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On love

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In a moment of turmoil the poet WH Auden begged, “O tell me the truth about love,” but it is impossible to know where to start. We are told that it is a variety of often contradictory things. On the one hand we are sold the idea of a glossy romance package: Sam Faiers takes Joey Essex ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) on an early date and immediately the two fall in love in a sleeping bag under the stars. The same old romantic tale repeats itself over generations: Sam and Joey are the reincarnated Dante and Beatrice with glamping as a modern substitute for courtly love. On the other hand we are told by the Conservative and church establishments that these flashy romances are damaging to our health, counter to “real” long-lasting love, and incentives are put in place to encourage marriages and the traditional family. Love is something that a couple must work towards over time, and it is the responsibility of the two lovers to maintain this bond throughout a lifetime together. Society dictates that we should love and make love in either one of these ways. It is also normal to love our family and close friends, but in a slightly lesser way.

The Christian teaching of “love thy neighbour” is taken merely as a vague metaphor by religious conservatives and the church state. It shouldn’t be read quite as literally as the obscure passages indirectly condemning same-sex marriages or abortion. Neoliberalism teaches us to look out for number one, and a close circle of people around us who it is socially acceptable to love. Extending the concept of love to anything beyond these circles makes us potentially dangerous hippies, stuck in 1968.

As it happens, there are many who associate with the left who are in some way inspired by a conception of “love”. Not all of us are drawn to egalitarian struggles through experiences of extracting coal down a mine or shaping steel in a factory. Sometimes our conversion can simply be formed out of a deep feeling that things must be better, and it can be hard to place what it is that makes us feel this way. For others it can emerge from deep spiritual thought; across Latin America thousands associate with liberation theology, a belief that God’s universal love for all of humankind should inspire Christians to fight for socialism.

These hippie love-infested views are not too far removed from our own radical roots either. Inspired by Greek philosophers it was Robert Owen, the early 19th century utopian, who introduced one of the earliest visions of a world where humans could live together communally, caring for one another as a collective. Owen’s humanistic ideas have been the subject of regular left critique over time (significantly in Marx and Engels’ writings on historical materialism, and more recently in anti-humanist theories), but these visions nonetheless set into motion a living tradition of radical ideas about human nature and our potential to live together in harmony. This accompanied Hegel’s concept of the “phenomenology of spirit”, which saw love as the overwhelming power at the heart of the earth’s core, connecting us all together. The belief that humans are not born as greedy capitalists is a stark contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s notorious assertion that “there is no such thing as society”. It is a fundamental for anyone who dares to dream of a world beyond capitalism, as well as those who believe that love can exist as something greater than a short-lived romance or a royal wedding.

Love and hate

If we are to assess the validity of “love”, firstly we need to consider exactly what it might mean. It is not something Marxists can easily write off as simply “a product of alienation” that can be explained within a dialectical framework. Love is a subjective phenomenon that has engaged human thought for thousands of years, and it can mean so many different things. Notably in Plato’s Symposium we see such a discussion and in Socrates’ ideas there is a significant distinction between romantic and what became known as ‘Platonic love’ (a concept of love as a non-sexual spiritual force which can bring individuals closer together, as well developing a greater awareness of our own existence). Plato saw the two forms of love evolving from each other, but the distinction between love as merely a sexual pleasure and something potentially far deeper was significant.

During the Enlightenment, “love” became associated with revolutionary ideas and some of the most powerful discourses can be found in the poetry of this time. A famous example is Keats’s ‘Bright Star’, which shows love to be an eternal entity between two people, but also something that is entirely universal. Love, we are told, is as an existence like the “moving waters”, fundamental and ever-lasting on our earth, to be accessed by one and all. The perfect moment of romance between the sickly poet and his overseas fiancée offers the reader a faith in humanity, a buoyancy that tells us that all anyone really needs is the experience of true love to become immortalised in love itself. It dares us to believe that we are all capable of good.

