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Transcript of On (and Beyond) Love Gone Wrong] - hcs. · PDF fileOn (and Beyond) Love Gone Wrong] By Stephen...

  • On (and Beyond) Love Gone Wrong] By Stephen A. Erickson

    C HRISTOPHER LASCH AND OTHERS HAVE SUGGESTED THAT the narcissistic personality is paradigmatic of our time - not that it is the only o r all-determining paradigm of the late-twe~~tieth-century human, but, certainly, that it is a contributing one and one which greatly influ-

    ences our self-understanding and the actions (and those more broadly conceived practices) which issue from this understanding. Some g o significantly further. Heinz Kohut, in fact, the recently deceased founder and leader of the "self-psychol- ogy" movement, has construed narcissistic personality disorder to be the most per- vasive and explanatory malady of our historical age. Love, it seems, has somehow gone terribly wrong, and, as Dr. Krokowski, high up in the sanitarium in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, pointed out long ago, only emptiness, illness, and devas- tation are likely to follow. We are presented with a bleak picture of the human heart indeed.

    At the same time ours has also been described as an age of considerable and even accelerating violence, disorganized as well as organized, domestic as well as

    tribal, national and regional. D o these two (alleged) circumstances of contemporary life - flawed love and intensi5ing violence - con- nect, and if so, how? This raises a more funda- mental and troubling question. Is there a space left free for the pursuit of s ~ ~ c h questions, an opening in the midst of the overlapping ter- and Professor ritories (supposedly) conquered and most de6- Phi'osophy at nitely claimed by the various academic disci- plines, those relentlessly optimistic "sciences" of "man?" Does a space open itself in which a broadly philosophical reflection on these mat- ters can not only take root, but find room in which t o grow? Though I believe so, what fol- lows can in the nature of things - in terms,

    as that is, of the density o f the thicket t o be rg, untangled, pruned, and explored - only trace

    and partially separate a few strands of the inter- woven texture of destructive human entangle- ment.

    Among other things, narcissism is said to be love gone wrong, love turned in upon

    -- - -

    46 THE HARVARD REVIEW OF PHILOEOPHY SPRING 1996

  • itself as the result of the loss of its original, external and primary object. Depending upon how this loss is understood, its causes and its dynamic assessed, narcissism has also been claimed to be love wronged. This wronging of love is further said to result in the deepest of injuries being inflicted (however unwittingly) upon an indi- vidual, these through damage done to that most fundamental of modes of human relating (and thus being): attachment itself. How might one begin to understand these claims? Such assertions become particularly pressing when conjoined with still other, often conflicting beliefs which have inhsed (but perhaps more conhsed than informed) our age. Some of these beliefs include the following: that through fur- ther "enlightenment" and more effective education, we are becoming more toler- ant, because liberated, and more liberated, because tolerant, further and more con- tinuing exposure to others only enhancing the constructive dimensions of human interaction. Also included is the belief that love is the ultimate liberator, though acceptance and approval - perhaps first and (unfortunately) only tolerance - may often have to do. Two other beliefs are that love, even its far less effective precur- sors, enables its recipients to become and be themselves, this state of atyairs coming about and maintaining itself in a manner quite free of coercive measures - mea- sures deemed the antipodes of positive feeling; and that, whatever the intricacies of the human heart, the foundations upon which all human conflict must ultimately rest (and, equally, everything else human) are economic, thereby making improve- ment of those conditions not only (and whatever else) a benevolent act, but one productive of benevolence as well - this last claim being a translation of Brecht's famous aphorism that "erst kommt das Fressen und dann die Moral" (first comes material sustenance and then high-minded feelings).

    Surely, taken together, these various and conflicting assertions can only bewil- der. They run the gamut, all the way from warm and edifjring commitments to pos- itive human feeling, the "power of love" to the application, however constructively intended, of cold economic determinism. They range in societal orientation from "live and let live" to beliefs which provide a mandate, however covert, for social engineering. Underlying them all is a concern better to understand and, thereby, to overcome violence, both in essence and manifestation. What mapping, or at least glimpses of direction, might be secured in this tangled territory? Might this com- plex scheme of love, particularly its narcissistically inclined dimensions, provide, however partially, a compass giving direction? Let us consider.

