I remember once, when I was in college, talking about love with a man who was a kind of mentor to me. He was an artist and we were standing in his studio looking at some of his recent paintings. He’d been telling me over the previous couple of weeks about how unhappy he was in his marriage, and it was not hard to read the pain he was in on the canvases we were looking at. Perhaps I asked him why he didn’t just divorce his wife, or maybe he felt like he’d already told me so much that he needed to explain himself. Whatever his reasons, when I commented on what I saw as some autobiographical detail in one of the paintings, he said, “You want to know why I don’t divorce her? Because I love her, and by love I mean I still get an erection when I’m near her. It’s like being in a kind of prison.” It was, I thought — and I still think it is — one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard, to feel yourself a prisoner of love because you feel yourself a prisoner of and in your own body. I did not want – actually, it made me angry to think – that this might be what it meant to be in love, and as I drove home I found myself struggling to find a way to tell him that the surrender of self he seemed to be describing was not love. I couldn’t do it. I could name what I was rejecting, but I could not articulate an alternative vision of love that felt right to me. I was too young and too inexperienced.
Reading Attar’s The Conference of the Birds returned me to this conversation from so long ago. As I explained in the previous post in this series, Attar’s Conference is about the birds’ quest to find the Simorgh, their king, and achieve enlightenment. They take as their guide the hoopoe, who defines their quest explicitly in terms of love, “Whoever can evade the Self transcends/This world and as a lover he ascends” (33). A little later on, the hoopoe restates his definition this way:
“A lover,” said the hoopoe, now their guide,
“Is one in whom all thoughts of Self have died;
Those who renounce the Self deserve that name;
Righteous or sinful, they are all the same!” (57)
Once you renounce the Self, in other words, it no longer matters whether you were righteous or sinful. What matters is that you have begun to live, selflessly, in your love, burning for the union that your beloved – in this case, God – will either grant or not, because the union you seek is not something you can make happen. It is something that God gives to you if and when he chooses. The parallel to my former mentor’s situation is hard to miss. The love he felt for his wife, embodied in the erection he had when he was near her, rendered the problems he was having with her, the anger, the resentment, all of it, null and void. Or, to put it another way, in order to fulfill his love, he had to renounce those feelings, give up the self they represented, so that he could, literally and figuratively, stand there naked and hard, yearning for the (in this case sexual) union his beloved could either grant or not. I remember him describing for me how painful it was, how humiliating and shameful, to set aside who he thought he was, to pretend the self his wife and wronged did not even exist, so that he could go to her with the hope – because she might say no – that she would let him into her body. Attar’s hoopoe may be talking about spiritual love, but the pain it describes is remarkably similar to what my mentor experienced:
Heart’s blood and bitter pain belong to love,
And tales of problems no one can remove;
Cupbearer, fill the bowl with blood, not wine—
And if you lack the heart’s rich blood take mine.
Love thrives on inextinguishable pain,
Which tears the soul, then knits the threads again.
A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives
the vital essence to whatever lives.
But where love thrives, there pain is always found;
Angels alone escape this weary round—
They love without that savage agony
Which is reserved for vexed humanity.
Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s path at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task. (57)
Love and pain, the hoopoe says, are inseparable; where you find the first, you will always find the second. Why? Because giving up the self is painful. It doesn’t matter whether that self is attached to money and comfort or religious faith. In order to achieve union with God, you have to give it up, and that means stripping yourself down to the most fundamental level of your being, which the Sufis see — at least as I have come to understand it – as the spiritual version of the lonely and uncertain desire for union represented by my mentor’s erection. Indeed, it’s not hard not to imagine one of these loves as the model for the other, though which you think is which will probably depend on whether or not you believe in a god with whom we were all originally as one and to whom, in that oneness, we long to return. If you do, then you probably see what my mentor called love as a pale, limited and limiting imitation of the more authentic spiritual love the hoopoe is talking about. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in that kind of god, or in any god at all, then perhaps you see the hoopoe’s spiritual love – indeed, the whole monotheistic idea of returning, whole and pure, to our original place with God – as a projection onto the world of our desire to regain the oneness we all knew with our mothers in the womb. Either way, you have still defined love as the desire for an essentially unattainable union.
