Advanced love: An essay

painting by Xiao Dayuan

“Split second flashing ripple” (刹那摇滚涟倏) by Xiao Dayuan (萧大原)

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
— Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

I once asked my composition students, who were writing about the topic of marriage and monogamy, what love was, and none could give me a satisfactory answer. They couldn’t give me any answer. This was after they had read a notorious essay by Katherine Anne Porter, “The Necessary Enemy.” In Porter’s nasty logic, the stronger the love, the stronger the hate. You both go into marriage with very high expectations of love and commitment. Your love gets off to a great start, but there is a growing, inexorable gap between the ideal and the reality. It’s not the fault of either of you; the gap is just there. Nobody told you about it.

At first you ignore the gap, but it doesn’t go away. You get frustrated and angry. The anger grows. It needs an object to attach itself to: your spouse. You hate your spouse because she doesn’t fill the gap. She is upset with you for the same reason. Maybe you hate yourself too for hating her, but it’s easier to hate her since you imagine you can bend her to your purpose. The marriage settles in for a long unacknowledged siege.

It’s not altogether hopeless. This is where Porter gets interesting. Paradoxically, your love only grows stronger to keep up with the hate. You can’t stand to hate, so you retaliate against hate with love. Love and hate are like two balloons that expand together at the same rate. In fact, the only way love can grow in a relationship is in response to hate. Hate can exist without love, but love without hate is like love without sex: both are needed to power and motivate it.

Looked at in a positive way, hate can help a marriage. Paradoxically, so can jealousy, as Adam Phillips remarks in Monogamy, a pithy little book so profound I still don’t understand most of it: “Jealousy is a form of optimism: It makes us believe that there is something to know and something worth knowing.”

Your marriage may be coursing along on calm seas, but just for that reason it soon palls and becomes tedious. Why? Precisely because you have succeeded in arranging your life exactly the way you want it. Everything is clear and stark—down to the exact amount of savings, to the dollar, you will both reap from your retirement plans. That’s precisely the problem. You have abolished all mystery from your life. You see the rest of your days unfolding before you like a jackpot display. You stare at the face of the future telescoped into the present. And what is staring you in the face is the face of death.

You need something to cloud up the picture, to restore the mystery. You need some drama, some trouble in your life, and you locate it in the very suspicion that your spouse is unfaithful. This now gives the marriage some purpose. Jealousy gives you something to do. There is a narrative, with either a tragic or comic outcome—any will do, as long as there’s an outcome. If your suspicion turns out to be groundless, the cycle can begin anew by being jealous about someone else. If your suspicion is correct, well then it’s over. But at least you can call it a day and move on. Or not? Is divorce automatically necessary if a spouse is unfaithful?

“Of course, it is!” my class responds in unison.

But I thought you took marriage seriously, I counter.

“We do.”

So you’ll step out of it so easily? I would think that if you took marriage that seriously, you’d try to work on it a little, give things a second chance.

“Not when trust has been broken.”

So sexual faithfulness is more important than love? All that love invested in your spouse goes “pop” and disappears in an instant, just like that? A single false step invites catastrophe? That’s a pretty harsh view of things.

Must adultery always lead to divorce? Let’s admit that the charge is grave, on two counts: the act itself, and the lying to cover it up. But what is the appropriate punishment for momentary human weakness coupled with a lie? How severe is cheating really? As bad as concealing a past rape or murder? Or bigamy? Or wife beating? Or truly corrosive events on the family like gambling or drug addiction? And do all these other crimes necessarily result in immediate divorce? On the contrary, people work on them with infinite patience in the hope that things will get better.

“Sure, relationships take work,” my students protest, “but look at the benefits! Somebody to come home to. That one special person to stick things out with ‘through thick and thin,’” in their favorite catchphrase.

