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Philosopher Alain Badiou on How We Fall in Love and How We Stay with Love

“Love is a tenacious adventure… Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.”

“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.

“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923
“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923

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.

'Lee Miller and Friend' by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.
‘Lee Miller and Friend’ by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.

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.

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Sam Shepard in Love, on Love

“There can be a real meeting between two people at the point where they always felt marooned. Right at the edge.”

Sam Shepard in Love, on Love

Of the varied threads of connection that can stretch between two people — threads of innumerable thicknesses, textures, and hues, so difficult to classify and in such constant evolution — which do we get to call “love”? Perhaps love can never be defined in the singular, for it is utterly singular to each person in each relationship at each moment in time — we each love different loves, constantly navigating and negotiating the infinite continuum of meaning with which this one small, enormous word is imbued.

In the history of literature, valiant attempts at definition abound, but perhaps those of them that seem to cut to the heart of the mystery — Rilke’s, Tom Stoppard’s, Shel Silverstein’s, Susan Sontag’s, Anaïs Nin’s, Alain Badiou’s — simply resonate with where we ourselves are at a particular moment in time, in a particular phase of a particular relationship.

One of the richest, most powerful definitions I’ve encountered, exploring love as a union of two sovereign alonenesses and a mutual awakening to dormant parts of each self, comes from the polymathic playwright Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943–July 27, 2017) in Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark (public library) — the great dramatist’s correspondence with his dearest friend, former father-in-law, and spiritual brother.

Both men belonged to “The Work” — a movement of gatherings based on the spiritual teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose philosophy was rooted in the idea that although our default state is a sort of waking sleep, we are capable of waking up. In 1982, Shepard met the actor Jessica Lange on the set of the film Frances, in which he had a supporting role. Lange earned an Academy Award nomination and won Shepard’s heart — the two entered into an immediate and intense romance that effected, as Shepard wrote to Dark, mutual awakening. On St. Patrick’s Day the following year, shortly after the premiere of his play Fool for Love, Shepard moved into Lange’s cabin in Northern Minnesota near Bob Dylan’s birthplace, which he described to Dark as “a town right out of Kerouac.”

Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, 1983 (Photograph courtesy of University of Texas Press)

In a letter penned twelve days later, Shepard writes from the thralls of something far deeper and more powerful than infatuation:

I love this woman in a way I can’t describe & a feeling of belonging to each other that reaches across all the pain. It’s as though we’ve answered something in each other that was almost forgotten. I look back on that whole ten years in California & I see myself hunting desperately for something I wasn’t finding. I know the Work point of view is the only true one. That life is inside. That nothing outside can ever finally answer our yearning. I know that’s true but, in some way, finding Jessie has reached something inside me. A part of me feels brand new — re-awakened.

Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, 1983 (Photograph courtesy of University of Texas Press)

With a keen awareness of our human curse to metabolize everything, to habituate to even the most transcendent experiences, Shepard adds:

I know even this will change. There’ll be moments of deep regret maybe. But life is a gamble. I felt the weight of that the first time I left home for good. I walked out of that house into the unknown & it scared the shit out of me but the adventure of hitting life straight on was a thrill I’ll never forget. I feel that now — along with the fear. But I see the fear stems from being alone in the world & it has a new meaning for me now. You can be alone in the midst of people or you can be alone & join with the other one’s aloneness. There can be a real meeting between two people at the point where they always felt marooned. Right at the edge. And that’s how it is with me & her.

Shepard and Lange’s daughter, Hannah, was born three years later, followed by a son, Walker. The couple remained together for the nearly three decades.

Complement this particular fragment of Two Prospectors, on the pages of which Shepard’s views on art and life unfold with unprecedented candor, with Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, Kahlil Gibran’s timeless advice on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence, and Virginia Woolf on the secret to lasting love.

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Alain de Botton on Infatuation

“The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.”

