For as long as human history can recall, philosophers, poets and singers have explored the subject of love from every possible angle. Year after year, generation after generation, epoch after epoch, we ask the same questions, find the same answers and make the same mistakes.
All of which leads people to wonder:
What’s wrong with me that I find being in love – or not being in love – so hard? Why can’t I get past these niggles and insecurities? When will I learn?
Where love is concerned, we come down mighty hard on ourselves.
We are bombarded with apps, self-help books, not to mention blogs, which offer us the promise of love. Some guarantee they will match us with a perfect mate using scientifically proven algorithms; some promise our money back if we’re not satisfied; others tell us that really, love is not so important – we should just hook up, get laid, have fun, and move on.
The message from the world of dating seems to be clear: love is a risk-free game.
But in his recent book In Praise of Love (decidedly not a self-help book), Alain Badiou declares that in the modern age of Tinder and Grindr and Bumble and so on, this notion of love being an innocuous add-on to one’s lifestyle is itself a dangerous one. He quotes with horror the advertising slogans of a French dating app, Meetic: “Be in love without falling in love!” and “Get perfect love without suffering!” Can whoever dreamed these up ever have been in love?
Contrary to these promises, engaging with love is always perilous. It breaks the rhythms of normal life, disrupts the flow of who we think we are - which is why it has so often been compared to madness.
Even love affairs which begin online get their spark not from one person picking another person from a menu of faces and vital statistics, not from one self-interested consumer selecting another, but from something unanticipated and unpredictable, a chance encounter, an unexpected emergence of something which seems impossible.
Badiou is concerned with the idea that love is not all-important – that there are other, better ways to enjoy oneself, ways which “avoid any deep and genuine experience of the otherness from which love is woven”.
Perhaps we could say that sex without love is contractual: I will gain pleasure through your body. And there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as both parties consent. But Badiou’s point is that without love, both parties remain separate. Whereas in love, the relation with the other person (in all his or her otherness) is the end, not merely a means to the end.
That means that love cannot be about communion or “becoming-one” with the world, as with religious love. Instead, when we are in love, we (me and my partner) see the world together through the prism of our difference. Love is the way we experience life from the point of view of two (which is the point of view of difference), and not one (the point of view of identity).
Two people meet - a chance event, a random encounter, a break from the order of things. And then, eventually, the randomness must stop, and something like a routine must begin, a routine that endures and creates a new truth – until that initial chance meeting seems like it was destined.
So let’s not beat ourselves up because we find love hard. It is hard, it does make us suffer, it doesn’t go to plan! But, as Badiou has Socrates declare in his recent translation of Plato’s Republic, “Listen you youngsters! Anyone who doesn’t take love as their starting-point will never discover what philosophy is all about.”