The empti­ness that longs for full­ness

So­ci­ol­o­gist Eva Il­louz presents a bleak but fas­ci­nat­ing analysis of what the modern world has done to love

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The End of Love: A So­ci­ol­ogy of Neg­a­tive Re­la­tions

By Eva Il­louz

TOx­ford Univer­sity Press, 315pp, £22.99

he great French nov­el­ist Honoré de Balzac said he wanted to be the his­to­rian of the hu­man heart. The Franco-Is­raeli so­ci­ol­o­gist Eva Il­louz might be called the his­to­rian of hu­man heart­break. Though our cul­ture has fo­cused on love, she writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to her new book, it is much more si­lent re­gard­ing “the no-less mys­te­ri­ous mo­ment when we avoid fall­ing in love, where we fall out of love” or grow in­dif­fer­ent.

En­coun­ters in hy­per-con­nected moder­nity are char­ac­terised by what Il­louz calls unlov­ing – the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing un­will­ing or un­able to form a re­la­tion­ship, or the abil­ity to leave a re­la­tion­ship and move seam­lessly to another.

Il­louz draws a par­al­lel with cap­i­tal­ism. Com­pa­nies and em­ploy­ees were once tied by a bond of mu­tual re­spon­si­bil­ity, in which man­age­ment pro­vided health­care and pen­sions. That has been re­placed by flex­time and out­sourc­ing. Just as cap­i­tal­ism in­vented the dis­pos­able worker, the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion and the in­ter­net in­vented the dis­pos­able part­ner.

“If we, crit­i­cal schol­ars, an­a­lyse the cor­ro­sive effects of free­dom in the realm of eco­nomic ac­tion, there is no rea­son not to in­quire about these effects in the per­sonal, emo­tional and sex­ual realms,” Il­louz writes.

Dat­ing apps such as Tin­der have brought sex into the free mar­ket econ­omy. Van­ity Fair mag­a­zine es­ti­mated in 2015 that nearly 100 mil­lion peo­ple use their smart­phones “as a sort of all-day, every­day, hand­held sin­gles club, where they might find a sex part­ner as eas­ily as they’d find a cheap flight”.

The US writer Erica Jong coined the term “zi­p­less f**k” to mean sex­ual re­la­tions free of shame or guilt. Hookup, friends with ben­e­fits, f**k buddy, one-night stand and cy­ber-sex are syn­onyms. “Ca­sual sex is a social script in re­verse: a script for a non-re­la­tion­ship” which desta­bilises the en­tire hi­er­ar­chy of male- fe­male in­ter­ac­tion, Il­louz writes.

Il­louz con­ducted 92 in­ter­views in Europe, the Middle East and North Amer­ica. A chem­istry pro­fes­sor in Scan­di­navia coined the term fast ro­mance, com­pa­ra­ble to fast food or fast fash­ion. “It was com­mon cour­tesy to end things ex­plic­itly,” she recalls. “You were sup­posed to give an ex­pla­na­tion . . . With fast love, the drop­ping seems to be taken for granted ... Many peo­ple are .. .‘shop­ping’, picky con­sumers on a cheap global mar­ket of pos­si­ble ro­man­tic or sex­ual re­la­tions. It’s the ul­ti­mate com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion.”

Longs for full­ness

Il­louz adopts Jac­ques La­can’s def­i­ni­tion of neg­a­tiv­ity: the self as an empti­ness that longs for full­ness. The goal of ca­sual sex is “a neg­a­tive bond . . . in which there is no at­tempt to find, know, ap­pro­pri­ate, and con­quer the sub­jec­tiv­ity of another ... Oth­ers are means for self-ex­pres­sion and for the as­ser­tion of one’s au­ton­omy – and not the ob­ject of recog­ni­tion”.

A 49-year-old male pro­fes­sor in Paris com­plains of women who want to stay all night, then cud­dle and have break­fast in the morn­ing. “The ideal woman is the one who leaves in the middle of the night. She leaves on the ta­ble a good­bye note, say­ing it was great, with­out her phone num­ber,” he says.

End­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship by sim­ply cut­ting off all con­tact and ig­nor­ing mes­sages from a part­ner, known as “ghost­ing”, is in­creas­ingly com­mon. Il­louz in­vents the term “sit­u­a­tion­ship” to de­scribe such ten­u­ous, eas­ily bro­ken ties. She quotes a psy­chol­o­gist in an on­line ad­vice col­umn: “Dat­ing is bro­ken .. . You meet some­one who seems very in­ter­ested, but then his ar­dor for you rapidly van­ishes – and he ex­its your life as quickly as he en­tered.”

Emo­tional un­cer­tainty and self -doubt are the in­evitable re­sult of so much free­dom and choice. “The lack of rit­ual struc­ture and nor­ma­tive an­chors leaves the sub­ject strug­gling on her own to de­ci­pher another’s in­ten­tions, to de­vise a course of ac­tion, to cre­ate strate­gic re­sponses to un­cer­tainty, and to form clear and steady feel­ings,” Il­louz writes.

Michel Houelle­becq’s nov­els chron­i­cle the sex­ual frus­tra­tion of age­ing men. Houelle­becq, Il­louz writes, has un­der­stood how ob­ses­sion with sex­ual free­dom has dis­lo­cated so­ci­ety. In Sub­mis­sion (2015), the prom­ise of sex with mul­ti­ple sub­servient wives leads the main char­ac­ter to con­vert to Is­lam. In What­ever (1994), the male lead takes his own life be­cause he de­spairs of per­form­ing ad­e­quately in the highly com­pet­i­tive sex­ual mar­ket.

The End of Love is an­a­lyt­i­cal and de­scrip­tive, not judg­men­tal or pre­scrip­tive. But it is bleak. Il­louz quotes Seneca in her con­clud­ing chap­ter: “I shall of­fer to the mind all its sor­rows, all its mourn­ing gar­ments: this will not be a gen­tle pre­scrip­tion for heal­ing, but cautery and the knife.”

Il­louz does not tell read­ers how to be happy in a world with­out love. If there is a glim­mer of hope, it is her ob­ser­va­tion that “most of us still live or long for sta­ble cou­ple­hood”. Per­haps, just as we are now see­ing at­tempts to re-hu­man­ise cap­i­tal­ism, we will find a way to re-hu­man­ise love.

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