- File Size: 745 KB
- Print Length: 313 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press (July 19, 2011)
- Publication Date: June 18, 2019
- Sold by: Amazon.com Services LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B0058GLUAU
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- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #484,769 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Love: A History Kindle Edition
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I would have liked a short comparaison between culture to see exactly how other civilization cope with "love", if they do at all.
Thus May, who is preeminently a scholar of Nietzsche, has given himself the difficult task of sketching out a genealogy of Western love in order to show 'where things went wrong.' Fifteen of the book's seventeen chapters are devoted to expositions of famous philosophers and poets on love throughout the Western tradition. We are treated to readings of the Hebrew Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius and Ovid, the early Christians, the troubadours, Spinoza, Rousseau, Schlegel and Novalis, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Proust. In general, May does an exceptional job navigating through the texts of these thinkers to describe the transformation of love in the West, but his story is not without gaps. Is not the Odyssey a love story and Homer our first great authority on love? Virgil and Catullus in Rome? In the era between the troubadours and Spinoza: Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, Camões, Shakespeare, Milton--yet none with more than a passing mention by May. Same with Kierkegaard and Tolstoy. And to end a history of love at Proust? What of Buber, Heidegger, Levinas, Tillich, Neruda?
Genealogical considerations aside, May nevertheless emerges in his final chapter still holding onto the thread of his argument. The Professor is at his strongest when he claims that love is "the rapture we feel for people who (or things that) inspire in us the experience or hope of ontological rootedness" (p. 240). According to May, this need to be rooted is the most basic human necessity after food, water, and shelter. We fall in love with who or what "seems to be receptive to, to recognize, to echo, to provide a powerful berth to, what we regard as most essential about us" (p. 240)--that is to say, with who or what provides us with an ontological home.
Of course, the elephant in the room during this final chapter is Heidegger, who doesn't even get so much as a head nod from May (though Irving Singer gets dozens during the genealogical chapters, as does Denis de Rougemont). May's thought, already implicitly under the specter of Heidegger via the introduction of ontology, could be further clarified by an explicit confrontation with the concept of Sorge. Moreover, a dialogue with Levinas could help develop May's abbreviated discussions of the Other, dwelling, and the home--and perhaps even help May to move beyond the auspice of ontology entirely.
May claims for his overall theme that "the attentiveness with which humans are called on to love the Hebrew and the Christian God is...the model for all love" (255). But can the two great traditions be lumped together so effortlessly? As Harold Bloom (who is cited a couple times by May) has written time and time again, the Yeshua of Christianity cannot and is not a descendent of Yahweh. And yet May's reading of the Hebrew Bible seems to be colored by his reading of the Greek New Testament (or at least his reading of Christian exegetes in the post-Augustinian age). Yahweh, like the Other in Levinas and the Thou in Buber, does not ontologically root those who love him, but rather ontologically up-roots them: the ground is pulled out from under Job and he is put out to sea, as Melville understood. May's discussion of ontological rootedness is thought provoking, but perhaps in love we are not so much seeking roots as we are seeking to rid ourselves of rootedness--hence Hegel's advice for us to marry someone with a personality completely different in origin from our own, as well as Reik's theory of complementarity. On this view love does not "echo" what is "essential" in us, but rather reveals to us our own groundlessness.
Ultimately, May leaves us with the pronouncement that "we should model human love not on how God is said to love us but on how we are commanded to love God" (p. 13). But does May truly understand how we are commanded to love God?
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What is love? Is it unfathomable? Is it unconditional? Does it define what it means to be human? Is it about valuing the whole other? Do we love the other for his/her sake?
Typically, the answers to these questions are conditioned by 19th century Romanticism. But is this adequate, and what did people think before, and did they feel the same thing? What about now?
There is plenty of writing on the psychology of love, but - asks Simon May, Visiting Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London - why is love so central to Western culture and yet so little explored in contemporary philosophical thinking?
May argues that ‘the tremendous liberation of sex and marriage over the past hundred years has been accompanied by love’s ossification, rather than by its reinvention.’
Furthermore, love has been consumerised, and it is all about satisfaction and fulfilment.
But deeper than that, love is itself the new religion (along with ecology, I would say) - in the sense that it is love which is generally deemed in the secular West to be the purpose of life - love of an individual, of family or even of nature and the whole earth, all of which starts with love of self. Love is sacred, both for the religious and for the non-religious. We feel awe for its power, which we experience (or believe) to be beyond the everyday. And we believe, or claim to think, that love is eternal.
(This, surely, is one of the main reasons why we venerate Shakespeare: he was one of the first, great exponents of the supreme value of secular, human love, utterly shorn of all religious context.)
How, asks May, did human love come to be modelled on divine love? And what illusions and therefore suffering does this engender? Finally, how can we ‘rethink love in a way that doesn’t commit’ the error of hubris, of elevating human love to a place where it is bound to fail? For me, he doesn’t satisfactorily answer this last and most significant question. May says that we must learn to accept that person-to-person love may be unrequited and/or imperfect (hardly new), but that – much more importantly - ‘our flourishing is founded upon a lifelong search for a powerful relationship to the ground of our being – and that, whether it take a religious or secular form, such a search is the ultimate purpose of a well-lived life.’
Yes, absolutely, but - putting ‘God’ aside, for those who lack faith - what is a secular or non-traditional religious ‘ground of being’ when it is not a (flawed) human being or a (temporarily powerful) political belief? May defines love as the rapture of relationship, the place/person where we hope to find ‘an indestructible grounding for our life’, the ‘promise of ontological rootedness’, regardless of the other person’s beauty or goodness or compassion or interest in us, ‘for love’s overriding concern is to find a home for our life and being.’ He mentions but effectively ignores (for the purpose of his definition) selfless love, ie love which is not about the benefits for the seeker, but is about what we give: wanting the happiness of the other, unbounded compassion beyond the self, indeed love being grounded in the letting go of the ‘self’. The unconditionally is in our giving (cf St Paul) and is not in what we want to receive or depend upon. May’s perspective comes from the self, and I think this is what makes his conclusion unsatisfactory and dry.
It would also help – though hopelessly broadening May’s already deep enquiry – to look at different answers to this question in popular culture as well as in new spirituality and non-Western cultures.