In the conventional view, the sacrifice of sexual fidelity is a small price to pay for the rewards of intimate love. But if intimacy starts off fun and soon becomes exhausting, that’s because it’s a form of labor, what Laura Kipnis in her trenchant book Against Love: A Polemic (excerpts of which I also gave to my students) calls “intimacy labor.” Kipnis characterizes adultery as a legitimate form of protest at the police state-like surveillance built into marriage. Always having to work so hard at a relationship, always having to be so nice, becomes an intolerable burden. She goes further: honest adultery (not lying about it) can help a relationship, just as jealousy can.

Employ adultery like an electric prod to jolt a marriage out of a rut, I told my students. Season your dull domestic life with a little drama, like a play, with an exciting crisis to therapeutically release a cathartic amount of steam. Shake up the relationship with the acid test of adultery. Adulterers are domestic surrealists whose only crime is a utopian vision and a poetic act intended to evolve the relationship to a higher state. What is needed, in short, is the creative application of techniques to maintain a marriage, and adultery may be the most effective technique of all.

They couldn’t come up with a response to this, but they did fall back on one valid point, namely marriage means having somebody to grow old with. True, nobody wants to die lonely and alone. But let’s examine this argument. Let’s take all of the strongest arguments for monogamy and examine them one by one.

1) The insurance argument. Investing in a spouse for future returns. Someone to get old and die with. Well, that’s like marrying a beautiful or handsome person because your baby will grow up to be picture perfect. So you’re more interested in what someone has to offer you in the future rather than what he or she is for you right now? Why not marry an accountant or stockbroker, for that matter? Moreover, capitalists that we are, what are all these money metaphors like “insurance” and “investment” doing in the language of love, anyway? (see also argument 4).

2) The morality argument. Your moral principles or your religion dictate that monogamous marriage is the only allowable form of relationship. But are you truly comfortable in the knowledge you’re faithful to your spouse only because it’s what society dictates? You’re not a robot, you claim; you married for additional reasons as well (let’s hope you did)—love, companionship, etc. The weakness of this argument (as with the insurance argument) is that it can’t stand alone as a sufficient argument in its own right but needs to be supplemented by other arguments.

3) The potency argument. Love for its own sake; love as a kind of intense religious experience. You can’t split your love between two or more people because it will be reduced in intensity. Love can only focus on a single object, like the sun’s rays burning through a magnifying glass onto a piece of wood causing it to burst into fire. This argument is a bit more solid, because it doesn’t need to be supplemented by other arguments. But it cuts both ways. Don’t you risk burning up the love object by the intensity of your rays? Another source of frustration and hate: the gap between your desire and your inability to consume the other (short of cannibalism), which easily slides into obsessive jealousy. Can you ever find a stable resting point between loving a lot and loving too much? The more passionate you are about someone, the more likely your passion will drive them away—precisely due to the excessive nature of passion. If on the other hand your love is not quite so intense but calmer and more civilized, it’s less than love.

Finally, underlying all these arguments is the most tenacious of them:

4) The money argument. Love is finite and countable, and therefore a limited resource. You only have a precious quantity of it. If you waste it on the wrong person you won’t have enough left for the right person. Investing in a relationship, possessing someone, risking all your love for someone’s love in return—it boils down to a symbolic currency circulating in an economy of exchange and profit. Or worse, the poverty argument: you have no love to give because no one has yet come to fill you with their love, as if we were empty bottles entirely dependent on others to fill us up with their love.

I offer a counter metaphor: the fountain, the fount of love within each of us that can never be depleted, no matter how many we may shower our love upon. It doesn’t have to be a choice between giving only ten percent of my love to ten different people instead of 100 percent to one. I can give 100 percent to all, since my well of love is constantly replenished from within and always stays full. Most people unfortunately subscribe to the fallacy that “it is a proof of the intensity of their love when they do not love anybody except the ‘loved’ person,” as Erich Fromm said in The Art of Loving. “If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, ‘I love you,’ I must be able to say, ‘I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself.’”

“But you can’t devote the same amount of time to ten people as to one!” my students are quick to protest. “We only have enough time in life for one person.”

