Philosopher Alain Badiou on Why We Fall and How We Stay in Love
By Maria Popova
“An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,’” Adrienne Rich memorably wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” That transcendent turbulence of mutual truth-refinement is a centerpiece of the altogether fantastic In Praise of Love (public library) by French philosopher Alain Badiou (b. January 17, 1937) — an impassioned and immensely insightful defense of both love as a human faculty and love as a worthwhile philosophical pursuit.
A century after Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Badiou argues that love is the most potent antidote to the self-interest that dominates the modern world and our greatest hope for bridging the gaping divide between self and other:
Provided it isn’t conceived only as an exchange of mutual favours, or isn’t calculated way in advance as a profitable investment, love really is a unique trust placed in chance. It takes us into key areas of the experience of what is difference and, essentially, leads to the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.
But unlike Tolstoy and Gandhi, who advocated for cultivating an expansive platonic love of one another, and unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., who pointed to the Ancient Greek notion of agape as the kind of love that would cut off the chain of hate between human beings, Badiou advocates for the truth-enlarging value of the most intimate kind of love — the eros of romance:
Love… is a quest for truth… truth in relation to something quite precise: what kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity? That is what I believe love to be.
He considers the evolution of love, from its beginning reminiscent of cosmic inflation to its gradual and ongoing entwining of separate truth-particles into an expansive shared universe of truth:
We shouldn’t underestimate the power love possesses to slice diagonally through the most powerful oppositions and radical separations. The encounter between two differences is an event, is contingent and disconcerting… On the basis of this event, love can start and flourish. It is the first, absolutely essential point. This surprise unleashes a process that is basically an experience of getting to know the world. Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship: it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.
Badiou cautions against our culture’s tendency to fetishize the encounter itself at the expense of the collaborative ongoingness that follows, which is the true substance of love:
Love cannot be reduced to the first encounter, because it is a construction. The enigma in thinking about love is the duration of time necessary for it to flourish. In fact, it isn’t the ecstasy of those beginnings that is remarkable. The latter are clearly ecstatic, but love is above all a construction that lasts. We could say that love is a tenacious adventure. The adventurous side is necessary, but equally so is the need for tenacity. To give up at the first hurdle, the first serious disagreement, the first quarrel, is only to distort love. Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.
This necessary temporal dimension is what moves the experience of love from the plane of chance to the plane of choice — or, rather, of being chosen; chosen, in Mary Oliver’s words, “by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable.” Badiou writes:
To make a declaration of love is to move on from the event-encounter to embark on a construction of truth. The chance nature of the encounter morphs into the assumption of a beginning. And often what starts there lasts so long, is so charged with novelty and experience of the world that in retrospect it doesn’t seem at all random and contingent, as it appeared initially, but almost a necessity. That is how chance is curbed: the absolute contingency of the encounter with someone I didn’t know finally takes on the appearance of destiny. The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it is so perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright.
The locking in of chance is an anticipation of eternity… The problem then resides in inscribing this eternity within time. Because, basically, that is what love is: a declaration of eternity to be fulfilled or unfurled as best it can be within time: eternity descending into time.
Happiness in love is the proof that time can accommodate eternity. And you can also find proof … in the pleasure given by works of art and the almost supernatural joy you experience when you at last grasp in depth the meaning of a scientific theory.
Complement the enormously enlivening In Praise of Love with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why we fall in love, Stendhal on the seven stages of romance, and Mary Oliver on love’s necessary wildness.
Published October 26, 2015