Love: The End Of An Art?

We have all heard the common proverb that "Love is a verb. Without action, it is only a word." And to be sure, love is more action and work than it is feeling. Yet just because love is more work than feeling when it comes to what there's "more of" in the course of a relationship, I would argue that the "fuzzy feeling" part is still very important. Essential, actually.

Love— at first— if it is true, must be a total loss of agency. If love is true, it must first be a form of madness so violent that it is capable of temporarily destroying the person who feels it if it is unrequited and of lifting that same person up into a state of near-transcendence and ecstasy if it is returned. 

To say that love must be a "forever fever" would, of course, be unrealistic and idiotic. But there cannot be any denying that love must begin as a fever in order to make the hard work that follows doable and worthwhile. This can make life very complicated because— as most of us know— it is possible to fall in love more than once, it is possible to fall in love with more than one person at the same time, and it's also possible to falsely believe one is in love when one in fact is not. And yet, no matter how we choose to approach the feeling (or fever) of romantic love in our lives, the question still remains of how exactly to "do the work" of love after the fire turns to ember.

I was drawn to the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm's book The Art Of Loving, 1) Because he compares the work of love to the work of an artist, and the work of an artist is a distinct kind of work from the work of the miner, or the steelworker, or the farmer, or the businessman. An artist, unlike other forms of worker, is a person who fuses together his or her work with their identity. The work of the artist is a part of who the artist is, and in this sense, the "art" of love must become a part of who we are, and 2) To piggyback on that last point, I was drawn to Fromm's book because I think every single human lifetime is impacted by love, even if that impact is experiencing a total lack of love. It seems to me, then, that love— like every other form of art— is equally worth a lifetime of study and reflection.

This might strike us as strange. Normally subjects one would study are of a more concrete nature, and are meant to guarantee what we would think of as "measurable" pay-offs. I can't help but laugh a little bit while writing that last sentence, because— ten years on from the recession of 2008— in a country where possession of a college degree is now no reason for confidence income-wise, love is perhaps the only subject whose study guarantees the yielding of decent returns. Fromm takes notice, though, of our reluctance to consider love a studiable subject when he writes:

"Could it be that only those things are considered worthy of being learned with which one can earn money or prestige, and that love, which 'only' profits the soul, but is profitless in the modern sense, is a luxury we have no right to spend much energy on?"

What I would like to point out before beginning this review, however, is that Fromm wrote this book in 1956, which— I hardly need to explain— was a very traditional time. The Art Of Loving, therefore, presumes heterosexual monogamy whenever it speaks of romantic love; but I see no reason why the book cannot be of benefit to gay and lesbian couples or for couples in non-monogamous relationships. Despite its traditional presuppositions, I feel like the wisdom found within its pages can be universally applied no matter what type of romantic arrangement one is in.

 Erich Fromm (1900-1980)

Erich Fromm (1900-1980)

I

First, let me get my disagreements with this book out of the way before talking about what I love in it.

The beginning pages of Fromm's Art Of Loving, in his first chapter "Is Love An Art?", is a mixed bag of keen insight and blank-slateism. By blank-slateism, of course, I mean the belief (still held by many academics today) that "human nature" is either mostly or entirely shaped and informed by society, and that biology and evolution play little-to-no role. Fromm specifically blends a really great observation about how markets shape behavior with blank-slateism, when he writes the following on the subject of attraction:

"Our whole culture is based on the appetite for buying, on the idea of a mutually favorable exchange. Modern man's happiness consists in the thrill of looking at the shop windows, and in buying all that he can afford to buy, either for cash or on installments. He (or she) looks at people a similar way. For the man an attractive girl— and for the woman an attractive man— are the prizes they are after. 'Attractive' usually means a nice package of qualities which are popular and sought after on the personality market. What specifically makes a person attractive depends on the fashion of the time, physically as well as mentally."

While there are certainly physical features whose "attractiveness" are a result of social construction/consumer culture (which I'll get into later and which I've written about before), evolutionary biologists and psychologists have long pointed out how men and women have evolved to desire in each other certain physical traits over others (speaking, of course, in generalities). Men generally like large breasts for example, while women generally like big dicks, and both genders find facial symmetry more attractive than asymmetry. To put it more simply, it is not only our social environment which directs our aesthetic judgements and sexual preferences. Nature plays a role too.

Another of my contentions with Fromm's opening chapter is that he views romantic love as being a modern invention rather than romantic love being something that has always been with us. If you notice, this puts Fromm in direct contradiction to what I wrote about love in the first paragraph. He writes:

"In the Victorian age, as in many traditional cultures, love was mostly not a spontaneous personal experience which then might lead to marriage. On the contrary, marriage was contracted by convention— either by the respective families, or by a marriage broker, or without the help of such intermediaries; it was concluded on the basis of social considerations, and love was supposed to develop once the marriage had been concluded. In the last few generations the concept of romantic love has become almost universal in the Western world."

