“Si on juge de l’amour par la plupart de ses effets, il ressemble plus à la haine qu’à l’amitié.”
– La Rochefoucauld
(Translation: “If we judge love by the majority of its results, it resembles hatred more than friendship.”)
Love sticks in the craw, as a word. It’s one of the most terrible cliches in the English language (though English is doubtless not alone: Barthes dedicated an entire book to arguing why nobody should ever say “I love you”), and represents its most horrendous failing. Consider, as I’m sure you have, that we could, quite feasibly, and without fear of arrest or torture, use the same word to describe our, say, enjoyment of coffee, as our feelings for our chosen life partner. That feeling of triteness and obviousness you have just experienced has unearthed a larger problem: even pointing out the limitations of the word love is itself a cliche.
Love is thus a meta-cliche, dragging everything that touches it into a vortex of banality. Like Yeats’ rose, it has taken on so much meaning as to become meaningless. A sentence touched by it dries up; an essay withers into a wasteland. As my fellow traveler through this wilderness, you see the immensity of the task we have set ourselves: I by conceiving the essay and you by continuing to read it. How can we, between us, find anything new to think on the subject? Keep your flask close.
Yet from our vantage point here, the power of the word also makes itself apparent. Within the emptiness of my words, though it was love that put us here, it is love that we now crave, like a thirsty man craves water. Or, rather, as an addict longs for the hated narcotic that made him this way. For love, understood correctly, is antithetical to banality. But it is also the love of love, and thus to be without love is also to understand its profundity.
A derisive laugh should emit upon the occasion an attempt is made to meet the first challenge of this essay with a reminder that the Greeks had four words for love. As if four were enough! Indeed, four is somehow even less precise than one. Someone who recognises a definite distinction between eros and philia has not properly experienced either. Those of us who have successfully negotiated beyond the infantile, playground-esque Facebook definition of friendship cultivate friends on the basis that they remind us of great (not necessarily good) things in life, and a sexual element cannot be excluded from consideration. Far from it being the case that our clumsy lexis is lacking Hellenic meticulousness, my desire to fuck my friends is made illegitimate by the residual autocracy of Greek thought. Even Aristotle, the old queen, defined friendship as a single soul dwelling within two bodies: what is that if not fucking, or attempting to fuck on some impotent metaphysical level?
Agape: now there is a ridiculous word. Agape is just eros gone stale, left out in the sun to harden. Here, again, La Rochefoucauld has it right when he says that neither love nor fire can exist without perpetual motion. No man steps into the same eros twice, if I can plagiarise Heraclitus, and when a stream becomes a lake it is still water.
The only thing more ridiculous than agape is the Christian appropriation of it. Time for some home truths: if your God really loved you, He’d treat you like He treated the Virgin: mean, to keep you keen. This has been His modus operandi for some time: He left the Hebrews in the desert for 40 fucking years! An asexual god is as imperfect as a sexual one, and if the land of milk and honey wasn’t a bloody Xanadu then none of that story frankly makes any sense. Which makes me wonder, with all due exasperation, why nobody in the history of theological thought considered the obvious possibility that Christ allowed Himself to be whipped and beaten because maybe He was a little bit into it? Don’t tell me Our Saviour wasn’t getting off on Himself during the Crucifixion.
No, we’re not in lack of the four square grid of the Greeks: it’s still imposing itself on us, which is why for me to say I want to sleep with my friends or that the Lord was kinky are perverse statements. Which is fine by me. The sainted Marquis teaches us that perversity cannot exist without society, but when you look at it for long enough you see that the opposite is also true. A society without perversity is not a society worth having. Which is why 120 Days of Sodom is so boring: a taboo, once broken, is useless. A society where there were no taboos left to break would not be a libertine’s paradise; in fact, the more conservative a society is the more the libertine is in his element.
Again, we must turn to the Church to find our bravest experimenters in the deconstruction of the grid. It was probably serendipitous when the clergy discovered that a paternalistic attitude to the planet and massive systematic child abuse were on a continuum, but it is nevertheless a timely discovery that proves what we should have suspected all along. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to spot that giving crusty old virgins consistent access to and influence over continents of nubile young children is a recipe for mass arse rape.
Which brings us back to the salient point: that the more you’re removed from love, the more you feel its strength. William S. Burroughs’ last great work, the Western Lands triptych, begins with the discovery of a hideous weaponised virus that is theorised to be love, but even old Bill didn’t realise that love is the most insidious virus of them all in that it can even infect a void. The Daoist Taijitu is generally a good model of the universe (consider that eternal bliss and eternal suffering would necessarily be the same thing, because it is within their distinction of juxtaposition that they are defined), but here the colours run. Which is why The Kreutzer Sonata is my favourite failure in literature: all of Tolstoy’s unquestionably convincing arguments for celibacy are wholly futile. It’s almost effortless to realise that the sequel would have Pozdnyshev cutting up whores because he wasn’t getting his end away on a regular basis.
This is not just Tolstoy’s failure, but the failure of all writers. Love makes life worth living. Thus, love is the only thing worth writing about, and the only thing about which it is impossible to write.
I shall draw upon a personal example. Right at this moment, I love. I love in turmoil and in confusion. It hurts very, very much, and I increasingly hypothesise that it is a manifestation of depression. But there is something inherently funny about writing even that down. Your immediate eye-rolling reaction to reading it isn’t because you’re a cruel person, but because your brain instinctively recognises the ridiculousness of love writing. The Bad Sex Award could frankly be justly rewarded to any sex scene in the history of literature. (Though a possible exception would be Dennis Cooper, who has done us the service of exalting arse-rimming as potentially the highest form of love.)
I suspect that negative theology, the act of describing God by what he is not, might be the only method of correctly identifying love. Especially if we take it as far as the Ismaili faylasuf al-Sijistani and, after describing love as “nonbeing” rather than “being”, remember to immediately describe it as “not nonbeing” and so on until we become aware of the failure of language and logic to describe something so ubiquitous.
It is in this way that we come to realise that the Sunday school cliche “God is love” is absolutely true, and that God is also infinite. Pantheism is little more than an acknowledgement of that, that God exists because of, not in spite of, Her own nonexistence. To say that love is Her manifestation is to forget that She is love’s manifestation.
All of which is why the only honest theological position to take is that you want to shag God, preferably by rimming Her first.