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Love: A History
Love: A History
Simon May
Yale University Press, 2011
294 pp., $29.00

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Brett Foster


The Downs and Ups of Love

Bad examples and good advice.

Consider it a great relief if your boyfriend or girlfriend has been less enthusiastic about Valentine's Day than the booksellers and magazines that have been holiday hound-dogging potential customers. I've by now lost count of the many panting messages in my Gmail inbox lately—deals on this or that romantic gift (but really, a New Yorker coffee mug? could you devise a less sexy present?) or on love-related books I've never heard of. If your significant other approaches this level of enthusiasm, then you just may be in stalker territory. On the other hand, no one wants to be forgotten, but even if such an oversight occurs, then remember that it could always be worse. Readers will find ample evidence of the depths of romantic cellar dwelling in Andrew Shaffer's clever compilation Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love. And if things are looking up, then a couple of recent titles come to mind that none of those emails thought to include.

Evidence of these failed philosopher-lovers will also be found quickly because, without meaning to sound too critical, this is a slight book: the hall of shame comprises 36 philosophers, listed alphabetically. Each receives roughly three pages of attention, with a portrait taking up a separate page, and an inset quotation the good part of another. The result is basically a quotation book connected with brief biographies (dependent on the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy and Wikipedia) and sparked by witty commentary. It may be the reading equivalent of eating cheese puffs, but it is no less enjoyable for being short on substance. There's a gift-booky quality to Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, and it would indeed make a fun gift, either ironic or strategic: as the opening epigraph by Neal Pollack has it, "It's always nice to know that no matter how badly you've screwed up your love life, someone else has done far, far worse."

Where to begin with this cast of philosophical giants and personal nitwits? You have your classroom philanderers (Abelard, Dewey, Heidegger), those domestically sketchy types (Hegel with his landlord's wife, Marx and Schopenhauer with housemaids), and the adulterers at large (Diderot, Russell, Camus, Rand). Goethe was a ball of Romantic angst, a fact writ large in The Sorrows of Young Werther (and rather belied in his Roman Elegies). Shaffer cheekily says that the "subculture of suffering" popularized by Werther was later revived by the '80s alt group The Cure. Others elicit a similar pity. If you had the love life of Schopenhauer, you would be a pessimistic philosopher, too. Courting the 17-year-old Flora Weiss, the 43-year-old philosopher approached her at a party, bearing grapes. They were not well received: "I didn't want the grapes because old Schopenhauer had touched them," she wrote in her diary.

The Greek philosophers don't come off so well: Aristotle thought women had fewer teeth than men, and the malcontent Diogenes, discounting marriage, lamented that "humans have complicated every simple gift from the gods." He meant sex. He advocated multiple partners, but apparently was more likely to pleasure himself in public. Later, Marx and Engels would speak of "Protestant monogamy" as "leaden boredom." Then there's Socrates and Xanthippe, among the most famous bad marriages in history. For Chaucer and Shakespeare, Xanthippe was the archetypal shrewish wife, and apparently there is now an actual species of shrew named after her. Who says philosophy, or being married to a philosopher, does not bestow immortality?

The Romans fare no better. Seneca the Younger was banished from Rome for having an affair with the emperor's niece, half his age. Lucretius—recipient of this year's "Comeback Player of the Year" award among ancient authors, thanks to Stephen Greenblatt's book The Swerve—approved of sex, but thought love would inevitably relegate Roman male virtus to servitude. Men would, he writes, lose their money, "wasted on Babylonian coverlets."

There are plenty of surprising details here, even amid these brief treatments. Quotations from Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus helpfully separate the author from the later, popular notion of "platonic love," and who knew that Descartes felt a special attraction toward cross-eyed women? Kant viewed premarital sex as akin to enslavement, and Swedenborg liked to philosophize about angel sex. (The result was not carnal pleasure but "celestial sweets.") Rousseau sometimes flashed women. ("The more sensible pretended they had seen nothing," he writes, with seemingly no sense of irony, in Confessions. "Others started laughing.") Camus seemed to push away love because of the prospect of having to age with the beloved.