This is hardly a historically accurate statement. Even during the Victorian age Fromm speaks of, loads of writers— from Jane Austen to the Bronte sisters— openly grappled with and challenged their contemporaries' views on marriage and love. Their stories reveal a complete (and very justified) disdain for the patriarchal notion of women having their spouses chosen for them, as well as a disdain for the paternalistic attitudes often held by their male suitors. Certainly then, the idea that romantic love should precede marriage was not, as Fromm a few sentences later put it, "a new concept of freedom". It's quite an old one. Even going as far back as the Jewish scriptures, one finds the stories of Ruth and Boaz and of Jacob and Rachel affirming the feeling of eros love before the entering of marriage. In fact I would even say that it was the idea of love proceeding marriage, rather than preceding it, which was an invention of Victorian times; and that the reason that invention didn't last in later centuries was because it ran contrary to human beings' natural want to desire a person before being joined to them for the rest of their lives (at least hypothetically).

My third and obvious disagreement with Fromm in the middle of the book is that he writes— in a sudden, out-of-nowhere fashion— that people who experience same-sex attraction are incapable of ever truly experiencing love (or, as he put it, they "suffer from the pain of a never-resolved separateness"). This, of course, is total naked bunk, as a person who reads this book 62 years after its publication has the benefit of knowing. One could hardly look back at the gay men who loved one another so courageously during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early-90s, and conclude that— through all of that— they were still incapable of experiencing the fierce and serious nature of love. One could read the autobiographical essays of gay writers such as Andrew Sullivan or Dan Savage, and plainly see how ignorant even a psychoanalyst could be in order to make such a wrongheaded pronouncement about an entire group of people. This being the case, I can easily understand how Fromm's statement would turn a gay or lesbian reader off to The Art Of Loving; yet— at the risk of sounding like a broken record— I would maintain to gay and lesbian readers that the wisdom found within this book can be applied just as easily to their relationships as to heterosexual ones. That while Erich Fromm was "a man of his time", this work of his can transcend it.

This brings me to what I find valuable in the book.

II

When we come to Fromm's second chapter "The Theory Of Love", he points out that human beings' capacity to love arises out of our capacity to know ourselves. We are life aware that we are life. This, at least seemingly, is the one peculiar separation our species enjoys from the rest of the animal world. Unlike other animals, we are aware that one day we will die. Unlike other animals, we have an admiration for beauty. Unlike other animals, we have knowledge of time. But this uniqueness can also be recognized as a form of separateness; the realization that ourselves and our fellow man's "higher consciousness" also means that our species is the one species that is completely alone as far as how we experience the universe and our place in it. Our separateness and recognition that we are alone, in turn, creates an existential anxiety that can only be taken away when we trust ourselves to another person and they to us.

"Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself; he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of the future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short lifespan, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and society, all this makes his separate and disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from the prison and reach out and unite himself in some form or other with the world outside. The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety...

The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of aloneness. The absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity, because the panic of complete isolation can be overcome only by such a radical withdrawal from the world outside that the feeling of separation disappears— because the world outside, from which one is separated, has disappeared. Man— of all ages and cultures— is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one's own individual life and find at-onement."

What stood out to me as I read the above paragraphs was how important the stage of existential anxiety (or feeling of "separateness") is for coming to the recognition that we need love in our lives. This stood out to me because I wonder if this anxiety is being dangerously circumvented by social media by providing us with the illusion of socialization when we are, in fact, by ourselves and only seeing ideal versions of people on a screen. I mean, how could social media not block out (or even destroy completely) the anxiety we should feel in order to prompt us to look for love? As the years go by (this year is my eleventh on Facebook), and I enter this stage of attempting to be a "conscious consumer", it's becoming more and more apparent that social media sites are addictive platforms which replace the search and acquisition of loving relationships with the illusion of already having them.

But even if we were to imagine for a moment that social media did not exist, I can't help but wonder if our addiction to entertainment being both fueled and temporarily satisfied by algorithm-driven streaming sites is killing our capacity to process complex ideas, drastically shortening our attention spans, and just making us more reactionary in general. Why do I get the feeling that only 18 years into the 21st century we've already opened up more than one Pandora's Box? Why do I get the feeling that the very invention which we were promised would usher in an "Information Age" is, in fact, making us more herd-like and stupid? (This is why I think people will soon look back on the 1990s as the last "modern" decade before we accelerated The Big Mistake. The last blissful decade we had before the beginning of the end.)

