Monday, July 28, 2008


"All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love." -- Baruch Spinoza

Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677)

copyright Wikimedia Commons/public domain
Define love.

I'd be willing to bet each of you can come up with a dandy definition and not only not agree with one another but not be able to stick to your own definition for long. There are too many kinds of love.

Is the love a mother has for a child the same as the love between best friends? Is it even the same as the love a child has for its mother? Does the love it has for its teddy bear count too? Does an historian's love for history, or a miser's love of money? How about my love for my cats, or my best friend's love for his dogs? Is the love that dazzles young lovers the same as what sustains them when they are in their seventies? If they are all different, are they still all love?

Pepohoan Mother and Child, John Thomson, The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China or Ten years' travels, adventures and residence abroad London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle. 1875. p.224

copyright Wikimedia Commons/public domain
Let's eliminate "being in love" for the moment, which implies a kind of exclusivity of emotion and even commitment, and only consider love itself. There is no love itself; we cannot consider it independently of its subject and its object. Without someone to do the loving and someone or something to receive the love, love has no definition at all. It's not a thing; you can't pick it up and throw it, or drive home in it.

We use the word a lot in hyperbole. "Oh, I love pizza! I love to swim!" That's okay; everyone understands hyperbole; no one misunderstands you to mean that you want to marry, suckle or even devote a fair portion of your life to pizza. (Mind, there are those who do, and those people are considered to be ill.) We say it about performers too, and not only regarding love: "I hate him!" can simply mean you don't care to watch his films. "I love her!" could mean you find yourself whistling along with all of her tunes; you might even have her picture taped to your closet door. In neither case does the subject have any personal relationship with the object; the child sleeps with its bear but most of us have never met our favorite performers, or if we have, it was a brief, impersonal encounter. Sometimes, though, we manage to confuse ourselves with words. We begin to believe our own hyperbole. Thus begins obsession.

I have met men who say they love women. This, to me, is as dubious as a claim to be in love with pizza. Of course, these men could be speaking of their sexual preference for women, usually as opposed to men, and/or their fondness for the company of women, sometimes in addition to the company of men, children and members of other species. However, it generally turns out that men who claim to love women -- and the fact that they claim to love them as a group is telling -- have no individual woman in mind. They quite often have various parts of an individual woman in mind, but no whole individual woman.

a whole, individual spinach pizza, worthy to be the object of love

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Nova
These men do not speak in hyperbole. Although the similarity of this sort of love to a love for, say, pizza is chillingly close, they have no awareness or intention of hyperbolizing.

Why should I pick on men? After all, I have spoken to too many women who have expressed an eagerness to be married. "To whom?" I always ask, and they look at me as if I have asked them to multiply 3,492,234 by the square root of 45,730,221 off the top of their heads. To whom doesn't matter. Well, it matters -- he has to be "nice," or "rich," or "handsome," or "tall" -- but it doesn't matter that they have no one specific in mind; what matters is that they crave the married condition; with whom to share it is a variable to be filled in later. That marriage is considered to be a condition rather than a relationship is what I find problematic. Anyway, I'll tell you why I am, at least for a short while more, picking on men: it's because men are traditionally in charge of keeping both attitudes alive.

Let's go back, then, to the men who love women. You'll find breast men and leg men, butt men and even the romantic eye men. A good whole-woman man is hard to find, and when you find him I have no doubt you'll also find that his idea of loving a whole woman is loving the sum of her parts. There is no individual, integrated woman in his fantasy. She is a combination of qualities.

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Matthew Bowden
Of course we all tend to idealize: children dream of the ideal parent long before they begin to seek partners, and a mother wonders what the little mite in her womb will grow up to be. Alas, the little mite, once born, might remain an idealized object of its parents' plans for it. They might or might not ever love it for itself. First comes recognition of the individual; without that, there is only objectification. (Ever ask your teddy bear who it really is?)

Who is this bear?

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Matthew Bowden
Marriages can fall out that way too. One spouse discovers that s/he has no idea who the other spouse is. The whole deal was concluded, from daydreaming to first meeting to courtship to the birth of the first couple dozen kids, without any attempt to recognize the individual hidden within the illusion of the ideal. "I don't know who you are anymore!" cries the frustrated partner. "You never did," comes the sad, accurate reply.

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