Sunday, February 19, 2017

Why We Love

     [I write so much about politics and current events that I sometimes become stale and myself. That makes it vitally important that I depart from the pattern at intervals, whether by writing something new that’s well off the political track or by rescuing a non-political piece from its slumbers in my archives. As I have a long agenda for today, I’ve chosen the latter course.

     The following piece first appeared at the old Palace of Reason on January 10, 2004. -- FWP]

     Politics, as important as it is, can be awfully repetitive. A life continually steeped in politics becomes as dismal as one lived behind prison walls. The similarities are not coincidental.

     We'll be force-fed quite a lot of politics for the next ten months or so. Quadrennial elections raise the stakes, and the Commentariat likes nothing better than a high-stakes game. So there'll be much thrust and parry, much denigration and counter-denigration, a lot of mudslinging, and here and there a few groats of real analysis. But as important as it is, the winner-take-all combat of the campaign must not be allowed to roughen our sensibilities. There are things more important than electoral politics. There is love.

     Yes, this will be one of those essays.

     Several stories about the Howard Dean for President campaign, including a large one in last Sunday's New York Times, have emphasized the social drives that have attracted most of its younger adherents. To be brief, a lot of Dean's campaign workers are there more to meet somebody than to make Howard Dean the next President. The observation has occasioned a lot of chuckling, a little head-scratching, and too little serious thought.

     Is it not possible that the same motivation attracts single people to many, perhaps even most political campaigns, but that, until recently, it was considered indiscreet to say so?

     At this time, the traditional mechanisms that bring the unmarried together to form couples have grown unprecedentedly weak. Many things have contributed to this weakening: family diasporas and dramatic changes in family structures, the pressures of corporate employment, the disaffiliation from mainstream churches, the increased liabilities involved in matchmaking, and others. In consequence, there's a certain sense of anxiety among young Americans about getting matched up. It sometimes expresses itself behaviorally as frenzy: an accelerating rotation among the few mechanisms that remain, driven by the ticking of body clocks that, despite all the advances of modern medical science, cannot be rewound or reset.

     Alongside the weakening of the older mating techniques and the increasing tension we feel over the difficulties, we have an increasingly muddled sense for why we mate. Humans have pair-bonded for all of recorded history at least, but we've given the why of the matter insufficient thought even so.

     Ironically, the subject has acquired new prominence and several new facets from two political developments: the Dean for President campaign and the drive for homosexual marriage.

     The non-risible answer to "Why are you involved in Smith's campaign?" has always been "Because I agree with his positions and want to see him elected." In other words, a vision of justice, rather than any more personal fulfillment, was the overt motivation espoused. If the questioner suspected other motivations, it was deemed intrusive to inquire about them.

     Yet the love of justice, though not identical to the love of another person, is nonetheless a form of love: the investment of self in the well-being and happiness of others. The investment is seldom total -- the technical term for a man who gives himself entirely to the pursuit of justice is hero, and there aren't many -- but it's made to some degree by anyone not completely unconcerned with the rights of others.

     As regards homosexual marriage, about which your Curmudgeon has a rather dismissive opinion, the question of love is amplified by the absurdity and stridency of its proponents. They've made some ridiculous claims: in particular, that homosexuals can love each other just as much as heterosexuals, and therefore ought to have legally recognized marriages.

     Yet the marriage contract has nothing to do with love. Marriage was devised to establish and enforce the obligations of spouses to one another and to their progeny. Love has been independent of marriage, and often in opposition to it, for all of human history. If the crux of the matter were love, the discussion would be over.

     The Dean workers seeking soulmates through their involvement in politics ought not to be laughed aside. By their participation in the campaign, they've already declared a love for an impersonal ideal, strong enough to evoke some degree of self-sacrifice and dedication. Such common values are often the bridge to mutual discoveries that go much broader and deeper than politics.

     Similarly, homosexuals who pair-bond in the monogamous style of faithfully married heterosexuals and maintain that bond for many years deserve respect. They demonstrate love through their behavior, to which their legal status is irrelevant. A significant number of mated homosexuals are willing to concede that marital status is irrelevant to their emotional lives, which is even more to their credit.

