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George Mason on love as shared identity.
“where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”
Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XVII
In his dialogue The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes recount his myth of the lovers. Human beings were once physically paired, Aristophanes says: creatures with two faces, four arms, four legs. In this form we were powerful enough to challenge the gods, and so Zeus split us forever in two. Condemned to this solitude, humans would wander the Earth searching for their lost halves, and on meeting them, “would throw their arms about each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to grow together.”
Aristophanes’ account speaks to a need still keenly felt today for an intimacy denied to us by the human condition: “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”
Artwork © Cecilia Mou 2024
True, our psychological isolation is a necessary tragedy of our material individuation. We exist as physical beings, but we experience our selves as ephemeral coalitions of thought and feeling, forever bounded by flesh and bone. Words, endlessly ambiguous, are grievously imperfect vehicles for communication to another mind. Through them we give others not a window to our being and meaning, but a foundation on which to build their own; as Roland Barthes says, communication ultimately allows us representation in another’s mind, but never presence. “Literary prose is the best system we’ve ever devised for really accessing the subjectivity of another human being,” writes Sam Kriss, “but for it to work, the other person has to be absent, annulled in words, stripped down to the ghost of a voice.” (‘The Idiot Joy Showland coronavirus reading list’, blogpost, 2020).
Love attempts to remedy this problem, but it can only flourish when we treat each other as ends rather than merely means. Immanuel Kant argued that to treat each other merely as means rather than as free individuals (‘ends-in-themselves’) – for example, to pursue loveless sex – is to disregard the other’s rationality, to treat a human being as nothing more than an object, to degrade their humanity.
We can go further, to observe that any relationship pursued merely for personal gain adheres to this same inhuman logic. To demand that our partners are there only to improve our own lives, and vice versa, is to reduce the boundless wonder of intimacy to a transactional exchange of benefits – to reduce it to the logic of capitalism. Karl Marx held that the capitalist mode of production obscures the social relations between workers, disguising them as material relations between things, and alienating people from their labour by making such relations “independent of their control and their conscious individual action” – and so independent of the expression of their humanity. In the reduction of love from human expression to pure transaction, a similar process of alienation occurs. And historically, we see that marriage has frequently followed these instrumentalist contours: wives were often reduced to domestic servants and child rearers, to vessels of patrilineal property descent; husbands reduced to patriarchs and providers. In these circumstances, gay love, pursued in spite of the tragic social and personal consequences it often entailed, naturally cleaved more closely to human flourishing. Doomed and hopeless heterosexual love offered a similar valence.
The modern hyperfocus on abuse, codependency, and other psychopathologies in relationships signals the modern retreat from real love. We must never advance the tendency towards destructive and abusive relationships, of course; but for us to pathologise our lovers’ needs for our time, energy, and emotion when these needs detract from other important areas of our lives, is, as per Kant, for us to reduce our lovers to means rather than ends. It is to retreat from the human potentials of adult mutual responsibility into a stunted and childlike self-concern.
Aristotle dismissed this sort of retreat as a love of pleasure and utility, and saw it as the pursuit of the kind of transient and self-serving connections sought by the young. This corresponds today to the broader neoteny (retention of childlike behaviours into later life) which is inherent in neoliberalism. The gutting of the labour movement (making striking illegal, etc) brought with it an erosion of the working class gains which formed the material basis of working class prosperity under the post war consensus: of long-term well-paying jobs, stable living standards, the opportunity to buy a home to raise a family in, and so on. The loss of these things is mirrored in the sociocultural extension of adolescence which is the decline of love as a mature commitment to another’s humanity, and its replacement with a capricious and demanding affection closer to that of a young child’s relationship to their parents. This self-regarding love befits liberal individualism rather than mutual solidarity. The ubiquity of both dating apps and multiple partners is one outcome of this process, remaking the cursory and transactional relationship style of youth into an enduring adult norm.
Such self-orientation exists in tension with what we know about the potential of love both from our own experience and in the broader sweep of human culture. Real love makes no account of benefits and losses; rather, it demands the mutual exchange of absolute regard, joyfully saying “You matter more to me than myself!” It’s only through this intimacy of care and emotion that we can hope to achieve the kind of epistemic intimacy – the true knowing of and by another – that allows us to escape the solitude that our existence as discrete physical beings entails. This insight is an old one: even the love of God – that ultimate love – consists in such intimate knowledge, according to St Paul: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Of course, we can never achieve totally unmediated intersubjectivity – never entirely escape our material individuation to become one with our lovers as Aristophanes would desire. But through love we encounter enough intimacy that a kind of joint intentionality emerges – a greater version of that convergence of consciousnesses which allows us to experience ourselves as members of families, communities, causes, and of the human race itself. In this way, lovers’ individual identities are destroyed, then remade; the lovers become something new: both the coalescence of two people and something inexorably more than that. For Viktor Frankl this is “the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality,” and to “see that which is potential in him. That which is not yet actualised but yet ought to be actualised” (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946). Thus it’s only in love’s mutual identification that our true human potential is revealed – that we can, in Aristophanes’ terms, approach the stature of gods. But such love requires temperance and respect as much as passion. As Simone de Beauvoir writes: “Authentic love must be founded on the reciprocal recognition of two freedoms; each lover would then experience himself as himself and as the other: neither would abdicate his transcendence, they would not mutilate themselves; together they would both reveal values and ends in the world” (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949).
Such restraint, and so the love that goes with it, is never fully realised, of course – and so there’s a deep, keening horror to all this, a wordless promise of ruin.
The 2018 film Annihilation is an extended meditation on the agony produced by this destruction and reconstitution of the self and the inevitability of loss. Lena, having engaged in an affair, searches for her missing husband Kane in ‘the Shimmer’, a zone of alien presence and blind, insensate intent where DNA itself unravels and reforms, rendering the cold obscenity of self-negation manifest. Intestines writhe like snakes, monsters speak with stolen human voices, fingerprints shift and change as you watch. One woman speaks of the twin character of grief entailed by lost love: for the loss of the lover, and for the person you once were. In the course of their journeys, both Lena and Kane are entirely physically annihilated and remade of the alien presence itself, becoming literally constituted of the same being. In the closing scene, the pair are the only survivors of the dozens who entered the Shimmer. Lena asks her husband if he’s Kane: “I don’t know. Are you Lena?” Ultimately, they embrace. The film closes on the chorus of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s ‘Helplessly Hoping’, which acts as a motif of their relationship throughout: “They are one person, they are two alone, they are three together, they are for each other.”
Given this agony – given the desperate horror threatened by betrayal, and guaranteed by the certainty of death and loss – why then love?
We can ask a deeper question: why live? Albert Camus argued that suicide is the ultimate human dilemma: faced with the crushing indifference of the universe and the terrifying weight of our freedom, why should we go on?
We’ve each already answered this, no doubt, and do so again repeatedly. But in choosing life we must do so fully, in all its colour and intensity, or else we condemn ourselves to a half-realised existence spent in a cowardice of indecision. Thus life demands we approach the question of love neither in naïve ignorance of its dangers, nor in a cynical guardedness against them, but with the steadfast courage of a person determined to live while they still have breath. In this way, to love is to face the human condition in all its wonder and horror: to witness the tragedies of life, the certainty of death, and of weakness and human evil, and to commit yourself to human good all the same. To build a fire against the dark of unbeing, knowing we will one day turn to ash, and to nonetheless rejoice in its light, together.
© George Mason 2024
George Mason is a mature student studying Politics and Philosophy at the London School of Economics.