Ah yes, the constraints of time. It’s a problem. And also an interesting challenge. Isn’t life itself a challenge? But let’s take a look at this argument more closely. How much time do you really want to spend with the person you love? Every waking minute? People who spend all their time with a spouse or partner are in fact often lonely—lonely for other people, whom they are kept away from in their little monogamous dyad. They are also lonely for themselves. The more “starved” you are for love (another poverty metaphor), the more time you may need to yourself. Many relationships might actually benefit if both parties saw a bit less of each other. Absence does make the heart grow fonder, as the old cliché has it. Try experimenting with seeing your significant other every other day, or less than that. You may discover you actually miss each other. Better yet, take on another significant other on the alternating days. Or ten significant others.

“But then you’ll no longer have the extra time to yourself!”

Sure you will. If you need it. The point is to find the proper balance between the breadth (of people) and the depth (time devoted to each) that works best for you. For some, one is enough, for others two, and for others ten. Others still need to always be meeting new people.

“How can you juggle the complexities of ten relationships, let alone more than one?”

People are fascinated by systems. What greater pleasure than the challenge of integrating our mutual schedules? It’s like a cool board game or chess game, and everyone wins.

“And will they all go along with it?”

No. But if you level with everyone at the outset and there’s no deception, you may find a few takers.

“How about all the time and responsibilities involved with babies and children?”

This is where the meshing of families becomes really interesting. When you join together in a communal household with many people taking care of everyone’s babies and children, you may discover it to be a far superior arrangement than the lonely monogamous household and its isolated offspring.

To use the analogy of religion: you can have more than one God. There’s a religion that actually does this. The Baha’i faith is a phenomenal insult to the faithful of other religions, for it is the only faith to accept unconditionally the gods of all the world’s major religions—Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Brahma, etc. That was quite a radical move, and the Baha’is in the Middle East have long been ruthlessly persecuted for it. Can we not imagine the same in the world of love? I’m a member of the Baha’i faith—of lovers instead of gods. I’m a polytheist in love.

For the conventionally attached, how to handle an intensely attractive or sexually aggressive person who appears on the scene is one of the key dilemmas in life. We are taught not to be misers with our money. But when it comes to the body, we are misers through and through. Most would admit that someone like Mother Theresa, who gave all of her time and energy to the nameless poor and never expected anything in return, truly understood the meaning of generosity. But how many Mother Theresas of the flesh are there? How many would accept the call to give their body to whomever desired it? Mother Theresa, or Jesus for that matter, might not have personally enjoyed the company of the destitute they ministered to. Helping people often requires the sacrifice of our comfort. You’re a wartime doctor working twenty-four hour shifts in triage, amputating the limbs of so many screaming victims. Hardly anyone’s idea of fun, but that doesn’t stop you from doing your job, motivated as you are by the loftier imperatives of duty, morality, professionalism, dignity, humanity, and sheer altruism.

An astonishing instance of sexual altruism (eros and agape rolled into one) is afforded by the Dane Jacob Holdt, who hitchhiked around the USA in the 1970s and took 15,000 pictures of the poor he spent time with, shacking up with many of them for days at a time, culled into the remarkable book American Pictures (Copenhagen: American Pictures Foundation, 1985). A photo of Holdt on the inner flap, with his hippie hair and beard and serene gaze, uncannily resembles Christ (as pictured in the popular imagination), and he was indeed a Christ-like figure. He routinely slept with his hosts—adult men and women of all ages—often out of genuine affection and just as often against his inclinations. I wonder how many of us are capable of the same degree of sexual generosity. Even he had limits, though. In the following letter he wrote to an elderly female friend, he describes how he let a drunken old slob suck him off, while fending off his strenuous efforts to penetrate him anally:

