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Sad Love by Carrie Jenkins
Stephen Anderson is sad about modern writings on love.
What does a ‘’professional, middle-class, middle-aged, white, polyamorous feminist”, from a ‘’lower-middle-class British household” characterized by ‘’a focus on underdogs, pessimism, left-wing political satire and toilet humour”, who today has two live-in partners (one active, one not), know about love? It seems that what she knows is that love is ‘sad’.
Carrie Jenkins unloads all that personal information on readers right at the start of Sad Love (2022). Did we need to know all that? Did we even want to? Perhaps not. But she seems to feel it’s vital to spill it anyway. And in a way, it’s good she does. If nothing else, it serves to explain the rather strange structure and procedure of her argument.
According to her bio, Jenkins is a professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and holder of the Canada Research Chair. Given the impressive history of philosophical discourses on love available to her, from Plato’s Symposium to Kierkegaard’s Works of Love and C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, one might have hoped that she would render to the reader something well-grounded in the philosophical tradition, aiming to add to the considerable stock of wisdom on the subject: some sage meditation on the paradoxical roles of deprivation, longing, setbacks and heartbreak, perhaps; or, plausibly, something substantial on trysts and tristesse. But no. That’s not at all what we get. Rather, what Jenkins seems earnest to afford us is a look into her personal meditations on the opportunities and difficulties of unconventional relationships.
Jenkins wants to shatter what she sees as the imminent threat, in our day, of people succumbing to a Disneyfied set of ‘happily ever after’ love expectations. To do so, she proposes ‘a new theory of love’, which she calls ‘ eudaimonic’, which has “deep connections with creativity and meaningfulness of the kind the search for ‘happy ever after’ could never have.” She insists that ‘the contemporary romantic ideal’ tends to make us miserable, and pointlessly so. In view of this, she’s working to frame “a conception of love in which sadness has a role… as something other than a failure condition.” Ambitious, that.
How does she go about it? Well, she borrows from Aristotle; but exceedingly loosely and merely nominally. She likes his word ‘eudaimonia’, which she identifies with ‘flourishing’ and ‘well-being’, and parses down to its elements as ‘wellness’ plus ‘spirited’. This, she claims, warrants her retranslating eudaimonia into ‘being surrounded by good spirits’, which include ‘’good people, healthy environments, positive influences, supportive communities”, perhaps ‘deities’ or even ‘’something abstract – art or music itself.” She advocates that by so surrounding ourselves we may build a new kind of love, instead of merely waiting around for happiness to be delivered to us by good fortune. The new love will turn out to be ‘collaborative’, she says, though ‘’the details… will be different for all of us.” What she’s sure of, however, is that “we are better off without those old-style, one-size-fits-all philosophies of ‘human nature”’ that led to conventional (mis)understandings of love and happiness.
There is a predictable Leftist flavour to everything she writes here. She trots out that old socialist saw, ‘the personal is the political’, and throws in frequent asides on the conventional liberal-extremist modern talking points: whiteness, capitalism, colonialism, hierarchy, patriarchy, consumerism, conservatism, traditional families and sex norms, climate change, the American dream, and Donald Trump (who for some reason always seems to appear in spirit wherever liberal Leftists gather to grind their teeth). She certainly makes no secret of her political affiliations – any more than she does of her personal and private practices.
‘Collaborative’ and ‘collectivist’ are also important words for her. “Meaning-making”, she insists, “is always in a sense collaborative”. Consequently, love must become “a collaborative work of art.” It’s really a kind of sex-socialism she’s advocating – a dynamic collectivist erotic process: “It’s about you, and the people you (want to) love, figuring [love] out and working toward it together.” She says: “it takes a village to fall in love.” So, she exhorts, surround yourself with good people and things, and experiment freely, according to whatever seems most likely to bring you a sense of meaning: “We don’t have to conform to roles handed out to us by ‘nature’ or by our ‘character’, or by anything else… I may have no predetermined essence, nor am I the soul author of my own life story. There is a collaborative creation process going on: a collective co-authoring by (and of) myself and other daimons [spirits].”
