I’ve just given an interview at my university for a video spot on Valentine’s Day, which, however, turned out to be about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, #Megxit no less.
Video interviews follow a TED talk model, like a commercial, three minutes or less, highly edited, filtered out of an overall context. And, because it’s February and because my research has been concerned with love for a while—The Hallelujah Effect, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape (and school)…—, the overall topic was love. This is exemplified for social media by the difference between ‘love’ and ‘like’ on Facebook, which has little icons to permit users to indicate, almost as if in a parody of the popular difference between loving someone and liking someone, a blue thumbs up like or a little red heart for love. Twitter, jealous of Facebook, infamously changed its iconic signal of approbation to love-signalling with a little blue heart back in 2015, replacing the star, which the whole world claimed to prefer. As it turns out, no one cares, and we ‘heart’ away at what we like.
The more complicated problem is the postmodern condition of love and affect. Thus, back in 1984. in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco reflected on the problem of reference in a literary climate, as Eco was both a philosopher and a successful novelist. How to address, how to charm, the object of desire, when that object has heard it all? Eco muses:
“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.’”
The problem is one of irony, as this is deeply entwined with love and its second-guessing of itself and the object of its desire. When I first joined Twitter, Eco or, more likely, his minion followed me and I was on cloud nine, minion or not. In the same postmodern way, when Twitter changed its star to a heart, moving from a kind of objective marking to subjective enthusiasm, no one was fooled. But Twitter justified its decision in Umberto Eco-esque, pomo fashion, claiming that one can only have one favorite, cutting the like/love distinction. And this is the way irony works, as Plato illustrates it and as Eco emphasizes: you say it, you don’t/can’t mean it, the other knows you don’t/can’t mean it but goes along anyway.
Back in 2019, I gave a lecture for ‘faculty day’ on the theme of love, developing an essay originally published in an LARB post (on the Children Act). The talk itself — “Philosophy, or Love Actually” — was enjoyable, if not without backlash. There was an aggressive fallout from a colleague, since analytic philosophers, being in the majority, tend to become incensed, to the point of rage in this case, if one notes the fact of the analytic-continental divide—as I did—and that they have all the power. And, since in addition to being female, there is also the vulnerability of age: #metoo.
A photo from that day (before the aftermath) was taken by a friend from Political Science, Nick Tampio, who also asked a brilliant question and who asked me to backtrack my slides to one illustrating the four kinds of love. But, as Twitter realized about love and its polyvalences, I was trying to go beyond the four in question, to xenia, the rights of a guest, a key notion for a political theorist. It refers to the love of the stranger, which is crucial today in an age of migrant crises and which entails the hospitality we owe the guest. The principle of hospitality is important in the Bible, where Abraham hosts strangers who turn out to be Jehovah and his angels. It is also related in Greek myth, where an old couple, Philémon und Baucis, sacrifice all they have to host two vagabonds, offering kindness to gods in disguise: Zeus and Hermes, the god who mediates all encounters between the mortal and the divine.
The classical list, as C.S. Lewis and others detail it, is: storgē, love of the home or the family; philia or friendship, which we hear in philosophy as love of wisdom; eros which is what we’re most interested in — taking us back to the #metoo movement, including questions of men and women in love. (One of the reasons we continue to find Alan Rickman’s betrayal of Emma Thompson in the 2003 Love, Actually so disquieting is that this is a compound betrayal of storgē/philia/eros.) — And then there is agapē, a pure, specifically selfless love, in contrast to eros, which is anything but selfless. Agapē is anticlimactic, and even St. Augustine, praying for grace, prayed to be perfect but, as he famously wrote, not yet.
The hierarchy of kinds of love mirrors — to tell a fanciful, proto-evolutionary story — the story of our lives. We’re born into storgē, family love, the love of home and hearth. That can be conflicted to be sure, as Robert Frost reminds us: ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.’
Thus, we’ve just gone through the holiday season dedicated to storgē, as also reflected in Love, Actually and the 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life. Philia, friendship, is included in marriage, as well as at school. Then, there is the theme of love matters at university, and eros—hence, the connection to St. Valentine’s day. Finally, some of us reach agapē, pure love, love for its own sake, love of god especially.
I emphasized, as Plato and Augustine do, that we all want love, and it is love that draws us upward as Goethe notes, improving everything about the world and about ourselves. I also pointed to the sharper, darker sides of love: that it can break us, or bend us down, to use Hölderlin’s language for love’s near and future danger to us.
Falling in erotic love is like falling into a maelstrom of intoxication, and there are always low points: the Greek poet, Anacreon compares it to being knocked flat by a blacksmith’s hammer, as Anne Carson cites him in her book, Eros, the Bittersweet. ‘Sweetbitter’ is the Greek glukúpikron in Sappho’s poem to Eros: a word order inverting our English convention and so much truer to life: glukú sweet, pikron, bitter. Thus, the Greeks emphasized the negativity or visceral disaster that is the impact of love. As Archilochus writes: it rips your lungs out. Actually.
And we’re all for it: we long for it, we want it. Eros undoes us, and the same lyric where we encountered the word, glukúpikron, we find lusimélēs, limbs dissolved, mingling one into another. The song originally recorded by the Big Bopper, Chantilly Lace in 1958, and featured in several films, including the 1973, American Graffiti, rhymes the intoxication effected by Chantilly, her walk, her laugh — the Greeks have the same enthusiasms — and the results that ‘make the world go round,’ transforming the singer, unhinging him, lusimélēs, the modern poet’s phrase make me feel real loose, indeed, make me act so funny, make me spend my money, punctuated. And that is the point of it: that’s what I like.
Eros is dangerous, Plato tells us. He is the oldest god, he is the youngest god, and everything about him is dyadic, despite, or more accurately, because of the dangers. Michel Foucault wrote about dietetics and strategies that might enhance the positive and reduce the negative, but, in the end, Cupid’s arrow is an engine of death, and talking of that takes us to Freud.
I looked to philia to highlight what love actually does, and I spoke of Nietzsche on love as a hermeneutic tactic along with one of Fordham’s teachers from a few decades before my time, Dietrich von Hildebrand, because, in addition to ideals closer to agapē, he spoke of intentio benevolentiae to highlight the generosity Nietzsche emphasized. This is the generosity we can bring to everything we want to understand whether books, events, or people.
When we love, we give the other the benefit of the doubt, cut them all kinds of breaks. When we fail to love, we lack generosity and what is more, we are prone to resentment, disdain, anger. Love is about generosity. It is about not minding faults, and the love of wisdom, philosophy, is or can be, beyond analytic anger, hermeneutically generous in the same way: faults and all.