I finally managed to get a roof over my head with two old bums. They were drunk as hell, and there was an incredible mess. They couldn’t even afford kerosene, so there was no light. We were all three supposed to sleep in one bed. There were inches of dirt underneath it and every twenty-five minutes, one of us had to get up to put wood on the stove, since it was very cold. At first I was sleeping between them, but then I realized they were both homosexual. So I moved over next to the wall so I would only have one to fight off, but he turned out to be the most horny. In that kind of situation I usually resign myself to whatever happens, but this night I didn’t feel like it. He was what you might call a “dirty old man” with stubble and slobber, but that was not the reason. I have been through far worse things than that. I had probably just gotten to the point where I was tired of being used by homosexual men. I hate to hurt people, but I suppose that this night I was trying to prove to myself that I had at least some willpower left. So I lay on my side with my face to the wall. But he was clawing and tearing so hard at my pants that I was afraid they were going to rip, and since it is the only pair I have, I couldn’t afford to sacrifice them. So I turned around with my face toward him, but he kept at it and pressed his big hard-on against my ribs and began to kiss me all over—kisses that stunk of Boone’s Farm apple wine. The worst was that he kept whispering things in my ear like, “I love you. I love you. Oh, how I love you.”….Well, he finally got his pacifier, but that did not satisfy him, as he was the kind of homosexual who goes for the stern. He just became more and more excited and finally became so horny that I felt really guilty, but still I didn’t give another inch. He tried and tried. Finally he destroyed the beautiful leather belt you gave me that time when I couldn’t keep my pants up anymore. It made me so damned mad that I grabbed his big cannon with both hands and turned it hard toward the other guy who was snoring like a steamship. “Why don’t you two have fun with each other and leave me in peace. I want to sleep.” But it didn’t help, so the struggle continued all the night with me every five minutes turning the cannon in the other direction (about four times between each new load of firewood). Finally the guy left around eight o’clock and I got a couple hours of sleep.

The next day, Holdt continues, “I was very sad, because I felt that I had destroyed something inside myself.” Now what is interesting is that it wasn’t guilt over giving in to a revolting sexual encounter that upset him. Rather, it was guilt over not going all the way, and letting the guy penetrate him anally:

I felt a deep irritation that I had not been able to give him love. In his eyes, I was a kind of big-shot and it would have made him happy if I had given myself fully. There was just something or other inside me that went “click” that night, so the whole next day I felt a deep loathing of myself. I am constantly finding many shortcomings in my relationships with people, but the worst thing is when my shortcomings hurt such people, who are already hurt and destroyed in every possible way by the society surrounding them. If I could not constantly give such losers a little love, I simply would not be able to stand traveling as long as I have.

What had been violated—what he had “destroyed” in himself—wasn’t sexual purity but the purity of love. If hasty sex with people we are not sure about so often results in guilt, it’s not because we did it, but rather because we didn’t do it right. The problem is precisely sex without love. The solution, however, is not to wait till we find someone to love, to selfishly hoard our love, but to learn to respond lovingly to anyone who wants us.

Incomprehension among the students.

Okay, let me try again to explain. As a utopian, I have this tendency to idealize, to overestimate people’s ability. Of course, we are not all as selfless as Jesus or Mother Theresa. We are ordinary, constrained by ordinary human weakness. My concession—and it’s a big one—is you will no longer be required to give yourself unconditionally. But you must still give yourself—to more than one. Let’s say that, of all the people who desire you, you only have to give yourself to those whom you also desire. Now could you ask for a better deal than that?

“But I desire only one!”

You mean to say with a straight face that you have never mentally undressed someone other than your significant other? Even former President Jimmy Carter admitted as much.

“But what about our pride and dignity? We are not animals.”

Be careful. Pride, in the Christian religion, is one of the cardinal sins. And you’d better get used to the fact that as far as biology is concerned, you are an animal. This shouldn’t disturb you in the least. If it did, you could hardly bring yourself to take pleasure in sex at all, much less in eating, sleeping, snuggling, and a lot of other animal needs in life.

“Human love is superior to animal love. It rises to a higher level.”

