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The Reality Of Unreal: A Case For Romantic Love And Why It’s An Emotion Of Its Own

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When I was a kid, I was a true believer in love without knowing what love is. As my understanding grew, I analyzed the notion of love as most people advocate. I argued with many people that the sort of emotions we refer with the concept of love can be done away by explaining it in terms of other emotions such as care, trust, loyalty and so on. If this is the case, why do we need an extra term, namely, love? Thus, I concluded that love as a separate emotion does not exist. That is how I closed this chapter earlier. But as Nietzsche, a German philosopher reminded us that “to err is human”, I proved that I was categorically wrong.

Realizations do occur at your most sombre period of life. For realisation, you need reflection and for reflection, you must engage with yourself intimately. The basic reason behind this is that you connect with your “self” (let us not get into what self is at this juncture) so intimately at the moment of your suffering than in your happy or say normal days.

So, yes, I was talking about the sombre period of our life. I too had, that still continues, my days of deepest mental suffering. Recently I broke up with my 11 hours of, what I call a love-relationship. Yes, it was exactly 11 hours. Though I spent one whole year with my friend, but in the last 11 hours, we both realized that we were in love. But as a matter of fact, I was not even aware of what love is at that particular moment. However, I was sure that the sort of feeling I felt cannot be reduced to any other emotion such as care, trust, loyalty and so on, that we experience when we say we are in love. After my breakup, I had enough time to reflect over this particular emotion as well as the concept of love, and the relationship between these two, if there is any.

I would have never written on this feeling and the reflection that I have gone through. But thanks to Emmanuel Angulo who wrote an interesting article titled A Fact of Life. It helped me collect appropriate words and pushed me to delineate my understanding on this feeling.

After reading this article, I have understood that philosophers have discerned the notion of love from two perspectives, a) from a subjective point of view and b) from an objective point of view. Angulo has chosen Harry Frankfurt to explain the subjective point of the notion of love and Velleman to demonstrate the objective nature of love. Let me explain what these philosophers have to say on their stands.

In ‘Autonomy, Necessity and Love’ (1994), Frankfurt summarises what he thinks thus –

“The heart of love […] is neither effective nor cognitive. It is volitional. That a person […] loves something has less to do with how things make him feel […] than with the more or less stable motivational structures that shape his preferences and that guide and limit his conduct.”

Angulo explains Frankfurt’s understanding in the following words –

“Frankfurt’s view is that what we love is explained by exactly the same thing that explains what we prefer and what we choose to do: our ‘essential volitional characteristics’. Because loving someone is to have certain volitional attitudes towards them, love is necessarily correlated with taking certain actions involving the objects of our love and with willing certain results from these actions. Thus, Frankfurt thinks, loving someone implies acting in certain ways towards our beloved to promote those results, which, if we didn’t love them, we wouldn’t will.”

It has definitely two parts, 1) volitional attitude, and 2) acting according to your volitional attitude. The misfortune of our all the academic and non-academic endeavour to discern human nature is that we haven’t deciphered human nature categorically yet. This understanding, firstly, certainly does ignore our non-volitional affection towards some person without any proper reason. Secondly, even few thinkers will outrightly deny this. Messam Ali Aaga, an Urdu poet writes clearly,

“वो अक्सर मुझ से कहता था
मोहब्बत वो नहीं है जो ये नस्ल-ए-नौ समझती है
ये पहरों फ़ोन पर बातें
ये आए दिन मुलाक़ातें
अगर ये सब मोहब्बत है
तो तुफ़ ऐसी मोहब्बत पर
मोहब्बत तो मोहब्बत है
विसाल ओ वस्ल की ख़्वाहिश से बाला-तर
कहा करता
मोहब्बत क़ुर्ब की ख़्वाहिश पे आए तो समझ लेना
हवस ने सर उठाया है
हवस क्या है
फ़क़त जिस्मों की पामाली फ़क़त तज़लील रूहों की
कहा करता मोहब्बत और होती है
हवस कुछ और होती है
सौ जब भी क़ुर्ब की ख़्वाहिश पे आ जाए मोहब्बत तो
सुनो फिर देर मत करना वहीं रस्ता बदल लेना”

Thirdly, there are multiple moments when you have volitional attitudes, but you don’t choose to act according to those attitudes for various different reasons. As Ahmad Faraz, an Urdu Poet writes beautifully,

“माना कि मुहब्बत का छुपाना हैं मुहब्बत,
चुपके से किसी रोज़ जताने के लिए आ”

Because of these three basic contra-points, I can at least claim that this understanding does not provide us a robust theory of love. Within this understanding of love, at least my case was an exception.

Another criticism to this understanding comes from Velleman. Velleman suggests in ‘Love as a Moral Emotion’ (1999) that love is not a volitional attitude but, instead, an emotional response towards the beloved person’s ‘true self’, much in the way visual experience is a response to the actual properties of the objects of sense perception—and it’s just as involuntary as that response. Further, he writes, “Love [requires] us to look at things differently, whether or not [it] ultimately require[s] us to do different things.” Velleman is grounding his argument on Kant’s human dignity; every human must be respected because each of us has a valuable sense of dignity by the virtue of being human that cannot be replaced by anything. So, he concludes that “to love someone, in short, is to see them for the incommensurably valuable thing they are.” Love, like our perception, is objective.

Angulo points out a theoretical problem in Velleman’s position. He says that if love is objective like our perception, and following Kant, every person has incommensurable value just in virtue of being a human being, then there is no explanation for a crucial feature of love, its partiality (I would have preferred peculiarity). He tried to solve this quandary by evoking the notion of tropes in metaphysics.

