In a recent interview with the French magazine Le Point, Michel Houellebecq was asked if he still believed in love. The award-winning author answered as follows: “People believe in it. And I believe in it too ... in fact, people believe in it today much more than during my childhood.”
“I don’t know. We can try to understand. We can say they don’t believe in politics anymore, or in brotherhood. That they pretend they believe in friendship, without fooling themselves entirely. So they still try to form couples, or at least to try. They think it is sad to live alone. Then there is this aggressive attitude against love − you know, like during the 1970s. The stupid idea according to which sentimentality is more pornographic than pornography (I was never shocked either by pornography or by sentimentality).” April 2013 issue)
Houellebecq, who has written about group sex, endless sexual choice and nihilist hedonism, still believes in love. This interview gave me pause and made me ask myself the question he was asked: Does love, as I knew it from my adolescent reading of poetry, Victorian novels and Harlequin romances, still exist, or has it died?
This is a spoiler, and my response is given right at the beginning: Love as we knew it for the last few centuries in Western Europe has died and been replaced by new forms, hitherto unknown. But like the light from distant stars that have long since died, that old form of love continues to shine, and to fill us with wonder at its luminous intensity, long after its actual disappearance. Let us not confuse the light and the star: the latter has long disappeared; the former still blinds us.
Love has always entertained some relationship to sexuality, rational choice and the institution of marriage. It is the content and combination of these components that have profoundly changed in the last decades, making love into a new social form − that is, a new way for men and women to interact with each other (whether in homosexual or heterosexual settings). When we think of love not as an emotion but as a relationship with its own rules, we can see much more clearly the changes undergone by love.
1. Seduction If one had to choose a fictional villain for the 18th century, it would be Don Juan (the character already existed in the 17th century, created by Spanish writer Tirso de Molina). Mozart (that is, Da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for the composer’s “Don Giovanni”) made him less sinister than his predecessors, but he was bad enough to attract divine punishment for his actions. What was Don Juan guilty of? Having plenty of sex with plenty of women without following suit on what such acts would normally entail, namely marriage. Because these were times in which sex could be had only if there was a reasonable chance to marry the woman afterward, the reckless Don Juan had to run away from noble and peasant women alike and from their aggrieved fathers, preferring his aristocratic freedom to social norms enforced by the Church.
Modern people would be hard pressed to understand what the fuss was about, as sexuality and love are now governed by the norm of freedom, which leaves people autonomous, at all moments, to enter and leave relationships as they please, when they please, and to define in them whatever sexual, emotional or institutional content they see fit. The sexual freedom for which Don Juan was so severely punished is now claimed by everyone. More than that: sexuality is now an imperative. Be (sexually) free! Accumulate partners! These are the commandments of a culture saturated with eroticism.
2. Waiting Several 19th-century novels present the motif of a man going away to seek his fortune to win the hand of the woman he often had spent very little time with (see Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope’s novels). During that waiting period there was no or very little contact between the man and woman; it could take years until a relationship was consummated. Think of the qualities required to wait: one needed to keep promises; to hold onto one’s choices; and not be tempted to explore additional options in order to improve that choice.
This particular experience of extended waiting is hardly imaginable for us moderns. For one, men no longer need to go out into the world and make their fortune to win the hand of a woman, because now both men and women conjointly build their economic assets and social positions together through their participation in the capitalist workplace. But such experience of waiting has become foreign to us for yet another reason: It would be foolish to wait for the uncertain return of someone who may or may not come back. That would be a very unwise emotional investment. Luckily, modern technology is here to assist us in monitoring someone’s absence: Skype, IM, SMS, the iPhone, and FaceTime are technologies of presence, which mimic and create relationships across oceans.
Courtship, then, no longer demands the kind of fortitude, resignation to silence and absence, and the capacity to make and hold promises that was demanded by waiting. Modern courting is monitored through incessant text messages, Facebook updates, Skype meetings, telephone and emails, which all create intensive forms of presence and help one invest wisely in a relationship (this is how the investment bankers of love
3. Traditional love which ran from the 12th to the middle of the 20th century − was modeled on Christian religious love: the “great” love was (presumably) the unique love of one’s life; one loved with all the intensity of one’s soul, with devotion, self-sacrifice and absoluteness. Monogamy, monotheism and grand amour all bear an elective affinity: they belong to the same religious and cultural sensibility. That religious sentiment entailed quasi-religious rituals of kneeling and singing, idealizing the beloved as a goddess, a willingness to sacrifice for the loved one as in the experience of martyrdom. Love was often conceived with such metaphors as the miraculous, the mystical, the magical. One proved one’s love by sacrificing something dear and important.