I wouldn't have given John Dewey credit for writing the following to his wife Alice: "Loved one of my soul, myself, my own true self, my awakener of life and desire […]" It could almost be a prefiguration of the opening of Nabokov's Lolita, if muted by that general Deweyan dullness. Simone de Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre is well known, but I was less aware of the pyrotechnics surrounding her affair with the Chicago writer Nelson Algren: "Pimps are more honest than philosophers," he wrote in Harper's.

Marriage, in this crowd, is not a high philosophical ideal, as suggested by this proto-tweet from Nicholas Chamfort: "Marriage follows on love as smoke on flame." Repeatedly in these pages the long-suffering spouses earn one's respect or sympathy. The spouses of Martin Heidegger and Ayn Rand remained with their wandering worse halves for more than fifty years, and Sophia Tolstoy—oh Sophia! Which was worse? Reading, on their wedding day, her husband's explicit diaries of past sexual encounters? Transcribing the painful marital details in her husband's autobiographical novels? Or his eventually moving into a hut outside of the family mansion? (This last action, on second thought, may have been most welcomed.) Despite having Auguste Comte throw knives at her, Caroline Massin could still write, "I have always thought that all that is lost between us should make what may remain more precious to us."

The author frequently shows the trenchant wordplay we should expect from the founder of an edgy greeting-card company (Order of St Nick). Aristotle's second wife's name (Herpyllis) is a punster's red meat, as is Descartes' psychological "probing" of Princess Elizabeth in his Passions. If these feel too easy, on a few occasions Shaffer veers into ludicrous domains, as when he compares Aquinas' Dominican cincture with the strong rubber band placed on a sheep's testicles, to cut off circulation before castration. (What?) I suppose Nietzsche, at least, would have approved of the analogy. On the other hand, Calvin comes off surprisingly well here, thanks to Shaffer's approval of the reformer's robust view of the married sexual life. Arguing against celibacy (never mind the monastic context of Calvin's criticism) almost turns our Genevan, in these pages, into a bedroom-eyed hipster of sorts.

Shaffer revels in the paradoxes of these social disasters in his brief introduction: "a lover of wisdom and a wise lover are, as it turns out, two very different things." Could one reason for such a concentration of romantic and marital failure be that a preponderance of famous philosophers are, well, male? Just saying. Given their inconsistencies, cruelties, and basic interpersonal failings, some of the wisest words in the book may belong, however improbably, to Bertrand Russell, writing late in his life: "I do not know what I think now about the subject of marriage."

Readers interested in avoiding the misery and absurdity featured in this book, or who wish to read far more thorough treatments of the subject of love generally, have several options. Linnell Secomb's more specialized Philosophy and Love: From Plato to Popular Culture (Indiana University Press, 2007) maintains the philosophical focus of Shaffer's compilation but focuses on the works instead of the lives of some of our tradition's greatest thinkers. Authors studied include Sappho (who in fact pre-dated Plato), Shelley, and Nietzsche, and a host of more modern and contemporary figures: Levinas, Irigaray, Barthes, Butler, Derrida. Now, I'm not kidding in saying this is a more specialized book, so prepare yourself for treatments of the "embodied phenomenology of erotic love" and sentences such as the following, about Alcibiades and Socrates: "Philosophic love, this suggests, is not the overcoming of the body: rather, it is itself erotically incarnate." Dave Isay's All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps (Penguin) has just appeared, and contains testimonies from everyday people, culled from StoryCorps' ongoing oral history project. Lisa Appignanesi's All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion (Norton) appeared last year, and provides a wide-ranging, centuryand continent-spanning treatment of young love, love and marriage, love triangles, and love in the contexts of family and friendship. As its title suggests, it is a very readable catalog of the histories and habits of the ways we love, or try to.

