May 23, 2007
A few months ago, maybe as much as a year, there was a lot of activity on this blog concerning questions of love and what it is. There still appears to be interest in the topic.
At that point we had a regular reader (“benedict s.”) who was always suggesting that we all read Spinoza, because he believed the philosopher had as many answers as we had questions. I believe he’s not blogging himself any more – and he seldom visits here, because, he tells me, he’s completing his book on Spinoza.
While I attempted to define love, or at least to confine it, isolate it and break it down, he gave us Spinoza’s simple and felicitous definition “Love is joy attached to an object.”
Being sometimes a contrarian, I thought I could do better. It never seemed to me that joy was synonomous with love, although joy could at times be a component of the complex emotion.
I reminded him of something I’d written several years before:
Love is a word that has baffled those of us whose mother tongue is English ever since there was such a language. For one word to encompass all the meanings of love is probably as limiting to the emotion itself as it is to the attempt to define it. This impoverished vocabulary may actually have contributed to the emotional restraint of the English. Mother love, romantic love, love from a grandchild, love of life, love of God – are these things the same?
Love is not necessarily an emotion. It is more likely the substance of the heart, the source, the sustenance of the spirit, the food behind all that is positive in human existence. It is unquestioning sacrifice, unrequited mercy, unsolicited grace.
In later discussions, the reader calling himself “Officious Oaf” asked what homosexuality was all about, and did it fall in the realm of the “normal” or was it an illness, aberration, or what.
I responded that to my way of thinking it was all about love.
Love itself is hardly usual, but it is normal. Normal madness, perhaps, that eventually evolves into comfort, support and well-being in the presence of a particular other person. I wouldn’t agree with Spinoza here, that it could be defined as “joy attached to an object,” since there is so much conflict within love that “joy” is only one facet of it. How about “madness attached to an object”? Clever, but hardly sufficient. Such a definition would have to incorporate the reality that, with time, the madness of true love abates to a dull roar and then spirals into acceptance.
The Spinoza disciple wrote this comment:
On a less serious note, what's this business with love being madness? I've heard poets say that, but just put it down to license. Love always seemed a joy to me. Still does. But there are sometimes confusions that attach themselves to particular loves.
I know a guy who has had three wives -- not at the same time -- and still loves them all. Same guy has had several other loves that he still loves. And I can tell you for a fact, all his loves still give him joy. Madness? Maybe. But in his private madhouse, they feed well.
To which I wrote this comment:
Love is passion, conflict, chaos, pathos, cosmos, peace, hope, sanity, madness, sorrow, and joy too. It engages and confronts every emotion possible, including desperation and pain. Not all love, of course, is any one of these things, and seldom is it all -- and probably never all at the same time unless it is really madness. Shall we say it is a complex emotion and leave it at that?
I have one more tangent to go onto here before I leave love behind this time, however – the concept of obsession. A sometime addict of the Dr. Phil show, I was intrigued at the mentally unbalanced man stalking his own wife as shown on the program over the past few weeks. His possessiveness and paranoia had driven her away from him, and yet he persisted in deception of himself and everybody surrounding him, in and outside the rehab facility Dr. Phil sent him to, all the while calling it “love.” I am reminded how often real madness is attributed to love, and how seldom, in our rush to allow everybody one love for his or her own life, we have screened the use of the very word love. There are those of us who are tied to people for a lifetime through obligation, dependency, or need – at times theirs rather than our own. Sometimes when we say “I love you,” we actually mean something else entirely, but we are more comfortable normalizing ourselves with the one emotion everybody is expected to understand.
Few of us really do understand it. I had an emotional crisis myself about 15 years ago. I had been “in love” many times in my life but had never quite gotten my mind around what was happening in my heart. I was attracted to people who had no love to give, yet I assumed what I was getting was enough. Worse, I assumed it was the best I could have. In my therapy and support groups, I tried to understand and recapture the feeling of love, to identify it. My heart’s search kept taking me back to the same time, place and people – my grandpa and my auntee (great aunt), and myself the toddler on their knee. Then I thought of my own daughter. I knew the closest I had ever had to love came from these sources and I cherished that reality. That would always be love for me.
Now I have two grandsons, and when I think of them I am overwhelmed with how much love there is in the world. They show me love with every movement, and I love the opportunity of loving them. The love that goes back and forth between us has a great deal of joy in it, but it is enriched by concern, tenderness, and commitment.
As a single person, I admit there is always the possibility of romantic love around some corner -- the hope of ending my days with the love of my life. Ah, come on, I say to myself. The days you have left are few and the possibility of a certain relationship – a one and only – ever coming on the horizon lessens with every passing year. And what on earth would you want that for now? All the questions keep coming back.
In all the previous discussions, I seem in all too big a hurry to drop the subject. If someone cares to elucidate the topic for the rest of us, I’ll keep it afloat as best I can.