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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Unprepared are we for "love"...and yet....

 Thomas Moore writes (in A Blue Fire, Section 11, titled, Love’s Tortuous Enchantments, p. 266):

Hillman speaks for love that is soulful, rounded with psychological reflection, and he speaks for psychological life that honours love as it’s principle. Eros always leads to psyche. Even, and perhaps especially, impossible loves invite interiorizing. As the ancient tale spells out, the soul tortured by love is in an ordeal in which specific initiations are carried out. The psyche’s attachment to the love that is so difficult keeps it within the work of initiation. It’s leaning toward death echoes the subtle relationships between Eros and death, both enticing consciousness away from the logic of reason and pragmatics.

In Revisioning Psychology, Hillman writes:

In the tale of Eros and Psyche,…Aphrodite impedes Psyche. She wants to keep Eros for herself, keep him from Psyche, from becoming psychological. Is this because Aphrodite is too literalistic, too much in love with the sensate surface and visibility of things, too concerned with harmony (also one of her children), and with practicality? If so, then therapy that follows her style may teach us much about enjoying and managing the literal problems, while at the same time preventing eros from finding soul. And their union is essential for soul-making. Despite the riches that can be dug out of Aphrodite’s myths, neither all of love nor all of therapy can be awarded to one God. Psychotherapy, beginning with Freud’s introduction of death into its purview, has come to realize that soul-making leads beyond the pleasure principle and that love is not enough. As Norman Brown has written, ‘Love is a little moment in the life of lovers; and love remains an inner subjective experience leaving the macrocosm of history untouched. Human history cannot be grasped as the unfolding of human love….Blake must have sensed the insufficiency of love as the redeemer, for he called Jesus the Imagination, implying love of imagination, or love working in and through imagination. Love, then, is no longer an end but a means for the return of soul through the human psyche to its nonhuman imaginal essence. Love, in this view, is one of the many modes of archetypal emotion and fantasy, one style of madness, no more privileged than any other. Therapy is not for love’s sake but for the soul’s sake; the game is not that psyche should find eros, with love as goal, but that eros should find psyche-soul as aim. Love’s arrow, then, is to strike the soul, hit its vulnerability, in order to begin that state of deep pathologizing we call being-in-love. (op. cit. pps.185-6)

The notion of Aphrodite’s being ‘too literalistic, too much in love with sensate surface and visibility of things, too concerned with harmony and with practicality’ (Hillman above) and ‘the psyche’s leaning toward death…enticing consciousness away from the logic of reason and pragmatics’ (Moore above) together offer a frame through which to reflect upon what
Hillman considers love is and can be, and what might starve its full complexity. , albeit mostly unconscious, in a cultural and individual perception of superficiality, underlined, or perhaps even motivated by what seems like a hard-wired detachment to both people and things that camouflages and subverts intimacy.

I am about to ‘to out on a limb’ here and take what I and others might consider a significant risk.

Both from my own life experience and the encounters with hundreds of others, in various circumstances, some merely pragmatic and functional, others more engaged and complex, and others even more involved and complicated and intimate, I think there is a common shared and alienating aspect to how we ‘see’ both ourselves and others. It is not rocket science, especially following a pandemic, to observe the blanket of loneliness, separation, isolation and alienation that covers the North American continent. Forced isolation, for health protective reasons, while legitimate and necessary, only exaggerated what was already extant in human relationships, of both a social/political nature and of a domestic/intimate nature.

North American culture (anima mundi) has come to a place where human beings are considered through a lens that warrants some of these descriptors:

 superficial, transactional, functional, value-added-value-cost, loyal/disloyal, friend/foe, emotional/pragmatic, intellectual/uneducated, creative/reliable, articulate/manipulative

There are at least two fundamental features of these descriptors: first, they are based on a purely functional assessment of the individual, depending on the perspective of the observer; second, all descriptors have an opposite, engendering a binary polarity, from the point of the view of the observer. Our conversations oscillate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ depending on the occasion, the subject, the moment in history, the weather/climate, the linguistic ‘winds’ that are in vogue, and the nature of the personalities engaged. ,

Performance, whether as a child learning to accept and deliver ‘potty-training’ or a young student in a primary school classroom, is categorized as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ and every child knows both the difference and the potential for rewards/sanctions, depending on the moment in the specific situation and the person administering the ‘conditioning’. We live in a classically conditioned family, church, school, athletic team, summer job, university program, permanent corporate job, profession, personal relationship and marriage. So we are both Pavlov’s ‘dogs’ and the experimenter in Pavlov’s extended experiment. We know the bell to hit to invoke the kibble, just as the ‘porty’ in our family room knows, without question, when and how to invoke compliance with her ‘parents’. Indeed, the mere task of learning both the ‘hot-buttons’ of another as well as the ‘soft-spots’ (the weaknesses), as in learning to drive while confronting red-amber-green lights, becomes second-nature, and comprises the building blocks of what we call our cultural norms.

The power of the observer/experimenter/instructor/supervisor is not, however, merely contained or incarnated in the decisions taken to reward/sanction the other. That ‘authority figure’ is both observer and participant in the incident, whatever the situation might be. The participant role of the authority figure, however, is considered, by him/her and others who share and support that power-exercise, sacrosanct, private, confidential and ultimately superior to the ‘recipient’ of the decision’s participation. We live in a culture in which those with power and influence are exempt from, immune from and cloistered from disclosure of their full subjectivity, their attitudes, perceptions, values, except in the parsing and deconstructing of their specific acts, decisions, rewards and sanctions.

