In the face of the coronavirus pandemic to isolate has become a social act, an act of care, if also one tinged with anxiety, and of course, one that is enforced in those countries whose citizens exist in so-called “lockdown”. Commentators have naturally speculated on the effects of such isolation; on individuals, on families and on lovers/couples. For example, and taking the case of the couple, one can wonder will love deepen, be re-found where it has waned, or will we see in time a leap in divorce/separation rates? Regardless of the outcome it seems clear that this question of who, how and what it is one loves (e.g. in one’s partner) will for many come more sharply into focus, and then, beyond the couple, the question also of what place love occupies, or could occupy, more generally in life. Indeed, it is strange but true, that in this time of a global tragedy, one in which many have, and many will, continue to die, and where extreme economic hardships will follow, love, as the sea of goods and consumptive satisfactions fade, takes on, once again, a new-found significance.
In this context I would like to begin with two quotations, the first from Hannah Arendt, the second from the closing verse of Auden’s magnificent poem “September 1, 1939”:
This mere existence, that is, all that is mysteriously given to us at birth and which includes the shape of our bodies and the talents of our minds, can be adequately dealt with only by the unpredictable hazards of friendship and sympathy, or by the great and incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine “ Volo ut sis” (I want you to be), without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation. (Ardendt 2009:301)
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame. (Auden: 1940)
Both of these pieces, in quite different contexts, point to love as a mysterious form of affirmation, something that arises as a demand not based on need, and one can add, as essentially tied to speaking, meaning there is no love outside speech, or to put it differently, love is its expression.
Lacan in his seminar Transference (1960-61) gives us a quite beautiful description of what he terms “the miracle of love” via the following metaphor or myth which describes a reaching towards the object, presenting us with an image whereby this reaching of the lover towards the beloved is reciprocated, the beloved revealed – as lover:
The hand that extends towards the fruit, the rose, or the log that suddenly bursts into flames – its gesture of reaching, drawing close, or stirring up is closely related to the ripening of the fruit, the beauty of the flower, and the blazing of the log. If, in the movement of reaching, drawing, or stirring, the hand goes far enough towards the object that another hand comes out of the fruit, flower, or log and extends towards your hand – and at that moment your hand freezes in the closed plenitude of the fruit, in the open plenitude of the flower, or in the explosion of a log which bursts into flames – then what is produced is love. (p. 52)
Here one can say love is not a thing but a movement, a process or merging between two subjects, almost indecent, a being-with the other that exists as a known existential and vital force, and yet, for all that, remains outside knowledge, graspable only via the endless images of love we create (e.g. in literature, poetry, art etc.). Love is thus originary, ungrounded in this sense, a creative act, (one might say), that simultaneously creates the possibility of its own loss, a presence thus haunted by its possible absence, one form of which arises in the deep and despairing agony of unrequited love.
If the above attempts to describe the core what one might call a “pure” love (love as mutual) it is true that love also has its variations. For example, there is love of family, of friends, of the other to whom one extends an extra-ordinary act of care, and then, of course, love has its degraded forms. In the latter case, one can point to the sort of love that seeks to possess the other, objectifying “them” via forms of demand that insist they confine their being to the images the would-be “possessor” insists on, meaning those that serve his or her self-satisfaction. Here, accepting that narcissism is always there in love (one loves oneself in-love), one encounters here only that, the other must be useful/serve one’s ideals, and in so far as this is a longing for a fixed or permanent possession – it longs for an illusion. Invariably in this form of love, one is never far from the “master/slave” dialectic, from the deployment of power, the “if-then” of the act that displays its unfreedom in the rejection of the essential autonomy and difference of the other. Of course, such relationships exist, and even last, bolstered by the routines of life, consuming pleasures (shared or not), the small separations that make “it work” – which today, in our “time of isolation”, are increasingly unavailable. One should also mention here a form of love that exists when no one is fully there, where there exists a sort of accommodation to the other, whereby “we drift along” sums up a relationship and its capacity to ignore the emptiness, or starkness of the gap, between the two – something that isolation promises to make all too obvious.
Finally, it is worthwhile to consider the wider dimensions of love, meaning love as it manifests more generally in the social bond, in forms of relatedness to the other that acknowledges our lack of self-sufficiency, the unique way, one might say, that each of us must find that “plugs us into” the social bond. Arguably, the tragedy of the pandemic that we are struggling with, shows us quite clearly that this “plugging in” has a dimension that is without borders, highlighting our shared humanness. It leads to a question, the answer to which remains far from clear. Namely, could this stark and global-wide experience of vulnerability and loss become a platform for a new kind of identification with the other? We cannot be naïve and think of love as “the solution” but maybe one might consider “respect” to be quite close to love, at least as Arendt defines it, as follows:
… a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us, and this regard is independent of qualities which we may admire or of achievements which we may highly esteem” (p. 243)
It returns us to the “I want you to be” of Arendt’s earlier quote and to the fact that, there is a sense in which, it is not isolation that separates us, but rather, it has something to do with our capacity to speak well of love …
References: Arendt, Hannah (2009). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Benediction Classics Auden W. H. (1940). Another Time. Random House Publishing. Lacan, J. (2015/1960-61). Transference. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VIII. Ed. J-A Miller. Trans. B. Fink. Polity Press. Image@Aly Song / Reuters