Swiss Philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel on Love, Its Torments, and Its Redemptions
By Maria Popova
“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” Anaïs Nin admonished.“It creates the failures. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.” And yet the tension between this anxiety and the longing for love that underpins it, for “the great intangible,” is one of the most pervasive and enduring inner contradictions we struggle to reconcile, the inevitable discomfort of allowing “the boundaries between you and not-you … relax and become more permeable” as union submerges isolation, the proud surrender that true love necessitates.
Swiss philosopher, poet, and critic Henri-Frédéric Amiel (September 27, 1821–May 11, 1881) — a man with a brilliant mind and a tormented soul — is one of those peculiar figures who, not unlike Anaïs Nin herself, attained only marginal acclaim for their formal body of work, but whose posthumously published private journals have gone on to become timeless masterpieces of philosophy and literary contemplation. The Journal Intime of Henri-Frédéric Amiel, originally published in 1882 and now known simply as Amiel’s Journal (public library; public domain) is a true masterpiece of philosophy and perennial wisdom — a confession, a lament, a record of the unabated struggle to reconcile his inner life with the practical demands of the outer world, at once a resignation to Amiel’s own weakness and a refusal to give up on the ideals of his highest self, a work of remarkable psychological impact that endures as the “indestructible sympathy of man with man, that eternal answering of feeling to feeling, which is one of the great principles, perhaps the greatest principle, at the root of literature.”
In the original introduction, French critic M. Edmond Scherer, who edited the volume, exposes the bittersweetness at the heart of Amiel’s journal:
The man who, during his lifetime, was incapable of giving us any deliberate or conscious work worthy of his powers, has now left us, after his death, a book which will not die. For the secret of Amiel’s malady is sublime, and the expression of it wonderful.
Six months after the publication of the first volume, the prominent 19th-century English author Mark Pattison sent Scherer a letter, encapsulating the universal significance of why unearthing such obscure gems and bringing them to light, again and again, matters:
As I cannot suppose that so peculiar a psychological revelation will enjoy a wide popularity, I think it a duty to the editor to assure him that there are persons in the world whose souls respond, in the depths of their inmost nature, to the cry of anguish which makes itself heard in the pages of these remarkable confessions.
Among Amiel’s greatest, most abiding insights are his conflicted thoughts on love. He longs for it, almost painfully:
I cannot escape from the ideal of it. A companion, of my life, of my work, of my thoughts, of my hopes; within a common worship — toward the world outside kindness and beneficence; education to undertake; the thousand and one moral relations which develop round the first — all these ideas intoxicate me sometimes.
But he finds himself consistently unable to stay present with the very capacity for happiness that inviting love necessitates:
Reality, the present, the irreparable, the necessary, repel and even terrify me. I have too much imagination, conscience, and penetration and not enough character. The life of thought alone seems to me to have enough elasticity and immensity, to be free enough from the irreparable; practical life makes me afraid. I am distrustful of myself and of happiness because I know myself. The ideal poisons for me all imperfect possession. And I abhor useless regrets and repentance.
On May 17, 1849, he writes, once again conflicted:
To be misunderstood even by those whom one loves is the cross and bitterness of life. It is the secret of that sad and melancholy smile on the lips of great men which so few understand; it is the cruelest trial reserved for self-devotion. . . . Alas! alas! never to tire, never to grow cold; to be patient, sympathetic, tender; to look for the budding flower and the opening heart; to hope always, like God; to love always — this is duty.
On April 6, 1851, considering the meaning of life, he returns to the same anxious paradox:
Life, is it essentially the education of the mind and intelligence, or that of the will? And does will show itself in strength or in resignation? If the aim of life is to teach us renunciation, then welcome sickness, hindrances, sufferings of every kind! But if its aim is to produce the perfect man, then one must watch over one’s integrity of mind and body. To court trial is to tempt God. At bottom, the God of justice veils from me the God of love. I tremble instead of trusting.
Whenever conscience speaks with a divided, uncertain, and disputed voice, it is not yet the voice of God. Descend still deeper into yourself, until you hear nothing but a clear and undivided voice, a voice which does away with doubt and brings with it persuasion, light and serenity. … This inner identity, this unity of conviction, is all the more difficult the more the mind analyzes, discriminates, and foresees. It is difficult, indeed, for liberty to return to the frank unity of instinct.
