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Vol. 14, No. 2, 2015
 
     
 
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MEDITATION ON LOVE

by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

___________________________________

 

So much has been said and written on the subject of love, we are forced to conclude the subject is inexhaustible, that whatever the truth of love may be, it can only be grasped or approached asymptotically. From gossip columns to romance novels and decades long soap operas, it seems that we can't get enough of hearing about, reading about, or watching people fall in (and out of) love.

If we can agree our attraction to violent sports (boxing, Formula I, bullfighting) is related to our innate (morbid) curiosity about death, we are at least as intrigued by love and its innumerable manifestations because, unlike death, we can experience love and come back and tell. But however numerous the tellings and tales, as well as advances in psychology, anthropology and genetics (mapping the brain), we are still no closer to understanding how love's mysterious operations move us, which predicts our abiding fascination with the love lives of others – whether they be our closest friends or strangers living in far away lands.

In Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the chapter entitled “Research,” the author, attempting to deconstruct the meaning of love, examines in painstaking detail the evolution of life from the single cell to man as he is physically and emotionally constituted, but at the end of all his searching and deep analysis he still can't explain what is a kiss.

French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes love as a feeling that carries us towards someone else.

In the ever expanding universe of the cheap romance novel, great quantities of forests have been cut and ink spilled trying to distinguish between love and desire. But for an unsurpassed rendering of the difference, one only has to turn to Marcel Proust, in Time Regained, whose protagonist, after a 20-year absence, is invited to a social gathering where he is able to reconnect with people he once saw on a daily basis, and rudely finds himself caught unaware how everyone has aged. With the precision of a mortician, he records, as if for legal deposition, how age has eaten away at everyone's youth, including women he formerly loved, but upon seeing them again he realizes it wasn't their person that he loved, but their physical attributes, irrevocably stolen by time, and like a tree shorn of its leaves, what remains is the naked form or the essential woman whom he only now realizes never interested him, that he mistook the emotion of love for his love of the woman's physical charm and appeal, her beauty and sensuality.

In trying to wrap our minds around the essence of love, Proust travels us far, but perhaps not far enough, so we ask: What is the truth of love?

We begin on a cautionary note, recognizing that disclosing the meaning or truth of love may be as next to impossible as rationalizing our aesthetic judgments. To help us climb this precipice whose summit we cannot see, whose many pathways resemble a maze more than a destination, we will conflate Plato (the dialectic method) and personal experience with the small expectation of trying to say something about love that hasn't already been immortalized in poetry and prose, and song and dance.

Plato proposes that to arrive at the truth or essence of anything, such as a table, we must take away everything that doesn't properly belong to it so that what remains are its essential properties which, when initially identified as such (before the word table existed), compelled its inventor or discoverer to attach the name (table) to the new object because it had become a viable (meaningful) entity in the world, much like when a child is birthed its parents instinctively want to name him or her. When something appears or is made to appear out of nothingness, or indifference or sameness, we must name it, in a ceremony that is as sacred as the meaning that is invested in it.

So as a practical exercise, from our table we can remove its tablecloth, tea cups and candle that rest on its surface, as well is texture, colour and design, and the table is still a table. But if we remove the legs, the table loses its tableness.

To help us remove from love all that doesn't properly belong to it, we advert to the fictional character Blind Boy, blind since birth, just turned 15, who has never been in love, whose hands have never touched the female body. Completely outside his purview is the notion of a beautiful face, a sexy body, smooth skin, or anything about the female anatomy. Of the female body, he only knows what he knows of his own body (arms, neck, ears, legs), but when he hears his friends describe a shapely leg, it means nothing to him.

One day Blind Boy is introduced to Girl I, they get to know each other, and in due time Blind Boy falls in love. He doesn't know if Girl I weighs 250 or 110 pounds, and if after the fact he should find out, it won't make any difference because he has already fallen in love. Since his feelings have nothing to do with Girl I's physical appearance, what attracts him to her are her thoughts and feelings about life, family, and her experiences in the world as they reflect her virtues and values. He has never touched or tasted her, but has come to know and connect to her through her voice, which means what he loves about her cannot be separated from her voice. If for some reason he couldn't bear to be in the presence of her speaking voice, all of her other lovable qualities might not be sufficient for him to pass the threshold of falling in love, and the same could be said of smell. So it is through the voice Girl I has revealed herself to Blind Boy and caused him to fall in love.

Let us hypothesize that Girl I has a twin, Girl II, where everything is the same except the voice. Blind Boy will quite naturally fall in love with the voice that pleases him most. And the same will hold if he prefers 45-year-old Woman I's voice more than 15-year-old Girl I's voice.

Again let us hypothesize that Girl I has a male twin, Boy I, where everything is the same except Boy I's voice pleases him more than Girl I's voice. Since Blind Boy (presumed heterosexual) doesn't know who is male and female, he will of course fall in love with Boy I, and for a time (we cannot command ourselves not to love) he will continue to love Boy I, despite their unlike sexual orientation. That Blind Boy, helplessly in love, might decide to subordinate his heterosexuality (The Crying Game) is a game changer that falls outside the scope of this straight and narrow essay. But in a typical life situation where everything is the same and Girl I speaks in a normal female voice and Boy I speaks in a normal male voice, Blind Boy will fall in love with Girl I, which means prior to falling in love, or a priori, he, being male, is psycho-physiologically disposed to identify and be attracted to that which is primordially female, which in Blind Boy's case is revealed -- prior to speech -- through the sound of the voice, its gender specific pitch and emoting patterns.

Since love is a feeling that carries someone over to another, in the absence of any physical stimuli, it is the positive valence of the voice through which the essential person comes to be known that makes the bond possible. Blind Boy cannot fall in love with a mute. But Blind Boy can never be led astray by a woman's physical attributes, he can never confuse love for lust. The woman who is loved by Blind Boy is loved for who she is. Unlike some men, who, when their women lose their bloom and shapeliness, lose interest, Blind Boy is immune to the ravages time will have on the woman with whom he is still in love. If the divorce rate in the western world is in the 45% range, I suspect it is significantly lower among blind couples.

The affairs of Blind Boy have surely illuminated certain aspects of the truth and nature of love, but at the end of the candlelight dinner are we any closer to divulging the essence of love, or formulating a mathematical equation or construct that would enable us to describe or reconstruct the bond that connects two people? Based on Blind Boy's experiences, the only thing we can state with any assurance is that the love or feeling that connects two people has no physical properties. The bond or love that connects Blind Boy to his beloved will not be diminished in the slightest degree whether he is separated from her by ten miles or the distance light travels in a year, and this will hold true for an indeterminate interval (the time of mourning) should death steal her from him.

What Blind Boy teaches us about love is that the precious feelings love gathers and engenders are completely separate from sexual attraction, which is why the elderly, even when no longer physically attracted to each other, can still be very much in love. Women, emotionally more intelligent and evolved then men, are more accepting of sexual infidelity because they understand that love can survive varying degrees of promiscuity provided there is no emotional infidelity. What men fear when their women lust after other men is that at anytime lust may turn into love.

Despite Blind Boy's unique and telling perspective on love -- one that honours both the boy and the emotion – there isn't much we can add to Merleau-Ponty's reductive (phenomenological) observation that “love is an impulse that carries me towards someone else.”

We take funereal note that while the noble profession of philosopher is in its death throes, and on university syllabuses everywhere philosophy has been beaten down to make room for the more pragmatic disciplines (marketing, management, administration), it has always been and remains Plato's philosopher king who is most qualified to precisely render our emotional life by saying only what can be said – and no more.

 

 

 

Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034

 

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