Ah yes, that old chestnut, Plato’s ladder of love. Let’s have a look at it:

The ladder of love

The ladder of love

Notice that the higher you rise on the ladder of love, the purer the type of love is, the less it has to do with love of a single person. Monogamous love, married couple love, the love that everyone lives for, is merely on Rung 2, pretty low down on the ladder. The reason for this is that the conventional idea of love is actually quite narrow and hidebound. And even if we accept Plato’s abstract idea of love, there are serious limitations. For the sake of argument, let’s keep the same ladder and apply it to hate. What would Platonic Hate look like?

The ladder of hate

The ladder of hate

The point is you can’t just stack things on a ladder and assume the higher something is, the better it is. There is love, there is hate, there is the arbitrary metaphor of the ladder, and none of them has much to do with one another. On the other hand, there are relatively more sophisticated and efficacious forms of love and hate, which is what this essay about. Let’s see what is to be learned from the philosophical exploration of hate.

Nietzsche captured the paradox that love and hate, far from being polar opposites, are intimately bound up in dialectical, dynamic motion. The claustrophobic love between two people soon becomes intolerable in its very perfection—and leads to hate. You declare each other enemies. Whereupon rage gives way once again to love, based on the mutual respect of honest warriors. Note how this helps illuminate Katherine Anne Porter’s “necessary enemy”: it’s necessary to hate the beloved in order to learn to truly love the beloved. We could also say that hate and love merge together into a unity; each expresses the other.

Notorious French libertine writer Marquis de Sade spelled out an even more extreme logic. The negative is never merely the obverse of the positive, it is always more real and convincing than the positive. The ugly is not merely the obverse of the beautiful, it’s the highest form of beauty. An ugly face is always more memorable than a beautiful face. Ugly people turned Sade on sexually far more than beautiful people (how liberating if one could manage that!). For the same reason, hate is superior to love, because it’s more real and overwhelming; it’s more notable.

Hate provided the same refuge for Sade, amidst the trials and tribulations of life, that love provides for the rest of us. Sade’s sense of hate was a kind of love expressed as rage, as if the fullest expression of love could only take the form of rage, as if rage were the natural outlet of love. (He made the curious observation how strangely satisfying it is to hurl insults and expletives during sex.) But no sentimental human pity here. Something rather on the order of the love of the gods. In his fantasies Sade invented forms of torture that could prolong the death of his victims eternally. He planned crimes of such a magnitude, “the effects of which would be perpetual, even when I myself do not act, so that there would not be a single moment of my life, even when I were asleep, when I was not the cause of some chaos, a chaos of such proportions that it would provoke a general corruption or a disturbance so formal that even after my death its effects would still be felt” (Maurice Blanchot, “Sade’s Reason”). One thinks of the rage of terrorists, and it might even help us understand something like 9/11. Sade’s rage was directed not at specific groups, at infidels, but at all human values, God, and the entire physical universe:

In everything we do there are nothing but idols offended and creatures insulted, but Nature is not among them, and it is she I should like to outrage. I should like to upset her plans, thwart her progress, arrest the wheeling courses of the stars, throw the spheres floating in space into mighty confusion, destroy what serves Nature and protect what is harmful to her; in a word, to insult her in her works—and this I am unable to do. (ibid.)

Sade’s great frustration at ultimate human impotence turned him back on himself to discover the real enemy, desire itself, the very thing motivating his hate. Through this unexpected trap door—the recognition that desire is always at the root of unhappiness—Sade arrived at something like Buddhism. No religious devotee or saint willingly lives an isolated, ascetic life unless he extracts some kind of pleasure out of it. Buddhists find solace in meditation, and yet they retain a profound sense of pleasure—the pleasure of meditation. Sade found his solution in the sarcastic form of meditation known as apathy.

