Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Paz On Love


Shoving politics out of my mind for a while. Back to Paz on love.

When we left off, Paz had just finished laying out the differences between sex and eroticism (see yesterday's post). In chapter 2 of The Double Flame, he moves on to another distinction: that between eroticism and love.

He begins with "one of the first appearances of love, in the strict sense of the word," in Western literature: the story of Cupid (or "Eros," as Paz calls him) and Psyche in Apuleius' The Golden Ass, from the late 2nd century AD. He's fascinated by what strikes him as "the real novelty of the story," which is that "a god, Eros, falls in love with a maiden who personifies the soul, Psyche" (29). Writes Paz:
I emphasize, first of all, that their love is mutual and returned: neither is an object of contemplation for the other; nor are they rungs on any ladder of contemplation. Eros loves Psyche and Psyche Eros, and very prosaically they end up marrying each other. There are countless stories of gods who fall in love with mortals, but in none of these loves, invariably sensual in nature, does attraction for the soul of the beloved play a role (29).
For Paz, the distinction between eroticism and love lies in this combination of mutuality and specificity. "Love is attraction toward a unique person: a body and a soul," he writes. "Love is choice; eroticism is acceptance" (32). [By "acceptance" he means, the book explains, a feeling like Molly Bloom's, in her closing monologue: "he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another." That's erotic, but it's not love, which at its most basic means "the passionate attraction we feel toward one person out of many" (34).]

Love is thus at once a subset of the erotic and a launching into realms well beyond it. "Without eroticism--without a visible form that enters by way of the sense--there is no love, but love goes beyond the desired body and seeks the soul in the body and the body in the soul. The whole person" (33).
  • Question: would this mean, then, that it's impossible to love someone one doesn't know in person? What about falling in love by letter, as Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning seem to have done? "Do you think we should meet?" (That's not EBB, of course, but You've Got Mail, but the principle applies.)
Because love overlaps with the erotic, but cannot be reduced to it, it necessarily combines disparate, even opposing elements. "The attraction that the lovers experience must be involuntary, born of a secret and all-powerful magnetism; at the same time, it must be a choice. In love, predestination and choice, objective and subjective, fate and freedom intersect. The realm of love is a space magnetized by encounter" (33; my italics).
  • I emphasize "encounter" because it hints at the essential intersubjectivity of love, the fact that it demands the encounter of two independent subjects, rather than simply my delight in or attraction to some object of my desire. As Paz puts it, in love we witness "the transformation of the erotic object into a free and unique subject" (34).

  • This reminds me of the heartbreaking moment late in Lolita where Humbert Humbert suddenly glimpses the horror he's visited on the girl--now a young woman--he obsessively desired through most of the novel. For the first time, he sees her as a "subject," not an object; his remorse, however brief, is the closest he ever gets to actual love.

  • Which, in turn, reminds me that the story of Cupid and Psyche also features what is, for Paz, a three-part structure that will endure in Western love stories: "transgression, punishment, and redemption" (29-3o).
Denis de Rougement (and others) have claimed that this vision of love-as-encounter is exclusively Western, and indeed, even in the West, relatively recent, invented, so it's said, in 12th century Provence. Against this, Paz insists on the human universality of love as such.

"There is no people or civilization," he writes, that does not tell stories or sing songs about "the encounter of two persons, their mutual attraction, and the labors and hardships they must overcome to be united" (33). In some civilizations, at some periods, however, this core story gets elaborated into a full-blown ideology, "a way of life, an art of living and dying, an ethic, an aesthetic, and an etiquette. A courtesy, to use the medieval term" (34).

Now things get interesting!

"Courtesy," Paz reminds us, "is not within the reach of all: it is a body of knowledge and a practice. It is the privilege of what might be called the aristocracy of the heart. Not an aristocracy founded on bloodlines and inherited privileges, but on certain qualities of the spirit. Although these qualities are innate, in order that they be manifested and made second nature, the adept must cultivate his mind and his senses, learn to feel, speak, and sometimes remaind silent. Courtesy is a school of sensibility and selflessness" (35).

