Tuesday 27 March 2012

Eleven theses on love

1. I have observed in my own handwriting a peculiar involuntary tic. My capital E is normally executed with three strokes: a sharp L-shape, followed by two swift horizontal strokes. It is a crooked, abrupt, ungainly sort of letter. But whenever I write the word Elise – my wife's name – the E takes on a completely different form and style. It is executed with a single fluid cursive stroke; it is curved, almost elegant, like a back-to-front 3. It is the only time my handwriting produces such a shape. Under all normal circumstances, my E – like the rest of my handwriting – is a rather jagged, haphazard, Runic, pagan-looking thing. But just ask me to spell my wife's name, and that first grapheme is mysteriously transfigured into something smooth, Cyrillic, serenely clean and Christian. As though it were inadequate to assign to her name any regular letter of the Roman alphabet; as though she required her own distinct letter, without which her name cannot be spelled or uttered; as though my love for her were the sanctification of language.

2. Like the Name of God which rebounds silently away from human speech, so love transcends language and eludes the grasp of words. Love is like the trauma that imposes its own peculiar patterns on a person's speech. Love is the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet.

3. Love escapes language, because love transcends the law. It is that towards which law is always reaching; it is that which law has never touched. "Love is the fulfilment of the law" (Romans 13:10).

4. Love is not desire, even though it appropriates desire the way a flame appropriates dry wood. To love is to desire the desire of another. Which means: love is kenosis, love is loss, love is the purgation of desire. 

5. The purification of love is the task of life and the purpose of religion. The Christian faith is an ascetic doctrine of life, because it is a doctrine of love and joy. "All true joy expresses itself in terms of asceticism, … the repudiation of the great mass of human joys because of the supreme joyfulness of the one joy" (G. K. Chesterton). Love without asceticism is sentimentality – paltry, small, and sad.

6. The widespread sentimentalisation of romantic love in our society is a casual defacement of the Holy. Our pop songs and romantic comedies and breezy one-night stands are the moral equivalent of scribbling your lover's name beside the toilet in a public restroom. Except that it is God's Name – for "God is love" (1 John 4:16).

7. The experience of falling in love is the emotional shock produced by a sudden reorientation of personal attention. But such an experience is not yet love. To sustain that attention over time, even at great cost, is what it means to love. 

8. Love without time is an absurdity, like fire without burning. Love is a mode of attention stretched out across time. Love is the temporal direction of the self. Love is nothing else than a certain object plus devotion plus time. "Love is patient" (1 Cor 13:4). That is why "the choice between one potential love and another can feel, and be, like a choice of a way of life" (Martha Nussbaum).

9. Love is mostly failure. If we understood ourselves, we would repent of our loves as one repents of the most appalling crime. Love is so entangled with selfish desire that we cannot even clearly tell the difference; nothing but the day of judgment will distinguish wheat from chaff. God's judgment does for me what I cannot do for myself: it separates one thing, love, from everything else that I am and everything else that I have done. What I need, all I need, is judgment. I live in desperate hope towards God's judgment, which is also God's mercy – the only kind of mercy worth the name. 

10. The opposite of love is not hatred, but shame. "Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin" (George Herbert). Divine love is the abolition of shame. It is hospitality, welcome, the healing of the wounded gaze. "Love took my hand and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?" Shame stoops over, looking inward on the self. Quick-eyed love stands up straight, face to face with the beloved.

11. God's Word is love. Simone Weil: "God created through love and for love. God did not create anything except love itself, and the means to love. He created love in all its forms. He created beings capable of love from all possible distances. Because no other could do it, he himself went to the greatest possible distance, the infinite distance. This infinite distance between God and God, this supreme tearing apart, this agony beyond all others, this marvel of love, is the crucifixion…. This tearing apart, over which supreme love places the bond of supreme union, echoes perpetually across the universe in the midst of the silence, like two notes, separate yet melting into one, like pure and heart-rending harmony. This is the Word of God. The whole creation is nothing but its vibration."

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