Here we arrive at a truly original idea, something no Buddhist ever thought of. In sacrificing the pleasure of desire (for another), you are compensated not only by liberation from desire—a pleasure in its own right—but something else: the volatile pleasure derived precisely from the pitiless elimination of the very capacity for pleasure. This cynical detachment does not mean rejecting the object of one’s pleasure. You can continue to have sex with (or in Sade’s case, to torture) someone, while at the same time renouncing your reliance upon them. It is only when you have worked yourself into this contradictory state of indifference, and it’s a simple matter to walk away, that you can taste its exquisite pleasure. By contrast, wasting yourself on the object, losing yourself in it, only drains and wearies you. Withholding your energy, denying it to the other, loops it back on itself in a controlled inner explosion that energizes rather than exhausts enjoyment of the object, a kind of psychic echo chamber (my debt again to Blanchot for these insights).

If attachment to desire is the cause of suffering, stop being attached and the suffering goes away. But that doesn’t mean the desire goes away, only your attachment does. The desire is still sitting there shimmering on a silver platter, and the more you resist it, the more seductive it becomes.

By withdrawing from your lover, you draw closer. I don’t mean withdrawing in space or time, though the occasional sabbatical from your partner in a long-term relationship may do some good (there are even self-help books like The Marriage Sabbatical by Cheryl Jarvis). I mean holding your love in abeyance, in ironic detachment, as if it were a matter of the tritest importance. Challenge her, doubt her, hate her, despise her, reject her from time to time. Or him. You should always be on the verge of leaving each other. Not for the wrong reasons—dashed expectations, misunderstandings, unfulfilled needs, boredom—but for the sheer drama of throwing suspense into the relationship. A healthy bond is structured on insecurity. Not the fitful insecurity of ambivalence—approaching your partner halfway, loving a little here, hating a little there—but a strategic insecurity: at once loving and hating, equally, with passion.

All of the foregoing advice won’t do much good without another crucial element: the right choice of partner. You have to want to be together in the first place. You also need other reasons to be together besides the demands of love. Nothing will help a relationship when that basic connection isn’t there. Two pillars are needed to hold it up: physical and intellectual compatibility. Advanced love is the interplay of all three factors: strategically ambiguous love for someone who turns you on both physically and intellectually.

Nature provides us with powerful instinctive impulses to guide us to the right bodies, though societal fashions dull many people’s senses and confound them to the point where they don’t know what they want and are easily subject to the manipulation of others. Visually, we are attracted primarily to the eyes (anterior) and the ass (posterior). Conventional good looks often play a subordinate role. Don’t listen to advice on how attractive or unattractive others regard someone you’re into. Disregard how nice she would look arm-in-arm with you at a party. Think rather about how much you want the taste of her shit. That’s right, the single most decisive test for recognizing intense physical attraction is the unmistakable urge to burrow your face in someone’s anus and genitals, just as animals do. If the idea of this is repulsive when you imagine someone, it’s nature’s way of warning you that basic compatibility is lacking. No matter how beautiful she may be, and you’ll grow tired of her very quickly.

There is a simple test for compatibility. You can try it with your current or future lover or spouse. We all know it’s important for a couple to have common interests and hobbies, but how about your deepest, darkest fantasies that you have kept secret all along? Pop the question and observe the reaction. Your relationship is in a healthy state if your partner 1) not only listens but accepts your fantasy with genuine and sympathetic understanding, 2) sets out to help you attain and live out your fantasy because your satisfaction is her satisfaction, and 3) identifies with the fantasy herself, shares the same fantasy, or learns to share it if it’s new to her. And of course, vice versa: you can empathize with her fantasies.

Advanced love: when you want what your lover wants and you go to great lengths to help her attain it. That’s why I consider Macbeth to be Shakespeare’s greatest love story. Romeo and Juliet act on physical attraction, to be sure, but they have too little time together to test their personal compatibility. Their love is thus less convincing than that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who go to the length of murdering for each other.

A test-case scenario: You tell your wife you’ll take up her idea about the importance of honesty in a relationship. You want get things out on the table with a fantasy that’s been cooped up too long. You take a deep breath. “Hon, it’s time to leave you.”

“I know.”

*     *     *

Like this post? Buy the book (see contents):americanrococo

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