Alain de Botton on Infatuation

“An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,’” the poet 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.” But too often, we mistake for love feelings rooted in the pleasant untruths of delusion — about ourselves, or the other, or the possibility that exists between the two. Anyone who has ever been vitalized by the electricity of infatuation has also burned with disappointment as the fantasy of the idealized beloved has crumbled into the reality of a living and therefore flawed person. And yet one of the great paradoxes of the human heart is that we go on falling in love — or in what we think is love, or hope might be love — anyway.

Nearly two centuries before the French philosopher Alain Badiou examined the delicate psychoemotional machinery of why we fall and stay in love, his compatriot Stendhal set out to outline the dark side of life’s most radiant experience in his “crystallization” theory of the seven stages of infatuation and disillusionment. But infatuation, argues Alain de Botton in a portion of The Course of Love (public library), isn’t a maladaptive mutation of our love-faculty — rather, it is an essential feature of it.

Illustration from the vintage Danish primer An ABZ of Love

De Botton writes:

Infatuations aren’t delusions. That way they have of holding their head may truly indicate someone confident, wry, and sensitive; they really may have the humor and intelligence implied by their eyes and the tenderness suggested by their mouth. The error of the infatuation is more subtle: a failure to keep in mind the central truth of human nature: that everyone — not merely our current partners, in whose multiple failings we are such experts — but everyone will have something substantially and maddeningly wrong with them when we spend more time around them, something so wrong as to make a mockery of those initially rapturous feelings.

The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better.

Though De Botton is being, of course, at least semi-facetious in this last sentiment, it does raise one inescapable question about the tradeoffs between normalcy and desirability, for in the desired stranger of our fantasies the abnormalities we witness are charming quirks, whereas in the partner of our reality they are flaws so alarming as to be feared fatal.

In this sense, there might be no “cure” for love, but there is one mighty defense against the pathology of continual disappointment that can plague our intimate relationships — an unbegrudging acceptance of imperfection and frequent low-level letdown between even the most well-intentioned of partners, which works much like a vaccine enlists a small dose of the weakened microbe in fortifying the larger organism against the disease.

What makes infatuation so intoxicating is precisely its imperviousness to disappointment, for it is rooted entirely in a chimera of the other, enshrined in the illusion of perfection. What makes love so rich and rewarding is the moving frontier of mutual discovery and understanding with each experience of disappointment, as we continually calibrate our flat fantasy of the idealized beloved to an ever-expanding reality of a dimensional person.

Complement the immensely and at times heartbreakingly insightful The Course of Love — which also gave us De Botton on what makes a good communicator and the paradox of sulking — with the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple, profound treatise on how to love, and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance.

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The Central Paradox of Love: Esther Perel on Reconciling the Closeness Needed for Intimacy with the Psychological Distance That Fuels Desire

“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.”

The Central Paradox of Love: Esther Perel on Reconciling the Closeness Needed for Intimacy with the Psychological Distance That Fuels Desire

“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his 1965 classic on mastering the art of loving. One chief reason we flounder in this supreme human aspiration is our unwillingness to accept the paradoxes of love — paradoxes like the necessity of frustration in romantic satisfaction and the seemingly irreconcilable notion that while love longs for closeness, desire thrives on distance.

How to live with those paradoxes, rather than succumbing to the self-defeating urge to treat them as problems to be solved, is what Belgian psychotherapist and writer Esther Perel explores in Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (public library). Drawing on decades of her own work with couples and a vast body of psychological literature, Perel offers an illuminating and consolatory perspective on intimate relationships and our conflicting needs for security and freedom, warmth and wildness.

estherperel
Esther Perel

Perel writes:

Love is at once an affirmation and a transcendence of who we are.

Beginnings are always ripe with possibilities, for they hold the promise of completion. Through love we imagine a new way of being.

