Words by Pietro Frassa, Images from Rijksmuseum
How does one embark on the conceptual endeavor to capture the essence of Love? Let’s attempt by first following the method of Apophatic Theology (negative theology); in other words, lets start to define Love by unveiling what it is certainly not.
Love is most certainly not sexual desire.
We immediately realize the abyss that separates Love from sexual desire, if we patiently indulge in the contemplation and respectful observation of the radical ontologic diversity of the two predicates, or better, of the two objects of their attentions.
Sexual desire, in fact, nourishes itself with ghosts and gratifies itself with generic categories; with sexual lust, the individual is a pretext, and for this reason always substitutable.
Any sexual libido can be satisfied and pleased independently from the Ipseity of the object of its attention. This ontological indifference to the individuality, and this tension for the generic category make this impulse the opposite experience from true Love.
Literature offers us sublime examples of the desperate remoteness between Love and erotic pulse. He who has desired more than most, but was never capable of Love is Don Giovanni, the infamous seducer in Mozart’s eponymous opera.
Try to recollect the splendid air sang by Leporello. It is certainly not fortuitous that the faithful servant lists the numbers and not the names of his master’s women. Here, Leporello tells Elvira, one of Don Giovanni’s lovers, that he is not worth her time:
My dear lady, this is the catalog
Of the beauties my master has loved,
A list which I have compiled.
Observe, read along with me.
In Italy, six hundred and forty;
In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one;
A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one;
But in Spain already one thousand and three.
Don Giovanni is erratic and a polygamist, he gropes in the dark, he does not see the individual, he is blind to the Ipseity; it’s a woman in general (in her generic form) that he needs: any female is good enough for him. Again, Leporello depicts the amorous myopia of his master in a marvelous verse:
It doesn’t matter if she’s rich,
Ugly or beautiful;
If she wears a skirt,
You know what he does.
The above lines contain the absolute essence of the erotic appetite. The libido, always drawn by a desire, which strives only for pleasure and sexual fulfillment, does not have the individual person as its ultimate object. Anyone can calm its appetite “it does not matter if she is ugly or beautiful, if she wears a skirt, you know what he does.”
Try to console the desperation of a mother after the loss of her own child by offering her another child, perhaps one even more beautiful and obedient.
With this extreme offer, you will never alleviate her sorrow: it is not a child in general that the mother bemoans, not even another who is very similar to the one who passed: she needs that little one, not another one!
It should now be clear that Love essentially aims to the unique, inestimable, invaluable, unrepeatable essence of the beloved one. The mother is inconsolable because she suffers for the lost of the irreplaceable.
Try instead to offer ‘another woman’, even only generically similar to the one originally chosen by a man moved exclusively by sexual desire. Surely your offer won’t be neglected or refused. He is certainly not looking for the irreplaceability of that Ipseity, but, passing with closed eyes through an individual, he is satisfied with the generic ‘belongingness’: he just needs a generic woman. The French philosopher and musicologist, Vladimir Jankelevitch, touches upon this in his essay Traité des vertus (1949):
“There is the same distance between Love and desire that there is between the cold enigmas of coquetry and the mystery of modesty.”
Love is not a generic affection (fondness), or a simple positive sentiment, like esteem, respect, gratefulness, etc.
In the following few lines we can comprehend that Love is not only quantitatively different from a generic affection (Love is not just a large affection), but it is essentially, ontologically, and qualitatively different from positive sentiments and positive feelings.
The radical ontological component that differentiates Love from any other positive sentiment or positive desire, is that Love is totally gratuitous and unnecessary.
Love does not have to have any reason to exist; its legitimacy is intrinsic in its existence. No one can demand justifications, motives or reasons for its presence. Love simply does not need any reason, or any cause to exist.
A quick phenomenological analysis of some very common positive sentiments can easily prove that these feelings are profoundly different from Love, principally because they do need reasons and motives to legitimate their own existence:
- My gratitude towards you must be supported and justified by your good predispositions towards me; otherwise my gratitude undoubtedly would be unmotivated and even unreasonable.
- The esteem that I feel towards you must have some sort of foundation in a specific quality you own; otherwise my esteem is absurd.
- The fact that I trust you must have a legitimating reason/motive related to your structural sincerity; it is perhaps even erroneous and incorrect to trust a pathological liar and imposter.
These three examples can help us to intuit that all sentiments, with the exclusion of Love, need a real reason to legitimately exist, otherwise their being becomes unreasonable, and unmotivated. On the contrary it is essentially and conceptually incorrect to ask someone for the reason and cause of their Love.
Following this perspective, we can state that only a few deserve to be trusted, admired or esteemed, but everyone deserves to be loved. Love is not an homage and a tribute to a certain value or virtue, available only for privileged and fortunate individuals, but is an answer to the existence and ultimate dignity of being, which is everyone’s patrimony.
What ultimately differentiates Love from every other form of feeling and sentiment? Love is a gratuitous predilection and predisposition to Others’ unique existence.
Why does Love not require any motives or causes to exist? It is certainly its peculiar and unique “object of attention,” which ransoms Love from a motivational, cause/effect imprisonment.
In simpler terms, we could say that Love does not need a cause to exist because its object is not this or that aspect of the person, instead Love aims directly at the essence of the individual. It embraces the person’s destiny beyond physical beauty that will vanish with time, or intelligence that will inevitably lose lucidity.
The pure excellence of the Other, on which Love feeds itself, is concentrated in its simple existence: being is its first and most authentic perfection. We do not need to possess anything other than our being to be deemed worthy of Love. It is a gift, given to anyone only for his or her nude existence.
He, who is in Love, does not know the reasons why. Looking for a reason is offensive to Love itself, and impolite to the lover. He, who loves for specific reasons, resembles the pedantic one that reads a love letter and judges it from the syntactic and grammatical structure.
The words of Montaigne, the greatest statesman, author and intellectual of the French Renaissance, who spent his entire life investigating human nature, could not have been more beautifully ironic and synthetic in expressing this essential aspect of Love:
“If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved her, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by saying: simply because it was she, and it was I.”
It is not easy to abandon oneself to the mystery of this gratuitous sentiment.
To paraphrase Stendhal, one of the greatest dandies and womanisers, but also the most acute psychologist of characters - people always end up making reasons and justifications. We, paralyzed by the vertigo of loving without reasons and motives, constantly look for justification.
Stendhal calls this common and natural activity ‘crystallization.’
While the beloved one is already loved, loved without reason, unjustified and perhaps not even merited, we deliberately perceive the loved one with all possible perfections. We need to justify what we already feel and have felt since the spontaneous and original acceptance of their pure existence. Tolstoy said many times in War and Peace that Love does not follow rational rules but magical ones.
And the genius child, mathematician and Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal, perhaps puts it most perfectly when he said:
“You can not demonstrate that you deserve to be loved by listing all your talents and virtues: this would be ridiculous.”
Dedicated to Michelle - The One