively charitable, caring and nice people of the world are so often a menace.
The most sensitive people on earth, babies, understand all this very well. Infants in charitable houses, with nice and caring parents, are often in hell. They feel the horror, of being essentially cut-off from the universe, and writhe and scream and become ‘impossible’, forcing the parents, as the child gets older, to pacify it with substitutes for love. The misery of this builds up in child’s core until it becomes clear that there is something dreadfully wrong with them. The parents are mystified. What did we do!? We gave our child everything. We were ‘loving’, they say; but what they mean is they were nice, and kind, and caring and, when it pleased them, affectionate. Really, there was no love, which is why, by the time the child has become the adult it is clear that whatever tricks he or she uses to paper over the emptiness, their happiness and sanity and confidence are all skin deep.
Boyfriends and husbands are often confused in the same sort of way. It’s strange, he thinks, I gave her everything she wanted. I gave her all my ‘love’, and yet she’s not happy / and yet she had an affair / and yet she left me. In truth he has no idea what love is and, although he probably did once give it, somehow, it was largely by accident and mixed up with all the charm and excitement and warmth he sold to her at the beginning of the relationship, long since evaporated.
Not that woman is free of guilt. Generally speaking she is more selfless than man, and so more loving; but woman confuses love for being nice, particularly to her tyrannous emotions, which she is more in love with than anything else on earth. She soon learns to hate men without the balls to stand up to her selfish feelings, but such hatred is better than facing them. This cowardliness can manifest in her as gorgon-like bitterness and punishing spite (what? he let slip an insensitive comment!? give him the silent treatment for a week sister!), or as constant, pathetic compromise with men who take her for granted. Both states end in loveless cynicism.
Loveless, cynical men and women look upon the world and wonder why it is such a dreadful place to live in. Why is there so much poverty and strife and sickness and ugliness and madness? We think it must be because we have not properly managed our affairs, that we have not acted in a responsible manner, that we have lost some kind of feeling for ‘the earth’ and for each other, that we have lost contact with life, or that we are just stupid and near-sighted and cannot think straight. We do not see that feeling, sensation and thought cannot ultimatelybe the solution to our problems or that, by themselves, they are the problem. Trying to solve the problems of thought with thinking, or the problems of technology with technology, or the problems of will with more activity, or the problems of emotion with more feeling; this is insanity. And looking outwards, into the subjective self and the objective world, for the origin of self and world can only make us more insane.
This is the message the dead have; that the lovely truth we yearn for is beyond self. Unself. So unlike is this cold reality to the warm love of the world we might as well say, with D.H.Lawrence ‘to hell with love’, just as we can say, in all truth, as Ivan Illich did, ‘to hell with life’; for the ‘love’ and ‘life’ of the world, separated from the source of both, are illusions, or idols. In the past we worshipped the represented image of God, now we worship the represented image of life. The costumes have changed, the rituals are different,but the simulacrum remains the same.
I can love the simulacrum of the selfworld or I can love the ineffable origin of it; in the selfless sacrificial experience of what ‘I’ am not. When I surrender my stupid thoughts and tight, naming consciousness to the whole scene, my sense of self dissolves into the moment, which reveals its strange quality to me. When I give up my frantic conceptual will to the full reality of the man or woman I am with, I open the door of the self to mind-blowing beauty and power. When I humble myself before the needs of the moment, without my restless hunger to get something from it, I find care, and worry, and fear evaporating from my shoulders. Then, as now, the simulated world loses its addictive hold on me. I just don’t care what it does to me. My stupid self is still forced to sit through this stupid game show, but I am free of it.
In such freedom, the word ‘love’ has meaning, as do the hollow objects of the world,as does the perplexing horror of ‘life’; for what else could be the reason for mutilation, deprivation, heartbreak and having to give up our treasured ambitions and hopes, over and over again, as time robs us of every thing we cherish, including our own marbles? Why else would we live in such an unkind world, such an uncharitable world, such an un-nice world, full of such dreadful people, such random acts of cruelty, such unremitting moral and aesthetic ugliness? What is the point of all this pain, all this loss?
As soon as we articulate the reason for the evil of the world, we find our answers do not satisfy us, that there is no intelligible, unsentimental justification for the unspeakable suffering of human beings, condemned to drag a rotting carcass from oblivion to oblivion. This is why we have to either say nothing, or, to speak of a love which dissolves the barrier between self and world, learn a different, stranger, language, a language today that, unfortunately, we call ‘art’, whose subject is love, the love I’ve been speaking of here.
That art is a corpse, fed on by maggots called ‘art lovers’, that the day will come when art will not just live, but speak its enigmatic language to all people, and therefore be unrecognisable as art; well, let’s put that aside for now, and incline our ear to those few who speak of love as it really is, the people we mistakenly call geniuses.
Then, if we are lucky, life will make us suffer enough to hear them.
Entry in Mozart’s souvenir album from Mozart: A Life by Maynard Solomon.
Notwithstanding the gentle glory of Mononoke and Totoro.
Qualities which are hard won and, like all great accomplishments, lightly worn by those who have acquired them.
Not, it goes without saying, that ‘good manners’, cannot be loveless too though. From their very inception, at the end of the medieval period, when the rising middle-classes waged war on the relaxed, sensuous instincts of ordinary people, formal courtesy has been used not as an expression of love, but as the mask of it. This mask can reach a monstrous pitch of hypocrisy in some cultures — my own being first among them, alas — which position themselves in refined opposition to the brutal discourtesy of others, while sharing their essential lovelessness.
As Cervantes noted.
Ultimately. Unselfish experience is one with the self as we know it, in which it feels, thinks, senses and operates, in response to the context.
In the past men in black robes worshipped images of murdered gods and blessed mothers. Today, as Illich noted, men in white robes worship images of the earth in space and the embryo in the womb.
Love, like mad laughter — a subject for a future essay — is a form of knowledge. Sacrifice of subjectivity reveals a panjective experience of the quality of objects ‘from within’. See Self and Unself. See also The System and the Self, in Ad Radicem for a beginner’s guide to the subtle, but powerful idea that consciousness ‘precedes’ the represented world of the self and reveals, qualitatively, the inner experience of the other.