Love March 7, 2009Posted by Michael Kuttnauer in Philosophy.
— So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. . . . He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.
Philosophy tries to say what some concept is — truth, say, or reality. Love, too, perhaps. A light on love may be given by thinking about its vicissitudes, among these the painful wondering if I have actually loved (or been loved by) another at all, as Gabriel Conroy is left to wonder after his wife Gretta’s confession of a long-since dead lover, one Michael Furey, in Joyce’s wintry Edwardian Dublin story, “The Dead.” Gabriel Conroy’s amazement, after a long successful marriage, is hardly unique to him or early twentieth century Ireland. Or to males or any other human category. The inner life is a quietude.
And the love of wisdom arose from wonder. Gabriel had probably supposed her love wholehearted, pure. Her admission of Michael Furey has called that into sudden question. He’d assumed it to be reciprocal; and knows now (as we know too) it may not have been be so. A dyadic relation, love links two people either of whom may be imperfect, indecent even. (Think of Adam Trask’s love for Cathy in East of Eden.) Love’s lies are legion, of course: Shakespeare reports, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies. . . .”
Love is ecstasy. A standing outside oneself.
— Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory. A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. . . . He could not eat for happiness.
The suffering of love seems, to the poets at least, the most devastating: the lover is laid waste.
— And who was the person long ago? asked Gabriel. . . .
— It was a young boy I used to know, she answered, named Michael Furey. . . . I can see him so plainly, she said after a moment. Such eyes as he had: big dark eyes! And such an expression in them — an expression!
Love is the tragic emotion and that only means it vindicates our lives, and crystallizes and shatters our illusions.
— While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him.
If the main question of ethics is, How should we live?, then love must be considered as a central problem of morality, practical as well as theoretical. Plato asks rightly what it is lovers seek from one another: “[S]uppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and say to them, ‘What do you people want of one another? . . .'” After considering various theories, Plato’s answer is beauty itself. This is wrong, of course: Gabriel loves Gretta, not Beauty. Yet Plato’s exaggeration is instructive at the same time: love is not libido only. The tenderness of love requires loveliness.
Plato probably supposed that Eros was the link with transcendence or a mediating power between human community and perfect being. Love may be felt as an act of begetting, not of children only but also of ideal objects, as in Diotima’s speech in Symposium, a work Joyce undoubtedly read at University College Dublin. Thought of that way, there is something to the Platonic notion of love, after all. True love is a caring about the soul, about its ideas and its values. That must affect how one lives.
Others have thought love’s object was power or “aim-inhibited” sex. Such views make for interesting conversation but most people would say they miss the essential point about this feeling. To caress a heliotrope envelope from the beloved to the point of loss of appetite is clearly more than the theories of Nietzsche or Freud can well explain. “In one letter he had written to her then he had said:
Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?”
A great god, Eros. The Greeks, as Nietzsche noted, had a successful theodicy: they accepted the tragic nature of human existence, but redeemed it by making the gods like ourselves, though more beautiful. Our suffering, then, connected as it is with heaven itself, is noble and good and human life will be bearable, after all. Gabriel is an archangel of God (as is Michael). To live utterly without love is tragic (though not, perhaps, unhappy), we feel; and to feel it alter is, too, if only because a bit of the beauty is done. We do not know if Gabriel properly loved Gretta in their life together — he himself doesn’t know anymore. Nor whether Gretta loves him now nor ever. One must conclude that Gabriel can live, but the value of his life and soon-to-be death are drifted over in the Dublin snowfall of that long ago night of love and beauty’s remembrance and revelation.