Alas! we must then re-climb a thousand times the peaks already scaled, and reconquer the points of view already won, we must fight the fight! The human heart, like kings, signs mere truces under a pretense of perpetual peace. The eternal life is eternally to be re-won. Alas, yes! peace itself is a struggle, or rather it is struggle and activity which are the law. We only find rest in effort, as the flame only finds existence in combustion. O Heraclitus! the symbol of happiness is after all the same as that of grief; anxiety and hope, hell and heaven, are equally restless. The altar of Vesta and the sacrifice of Beelzebub burn with the same fire. Ah, yes, there you have life — life double-faced and double-edged. The fire which enlightens is also the fire which consumes; the element of the gods may become that of the accursed.
If science does not produce love it is insufficient. … Moral love places the center of the individual in the center of being. It has at least salvation in principle, the germ of eternal life. To love is virtually to know; to know is not virtually to love; there you have the relation of these two modes of man. The redemption wrought by science or by intellectual love is then inferior to the redemption wrought by will or by moral love. The first may free a man from himself, it may enfranchise him from egotism. The second drives the ego out of itself, makes it active and fruitful. The one is critical, purifying, negative; the other is vivifying, fertilizing, positive. Science, however spiritual and substantial it may be in itself, is still formal relatively to love. Moral force is then the vital point. And this force is only produced by moral force. Like alone acts upon like. Therefore do not amend by reasoning, but by example; approach feeling by feeling; do not hope to excite love except by love. Be what you wish others to become. Let yourself and not your words preach for you.
Science is the power of man, and love his strength; man becomes man only by the intelligence, but he is man only by the heart. Knowledge, love, power — there is the complete life.
And yet, despite the reflections of Amiel the detached philosopher, Amiel the fallible man remains incapable of fully inhabiting his own capacity for love. On November 6, 1852, he writes:
I am capable of all the passions, for I bear them all within me. Like a tamer of wild beasts, I keep them caged and lassoed, but I sometimes hear them growling. I have stifled more than one nascent love. Why? Because with that prophetic certainty which belongs to moral intuition, I felt it lacking in true life, and less durable than myself. I choked it down in the name of the supreme affection to come. The loves of sense, of imagination, of sentiment, I have seen through and rejected them all; I sought the love which springs from the central profundities of being. And I still believe in it. I will have none of those passions of straw which dazzle, burn up, and wither; I invoke, I await, and I hope for the love which is great, pure and earnest, which lives and works in all the fibers and through all the powers of the soul. And even if I go lonely to the end, I would rather my hope and my dream died with me, than that my soul should content itself with any meaner union.
Touching on our frequent and profoundly disquieting failure to believe the love of others, he admonishes in an entry from December 17, 1854:
It costs us a great deal of trouble not to be of the same opinion as our self-love, and not to be ready to believe in the good taste of those who believe in our merits.
On May 23, 1855, he returns to the self-destructiveness that plagues many of our attempts at love:
Every hurtful passion draws us to it, as an abyss does, by a kind of vertigo. Feebleness of will brings about weakness of head, and the abyss in spite of its horror, comes to fascinate us, as though it were a place of refuge. Terrible danger! For this abyss is within us; this gulf, open like the vast jaws of an infernal serpent bent on devouring us, is in the depth of our own being, and our liberty floats over this void, which is always seeking to swallow it up. Our only talisman lies in that concentration of moral force which we call conscience, that small inextinguishable flame of which the light is duty and the warmth love.
On October 22, 1856, he articulates the notion that “real, honest, complete love requires letting go” and writes:
We must learn to look upon life as an apprenticeship to a progressive renunciation, a perpetual diminution in our pretensions, our hopes, our powers, and our liberty. … It is in this nothingness that we recover something of life — the divine spark is there at the bottom of it. Resignation comes to us, and, in believing love, we reconquer the true greatness.
On November 16, 1864, beholding the mortality paradox, Amiel comes full circle to the very melancholy that both propels his longing for love and prevents its actualization:
Melancholy is at the bottom of everything, just as at the end of all rivers is the sea. Can it be otherwise in a world where nothing lasts, where all that we have loved or shall love must die? Is death, then, the secret of life? The gloom of an eternal mourning enwraps, more or less closely, every serious and thoughtful soul, as night enwraps the universe.