    I A RECENT AND QUITE PHILOSOPHICAL NOVEL2 A SIGNIFICANT

    dichotomy is forwarded: love o r liberalism. Though not altogether original in its reflections, one of its passages, a relatively brief one, will enable us to focus

    n a number of related issues.

    The choice [between love and liberalism3] has often been missed in an optimistic equation of the two terms, one considered the epitome of the other. But if they have been linked, it is always in an implausible marriage, for it seems impossible to talk of love and letting live, and if we are left to live, we are not usually loved. We may well ask why the cruelty witnessed between lovers would not be tolerated (or even considered conceivable)

  • beyond conditions of open enmity. Then, to build bridges between. .. [individuals] and nations, we may ask related questions: Why do the coun- tries that have no language of community or citizenship leave their mem- bers isolated but unmolested? And why do the countries that talk most of community, love, and brotherhood routinely end up slaughtering great swaths of their populations24

    These last are difficult questioqs, not made easier by the (seeming) fact that they issue from the tangled region of human affection and might, therefore, be con- strued as the legacy of love - however much love has been heralded by some as in its very nature supportive and liberating.

    One of our earliest and most influential accounts of love - at least of what it has been pervasively understood to be - is found in Plato, though "love" is not the most perspicuous of terms for what Plato discusses.5 The Greek word is i p q , which might best be translated as "desire." Desire is grounded in and motivated by an underlying lack or deficiency in the one who comes to have and, thus, experiences desire. There is, in short, something incomplete in (and about) the desirer, and it is this which produces desire itself. Further, one can only truly desire that which one lacks, and, whether or not fully (or even partially) comprehended, any given desire has as its ultimate and unalterable goal the overcoming of the specific lack which created and now defines it6 - this through some sort of "oneness," some fusion, with the "object" deemed the appropriate "sufficiency" to overcome the underlying and motivating "deficiency," the lack, which generated the desire in the first place. Lack, of course, often construed as resulting from denial of access, can be painful, certainly frustrating, and hostility toward that which would impede the overcoming of the lack, toward that which is perceived as denying access to the remedy, the

    "sufficiency," is easily understandable. From anger and hostility to -

    "There is, in short, something. incomplete violence is clearly nei- the r a long nor an

    in (and about) the desirer, and it is this illogical however which produces desire itself:" deilorabl' that step

    may be. Plato aside, such

    an account is replete with ambiguities and difficulties which have haunted discussions both of love and of "letting live (or be)" through the succeeding centuries. How, for example, could one possibly leave alone - simply let live and let be - that which is experienced as the "object" of one's love, now construed as that which would overcome one's deficiency, remedy one's lack, fulfill (and thereby alleviate the pain of) one's desire? A cluster of these and similar problems resides in the (seemingly) simple notion of "oneness with," alternatively termed "fusion." I overcome my slight hunger, for example, by eating an apple, by consuming, specifically, the apple which I experi- ence myself as at this moment wanting - yes, that one over there. But to do so I must first have the apple in my possession. I must control what happens to it in a way which insures that it comes into my hands and becomes "mine" not just even-

  • tually, but at that time which is coincident with my desire for it. Hunger, of course, requires first the possession and then the consumption of the (putatively) desired object, the one which I believe would assuage my hunger, satisfy my desire. (All along, let us postulate, I have assumed that it was this apple which I desired and have assumed, also, that its consumption would overcome the deficiency in me, the hunger. Unless we assume that human beings are quite transparent to themselves, however, both of these assumptions are open to question.)

    And what if it is not hunger but companionship I desire, this particular person as companion?7 T o satisfy this desire, I must at least have this person in my pres- ence. The desired companion must be with me and at those times which are coinci- dent with my desire for this person. Problematically, however, and altogether unlike the apple, the desired companion has a mind of his o r her