Visual arts Christopher Allen takes on narcissism
We Used to Talk About Love
Balnaves Contemporary: Photomedia Art Gallery of NSW, to April 21
HUMAN life is fundamentally determined by the universal facts of birth, growing to maturity within a social fabric, earning a living, reproduction and parenting and, finally, death, and yet how each of these realities is experienced and understood in relation to the others is almost infinitely variable, according to the beliefs and priorities of the culture within which we happen to be born, not to mention the further complications of our character and the vicissitudes of our personal history.
The case of love and sexuality is especially striking. The sexual instinct is universal, although neither simple, that is to say exclusively utilitarian, in its orientation nor hermetically sealed from contagion by other primal drives. Love too, in its various forms — the love of parents for their children and of children for their parents, as well as the affection of spouses and friends — seems universally attested. We have yet to hear of a human society in which parents do not care for their children or the dead are not mourned.
Our own understanding of love goes back to the Greeks, who distinguished at least three different kinds: eros is desire, primarily sexual although the word could also be used for other sorts of infatuation; agape is the kind of love parents feel for their offspring; and philia is the love of friends — or that of spouses, which may also involve, or have originally involved, eros.
Perhaps it is in the way these different elements combine that cultures differ from each other in their mapping of the territory of the human heart. We often hear, for example, that arranged marriages are at least as happy as those that start, as we assume is natural, with falling in love. The successful arranged marriage combines sexual eros with the philia developed through time by mutual trust and commitment, supported by shared agape for the children.
In fact, any marriage relies on a similar combination in the long term, even if our idea of falling in love can mislead us into thinking that the momentarily irresistible passion of eros is a sufficient basis for an enduring relationship. Unfortunately, the most intense infatuation can sometimes evaporate, leaving neither fondness nor even interest in the other person behind; but this is also a sign that what we took to be love was little more than a narcissistic fantasy projected on to an individual of whose own reality we took no account.
The idea of romantic love, as it runs through the Western tradition from Plato to medieval courtly love, the Neoplatonic philosophy of the Renaissance and into modern art, literature and cinema, is based on a particular synthesis of eros with the idea of beauty, which lends the passion an element of objectivity. For as we know, there can be sexual desire without beauty, as there can be admiration of beauty without sexual desire; in Plato’s idealistic view of love, the aim is to displace the emphasis from the gratification of our own physical desire to the contemplation of a beauty that exists outside ourselves and ultimately leads the soul towards the understanding of transcendent reality.
Such an elevated view of love was not consistent with physical consummation and so was associated in the Platonic dialogues with an ideal conception of homosexual love, parallel to rather than a substitute for the domestic relationship of marriage. A similar ideal of love as something essentially different from the normal relationship that underpins the family persists into the medieval and Renaissance conceptions of courtly love, when a knight’s lady is never expected to become his wife, and Dante barely knew the girl he idealised as Beatrice.
Why do fairytales and popular romantic stories end with the promise of living happily ever after? Partly because, as the French say, le bonheur n’a pas d’histoire — which translates roughly as happiness doesn’t make a story; but also because the most exalted ideas of passionate love barely stand up to consummation, let alone to the regularity of domestic life.
The original distinction between what one might call ideal love and practical love — always problematic in practice — has been even further confused in modern times, but what makes matters worse is the loss of the idea of beauty as something greater than and