I'm now reminded of the fictional movie Infinite Jest in David Foster Wallace's novel of the same name; a movie that is so entertaining to the characters that they can't stop watching, and eventually die because they lose all interest in doing other things including eating and going to the bathroom. Wallace's Infinite Jest was a two-pronged metaphor: 1) About our culture's constant and unhealthy craving for amusement, and 2) An illustration of how mediums of information and entertainment are not "neutral". The way they require us to interact with them carries moral, developmental, and evolutionary implications. 

But I'm getting slightly off-topic. The only concern which is relevant to this review is the numbing of existential anxiety via social media, and it's a concern that I think not enough people share. By undermining our feeling of "separateness", frequent use of social media greatly damages the drive we would otherwise have to go out and build real relationships with others (in non-romantic ways as well as romantic ways).

III

Next we arrive at Fromm's third chapter, "Love & Its Disintegration In Contemporary Western Society". Here, Fromm elaborates on what he wrote in the beginning about how consumerism and free market ideology diminishes people to the point where feeling the full power of love, as well as giving that feeling to someone else, at best becomes just short of impossible.

His take on how capitalism does this specifically can be broken down into three points:

  1. As the United States transitioned from an agrarian nation to an industrial nation, "an increasing number of people ceased to be independent, and became dependent on the managers of the great economic empires". What industrialization, and more broadly modern capitalism, required of people was a willingness to adopt en masse an attitude of conformity and addiction to consumption, as well as adopt tastes and preferences which, according to Fromm, "are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated" (because mass-production is only possible if a lot of people want the same stuff, and people only want the same stuff if a lot of their uniqueness is ironed-out early on). Perfect examples of this today are the stereotypical "basic bro" and "basic bitch", who view themselves as being unique individuals whilst actually being— as Fromm might put it if he were still alive today— so uniform in their looks, tastes, possessions, and lifestyles that they seem factory-made.
  2. This suppression of the human spirit (for lack of a better term) leads to "modern man being alienated from himself, his fellow men, and from nature". The tragedy of this is that while consumer capitalism causes us to feel alienated and anxious, it also steals from us the only thing that can permanently alleviate our alienation and anxiety, and that is our ability to love fully.
  3. Consumer capitalism and free market ideology take away our ability to love fully because they "gear our character only to exchange and receive", thereby turning you and I into "automatons [who] cannot love, but can only exchange 'personality packages' and hope for a fair bargain".

I really don't want to be repetitive, but I would just like to briefly point out that here again we see the cultural impact of social media in all its revolting glory. Specifically how apps like Tinder and websites like OK Cupid operate like "people stores" in how they commodify and display their users. To be clear, I'm not saying viewing attractive people as "sex objects" is exclusively a byproduct of consumerism. Again, there's evolutionary reasons for why we tend to "objectify" people we find attractive, and— as I argued very briefly in my book A Letter To The Left— this objectification isn't always bad or wrong. But the way in which dating apps and websites allow us to both discard and select potential partners in the same passive way in which we choose products on Amazon, songs on Pandora, and movies on Netflix, reinforces the idea of human beings as "personality packages" only useful for mutual exchange.

I also think it would be naive to believe that this notion of only spending time with people who have "commoditable" personalities will remain in the realm of dating, and not eventually expand to friendships and even familial relationships. In fact, we might already be seeing the beginning of this expansion. It is not uncommon anymore to hear purveyors of wisdom— from self-appointed spiritual gurus on Instagram to motivational speakers in hotel ballrooms— advising us to cut ties with family members who are "toxic" (a relatively modern word used more frequently to describe people who cause vague emotional discomfort rather than being responsible for any actual manipulation or abuse) and additionally to only befriend people who "are where you want to be" or who "have the same goals" (because, dontcha know, every area of life should be about ambition). As a side note, the way in which "motivation culture", Silicon Valley, and corporations all collude with one another to perpetuate consumer capitalism and make us the best worker-bees we can be, is something I'm surprised more social commentators and career contrarians aren't talking about.

socialmedia-isbad-foryou2.jpg

IV

Fromm finally touches on the meat-and-potatoes of the whole book in his final chapter "The Practice Of Love", where he writes that to overcome the social barriers to loving effectively involves a combination of discipline, concentration, patience, courage, and concern. While those things might seem like fairly obvious ingredients, Fromm breaks each one of them down in ways few people (including me) would ever think about.

