Love’s normal chaos

The title is from a lovely book on the sociology of intimacy by Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (Frankfurt am Main, 1990).  The thesis of the book is that as modernity frees us from the shackles of traditional obligations, it also means that henceforth, we have to work harder in making relationships work.  Freedom is never free.  Having junked the models supplied by tradition, we must now find a way of dealing with the normal chaos of living and loving while pursuing the ideals of private perfection and personal autonomy.

This situation invites all kinds of self-help first-aid kits, the most popular of which are books that provide rational advice on how to preserve the joy and adventure in our most intimate relationships. Most of these will not work, the Becks warn, because “contractual certainty cancels what it was to make possible: love.”  They argue that the resoluteness of love precisely thrives in its impossibility and essential unpredictability.

Another writer, Zygmunt Bauman (Postmodern Ethics, 1993), calls it the “aporia” of love, a contradiction without a solution.  Modernity however does not admit any aporias.  It hates mysteries and unresolved puzzles; it believes that there is a rational approach to everything.  And loving should not be an exception.  Hence the proliferation of therapies for what are regarded as the illnesses of intimate relationships.

Yet, these are precisely not illnesses, but only the normal condition of love in the modern world, Bauman says.   According to him, love in the modern world  has at least two incurable characteristics.  The first is its ambivalence: “The same soil breeds love and hatred; the most humane of loves and the most inhuman of hatreds.  The terrain of responsibility is also, inevitably, the site of cruelty.”

The second is its insecurity or precariousness.  “Love has to draw ever new supplies of energy in order to stay alive.  It has to restock itself and reassert every day anew: once accumulated, the capital is eaten up fast if not daily replenished.  Love is, therefore, insecurity incarnate.”

In an earlier time, custom completely dictated the terms of human relationships, which is why, as countless novels and plays would remind us, love grew mostly in those stolen spaces where tradition was defied.  Where duty prevailed, there was no room for ambivalence.  Personal autonomy was not a value.  Morality defined everyone’s place in a given relationship; there was nothing to create or negotiate.

But today’s personal relationships must often work out their own ethics: loving must navigate its way in waters where personal autonomy has also staked its claim.  This is where the contradiction lies.  Love strives for oneness between two beings.  We want the joys and sufferings of the other to be our joys and sufferings too.  Yet, as Bauman warns, the line that separates care from oppression is often very thin.  “The gentle touch of love becomes an iron grip of power… ‘care for the other’, ‘doing it for the sake of the other’, ‘doing what is best for the other’ and similar love motives are now the legitimizing formulae of domination.”  So much need to control masquerades as self-sacrificing love.

The other aspect of love’s aporia is its essential unpredictability. Love is restless, says Bauman.  Our feeble attempt to tame it leads us to either try to “fix” it or to “float” it.  Fixing comes in the form of attempts to routinize it and to cast its governing expectations in the form of very clear rules or guidelines.  The goal is to reduce the risks and ambiguities of the relationship to zero.  As Bauman puts it: “Duty replaces love, as the comfortably familiar routine replaces frantic effort and adventure.”

The strategy of floating, on the other hand, consists in making one’s affection dependent upon what is received.  Here, the lover is advised to adopt a practical attitude: if a relationship is not meant for you, cut your losses and look elsewhere.  Says Bauman: “In this strategy, insecurity is escaped rather than fought, in the hope that security may be found, at a lesser cost and with less onerous an effort, elsewhere.”

Neither of these two responses to love’s uncertainties work in the long term.  By reducing the hard work of loving to the effortless schedules of habit, fixing succeeds in killing all affection and sentiment.  Fixing amounts to a rehearsal of death’s love.

Floating, on the other hand, may be the favored route of many postmodern liaisons, but Bauman objects to its “de-ethicized” character.  While flotation allows individuals to escape from harrowing relationships before they are permanently injured by them, it also runs the risk of reducing personal intimacy to moral insignificance.  When love is “episodic”, Bauman says, then “whatever happens today does not bind the future, nothing solid is sedimented, and the togetherness of the partners does not ‘accumulate’ with time, being instead fully exhausted in the intimacies of successive current moments.”

From Bauman’s perspective, there seems to be no way of taming love’s chaos other than by the readiness to love unconditionally and arduously, to expect nothing in return and never to give up its hard labor.  But as importantly, love is not about invading, possessing and controlling the other; it is about ensuring “the free flourishing of the partner.”  I hope Bauman forgives me for enlisting his thoughts in the service of Valentine’s Day, for indeed his concerns have less to do with defining an ethics for lovers than with finding a basis for morality in the postmodern age.


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