Angulo writes, “Consider the theory of tropes in metaphysics, the branch of philosophy dealing with, inter alia, things’ identity. Trope theory is just the view that an individual thing’s properties are distinct from other individual things’. Where its competitor, the theory of universals, says on the contrary that there is one and the same property, say, redness, identical between, say, an apple and a cherry, trope theory recognises this particular apple’s pinkish redness as distinct from that particular cherry’s crimson redness, such that every red thing, in other words, has a unique way of exemplifying that property. If we help ourselves to this view of the world, it turns out that every person has a unique way of being an end-in-itself, and so that, whenever we perform the ‘exercise of justice and realism of really looking’ at some two persons a and b, what we see are their distinct ways of being an end-in-itself, i.e. their distinct ways of having incomparable value.”

Though it seems to solve our earlier problem, but it creates a new problem. If it boils down to “their distinct ways”, one has to clarify from which side these distinct ways are coming, an experiencer or an object? If it is coming from a perceiver, it is determined subjectively which seems to be the case. If it is getting projected from an object, why the others do not get the same feeling from the same person? Additionally, it is dubitable too to equate human dignity with the property of an object. I don’t think so Kant would ever forgive Angulo for this analogy. It turns out that Angulo’s defence is not very strong.

If the notion of love suffers in both the cases, what else can be the case? I think Avijit Pathak, a sociologist from India, provides a clue to this question in his book, The Rhythm of Life and Death. He demonstrates how your closed one reacts when you suffer from this sort of mental state. He writes, “Or, maybe they would spend some time with you, and eventually go back to their own world after consoling you: ‘time is a great healer. Have patience. Take care. Everything will be in order’. But you alone know what it means to live without your loved ones. For you, history, politics, culture cease to have a meaning without them. Because you alone experience the absence of that touch, that smell, that journey. And you know that you cannot explain it to anybody. You are destined to bear it alone. Or maybe, you come near a tree or a river or look at the distant star (for me preferably mountains), and cry in silence.”

This particular passage actually reminds me of Nagel’s famous paper ‘What Is It Like To Be A Bat’, but in this case, it would be ‘what is it like to be in love’. From the first few lines, it becomes clear that Prof. Pathak definitely does not want to understand love objectively at least in Velleman’s sense when his sole emphasis is on “you”. But interestingly, he does not leave the objectivity of subjective experience. He clearly broadens the understanding of “object”. For him, object (or subject) of love is not just spatiotemporal, but it can be well felt/experienced in the absence of it. It means that object (or subject) of love transcends itself in love. Though, in this paragraph, it does not come out clearly whether this sort of object can be considered as real or not.

In order to explain this, he further writes, “I break the wall separating the phenomenal from the transcendental. My vision becomes my reality. No wonder, it is only in silence that she comes, heals my wounded self, and assures me: ‘believe me, I have not gone anywhere. I am your breath. I am your smell, I am your inspiration – your energy’.”

Here, the engagement with the absence of that object (or subject) of love, which seems us to subjective, becomes our reality. He breaks the traditional distinction between subjective and objective, or let us say he combines these two at least in love. My experience in love with the object (or subject) of love is neither subjective nor objective but it lies somewhere in between. In order to be in love, the object (or subject) of love must be there objectively that must be experienced by the person in love subjectively. Even in the absence of our beloved one, a lover experiences the absent beloved one more vividly than present beloved one as the gap between lover and loved one diminishes.

So, if I need to write it in a slogan, love is a constant engagement of the presence of the loved one in his/her absence. This particular understanding of love becomes more significant because the kind of suffering/experience one gets in love, one definitely extends this experience to understand various form of others’ suffering. In this sense, the particular experience becomes instrumental in order to understand universal suffering/love.

I think that is why Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a revolutionary Urdu Poet, generally starts his Nazm with particular romantic experience, and then he extends that experience to understand other forms of suffering and love. In one of his Nazm, Raqueeb Se, he writes beautifully –

“हम ने इस इश्क़ में क्या खोया है क्या सीखा है
जुज़ तिरे और को समझाऊँ तो समझा न सकूँ

आजिज़ी सीखी ग़रीबों की हिमायत सीखी
यास-ओ-हिरमान के दुख-दर्द के मअ’नी सीखे
ज़ेर-दस्तों के मसाइब को समझना सीखा
सर्द आहों के रुख़-ए-ज़र्द के मअ’नी सीखे
जब कहीं बैठ के रोते हैं वो बेकस जिन के
अश्क आँखों में बिलकते हुए सो जाते हैं”

Despite understanding love clearly now, it is still not easy to deal with it. But it helps us to sort out our thoughts. Though, this engagement itself has its own charm, to be purely in love with the presence in the absence of beloved one, it causes extensive suffering. The best one can do to avoid painful suffering in love is to be with your beloved one even if there is not a single word to say (because you can constantly talk to him/her absence), even if the other cannot see love in your eyes, even if the other cannot reciprocate. Sometimes being there is all you need. It reminds me of another article ‘The world is broken. Sometimes, it’s OK to just be sad about that’ written by Steven Thrasher. He writes emotionally, “One of the last and most frightening lessons I learned with my sister in her final days was the importance of being with another when there is nothing to say or do. It is terrifying, to just be with a loved one and to admit you’re powerless to stop their death (absence). But it can be the most powerful, quiet and loving gift you can give each other.” This life had given me two occasions, one with my sister and one with my beloved one, to act according to this lesson, and I miserably failed to just be with them.

PRASHANT KUMAR is a Junior Research Fellow in Centre for Philosophy, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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