From the idea of "courtesy" he moves on to "courtly love," which is for Paz "a knowledge of the senses illuminated by the light of the soul, a sensual attraction refined by courtesy" (36). Examples of such love, Paz notes, can be found in the Islamic world (Persian and Arabic), in India, and in the Far East (The Dream of the Red Chamber, from China, and from Japan The Tale of Genji). This leads him to an interesting conclusion: "Whenever a high courtly culture flourishes, a philosophy of love springs forth. Those philosophies of love have the same relationship with the general feeling of love as this one [the general feeling] has with eroticism, and both of them with sexuality" (37).

Thus: "sex is the root, eroticism the stem, and love the flower" (38).

***

Some differences between East and West follow, and a few useful apercus.

In the East (the far east, he means), love is "conceived of within a religious tradition," whether Buddhist or Taoist. In the West, ever since Plato, "the philosophy of love lay outside official religion [pagan or monotheist] and at times was in opposition to it" (39).

"Love in the West is a fate freely chosen," which means that "no matter how powerful the influence of predestination--the best-known example is the love potion that Tristan and Isolde drink--in order for their destiny to be fulfilled, the cooperation of the lovers is necessary" (40).

"The history of poetry is inseparable from that of love" (43).

Paz gives a brief summary of the Symposium, which makes this book quite useful for teaching undergrads--you can get them up to speed on some crucial bits of cultural history in a single chapter, as you see.

He discusses the story Aristophanes tells about the original androgyne, with its ringing affirmation that "we are incomplete beings, and the desire for love is a perpetual thirst for completion" (43), but he points out that this is not Plato's final speech on the subject, and turns to Socrates' lesson from Diotima: "Eros is neither god nor man; he is a daimon...the preposition between defines him" (44). The child of Poverty and Abundance (or Plenty, or Resource, Poros is the Greek), Eros is "a mixture of several elements united and animated by desire" (45).

Now, as we all know, this disquisition (by Socrates, I mean) leads him to the ringing conclusion that "love is desire for the perpetual possession of the Good," or some such phrase. Love in Plato is therefore an "ascent": "it goes from the love of one body to the love of many, then from the love of all beautiful forms to the love of virtuous deeds, then from deeds to ideas and from ideas to absolute beauty, which is the highest life that can be lived" (48).

But, Paz notes, that's not love. That's Eros, or "eroticism," and stands in contrast to the mutuality and intersubjectivity that lie, for Paz, at the heart of love. He doesn't say that ancient Greeks never felt what we call love, mind you; he just says that they didn't make a philosophy out of it. "Diotima seems to know nothing of fidelity, and it never even occurs to her to give thought to the feelings of the man or woman we love: she sees the beloved as a mere step on the ascent toward contemplation. In reality, love for Plato is not strictly speaking a relationship; it is a solitary adventure" (50).

"For Plato, erotic objects--whether they be the body or the soul of the ephebe--are never subjects: they have a body and do not feel, they have a soul and remain silent. They are really objects, and their function is that of being stages in the ascent of the philosopher toward the contemplation of essences" (51).

Paz notes, astutely, that although the Symposium is in the form of a dialogue, it is in fact "made up of seven separate discourses": in this text, as in the version of love it describes, "there can be a dialectic, that is to say, a division of discourse into parts, but there is no true dialogue or conversation" (51-2).

"In the Symposium," he concludes, "eroticism in its purest and loftiest expression, the necessary condition of love--the other man or woman who accepts or refuses, who says yes or no and whose very silence is an answer--does not appear" (52).
  • A curious structure to this chapter, starting with the story that does illustrate love-as-such and ending with one that seems to...but oops, look again, it doesn't. I almost wish he'd have circled back to talk more about the Apuleius, and how the story of Cupid and Psyche illustrates love instead, just to clinch that in the minds of my students.

  • On the other hand, since we're about to turn to Sappho for a while, it's probably better to leave them with a taste of Eros in their mouths. We won't really reach love-as-such for a couple of classes, and there's an awful lot to say about th'erotic on the way.

4 comments:

Laura Vivanco said...

When I read the post's title, I thought it was "Peace on Love." My semi-bilingualism surprises me sometimes.

Wolf Tee Shirt said...

PAZ ON LOVE! Passion love?! Anyway, this post made me realized a few "hidden" nature of men.

Dina said...

LOVELY! but I am equally intrigued of the title of this post.

disa said...
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