Love: A History

Jane O'Grady is partially seduced by a provocative polemic that offers contrasting notions of ardour

July 7, 2011

When Nietzsche proclaimed God's death, he did not recognise the new divinity that had replaced Him - human love. God is dead; long live God. Simon May is not the first to say that love is our new religion, or to chart the history of changing concepts of love, but his is more than a history, and more than an analysis, of love; it is a polemic. He urges us to redefine and re-evaluate love, which, he says, we have got hopelessly wrong.

Whereas the standard book on love tends to open with Plato's Symposium, May's begins with what is usually omitted - Hebrew Scripture, which, he argues, surpasses any of the other traditions that have shaped Western conceptions of love in evoking a sense of the motives that inspire and sustain it. Loving another as one's own soul, opening up to the other "one's whole inner world - that labyrinth of intentions, desires and moral intuitions of which one's actions are merely very rough expressions", the linking of love to justice and respect - these were the radical innovations of the Torah. Jesus appropriated "love thy neighbour as thyself" from Leviticus, but said remarkably little about love or sex - the Christian emphasis on both comes from Paul and later thinkers.

The other much-harped-on ingredient in love's brew is the Hellenic - Plato's idea of Eros aroused by, and aspiring to, beauty; of love as ennobling; Aristotle's notion of friendship (philia) as loving your friend as a second, ethically elevating self - which involves having to drop him if he ceases to be good. Isn't it in fact the case, asks May, that we find beauty or goodness in the beloved object as a consequence, rather than a cause, of love?

Here May sounds as if he were sympathetic to the Romantic view, which sees humans as embodying the greatest good and deserving of the sort of love formerly reserved for God. But this Romantic legacy is precisely what May condemns in the contemporary conception of love. To model human love on the idea of God's love for humans, he says, assumes that love must be unconditional, eternal and selfless - a hubristic demand that leads only to dissatisfaction.

What is May's solution to the problem of what love is? Love, he says, "is the rapture we feel for people who (or things that) inspire in us the experience or hope of ontological rootedness - a rapture that triggers and sustains the long search for a vital relationship between our being and theirs". It is not entirely clear what this comes to, or how far it covers love's constituents.

Nor is it clear why May applauds Freud and Proust, with their respective pictures of love as anchored in childhood attachments and the anguished longing for security and mothering, or why he claims that each of them harks back to a healthier, more Judaic sense of love. They are surely far from healthy, and far from the Judaic view propounded by Emmanuel Levinas or Martin Buber (cited but not plumbed by May) for whom the beloved is neither part of a ladder to be ascended (as in Plato) nor the source of existential grounding (as in May) but part of an equal "I-Thou" nexus, with each lover a container of infinity.

May's account of love (like most such accounts) may lack a sufficient sense of "Thou", but what it offers is rich, illuminating and provocative. With an ease and enjoyment that the reader will share, it presents the struggles of different thinkers - Augustine, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Freud, among others - to reconcile love's combination of the earthy and the spiritual, the temporary and the eternal.

Love: A History

By Simon May

Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.99

ISBN 9780300118308

Published 26 May 2011

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