A longing for belonging

Over at the Centre for the History of the Emotions blog, my former tutor, the wonderful Lesel Dawson, reviews Simon May’s Love: A History. My favourite passage:

As May’s book makes clear, a number of traditions require that the lover achieve psychic distance from the beloved in order to attain higher goals. Looking across various approaches, I cannot help but wonder if the very process by which the human beloved is elevated to a higher ideal (or seen to embody abstract notions such as beauty and truth) might secretly depend upon not knowing the person all that well. In the Renaissance one of the best cures for lovesickness was sex, not only because it allowed the (usually) male lover to satisfy his desires, but also because intimate knowledge of the beloved was thought to disabuse the lover of his dreams. By actually getting to know the mistress, the suitor would have to relinquish his private self-created fantasy of the beloved in favour of a living, breathing human being.

Unfortunately, some men didn’t find this a very good exchange; for them intimacy with the beloved led, not to an appreciation of her particular qualities, but rather to a sense that they had been duped into believing that someone disgusting was beautiful. Many Renaissance poems, which oscillate between elevating and vilifying the mistress, reproduce this tension, demonstrating the ways in which idealization and misogyny are really two sides of the same coin. Although May does not focus on gender, one can imagine how some of his arguments could be used to demonstrate the ways in which idealistic constructions of love have helped to foster unrealistic ideas of women, contributing to the ways in which women have alternatively been seen as objects of veneration or disgust.

That’s true of many forms of love – not just the love of a man for a woman, but likewise sometimes the love of a woman for a man, or the love of a child for their parents, or a parent’s love for their child, or a friend’s love for another friend. There is a move from idealisation to a clearer-eyed recognition of the other’s faults, flaws and limits. And yet that can lead to a deepening of the love, when one recognises that the other is imperfect, vulnerable, fragile, and mortal. Sometimes the deepest love a child feels for their parent is when they see signs that they are getting old and a bit frail – and it is our turn to return all the care and love they provided to us.

The flip-side of this is: can one really love something that is perfect and immortal, like for example God? If God is perfect, why does He need our love?


  • Jayarava says:

    In a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies there will be an article which more or less argues that one cannot really love someone unless you know that they will live on after death in some way. The author argues that this makes the Buddhist doctrine of anatta 'self-less-ness' incoherent, and everyone should believe in a eternal self. I was asked to provide the Buddhist response. Basically there is nothing eternal (said Heraclitus) and you only tie yourself in knots thinking there is (said Buddha). But I can empathise with anyone who loves someone and doesn't want them to die. Can't we all. There, now you don't need to read it :-) But I was struck by the blatant implication that Buddhists and other atheists couldn't really understand or fully experience love because they do not believe in personal immortality. Yikes!

    There seem to be phases in love, including that initial period where everyone and everything (not just the beloved) looks beautiful. You can get the same thing with drugs though both wear off and both have complications, eh.

    I think there is something in actually talking to someone who is the object of our projections – of whatever kind (attraction or repulsion). I often find it helps to get out of my head, and into a conversation with such people. I'm not sure that about having sex with such people – I imagine this only leads to trouble.

    And yes, why does God not only need, but demand our love? It does seem that God is made in our image and not the other way around. With all our insecurities and failings.


  • Jules Evans says:

    Thank you for that comment Jayarava, very thoughtful and interesting.

    I would love one day to have a discussion with you about the Buddhists' idea of god or cosmic justice. It seems to me the Buddhists' have the latter without the former? So cosmic justice is simply a natural process, which doesn't require any sort of Grand Omnipotent Director?

    Heraclitus, as you know, believed in the Logos – but perhaps his definition of God is not so far from the Buddhists' idea of the natural process of cosmic justice…

    Anyway, if you ever have a free moment, lets have a talk about this over Skype and Ill write it up – I think other readers would enjoy finding out more about the Buddhist approach.

    all best


  • Carly says:

    "Need" seems to be a strong word. Maybe "desire" is appropriate here? In any case, what comes to mind is the Christian understanding that God chose to become human in two ways: firstly, s/he became a vulnerable, fragile, and mortal in the person of Jesus, even to the point of surrendering life in the body through an excruciating death; secondly, s/he became "sin" – which is understood as the moral weakness/failing of humans – and, in turn, bestowed on humans God's own holiness, righteousness, and perfection through faith. I think there is something loveable and accessible about God in that, if you can get past the doctrinal jargon. More so, however, I think a person can love God because of favourable supernatural intervention in his or her life (healing, peace, guidance, etc.) that is possible not because of God's limitations, but because of God's limitless power and authority to do so.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Thanks for the comment Carly, I find Christian theology fascinating. Im not a Christian myself, but its very interesting to me.

    All the best


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