The key thing, she believes, is to ‘build’ something, rather than to look for it to ‘be there for the taking’. This will not, she insists, guarantee you any such trivial thing as mere happiness; but it might yield you a deeper sense of ‘meaning’ or ‘well-being’ – two qualities she leaves undefined, for the reader to figure out.
How is Aristotle, the main philosopher she mentions, supposed to help us out with this? It’s not clear. It’s actually a little odd that she even bothers with Aristotle, for it quickly becomes apparent that she has no real interest in disciplining her argument to anything from his views. For Aristotle, eudaimonia meant ‘a life approved by the gods’, which essentially meant a life of rigorous, habitual virtue, entirely independent of mere temporal happiness, and oriented to long-term moral heroism. His definition contains elements of self-denial and individualism entirely missing from Jenkins’ co-option of his term. In fact, Jenkins frankly admits that ‘’conceptions of eudaimonia inspired by Aristotle do not appeal to me.” This ambivalence about Aristotle is far more confusing than illuminating, so one wonders at the wisdom of her invoking him at all. It seems she wants to borrow his authority without borrowing substantially from his actual arguments. Indeed, rather than drawing on any tradition, Jenkins confesses that she has a “vested interest in getting more philosophical discussion of polyamory on the agenda.” In terms of critical approach and style, she self-identifies as a ‘creative writer’. These admissions really show. She’s very far from Aristotelian, and indeed, far from any other philosophical traditions except socialism, woke liberalism, and a kind of collectivist hedonism, guided by her desire to put polyamory into the mainstream.
The overriding feeling I get from Sad Love is that of being handled. There is an attempt to massage, rather than reason, the reader into agreement, and it’s a little creepy. Jenkins clearly feels to need our assent that alternative sex arrangements are just fine; and all the talk about this offering ‘new paradigms’ for love and a better hope for more meaningful and fulfilling relationships (if not more happy ones – she abandons that quest) comes off as an elaborate attempt at self-justification dressed in philosophical clothes. But these clothes hang far too loosely, and the intellectual approach here is not exactly philosophical. It’s more a creative interpretation exercise, the goal of which seems to be to generate support for Jenkins’ sexual and ideological fetishes. That seems harsh, perhaps. Regrettably, it’s also a fair assessment of the final product. In the end, Jenkins valuing of her own personal experiences becomes determinative for her, and the philosophical traditions on which she claims to draw seem to contribute nothing to her conclusions.
Sad Love is truly quite a sad book. Not a great deal of hope and light spring from its pages, despite Jenkins’ promises that a more ‘meaningful’ and ‘fulfilling’ experience waits over the horizon, if only we capitulate to her liberal massage (sic). She concludes, “It feels as if we’re sailing at night on a troubled ocean, and I’m trying to turn out the lamps in all the old lighthouses. And, to be fair, that is exactly what I am doing. But those beacons were guiding us onto the rocks.” To be sure, this comes across with creative flair – but the thoughtful reader cannot help but notice that Jenkins has rather mistaken the particulars. Lights going out on rocks have rarely boded well for maritime navigation. In a way, though, this summarizes the problem with her whole argument. In turning out the lights of the philosophical past in favour of navigating her own course, she finds herself without essential reference points. She’s navigating in absolute darkness. I cannot help but see Jenkins herself as at sea – a rather unhappy and confused person. It’s her own fault: she’s made this book much more a sort of philosophical diary or meditation than any kind of systematic philosophical treatment, and she’s so lavish in supplying personal details that one cannot escape the feeling that she’s mistaking them for something that should prove persuasive. So, personal reflections and self-exposure seem to have been substituted for logic, reason, and respect for the philosophical tradition; yet far too much relevant reflection exists in that tradition for it to be here passed over so indifferently.
In the end, Carrie Jenkins’ real question in Sad Love seems to be, ‘Why is love in a faltering, polyamorous relationship, so sad?’ And her hope seems to be that that question does not simply answer itself.
© Dr Stephen L. Anderson 2024
Stephen Anderson is a retired philosophy teacher in London, Ontario.
• Sad Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning, Carrie Jenkins, Polity, 2022, 200 pages, $10.80, pb