In our homes, a cliché like, ‘she wears the pants there’ and/or ‘her partner is an abusive tyrant,’ become ‘street talk’ in each and every neighbourhood, especially in some towns, villages and communities where most people know, or think they know the ‘business’ of everyone else. Nonetheless, none of us really ‘knows’  what actually ‘goes on behind closed doors’….although we definitely pretend we do. Stereotypes like ‘wimp’ for men who seem to defer to their female partners, and ‘strident’ or witchy (or worse) like barnacles, grow on the shoulders of personal reputations, all of which demean both the subject of the stereotype and the deliverer of the name-calling. We throw the cliché around as if it were a weapon in our arsenal of attack, camouflaged in our blatant rationalization that we are merely protecting ourselves from the attack of the other.

Classical conditioning under the deceptive guise of ‘strength’ of character, (s/he will take no ‘shit’ from anyone) is a monumental wedge, not only within our communities, families, churches, schools, colleges and corporations. It is a wedge (beyond the political wedge issue of ‘wokeness’) that we have all come to both understand (minimally at best) and to participate in both consciously and unconsciously. Competition, for the sake of competition, then, lies at the heart of our culture, in various forms and faces, some of them openly opposed, while others remain closeted in ‘social status’ and upper-class gated communities (both of the mind and the street).

How does this dynamic of competition, literally and empirically conceptualized and psychologically ‘administered’ as ‘normative, impact the personal potential experience of love?

A young nursing student, then twenty-two, was open to a relationship with an eighteen-year-old freshman. Both shared mutual interests, long walks, weekly dances (for a quarter admission in the nurses’ residence) and lots of both serious and frivolous talks. Given the age difference (four years) and the simple fact that she was the daughter of a radiologist, the young man asked for time to consider. Raised in a lower middle-class home, in a very small town, where the status and stature of the doctors and lawyers almost literally glowed like neon on the ‘stage’ of town affairs. So highly regarded, then (early 1960’s) were these ‘professionals’ that another junior, also from Northern Ontario, aspiring to enter medical school, heard from his mother, “You can’t do that! We are not that kind of people!”

Social class, as an impediment to relationship, as well as to ‘academic’ and professional aspiration, is and was then, very real. So too is something called sophistication, or the aspiration for social status and the sophistication that ‘comes’ from/with that status. Is this person “good” enough for my son/daughter, is a question that is asked, if not openly at least silently, in many homes, among parents who think and believe that they are doing their best for their young adult. While we are not ‘victims’ of what is inconsequential, or ought to be, there is little doubt that these sort of ‘discriminations’ are pervasive. Racism, ageism, sexism, religious bigotry, and social and economic class are all determinative of at least the perceptions and attitudes of many young men and women, whether they are conscious and acknowledged or not.

Also, depending on the level of self-confidence of the young man or woman, there is always ‘in the air’ and in the imagination, the spectre of ‘rejection’ if someone in whom one is interested responds by pushing the overture away. “Fear” whether legitimate or not, likes a ghost, stalks the imaginative speculation of many potential romantic relationships. So too does something called ‘romantic idealism’ in that one person idolizes another, is infatuated with another, and thereby carries a heavy burden of expectation into the first encounter, often in the face of complete innocence and ignorance on the part of that ‘other’.

Dancing in the imagination of each of these hypothetic ‘lovers’ are images of other loves they have witnessed, other loves they have imagined, failed love relationships they have witnessed, and even stories of tragedies of the most horrendous nature, including betrayal, abandonment, physical and emotional abuse and even death. The unique ‘music’ or ‘canvas’ or ‘dance’ envisioned in each person’s imagination, including those voices that seem to be most influential, is part of both the challenge, adventure, mystery and hope/dread of the risk of full commitment to any new relationship.

Love songs like “Love Letters in the Sand” by Pat Boone, or “Heart-break Hotel” by Elvis Presley are just two of the (historically dated) examples of melodies and themes that played out in the late fifties and early sixties. Literally hundreds of others, plaintive and evocative, edgy and risqué, harmonic and hopeful comprised a ‘playlist’ of what was then pop music’s anthology, all dedicated to ‘young love’. Romantic idealists, all, in our teen years, and even into our early twenties, we are far less interested in, and thereby conscious of, what might go wrong in any relationship. We do not know ourselves, except as we have been ‘described’ by others; we certainly do not know ‘the other’ given that we have almost nothing except ‘impressions’ of beauty, brains, physical strength/agility, fun-loving or serious, and ‘rich-not-so-much….The lyricism of a voice, the flip of a lock of hair, the grace of a walk down the hall of the school corridor, the generosity of a smile, the friendliness of an act of sharing….these are some of the literal, empirical, superficial and insubstantial ‘hooks’ to which we cling, when we are ‘caught up’ in the throes of a ‘vision’ of romance and love, at an early age.

Hardly are such ‘hooks’, even if they are tested for a period of time, enough to offer any sort of assurance of a mutual, reciprocal, sustaining and life-giving long-term relationship. And yet, that is when and where most of us start our pilgrimage into adult relationships. Almost, as if we were entered on a ship voyage without the knowledge and experience of the ship, the weather/climate, the mapping or the destination. And while that mystery glows with benefits of optimism, hope and promise, it also risks foundering on the shoals of the very innocence that drove it.

And for some, perhaps many, those shoals are not necessarily a one-time foundering.

The loss of innocence, as it may take place like the peeling of a Spanish onion in layers, is the stuff of both committed love and the perspective of death being included in our vision both of ourselves and our wider existence.

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