     Love is germinated from common values. Once well sprouted, love regards legal niceties as irrelevant.

     This is not to say that lovers cannot differ on anything of importance. Nor is it to say that no tragedies ever arise because lovers are separated by legal matters; some of the oldest and most compelling romances concern lovers who are bound in marriage to other persons for whom they feel little or nothing. But love itself -- the recognition of superb value, worthy of protecting and cherishing even at great cost to oneself -- is not affected by such things. Why? Why do human beings commit themselves to one another, or to abstract ideals such as freedom or justice, sometimes at an infinite cost? Why do nearly all of us seek out such a commitment, and feel incomplete or irrelevant if we can't form one?

     Brace yourself: your Curmudgeon is about to abridge a New Year's resolution:

     Mr. Bultitude's mind was as furry and as unhuman in shape as his body. He did not remember, as a man in his situation would have remembered, the provincial zoo from which he had escaped during a fire, nor his first snarling and terrified arrival at the Manor, nor the slow stages whereby he had learned to love and trust its inhabitants. He did not know that he loved and trusted them now. He did not know that they were people, nor that he was a bear. Indeed, he did not know that he existed at all: everything that is represented by the words I and Me and Thou was absent from his mind....

     There was no prose in his life. The appetencies which a human mind might disdain as cupboard loves were for him quivering and ecstatic aspirations which absorbed his whole being: infinite yearnings, stabbed with the threat of tragedy and shot through with the colours of Paradise. One of our race, if plunged back for a moment in the warm, trembling, iridescent pool of pre-Adamite consciousness, would have emerged believing that he had grasped the absolute, for the states below reason and the states above it have, by their common contrast to the life we know, a certain superficial resemblance. Sometimes there returns to us from infancy the memory of a nameless delight or terror, unattached to any delightful or dreadful thing, a potent adjective floating in a nounless void, a pure quality. At such moments we have experience of the shallows of that pool. But fathoms deeper than any memory can take us, right down in the central warmth and dimness, the bear lived all its life. [C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength]

     Indirectly, Lewis has pointed us toward the human difference, the characteristic that separates Man's mind from all other creatures. We are conscious of ourselves as independent, self-actuated beings. We know ourselves to be parts of the world, capable of acting and being acted on. Our rational faculty could not operate if we were incapable of distinguishing this from that, or of recognizing our individual separation from all other things.

     This is one half of the operation of the rational mind: the analysis of things into parts. The other half is the synthesis of those parts into wholes. A beast, unconscious of its individuality, asks nothing more, but it is impossible for a man to be aware of his separateness but not want the complementary experience -- the experience of joining together with others -- as well.

     Knowing that we are parts, we yearn to be more. We look to join ourselves to other things -- people, associations, causes, nations -- to become greater than we could be as individuals. We extend ourselves into that which is not ourselves. We commit.

     We don't do this rashly or randomly. Not all fabrics ought to be sewn together. But our desire to be more than we are draws us into society looking for connections to make. As regards abstract commitments, our reason is supreme in the saddle, though the desire to be part of a great movement can sometimes influence us against our better judgment. But reason is never wholly absent from the equation. Though the pair-bond, our most fundamental connection, is powered in part by sex, a force that operates at least partially below the conscious level, we can still exercise conscious control over our acceptance of it.

     The protagonist of one of your Curmudgeon's novels came at it this way:

     He had always been puzzled by sexual hunger. His lack of understanding had made him more than a little afraid of it. He was beginning to see. It was not the savage abandon of animals in rut. Nor was it a vanquishment of the mind by baser and more powerful impulses of the body.

     It was a rising, an exaltation.

     We spend our lives locked in prisons of flesh, yearning to believe that there might be something greater than our individual selves, and that someday, with enough preparation and enough effort, it might allow us to become part of it. Corporations, armies, governments and religions are all part of the same pattern. Yet how many would believe that such a thing might be possible to any two people sufficiently unafraid of one another to touch without fear? To offer themselves without reservation?

     [From On Broken Wings]

     And it is of the essence of humanity.

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