For instance, he defines concentration not merely as the ability to focus one's attention on something or someone, but as the ability to be alone with oneself. For if we cannot be alone with ourselves— that is, if we feel insecure about the prospect of knowing ourselves, knowing our desires, and determining what kind of lives we wish to lead as individuals— then the allegedly romantic relationships we begin with others will actually be relationships of dependence rather than mutual affection. You and I today would recognize this type of behavior as someone being "clingy" or overly-attached; and this clinginess and over-attachment can manifest itself in a host of different ways. They can manifest themselves as a lack of trust (like when a couple shares a Facebook account); they can manifest themselves as an unwillingness to grant personal space (like a boyfriend who doesn't want his girlfriend having a "girls night out" or a girlfriend who doesn't want her boyfriend having a "man cave"); or they can even reveal themselves in a relatively benign manifestation like hokey sentimentalism (the "one month anniversary" for example, or the keeping of clothes as mementos of lovers past and present).

More interestingly though, Fromm suggests that as afraid as we are of not being loved, we're actually even more afraid of the emotional gamble loving other people requires. I use the word "gamble" intentionally because, as Fromm writes, "To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person." This is important to understand because very often films and books that are love stories are really love-success stories, never stories about unrequited love or love fizzling out and becoming guilt-driven toleration. But the reality for most of us is that the story of our love lives is a story of hits-and-misses; and therefore the cultural promotion of this idea that "happily ever after" is always the result of feeling love-stricken might prove to be a discouraging force when it comes to our bravery in pursuing romance in life. 

In the last few pages of Art Of Loving, Fromm inserts one last word about the practice of non-romantic love that, I must say, is a point of final disagreement I have with him:

"If to love means to have a loving attitude toward everybody, if love is a character trait, it must necessarily exist in one's relationship not only with one's family and friends, but toward those with whom one is in contact through one's work, business, profession. There is no 'division of labor' between love for one's own and love for strangers." 

If you "love everybody" you love nobody. Attempting to love everybody, and to do so with "no division of labor" between those close to us and those we do not even know, is to make love completely meaningless in much the same way as if a track coach were to hand out a 1st Place ribbon to every runner. Value lies in scarcity. Just as can be observed with the sale of diamonds or a rare brand of cigar, so the same can be observed with love. Only by limiting a force so strong as love to family, friends, and significant others does it retain its specialness. The idea that love is a limitless resource crashes and burns when we realize that we only have a limited amount of emotional energy to expend on a regular basis. It would follow, then, that because the quantity of love we possess is in fact quite limited, some criteria must exist for choosing whom we should "spend" that love on. For all of the other people we encounter in day-to-day life, simple kindness (which I believe is distinct from love) should serve just fine.

As for those who are evil— those who deliberately cause pain, ruin lives, and even end the lives of innocent people (a description which covers countless con artists, embezzlers, sexual predators, dictators, and crime bosses)— to attempt to love such people to the same degree that we would love our very closest friends, our significant others, our parents, or our children is the epitome of twisted and absurd (though such a warped mentality is considered the pinnacle of righteous achievement in the Christian tradition). That I should love Bashar al-Assad with the same intensity of love I feel for my grandfather is not only impossible on the most basic human level, but undesirable on a gut-level to nearly every sane civilized person (with exception, perhaps, of the most cowardly sniveling pacifist).

To expand on this thought and become sidetracked one last time, I would further add that hatred is no less a legitimate and justified emotion than love. Like yin and yang, feeling and recognizing one emotion necessitates the feeling and juxtaposition of the other. And I would contend that the reason why hatred evolved alongside the other emotions human beings feel, was so that it could be directed at those who actively seek to increase the suffering of innocent people. How else would tribes and bands of gatherers ensure their own preservation against malevolent rivals? (This is why, to the consternation of some, I have no qualms desiring that we mark the death dates of villains like Bin Laden, Saddam, Gaddafi, and even historical dictators like Hitler and Mussolini, as days of joyful celebration and cheer. Bring on the annual parades, bring on the confetti, bring on the marching band with their mediocre trumpet music, bring it all! Because to be anti-totalitarian is not to reject hate completely, but rather to learn how to properly channel hate toward those who truly deserve it. Well-guided hatred can be a force for good just as misguided love can be a force for evil. As the Jewish proverb goes, "He who is kind to the cruel in the end will be cruel to the kind.")

Overall, I would say that even though The Art Of Loving is only 123 pages, it's heavy reading, but worth keeping the eyelids open for. Despite some blank-slateism, occasional historical sloppiness, and a dash of old-timey bigoted assumptions, Fromm ultimately did an excellent job identifying why human beings need to be loved and how they can both give and acquire love. The question, as I assume you've now gathered, is whether or not we've reached a stage in media, technology, and consumerism which has rendered us incapable of implementing Fromm's suggestions in our daily lives.

  The Lovers  by René Magritte, 1928

The Lovers by René Magritte, 1928

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