I have been thinking about this definition of love a lot since I wrote the first post in this series, and I keep coming back to a question I have asked myself many times over years: Is the love you feel for your lover different from the love you feel for your parent/child/sibling/friend? For most people, I think, the answer is obvious. Of course there’s a difference. For as long as I can remember, though, my answer has been no. Love for me is love. It is not divisible and it does not come in different flavors. It makes as little sense to me to say I love you a little as it does to say I love you both, but differently. It may be true that what I want from and for my mother is different than what I want from and for my son, which is, in turn, different than what I want from and for my friends; and those are all different from what I have wanted from and for the lovers I’ve had and what I currently want from and for my wife. Nonetheless, I love them all, even my ex-lovers; and I have not even mentioned the people in my life whom I love but do not particularly like. My relationship with them, certainly, is different from my relationship with everyone else I’ve mentioned, but do I love them differently?
I don’t think so, because I do not think that love is anything other than what it is. It is not sex and it is not desire; love is not the urge to protect someone from harm or build a life with them. Love may inform those and all the other feelings that arise in a relationship; love may compel us towards those feelings; but, at its bottom, love is not those feelings. What, then, is love? What does it mean to love? In English, love is a transitive verb; it takes an object, which means it is something one person does to another.1 But what is it precisely that we do when we love? For me, love is the full and active acceptance in my life of the full independence from my life of the life of the person I love. This is why I so strongly desire, say, my mother’s approval, my son’s respect or my wife’s desire and the sex we have, because I know they have to be given freely, willingly, independently in order to be truly meaningful. This is why I want for my mother, my son, my lover what will truly make them happy, even if it isn’t what I would have chosen for them. This is why the idea that love is something we fall into, or something that overcomes us, or something that drives us crazy, something before which we are helpless, to which we can only surrender, simply does not make sense to me.
So what if love is not the desire for union; what if love is instead about recognizing, embracing, celebrating the other as other, with all the complicated emotional and psychological dynamics such celebration entails? In 1994, Alain Danielou published a new transition of the Kama Sutra called The Complete Kama Sutra. One of the reasons Danielou called it “complete” is that his translation includes two of the commentaries on the original text that, as Danielou put it in his introduction, “represent [the] tradition…without which the text would be incomplete” (5). One of those commentaries is by Devadatta Shastri, and something he wrote has stayed with me since I first read it nearly twenty years ago:
The Shaivas like the Shaktas consider creation as copulation. “Nada, primordial sound, represents the copulation of Shiva and Shakti. The idea is that duality precedes the birth of the Word (shabda) and that duality implies a relation, or copulation, between two principles. Respect, devotion, love, affection, sympathy, friendship, courtship, embraces, kisses are all manifestations of attraction, of relations of an erotic kind. Eros inflames the mind. All philosophical systems consider that “the principle of Kama [eros, eroticism, love] precedes the creative word” (Rig Veda). (18)
I know very little about Hinduism, and so I am sure that my understanding of this passage is really a profound misunderstanding. Nonetheless, when I read it, something clicked in me. The idea that duality precedes, must precede, creation and that creation thus results from the “copulation” of two distinct entities who are, by definition, other to each other, and are therefore immersed perpetually in the complex network of desires and emotions that form all human relationships, just seemed, I don’t know, so much more hopeful than the view of creation in which I had been raised, where everything emerges from the will of a single, transcendent deity. I did not understand why at the time, but now I think it’s because this way of understanding creation jives so much more neatly with what I understand love to be, even though, as I said above, I am very aware that I don’t really understand what the ideas in this passage mean in the context of the religious tradition from which they come.
You may be wondering why, since I don’t believe in a god, I insist on writing about love in the context of religious thinking. One reason is that, when I was younger, I did believe, and I wanted very much to live a religious life; I even thought for a while that I would become a rabbi. As a result, my world view was shaped very early on by a religious sensibility and so that remains the framework within which I see things, even though I don’t accept the framework as an absolute truth of any kind. More than this, though, one way of understanding religion, whether you believe in a god or not, is as a way of giving structure to our relationship as human beings to that which is radically other to us, whether the Other is another person, the natural world, a god or gods; and so I think there is a great deal we can learn from the “systems of being” that religious and spiritual thinkers have developed over the millennia to solve the problem of what it means to be human in the world. How we understand love is a big part of that solution. I am still working through mine.
- Since this is a blog post and not a philosophical disquisition, I hope you will, for the sake of argument and convenience, agree that what we mean when we say I love Chinese food or I love skiing and maybe even I love my dog is not quite what we mean when we tell another human being I love you. [↩]