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Modern Love

Posted by addisethiopia / አዲስ ኢትዮጵያ on March 10, 2012

From Romeo and Juliet to the one-night stand— modern societies are torn between the ideal of fidelity and the thirst for freedom.

Most civilizations have been based on some comprehensive idea of justice, but ours alone is based on love, both in its religion and in the principles that guide its relations between the sexes. Christianity and chivalry, from which our practices in part descend, recognized clearly that love (like freedom) must be disciplined and may require sacrifice. Today both of these moral commitments—indeed, all forms of commitment among us—are rather vestigial, and the whole idea of love is in danger of sinking to the level of sentimental tosh.

Modern Western states have, of course, always been graded into various kinds of class and status, but they have also been notably individualistic. The result has been a freedom of association, an exploration of the passions, that could not generally happen where a society conformed to comprehensive rules of justice, such as a caste system or a tribal hierarchy. Little wonder that the packaging of our Western morals as “rights” has been found so disruptive in other cultures.

The most common form of society has always been one in which social status tells people where they stand in relation to one another. Seniority, sex or just brute force located everyone in a hierarchy. As bad as the ranking might be, people knew where they stood. Human beings often prefer such knowledge to the hazards of a free society, for freedom leaves us at the mercy of the likes and dislikes of others and also (no less fickle) our own likes and dislikes.

We in the West, then, have opened ourselves up to the risks of both love and freedom. That means that our societies are (as Tocqueville noted) vastly more vulnerable to changing manners and mores. As we have lost a sense of the rigors that love requires, and the discipline that freedom needs, we have evolved, over little more than two generations, from the consuming passion of “Romeo and Juliet” to the fleeting encounter of the one-night stand. Falling in love has given way to endless testing and experiment. Now two French academics offer to make sense of our new situation.

The novelist and philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s “The Paradox of Love” is a brilliant account of the sexual muddles of our time. Paradox abounds in a time like our own, when the didactic impulse chases after wisdom in every possible direction. “We have to find in the interminable nonresolution of [love’s] problems,” he writes, “the charm of a possible solution.” We should be so lucky!

Paradox piles on paradox, but soon Mr. Bruckner gets down to realities. Adultery is a symptom, he says, of an individualist society torn between the ideal of fidelity and a thirst for freedom. But not everything fits into this tension between desire and restraint. “The vertiginous increase of divorce rates in Europe,” he tells us, “is not the result, as is often said, of our selfishness, but rather of our idealism: the impossibility of living together combined with the difficulty of remaining alone.”

In short, our sense of the “impossibility of living together” is directly related to the freedom we pursue so heedlessly—at the expense, too often, of happiness (“the difficulty of remaining alone”). Mr. Bruckner points to “a new conformism that waves the flag of transgression in order to sing the praises of the status quo.” In the end, he wants to synthesize the stability of the past with some of the liberations of our own time, and he ends with wise if familiar words: “Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated! There is more than one road to joy.”

The sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann in “The Curious History of Love” has, by contrast, a plot to explain our travails. What we call “love,” he says, comes to us in the contrasting forms of “agape” (or universal) love, which derives from Christianity, and passion, which emerges from medieval cults and various versions of chivalry. Passion, being focused on a single object, does not consort happily with agape. The reason of the Greek philosophers in some degree could make these two drives lie down together, but the modern world has been dominated by economics, alias capitalism.

Mr. Kaufman thinks that it is self-interest that makes capitalism tick, but he identifies self-interest with the vice of greed. Putting bad things down to human greed is, of course, the fashion of the moment. Modern Western societies no doubt have their share of this particular vice, but greed is certainly not lacking in other cultures. Mr. Kaufman’s view—that a society based on love is at war with the calculating individualism of modern reason—is distinctly theoretical. Take away greed, and we would all love one another? Unlikely!

Mr. Kaufmann wants to replace individualism—and greed and other bad things—with a proper community, and he speaks of “love’s revolution” as if this abstraction might take over the role of the proletariat in Marxism. As he sees it, love is defeated by the calculating habits of market economics—but “it also lives to fight another day.” The way we respond to our emotions, he believes, has major repercussions for society at large. The conclusion Mr. Kaufmann draws is that “knowing how to surrender to our emotions is political.” Everything personal, these days, is political. The habit of seeing politics under every bush, one might rather say, constitutes the predicament from which we suffer.

Neither Mr. Bruckner nor Mr. Kaufmann tangles with the problem of feminism, but feminism is central to the state of love today because it rejects the complementary character of men and women—an idea that is central to our cultural tradition. As different as we are, we need one another, and any theory that does not understand that pattern will be destructive.

When the 1960s idea of liberation needed content, the only thing the unimaginative feminists of those days could think to do with their new free time and expensive education was to plunge into the labor force. Mr. Kaufmann is certainly right to believe that there is no room for chivalry in an economy. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why feminists hate chivalry. It doesn’t fit in with women as labor units.

Feminism, as it is too often defined, makes women essentially economic agents, and children and family life are marginalized in ways that may suit some female graduates but certainly not lots of other women. The whole outlook presumes an end to complementarity—the destruction of the feminine. An ever-increasing scaffolding of politically correct regulation, bureaucracy and law has been needed to sustain the illusion that men and women are indistinguishable agents.

In the chivalric practices of our history, women depended for protection upon the concern of men who respected them as women. The feminist project was to equip women with rights and transfer the job of protection to the state. The results have been mixed, to say the least. To take but one vexed area of social custom and legal practice: Laws about sexual harassment impose penalties on luckless employers who fail to protect female employees from their co-workers. But the presumption that women are so weak as to need protecting from rude male behavior was something that feminism, with its emphasis on empowerment and equal status, seemed eager to attack. It is all marvelously absurd. The zones of love and desire are now invaded by statutes and committees of inquisition.

Mr. Bruckner’s central paradox is that of persecution in the name of love, but that has been an attribute of “loving” relations from time immemorial. He cites, in evidence, both Christianity and communism, in the name of which harm has come to those who were to be loved or saved. He appears to believe that communism is nothing more than a Christian heresy that “allows us to see magnified Christianity’s defects.” Marxism, it seems, “imagined a future society as the terrestrial fulfillment of the promises made by the Gospels.” This claim makes Marx and Jesus prophets in the same line of business, but you do not have to be a Christian to see that Marx is way out of his league here. It is clear that Mr. Bruckner is better at paradoxes than at affinities.

Can love lead to persecution? As a passion, it can lead to anything at all, including death, but the point about both Christianity and the Soviet state is that they were institutions, and institutions have drives of their own. Marriage is an institution, too, and the point of institutions is to discipline us. Love, by contrast, is a spontaneity, always rather intermittent. Neither can be a substitute for the other.

Both Mr. Bruckner and Mr. Kaufmann deplore love as a market. The consumer’s greed in this new condition of love is to accumulate not only material objects but people as well. Men and women sink to the level of mere commodities, giving and receiving satisfactions of an ever-fluctuating kind. Mr. Bruckner thinks that the state of commodified love is worse in America: “Whereas in the United States the co-existence of the sexes always seems on the verge of exploding, Europe is better protected against this plague by the age-old culture of gallantry.”

And that claim perhaps suggests the ultimate mistake of our time: Manners have been erased by doctrine. Individualists—men and women alike—may pursue any enterprise that fits their desires and their talents, but doctrine traps some people into the masquerade of trying to be what they are not. It drains reality from them. Those who live by doctrine rather than passion are diminished by it.

Mr. Minogue is the author, most recently, of “The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life.”


Source: Washington Post, March 10, 2012


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