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Love March 7, 2009

Posted 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.





1. Paul Moloney - March 9, 2009

Great post!

It seems that many of us wait for the ideal person to love while passing up the person that would be ideal for us to love. It hardly seems that anyone makes the point of trying to be the ideal person for another.

2. Moriae - March 9, 2009

That’s the irony of love. Our pride makes us think we’re a better ‘catch’ than we really are. The irony is complete when we express how ‘lucky’ we are when we do have a flattering ‘match’— indicating, of course, that our ‘match’ has gotten the short-end of the stick in our view. Oddly these situations never raise any ethical concerns for the flattered side, because ethical concerns are generally only raised in love when the sense of being ‘short-changed’ by our ‘other’ becomes more noticeable, which often takes a number of years—generally long enough to sate the desire of the flattered.

3. Michael Kuttnauer - March 9, 2009

Paul, your point is well taken. While there is no evidence that Gabriel Conroy wasted his life waiting for an ideal love, or that he is currently promiscuous (while dancing at the Christmas party with a Molly Ivors, it is made clear that Gabriel does not flirt with her), some people do. And it’s clear that such unrealistic anticipations can be a ruinous waste. As to your second remark, the matter of few people attempting to be an ideal person for the beloved, I think this, too, is true. Yet even that is ethically complex. Gabriel is the harmless, slightly pompous, no doubt, bourgeoise turn-of-the-century Irish intellectual who is chastened by Molly for not being fiercely nationalistic and anti-British (he publishes book reviews for “The Daily Express,” a Dublin newspaper of pronounced Conservative and Unionist sympathies — hence Molly’s Republican ridicule: “West Briton” she calls him at one point) at a time when Irish nationalism and the idea of a republic was an emotional and divisive factor in Edwardian Ireland. All of which suggests that Gabriel may be too comfortable with himself and thus insufficiently attentive to his wife, Gretta. Despite that, Gabriel does love her, even deeply. Hence, the moral ambiguity that is a crucial feature of this story.

4. Paul Moloney - March 10, 2009

Being comfortable with oneself must be the same as being complacent. There is nothing like thinking one has a dynamic relationship with the beloved, when suddenly the beloved dumps you for being too static. Ouch! That one still hurts.

5. Michael Kuttnauer - March 10, 2009

Moriae, you seem to me to have said something interesting regarding the ethics of the love relation. But I don’t suppose Joyce disagrees (and nor do I). I think Joyce wanted us to see Gabriel as possibly satisfying your description of one moral failing of love: Gretta was a country girl from Galway and Gabriel a Dubliner when they met, so an urbanite superiority may have been simply assumed by him and his social peers. And very likely by Gretta and her family and friends as well. I would only add to your point that the case you describe is not the only one in which ethical concerns within love and marriage may occur. And I would be very surprised if Joyce hadn’t considered many of those. As I said in the post, the fact (if it is one) that he loved her so despite his ethical failings is one of the glories of this piece, adding enormously to the difficulty of any philosophical effort to sort out the virtues and vices of his character.

6. Dwight Furrow - March 12, 2009

But isn’t Gabriel a bit overwrought? He has bit off too much of Plato to his detriment.

You wrote: “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.”

You are absolutely right, pace Plato. We love particulars and seek to revel in their particularity–loveliness personified–not in abstract universals such as “beauty”. (We can admire someone for their beauty, courage, wisdom, etc. But if we loved them for these reasons, we would have to love anyone who exemplified them)

But if that is the case, why does Gretta’s confession of a long-dead lover, by itself, lead Gabriel to doubt Gretta’s love for him? (I am assuming there are no other hidden facts relevant here).

Of course, if love aims at some standard of value such as “Beauty”, then perhaps Gabriel never quite measured up to Michael Furey in Gretta’s eyes, thereby compromising her love. But if we love particulars for their particularity, there is no such general standard. Why does Gabriel see himself in competition with Michael Furey at all?

I doubt that love is possessed in some quantity that when spread over more than one person is diminished. Of course there are substantial practical and moral reasons why it is difficult to love more than one person at a time–divided loyalties, distracted attention, broken promises, etc. (Don’t try this at home!) But none of these would apply to a long-deceased lover.

So I think Gabriel (and Joyce) read entirely too much Plato, which can be detrimental to one’s mental health.

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