Vis­ual arts Christo­pher Allen takes on nar­cis­sism

We Used to Talk About Love

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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

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