Love has irregularly come and gone in the years since the Romantics, occasionally rising in an optimistic spring before being quickly crushed again. There are, after all, many barriers that stand in the way of believing in an all-encompassing love. One only needs to turn on the news any day this week and watch the appalling crimes reported in Syria and Iraq to quickly give up hope. Love becomes blurred in a mesh of human suffering, and its strength is insufficient in overcoming atrocities. Of course the sectarian murderer who tortures and dehumanises his captors probably loves somebody dearly at home, and is himself dearly loved. Somewhere a tyrant this very minute is probably exchanging intimate love with a partner, and both may think the world of each other. In a brief few minutes of ecstasy the world is a different place, and all feelings of hatred vanish. In popular dramas about Ancient Rome we see King Herod passionately make love with Mariamme, hours after brutally suppressing a Jewish uprising. We are left to wonder how two people could really experience love, knowing that their actions that day had brought about so much suffering. I am reminded of Chinua Achebe’s ‘The Vultures’, and the image of a guard at Belsen death camp, stopping at the sweet shop on his way home to pick up chocolate for his children. We are made to believe that humans are capable of expressing both genuine affection one minute and immense cruelty the next.

It is difficult to understand how someone can switch so drastically between love and hate. It would be far more comfortable to imagine the Belsen guard as both an abusive husband and father, a monster at all times incapable of any human attachment. When you watch footage of convicted Nazis in Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah, there is an eeriness in how human the appalling criminals appear. Their elderly smiles are friendly and they apologise profusely. They act ashamed yet have learnt to live relatively normal lives. As with the apartheid South African officials who burst into tears as they are reminded of their relatively recent crimes, we are faced with the question of what is genuine and what is a necessary performance. It is often the case at the trials of “monsters”, that there will be a faithful partner, parent or friend holding the perpetrator’s hand before and after any conviction. Outside the court the two will exchange an affectionate look, as if to say, “I’ll be waiting on the other side.” Of course power will often be used to manipulate; a psychopath is adept at pulling the wool over people’s eyes, hiding their true feelings. It is hard, though, to believe that even the most callous murderer becomes entirely incapable of attachment (unless we are to believe in Calvinistic monsters born into divine evil). Does this understanding of love give us something to grasp onto? It certainly does not lesser the crimes. The Manic Street Preachers and Nina Persson were perhaps right when they sang “Your love alone is not enough”, but the very ability for all of us to feel close to another surely would signify that we are capable of so much more than our current society permits.

The couple

In our society where humans are encouraged to exist as atomised beings, the most intense bonds of love are likely to occur between the romantic couple. With the pressures that mount in everyday life, we are encouraged to find refuge in a spouse. Many end up searching for “the perfect partner”: the everlasting love story like Carrie and Mr Big, who overcome every imaginable obstacle over six seasons of Sex and the City to eventually find true happiness within their lavish Manhattan lifestyles. So often though in the real world we see these relationships tear themselves apart, sometimes in the most hurtful ways. The Elizabethan romantic tragedies seem as real as ever (the recent RSC contemporary production of John Webster’s The White Devil highlights this well). What is it that makes people want to inflict pain on the very person they are closest to? In his poetic assessment of the romantic break-up, the Marxist-humanist David Widgery suggests that it is the commodification of this loving relationship into an ointment for the alienated lover that wears love down into something sinister:

A once equal love capsizes and itself becomes the subject of the division of labour. The man is the human being who has to be kept fuelled and sustained, fit to do his stuff in the outside world. As time passes, it is mysteriously the man who comes to determine the terms of the emotional bargain. It’s the woman who fits it, placates, anticipates, mollifies, sacrifices and then becomes bitter and made lonely by what love has become. The labour of love becomes just another labour.