On March 17, 1868, he reflects on women’s experience of love, echoing Stedhal’s concept of crystallization with a sentiment Anaïs Nin would come to second (“Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.”) — but, of course, at the heart of Amiel’s description is the universal vanity of the human experience of love:
Women wish to be loved without a why or a wherefore; not because they are pretty, or good, or well bred, or graceful, or intelligent, but because they are themselves. All analysis seems to them to imply a loss of consideration, a subordination of their personality to something which dominates and measures it. They will have none of it; and their instinct is just. As soon as we can give a reason for a feeling we are no longer under the spell of it; we appreciate, we weigh, we are free, at least in principle. Love must always remain a fascination, a witchery, if the empire of woman is to endure. Once the mystery gone, the power goes with it. Love must always seem to us indivisible, insoluble, superior to all analysis, if it is to preserve that appearance of infinity, of something supernatural and miraculous, which makes its chief beauty. The majority of beings despise what they understand, and bow only before the inexplicable. The feminine triumph par excellence is to convict of obscurity that virile intelligence which makes so much pretense to enlightenment. And when a woman inspires love, it is then especially that she enjoys this proud triumph. I admit that her exultation has its grounds. Still, it seems to me that love — true and profound love — should be a source of light and calm, a religion and a revelation, in which there is no place left for the lower victories of vanity. Great souls care only for what is great, and to the spirit which hovers in the sight of the Infinite, any sort of artifice seems a disgraceful puerility.
He adds to that more than three years later:
If we begin by overrating the being we love, we shall end by treating it with wholesale injustice.
He returns to the subject another nine years later with definitive clarity:
True love is that which ennobles the personality, fortifies the heart, and sanctifies the existence. And the being we love must not be mysterious and sphinx-like, but clear and limpid as a diamond; so that admiration and attachment may grow with knowledge.
On December 26, 1868, he peers once again at the universal with a bittersweet directive:
Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!
On August 14, 1869, he returns to the core ambivalent impossibility of his longing for love:
My longing, my search is for love, for peace, for something to fill my heart; an idea to defend; a work to which I might devote the rest of my strength; an affection which might quench this inner thirst; a cause for which I might die with joy. But shall I ever find them? I long for all that is impossible and inaccessible: for true religion, serious sympathy, the ideal life; for paradise, immortality, holiness, faith, inspiration, and I know not what besides! What I really want is to die and to be born again, transformed myself, and in a different world. And I can neither stifle these aspirations nor deceive myself as to the possibility of satisfying them. I seem condemned to roll forever the rock of Sisyphus, and to feel that slow wearing away of the mind which befalls the man whose vocation and destiny are in perpetual conflict. “A Christian heart and a pagan head,” like Jacobi; tenderness and pride; width of mind and feebleness of will; the two men of St. Paul; a seething chaos of contrasts, antinomies, and contradictions; humility and pride; childish simplicity and boundless mistrust; analysis and intuition; patience and irritability; kindness and dryness of heart; carelessness and anxiety; enthusiasm and languor; indifference and passion; altogether a being incomprehensible and intolerable to myself and to others!
On December 28, 1880, shortly before his death, he points to one of love’s greatest demons:
Jealousy is a terrible thing. It resembles love, only it is precisely love’s contrary. Instead of wishing for the welfare of the object loved, it desires the dependence of that object upon itself, and its own triumph. Love is the forgetfulness of self; jealousy is the most passionate form of egotism, the glorification of a despotic, exacting, and vain ego, which can neither forget nor subordinate itself. The contrast is perfect.
But perhaps most poignant of all is Amiel’s timelessly eloquent reflection on that eternal tug-of-war between mind and heart, on the perils of rationalization, of love’s capacity to save us from our selves, from our own plummet towards nonexistence:
Thought is a kind of opium; it can intoxicate us, while still broad awake; it can make transparent the mountains and everything that exists. It is by love only that one keeps hold upon reality, that one recovers one’s proper self, that one becomes again will, force, and individuality. Love could do everything with me; by myself and for myself I prefer to be nothing.
On November 7, 1862, he examines how this tendency — particularly the toxic despotism of the will — plays out in intimate relationships:
You must love with the same love, think with the same thought as some one else, if you are to escape solitude.
Mutual respect implies discretion and reserve even in love itself; it means preserving as much liberty as possible to those whose life we share. We must distrust our instinct of intervention, for the desire to make one’s own will prevail is often disguised under the mask of solicitude.
Amiel’s Journal is absolutely remarkable in its entirety, the kind of book that, upon reading and rereading, exposes just about every trembling, beautifully conflicted facet of what it means to be human. Pair it with Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on love, culled from her own posthumously published journals.
Published June 5, 2013