The first time I wondered about what people called love, the question was not my own. It appeared in front of me in the cover of a book that my favourite aunt gave me as a present: What is Love? Since it was a children’s book the pages were filled with illustrations of people who were either kissing, looking at each other’s eyes, or smiling. Most of the scenarios were rural and included sun, trees, birds, flowers and, for some reason, plenty of snails. All the illustrations conveyed a sense of peace and simplicity. A lot has changed since my aunt gave me that book. Life became richer, more complex and more challenging. Other pictures of love manifested themselves in real life as well as in the (less illustrated) books I read.
In the Symposium, Plato presents us with a discussion on love. Diotima tells the myth of Poros and Penia (203a-e). Poros is the representation of resourcefulness and Penia that of want. Their child Eros is by nature in a constant, almost obsessive, state of need and thrive for possession, and his aspiration is driven by an infinite love for wisdom. Owing to this myth, the popular Western idea of perfect love (also known as platonic love) comes together with the desire for completion. But love seems to be present in less abstract, less contemplative, forms too. It exists in the physical manifestations such as meaningful kisses and bodily embraces. And it is also present in less physical but still worldly interactions such as selfless acts of kindness towards others. Love is there in the ‘eternal’ and abstract ideas as well as in the brief, spurious and mundane acts.
Love can too be in the gaze of those who love. Contrary to the idea that passions and emotional dispositions get in our way when trying to discover truths, love, care, and concern may serve as conditions of possibility for discovering what we value and enable us to perceive what is meaningful. In one of his journal entries, Kierkegaard tells the story of a bird, a swallow, which longs to be loved by a particular girl: [T]he girl would not be able to recognize the swallow, not from a single one of the 10,000 swallows. Imagine [the bird’s] agony when, on arriving in spring, it said ‘It’s me,’ and the girl answered ‘I can’t recognize you.’
The girl cannot love the bird because she cannot distinguish it from the other birds. Loving may be part of what allows us to make distinctions and to recognise aspects of the world surrounding us that are important. And the kinds of truths to be revealed through emotion may too depend on the idiosyncratically biographical perspective of each of us.
Love and suffering are connected. Whatever we love is in constant decay and can disappear, the nature of our existence makes us be exposed to inevitable partings and inescapable pain. The only ones protected against this suffering seem to be those who are loveless. There is imperfection, failure, inadequacy, obsession, selfishness and regret in the way love is manifested. The love that Narcissus had for himself, for example, drove him inevitably to his own death. But love can too grow and make us grow in times of cholera. In Flower and Black Sky, Ken Kiff paints a very dark world, the sky is darkest black. Unlike those first illustrations that appeared in the first book I saw about love, the moon or sun are now clouded circles, there is one lifeless tree and a pale rock. However, in this arid world, a flower lifts up its leaves in a gesture of joy. The petals of the sweet flower glow with such a vitality that no black sky or dying trees can affect its inner radiance.
Happy Valentines to all.
I have always been intrigued by the nature of emotions. My research at the University of Birmingham is dedicated to understanding loneliness and solitude and what these can tell us about the nature of the self and the relationship between an individual and the community.
Right now, I am conducting qualitative interviews with people who have used technology as a means to meet a partner for longer than one year without finding one. If you would like to know more and maybe take part, please email me at VNM630@student.bham.ac.uk.
Furtak, R.A (2013). Love as a Relation to Truth: Envisioning the Person in "Works of Love". Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook 2013 (1):217-242.
Plato, The Symposium 203a–e inCooper, J (ed.), 1997, Plato: Complete Works, Indianapolis: Hackett.