Love is now a thoroughly secularized and disenchanted experience: Our contemporary metaphors for love come from the realm of science. Love is the result of “chemical,” hormonal, unconscious processes. As heirs of Flaubert, we even view love as hopelessly kitsch, a simple product of media imagery and rosy romances. Love’s presumed uniqueness has been replaced by the endless choice of Internet dating sites, which enable us to target very precisely the amount of sex or lifestyle we are looking for in a relationship. Self-sacrifice is deemed immature and the sign of an insecure psyche. As Houellebecq put it, people want to believe in love but, in fact, it turns out that despite themselves they often can’t. At least, they cannot believe in the religious and romantic version of love.
4. Love was an emotion that threatened and annoyed patriarchs. Tristan − Yseult’s lover in the medieval legend − affirmed the transgressive character of love and stole Yseult from the king to whom she was promised: “I would prefer to beg all my life on the roads and live with roots and herbs with Yseult, than to be without her in a beautiful kingdom.” Such a claim is a rejection of political and economic power all at once. Heloise, the 12th- century lover of the great theologian Abelard, also defied the political and religious order when she claimed: “I call God to witness, if Augustus, ruling over the whole world, were to deem me worthy of the honor of marriage, and to confirm the whole world to me, to be ruled by me forever, dearer to me and of greater dignity would it seem to be called thy concubine than his empress.”
Traditional love opposed social order, honor, riches. Modern relationships bring us back to society and to the economic imperative: in dating, sexuality, love, and romance, we are now made into daily consumers of cosmetics, fashion, pornography and leisure industries, whether to learn how to be “sexy” or to share romantic moments with another. Love is smoothly and seamlessly a part of the modern capitalist fabric. (I sometimes wonder if to be a voluntary celibate is not perhaps the only radical act left, opposing the reigning sexual and romantic dictates of modern culture.)
5. Sexual restraint. Husbands in the 16th century were not supposed to show excess sexual passion to their wives because they could corrupt their souls, or even make them nymphomaniac. Only joyless intercourse for the purpose of procreation was authorized. Attributing the thought to Aristotle, Montaigne wrote: “A man should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of
How far such reserve is from our beds soaked with Freudianism. Sex has become the truth of the subject and of love itself. More than that: a good self develops only through the accumulation of sexual experiences. Endless sexual choice and sexual abundance have entirely reconfigured the religious regime of scarcity (monogamy, uniqueness, great love) that characterized premodern love and sexuality. By the age of 25, most men and women have achieved a great deal of what it took Casanova a lifetime − and running away from many countries − to achieve.
Modern sexuality represents an irreversible and salutary normative
progress (it destigmatizes homosexuality; instills norms of gender equality; legitimizes pleasure, and frees relationship from the religious view of sex as sin). I would never want to go back to an era where a woman’s pleasure was forbidden, homosexuals prosecuted, sexuality regulated by churches and synagogues. But let us also face the uncomfortable truth about ourselves: sexuality is now not only a source of personal liberation and pleasure, but also a powerful set of norms regulated by consumer culture and the market.
No one benefits as much from a free sexuality as the capitalist market (fashion, cosmetics, sports and pornography, for example, are all geared toward the making of sexy and sexual personas). We can hardly separate sexual freedom from highly repetitive and endless consumer acts. Sexuality itself has become, at heart, quantitative: it aims at accumulation, renewing stimuli, novelty, abundance. A modern Don Juan does not defy God but merely executes the commands of a tyrannical market.
Intelligence should not mourn what is not anymore. It must understand the possibilities opened up by the present. But intelligence should also imagine and think about what we do not or cannot imagine anymore. Thus, I cannot help but wonder if what we have gained in freedom and pleasure has not been lost in our capacity for the sublime. Love is neither the comfortable sharing of daily life with someone, nor the meaningful encounter with our deep self. Rather, it is that horizon that widens the space around us, what propels us outside ourselves, what gives us the intuition that something much greater than ourselves exists.
Elizabeth Barrett − who would become one of the great English poets of the 19th century and a passionate advocate against slavery − met the poet Robert Browning after a correspondence of two years. When Robert entered her house for the first time, he saw that Elizabeth could hardly walk. She was invalid because of a disease she had contracted; she was also much older than he. But this was not the era of “sexiness.” Robert fell instantaneously in love with her. He saw her fiery spirit, her compassion, her defiance of arbitrary social rules.
They secretly married and eloped to Italy where they remained deeply in love with each other until Elizabeth’s death in 1861. Elizabeth wrote a love poem that would become very famous. I quote this poem, “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (no. 43), to remind myself what the experience of the sublime was (and with a hint of unavoidable melancholy):
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. / I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight / For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. / I love thee to the level of everyday’s / Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; / I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise. / I love thee with a passion put to use / In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. / I love thee with a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints, − I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears, of all my life! − and, if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death.”
I am sure we have gained far more than we have lost, yet I wonder: Can the sublime be found in the global oceans of electronic choices, in cool and serial sexual experiments, in disciplined and systematic quests for authentic selves and inner voices? Where is the sublime to be found?
A shorter version of this article previously appeared in Die Zeit.
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