The most inviting philosophical study among these titles, though, may be Simon May's Love: A History , a book I am still in the middle of reading. I am learning a great deal, and enjoying its crisply, clearly written chapter-by-chapter surveys a good deal. Topics include the Hebrew Scriptures, which May proclaims as the foundation of Western love; Plato; Aristotle, Lucretius, and Ovid; two chapters on Christianity and love as the "supreme virtue"; the idealizing love of the trouabdours; the personalizing love of the Renaissance; and then eight final chapters that return us to Shaffer's rogue's gallery: Spinoza, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Chapters on Freud and Proust round out the volume (on love as history of loss and as terror and tedium, respectively). May begins his study by focusing on a paradox not unlike Shaffer's, but with an emphasis on philosophizing, rather than on philosophers' sometimes spectacularly unsuccessful love lives. He comments on the resistance or even hostility he is met with when he speaks of a philosophy of love, which, he is told, is either futile (love being indefinable) or self-defeating (to define love is to destroy it, or, in his words, evict the magic from love). However, there are books aplenty on the emotions of love or evolutionary psychological processes relating to love. May argues that philosophizing about love should no longer be a "no-go zone." The opening chapter, "Love Plays God," develops an even more central paradox: the past hundred years have seen a "liberation" of sex and marriage, accompanied, however, by love's ossification—that is, a view of love still dominated by the Romantic outlook of the long nineteenth century. "'Free love' has not freed love," he writes.

Ironically Mays locates the cause of this bondage in our tendencies to "divinise" love, which leads to hubris regarding it, and associated "debilitating illusions." He finally wishes to view love in a way that is truer to its fundamental nature. His running definition? The intense "desire for someone whom—or something which—we experience as grounding and affirming our own existence." The ultimately self-regarding emphasis here raises an alarm, but we'll see how it turns out, and if it's convincing. I will say that his early chapter on the Hebrew Bible was more valuable than I imagined it would be. I expected a quick touch down in the Song of Songs, and perhaps a sneer at the allegorical tradition made memorable in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, and maybe a shout-out with Ruth's own shout-out (1:16-17), which Mays characterizes as loving another as one's own soul and a sworn vow of fidelity. Those touchstones are here (minus the sneering), but the chapter opens with the "two pithy sentences" that, he asserts, have guided the course of love ever since: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might," and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." This loaded chapter proceeds through several topics including the relationship between love for God and neighbor, passionate friendship, and love and submission, drawing here upon some passages surprising in this context—Psalm 51, the Book of Job. It ends with a focus on love as "ontological rootedness." (Mays is a philosopher at King's College, University of London, after all.)

Mays' Love: A History may be the best of this philosophically minded bunch, but I'd like to conclude this little survey on a different note, with a few words on a wonderful poetry anthology published last year, When Love Speaks: Poetry and prose for weddings, relationships and married life . This book may be harder to obtain than most since it is available mainly in the UK (where I first encountered it), but it is worth the extra effort, online ordering, trip to Waterstone's in London (!), what have you. This anthology offers more than one hundred poems as well as occasional song lyrics (Cole Porter, Paul Muldoon in his role as garage rocker) and entries from dictionaries and marriage manuals (including the seriously titled, and therefore comically titled, Modern Marriage and How to Bear It). More stirringly, there's the marriage vow from The Book of Common Prayer, composed by one who, it is said, carried his wife around in a trunk— a complicated story for another time.

