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Refuting Love's Refuters : THE NATURE OF LOVE Vol. Three, the Modern World by Irving Singer (University of Chicago Press: $24.95; 440 pp.)

January 10, 1988|Frederick A. Olafson | Olafson is a professor of philosophy at UC San Diego

In her remarks at a memorial service for the late James Baldwin which were printed in these pages last month, the poet Maya Angelou urged those present "to try to love each other." By saying, "try to love" rather than simply "love," she struck a distinctively modern note even though there is no reason to think that was her intention. What "try to love" implies is that it is at least not easy for us to love one another and, conceivably, may not even prove possible.

This sense of a difficulty that makes our ability to love problematic is quite in keeping with the general tenor of philosophical thought about the nature of love in our time. In this concluding volume of his impressive study of the history of Western thought about the nature of love, Irving Singer reviews the principal efforts that have been made by 20th-Century thinkers to analyze the phenomenon of love. He does so against the background of the account he gave in his first two volumes of ancient and medieval as well as 19th-Century Romantic theories of love. The great theme of much of this earlier thought about love was the promise that love holds a union of the self with something that was variously conceived but in every case far transcended the finite individual human being. The Romantic conception of love, the most recent of these "idealistic" interpretations, was the first real attempt to show that married love could realize this higher meaning. That conception has been much attacked and ridiculed in this century; but Singer argues that its central emphasis on the love for one another of persons who are neither gods nor abstract ideals is sound and can be re-formulated in a way that involves no extravagant metaphysical commitments. His views are fully stated in a final chapter; but the bulk of the book is taken up with critical accounts of the modern thinkers who have systematically called into question the possibility itself of love as a union of distinct human selves.

For the most part, these critiques are effectively executed, and they bring a high level of critical acumen to bear on skeptical theses about love that are now too often accepted as truisms. The discussion of Freud struck me as especially valuable, and there is also much of interest in the long essays on Proust and Sartre. In each of these cases, a quite different reason is advanced for questioning the possibility of love as a form of authentic mutuality. In Freud, for example, there are quasi-economic assumptions of the kind that interpret love as a scarce commodity and love-relationships as a zero-sum game; and, in one remarkable passage that Singer quotes, Freud is shown equating the command to love one's neighbor with the command to love one's enemy. The difficulty for Proust has to do with knowledge and the agonizing uncertainty the lover must always be in as to whether the loved one is more than a projection of his own imagination. The most explicit argument demonstrating the impossibility of love was offered by Sartre, and it rests on the claim that in any relationship to other human beings, including those we "love," we unavoidably objectify them and so reduce them to the status of things. Singer shows how problematic all these assumptions prove to be on closer examination and how, for all their great merits, the theories based on them miss facts about us that suggest a more hopeful view of our capacity for love. One is left with the sense that the picture of a self that can only pull others into its own gravitational field--the picture that in one way or another informs all these theories--is one of those self-certifying belief-systems that we call "ideologies" when they belong to other people. If the book has a weakness, it is that some of these discussions meander from author to author and from book to book in a rather desultory way and are not always as well integrated as they might be into the book's central line of argument. I also had trouble with Singer's exposition of his own thesis about the kind of evaluation that love involves. He distinguishes between appraisal as a more or less realistic assessment of the qualities that the loved one possesses and what he calls the "bestowal of value." This is apparently a gratuitous enhancement of the loved one by the lover--"a creation in our response to what a person is"--that "supplements and may override our attitudes of appraisal." As it stands, this strikes me as somewhat opaque, and I wonder whether the point that Singer is trying to make here might not have found more lucid expression in some idiom other than that of "values" and their "creation."

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