On the surface and from the outside, Valentine’s Day looks like the ultimate symbol of our cultural somnambulism about love, just as Christmas seems to have become a symbol for our unconsciousness about what Christian theology refers to as the Incarnation. Valentine’s Day, with its consumerist sea of plastic reds, whites and pinks, heartshaped everythings, chocolates, flowers and cards, makes love seem like a commodity. Restaurants and hotels are booked ahead of time, condom sales skyrocket, and so, it turns out, does the likelihood of unplanned pregnancies.
But apart from and in spite of all of this commodity fetishism, Valentine’s Day can also be taken to reflect a deep collective trust that, as Virgil reminds us, “amor vincit omnia“; most of us (if such a generalisation can be allowed) really do hope that love wins. Or, to put it differently, we want to believe, as St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians intimates, that “love never fails”. The Pidgin’ English bible puts the same idea this way: “Wen you get love an aloha, dat no goin pau eva!” (1 Cor 13.8). If that doesn’t put a smile on your face, I’m not sure if anything can.
But, what does this no-goin-pau-eva even mean? I suppose I could go on for a while about this most sublime of subjects, because it is so very, very crucial to any hope we have of experiencing the best that existence has to offer, but I just want to mention a few ideas that have made me think of love differently, starting with the rather esoteric notion of tzimtzum.
Tzimtzum, from the Kabbalist tradition, is the notion that when God began the process of creating everything that we perceive, he had to contract or constrict his own being. “In order to create,” the mystic philosopher Simone Weil suggests, “God had to hide himself; otherwise, there would be nothing but God.” There is a paradox here if we think about the Johannine expression of God as being love in his very nature (1 John 4.8), because it suggests that God (the All) is precisely the being who recedes in order that other things can live, breathe and have presence (i.e. God becomes, by choice and activity, the Not-All-who-could-be-All-and-therefore-is-All).
Even if you stick with atheism, the idea of tzimtzum is still beautiful: the ultimate No-Thing, as the Hasidic mystics sometimes call God, recedes into almost-absence in order that the existence of things is made possible. In fact, if you like playing with concepts the way that I do, you may even conclude that atheism may be taken as a kind of symbol of this very notion: the atheist believes so strongly in divine contraction that the divine is no longer an overt feature of her horizon of understanding. Although, of course, logically speaking we must acknowledge that hiddenness is not necessarily a sign of nonbeing. I’m aware that there are nonetheless forms of atheism that would be less than amicable towards this idea.
Still, this tzimtzum is the kind of idea that can “break your brain” (to quote my students) if you think about it too long. To me it’s a profound image for what it means to love another human being: to love well, to truly love, we must recede, step back. The ego must contract. We must enter into that hilarious self-forgetfulness — the same kind of self-forgetfulness that allows us to revel in a good joke or marvel at a profound work of art. We must open up a space for the other person to be, to breathe and be recognized for who they are rather than just what they can do for us.
This brings me to the second conception of love: love as agápē (ἀγάπη), which is the word used by St. Paul to describe love in his famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 mentioned above — arguably the most beautiful passage ever written on love. It means the kind of love that we know best as a pure gift. It is not given on the basis of any kind of obligation or transaction or law; it is never deserved, owed or owned. Rather, it is a kind of exuberant, riotous love that sees a need and fills it, no matter what has happened or what will happen as a consequence. This agapeic love rescues us from that undiluted erotic love that fuels Hollywood’s terrible Romantic comedy/drama narrative engine; that erotic love which on its own and left to itself is not so much concerned with the meeting of the self and the other as it is with the consumption of the other by the self. Eros tends to lurch forward out of a sense of privation or lack; agápē is an overflow.
Which brings me, lastly and most briefly, to the wonderful definition of love offered by Alain Badiou. Love, for him, is co-subjectivity. It is not a mono-subjectivity — a one-perspective thing — but is that which arises out of the dance between selves and others. The idea here is that the kind of love that fails to see the other is not really love at all. Only God can endlessly recede (as in tzimtzum) or endlessly give (as in agápē) — Only God can be both the No-Thing and the All-Thing, but our human experience tells us that we, as incomplete and finite beings, recognise love only in reciprocity: in mutual recognition. This view of love tells us that we are not individuals but interdividuals, born and raised to relate to the world and others in it.
This is not to give any weight to the disastrous and false Hollywood phrase “You complete me.” Love, if anything, is the assumption that the other is there, not to complete the self, but to be celebrated for herself. Love, if anything, reminds us that we are ontologically interdependent. “You incomplete me” would be a more accurate way of describing what love does: it places us always in awe and in debt. And yet, there is another paradox (because there always is another paradox) and it is this: when we contract, and give and recognise our incompleteness, we find ourselves filled; in being confronted with our own diminishing (tzimtzum), we find ourselves given over to and even capable of abundance (agápē). In this genuine love, our entire perception of reality is transformed; even lack becomes bountiful. The great mystic Rumi puts it well, “With thee, my love, hell itself were heaven; With thee a prison would be a rose garden."
(Originally published on 16 February, 2015)