In this imaginative act, we project ourselves into a fantasy of who we can be to and with the other. But as the encounter evolves from the fantasy of an idealized romance to the reality of an actual relationship, the projection begins to dim. The trouble for many couples, Perel points out, is in sustaining the desire fueled by the initial fantasy — the fantasy of what Mary Oliver so poetically called the “invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable” — while settling into the comfortable intimacy of a real relationship.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Perel explains:

If love is an act of imagination, then intimacy is an act of fruition. It waits for the high to subside so it can patiently insert itself into the relationship. The seeds of intimacy are time and repetition. We choose each other again and again, and so create a community of two.

So begins the paradox of intimacy and desire: As a couple grows emotionally intimate through this repetition, which furnishes the building blocks of trust and security, desire begins to diminish. Noting that sex is not a function of emotional intimacy but a separate state of being, Perel counters a misconception central to our cultural narrative:

There is a complex relationship between love and desire, and it is not a cause-and-effect, linear arrangement. A couple’s emotional life together and their physical life together each have their ebbs and flows, their ups and downs, but these don’t always correspond. They intersect, they influence each other, but they’re also distinct.

Echoing Kahlil Gibran’s counsel that the most satisfying relationships are between two people who have made spaces in their togetherness, she adds:

It is too easily assumed that problems with sex are the result of a lack of closeness. But … perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure. When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire.

Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

Drawing on her work with couples, Perel writes:

The intense physical and emotional fusion [new lovers] experience is possible only with someone we don’t yet know. At this early stage merging and surrendering are relatively safe, because the boundaries between the two people are still externally defined. [The lovers] are new to each other. And while they are migrating into each other’s respective worlds, they have not yet taken full residence; they are still two distinct entities. It is all the space between them that allows them to imagine no space at all…

In the beginning you can focus on the connection because the psychological distance is already there; it’s a part of the structure. Otherness is a fact. You don’t need to cultivate separateness in the early stages of falling in love; you still are separate. You aim to overcome that separateness.

But as we bridge the separateness, we shorten and eventually annihilate the distance between two selves that makes one desirable to the other, for the springs of desire are in the very possibility of a leap across the abyss of otherness. As we settle into comfort love — the kind one of Perel’s patients aptly likened to a flannel nightgown — those springs come unwound.

She sketches the common dynamic:

The caring, protective elements that nurture home life can go against the rebellious spirit of carnal love. We often choose a partner who makes us feel cherished; but after the initial romance we find, like Candace, that we can’t sexualize him or her. We long to create closeness in our relationships, to bridge the space between our partner and ourselves, but, ironically, it is this very space between self and other that is the erotic synapse. In order to bring lust home, we need to re-create the distance that we worked so hard to bridge. Erotic intelligence is about creating distance, then bringing that space to life.

Creating psychological distance within the comfort of closeness, Perel argues, is essential for sustaining desire in a loving relationship. She explains:

In her landmark book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes, “Eroticism is a movement toward the Other, this is its essential character.” Yet in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish. We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone; and yet creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone…Our ability to tolerate our separateness — and the fundamental insecurity it engenders — is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship. Instead of always striving for closeness … couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves… There is beauty in an image that highlights a connection to oneself, rather than a distance from one’s partner. In our mutual intimacy we make love, we have children, and we share physical space and interests. Indeed, we blend the essential parts of our lives. But “essential” does not mean “all.” Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, one that requires tolerance and respect. It is a space — physical, emotional, and intellectual — that belongs only to me. Not everything needs to be revealed. Everyone should cultivate a secret garden.

Art by Emily Hughes from The Little Gardener

Tending to that secret garden, Perel suggests, is an art of acquired skill. (This, perhaps, is why great artists work like gardeners.) Its acquisition begins in treating love and desire not as a dissonant opposition but as a symphonic composition of counterpoints:

Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go. But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.

In the remainder of Mating in Captivity — one of the most lucid and liberating perspectives on love written in the past century — Perel goes on to explore how to integrate these paradoxical needs into the wholeness of a fully satisfying love. Complement it with philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love and Stendhal on why we fall out of it, then revisit Leo Tolstoy on love’s paradoxical demands, John O’Donohue on the enchantment of desire, and Kahlil Gibran on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence.

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