As for the poetry, some of the classic verses and voices are included: Yeats and Donne ("Hail, Bishop Valentine"!), D. H. Lawrence, Eliot (George Eliot, that is, Tom not typically being one to play Cupid's part), Tennyson's sonorousness ("Here is the golden close of love"), Shakespeare, and Christina Rossetti. Yet there are many surprises, too. Some of Shakespeare's standards are here, but are accompanied by less-known passages from his narrative poem Venus and Adonis and his plays Love's Labour's Lost and Antony and Cleopatra. For every well-known sonnet ("When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes") there is a less celebrated one ("So are you to my thoughts as food to life"), as well as lovely lyrics by forgotten contemporaries such as John Ford and John Fletcher. Some surprising omissions will be quickly noticed (no Brownings, no Millay), and outright surprises happily to replace them. First of all, what's Larkin doing here? Similarly, Charles Darwin's pro-and-con "Note on Marriage" suggests he would have been quite at home in Shaffer's failed philosophers collection above. (Marry: constant companion, someone to take care of the house, "Charms of music & female chit-chat"; Not Marry: freedom to go where one liked, not forced to visit in-laws, no expense and anxiety of children, no loss of time, and worst of all, "Perhaps my wife won't like London.") If only slightly less worrisomely, W. B. Yeats' short love poems, taken together, suggest he was searching for nothing so much as a beloved who might carry around his dreams, on an embroidered cloth, in a book of numberless ones, you name it.

Some recently recovered or newly appreciated female poets from earlier ages appear here, such as Isabella Whitney, Aphra Behn, and Mary Robinson. Likewise, readers unfamiliar with contemporary British poetry will find this an excellent place to start, from Clare Pollard's breathy "For my Fiancé" ("At first, engaged, unused to jewelry, / I turn the ring like a loose tooth- / lying in bed aware of its touch, like the touch / of a finger to thigh") to Glyn Maxwell (whose "Stargazing" speaks about how "to weary of all / that never ends, to take a human hand / and go back into the house"). Carol Ann Duffy realizes that love poems, no matter how good they are, can be only, finally, approximations, stand-ins—"For I am in love with you and this // is what it is like or what it is like in words." To cite one last example, Alice Oswald's "Wedding" inventively announces, via paratactic syntax and a sequence of similes, love's transformative powers:

From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it's like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it's like a coat

One will find here as well delectable songs or song-like poems or valentines by Frances Cornford, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Louisa Sarah Bevington, Donald Hall, and Dana Gioia (working from Rilke).

We have to thank for this collection's energy and freshness one of the UK's most promising young poets, Adam O'Riordan, author of one poetry collection and past poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. The collection is also quite nuptial-centric, as the introduction makes clear, and this influence reaches out to the structure of the anthology itself, being divided into sections entitled The Welcome, The Declarations, The Vows, The Giving of Rings, The Blessing of the Marriage, and the Recession. In assembling his selections, O'Riordan hoped to capture "some of the strangeness of the wedding day," but the book is also meant to be purely functional, index and all, and to provide guests or family members "something specific to read aloud." And it pleased him, as he says, to include a few "gate-crashers." (Ah, that's what Larkin is doing here, then!)

O'Riordan, to continue our theme, has his own philosophical touches: he includes the entry on love from the same dictionary of philosophy employed by Shaffer (it focuses on the formation of a union, a "we"), and a passage from Robert Louis Stevenson's prose "On Falling in Love" states solemnly: "it is a subject in which neither intuition nor behaviour of others will help the philosopher to the truth." If unpoetical, few words are more wisely spoken in these pages. That may be the ultimate lesson to take away from these diverse books, as true as it is humbling: when it comes to romance, philosophers as well as the rest of us may too often be guilty of over-thinking.

The stylistic equivalent of that lesson may be found in a last poem from When Love Speaks, "The Bargain," a remarkable poem, and one remarkably plain for the poised, deeply ironic Renaissance courtier Philip Sidney, who is better known for the twisting thoughts and enfolding rhetorical embellishments of his sonnets. "The Bargain" by contrast is, if we may say so, ostentatiously plain, as if to make a point about the speaker's genuineness and seriousness. Sometimes the plainest things may be the most thoughtful, or the most thoughtfully given, as suggested, by way of a fitting conclusion, with the first of two stanzas from Sidney's poem:

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
        By just exchange one for another given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
        There never was a better bargain driven:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. The Garbage Eater , his first collection of poems, was published last year by Northwestern University Press.


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