For Widgery love is a natural condition, but under the clashes of social power this can easily be turned “bitter”. Once-loving relationships are ground down over time by the dull compulsion of everyday capitalism and the towering shadow of patriarchy (and it is not only the working class who are abusive; we see plenty of examples from the wealthy sociopath Mr Big). Love is no longer a refuge for all the horrible things that can drive someone down, and over time a relationship can transcend into something entirely hurtful:

Love becomes involuntary, a system of emotional Green Stamps, promised, stored and exchanged. The platitude that love is close to pain becomes cruelly true, the intensity of violence replaces the gentleness of love. Not just broken alcoholic men but the smarty young executives find violence sexy when the fun has gone out of love.

It is such a situation that can make one question whether love ever existed at all. As in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Recollections of Love’, we are never quite sure if romance was a fantasy or a reality. Could love be nothing more than a social construct created to ease the horrors of a class-based society? One could easily reach these conclusions after reading Engels’ work on the ‘Dialectics of Nature’. We are said to be entirely shaped by material conditions, and there is no such thing as human nature. More powerfully still in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, when the speaker relives her first feelings of love and her resulting heartbreak (“I should have loved a thunderbird instead; At least when spring comes they roar back again”) she ends all but one verse with the conceding line “I think I made you up inside my head”. The speaker (the “Mad Girl”) in this poem perfectly epitomises the traumatised soul who has lost all hope in ever attaining love again. The emotional damage that can come with a broken heart can be utterly devastating, and for some the conclusion will be that love is merely a form of cruelty.

Instinctive love

Our world continues to throw up the unexpected. While so much cruelty is happening in one corner of the world, in another there is a moment of solidarity which can ignite the greatest faith in humanity again. History has shown time and again that humans are capable of breaking through the restrains of their own alienation to take extraordinary lengths to protect another. In the last century we have seen huge leaps of material progress, the American civil rights movement, the end of apartheid in South Africa, universal suffrage in many countries, the removal of dictatorships and the creation of liberal reforms. Collectively millions have suffered, been persecuted and lost their lives to bring about these fundamental improvements. When brutal regimes are toppled it is in everyone’s interest, but when the Tunisian protesters took to the streets after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight, very few predicted that Ben Ali’s regime would fall. The likely repercussion was a wave of heavy state repression, but in the face of this fear the Tunisian protests stuck together. It is these brilliant instincts that fundamentally change lives forever, be it the overthrow of a brutal regime, the introduction of a living wage, or merely the protection of somebody’s job.

As Keats showed us with ‘Bright Star’, these warm raptures can ignite in all of us. It is the exchanging of these moments of rhapsody – that dialectics can never fully explain – either as a collective or a couple, that some people call love. While for many it is unsustainable and can rupture into heartbreak or simply burn out, for a few love is able to seem lasting and timeless. Like the couple drinking coffee in Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point’, time becomes “somewhere else”. For the young item who realise at that very moment that they are in love, their rapture becomes immortalised as they become “two people with one pulse”. While time remains a spectre in the background, reminding us of the couple’s mortality, we are given the chance to imagine that their love could be everlasting.

Against all the heartbreak, I would like to cling on to MacNeice’s idea of love, a hopeful beacon shining in the tradition of the romantics. While hardened materialists may not choose to use the “L” term, I expect many believe in what it might stand for: the idea that we all have the ability to attach to another and to reject selfishness and greed (things we are told are part of “human nature” by right wing popular scientists) is revolutionary in our context. The pain many associate with love is born out of social forces which grind people down and which encourage tyranny and abuse. Auden tells us that time cuts love down like “fields of harvest wheat”, in a poem written during fascism’s rapid rise across Europe. Love can burn away and leave its mark as it does in ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, but perhaps we could extend love to mean something broader than just an intimate relationship with tragic heartbreaks. What if like Hegel, we see it as something as natural for humans as our instincts to eat, sleep and breathe? Are the impulses to attach ourselves to an individual really so different to what also draws us to join thousands of strangers protesting against a great injustice? Despite all the pain it can bring love is a power which holds great potential. As Widgery puts it, “love offers a glimpse of the most intimate communication that we have experienced. Everything that’s said about love is true, except the happy ending.” Perhaps one day we might change the ending too.