Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Two-part essay on Love


To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.” – Roland Barthes

I have an empty head on love in general. I'd either have nothing to say, or I'd just be reciting clichés”, as philosopher Jacques Derrida aptly put it once during an interviewi. Sharing the same sentiment, this is not an essay about love in general. However, I would like to question what this quote below means:

"There is no love; there is only proof of it."ii

Until now this quote is still as puzzling as it was provocative when I first encountered it many years ago. Its conclusiveness is kind of demanding especially towards a subject that has seduced many people: especially philosopher and poets who have elaborated or ruined (whichever way you want to think) its meaning. The paraphrased quote (it was translated from the French) is from Robert Bresson’s classic film
Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, whose dialogue was written by poet Jean Cocteau. Despite it being a very elusive quote to fully grasp intellectually, it had somewhat made some sense to me, in perlocution. Despite having told myself to avoid talking too much about things I don’t really know much about, I’d like to muse on this quote.

A female friend who always fights with me once said “isn’t our fighting a form of love?” If that would be the case, what would that imply about love? Many people will say their favorite cliché notions of what love is: love is compassion, honesty, trust, admiration, the thing that compels one to be attracted to doing this or be attracted to this object, person, idea, etc, this and that… Much of the modern concepts of love have seemed to reduce love into materially contractual states
1 of one’s experience to the other. It means that love in some way has become a sort of commodity, or a tangible, self-conscious and self-evident, useful social “contract” among people. Unlike the idealists of the ancient world, the Greeks for example, have elaborated on love significantly and prescriptively of what love is and what other people should be doing when enamored with it. Plato presents eros as being consistent with his notion of “The Forms” – unchangeable, eternal metaphysical concepts of Truth. Aristotle on the other hand, considers philia, and its importance to egotism2 and altruism, as necessities in order to achieve happiness. And more memorably, St. Augustine’s famous take on his religiosity and idealism on God and love (and he uses love as contingent with God)3 is evident in his beautifully-put adage: “the measure of love is to love without measure.” My point is: love, (like much of modernity and the so-called post-modernity)4 seems to be always defined through something else. It is impossible to define what love really is as it really is.

If you cannot know it, does that logically imply that you cannot believe it? If beliefs are representational we can only believe things we are sensitive (senses) to.
iii Love is after all simply a four-lettered word too. And like many other powerful words, we know its power and its implications since we use language to better the understanding of our experiences. So is love simply just a concept? Maybe so, however uncertain I am, there are seems to me “only proofs” of love that we could account for. This is so since love as a concept can be understood and experienced through something else that exists in the external world.5 If we would only relate love to our thoughts without having any actual transactions or “proofs” that define what love is, then love can never completely exist in our heads, and we may never know what love really means. It has to relate to something else “out there.”6 And it is through these things that are in the external world that can help us conceive of concepts. These concepts are compelling or convenient 7 for us to justify our beliefs about a thing in the end. And the implication of having knowledge could also imply that our beliefs are true. (Maybe, but I am not sure. I am simply speculating. I am still open for doubt.) If we believe that love exists, it is because there are data and experiences that we gather from the external world and it provides us justification to our beliefs.iv Therefore, love is a relatively abstract concept. A concept defined through real transactions in our world of experience. So the cliché notion that “God is love” is nonsense. Because God is supposed to exist outside (or beyond) our world of experience.8 I won’t expound too much on this but my point is you can experience love more easily because it is defined through something else that already exists in our world of experience. Its results are more direct and case-specific. The main quote is peculiar because it is opposite of the doubt that religious people or “believers” usually encounter: “there is a God but there is no proof – or there is a God but how can we prove it?” But this is rather a boring subject to talk about, and a circular argument so I won’t get into it. A deadend. In a way, love is more important than God, or at least for me; because I can have direct transactions or “proofs” of love than I would with God. I am not really claiming that I know what love really is. Everything I can know about love is based on what I have experienced. And from my experience it is not enough for me to talk about it further. I have really no general opinions of what love is. I’ve only talked about the quote on the first page.
It is impossible to define what love really is without relating it to something else. Reductionists would say that love is simply a result of certain chemical imbalances that occur in the brain that makes us feel this and that – but this is a rather extreme point of view. Are we really ready to accept this?

The pioneer of deconstructionism, Jacques Derrida, also had shared similar idea that love is defined through its relationship with other things; but for him there is a clear division on the who and the what.

The history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what. I think that whoever starts to love, is in love, or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. Do I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are? For example, I love you because you are you. Or do I love your qualities, your beauty, and your intelligence, etc? Does one love someone, or does one love something about someone? Often, love starts with some type of seduction. One is attracted because the other is like this or like that. Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realize the other person doesn't merit our love. The other person isn't this and that. One wants to be true to someone – singularly, irreplaceably – and one perceives that this someone isn't x or y. They didn't have the qualities, properties, the images, that I thought I'd loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what.”v

Since childhood, we are taught to think of love as a singular entity. Whether it is God's love, marriage, passion, or patriotism, we are taught to think of love as a unique and exclusive prize. But as semiologist and philosopher Roland Barthes' points out in his book “A Lover’s Discourse”, love is built upon fragments, many of which are mundane. The most compelling part of "Lover's Discourse" is Barthes’ dissection of the phrase, "I love you". Drawing upon literary examples and common sense, Barthes asks us what we mean when we state that we love someone. Do we love what they do for us? Do we love how they make us feel? Do we love the idea of them? Are we in love with love itself?vi This concept is borne out by the protagonist Merseault, in Albert Camus' novel, “A Happy Death”. The first thing Merseault says to his lover when she wakes up in the morning is: “hello image”. Extracting love from ideology and examining it under a microscope, the deeper inquiries about love may confuse our eyes even further; but the view contains more than a glimmer of reality as much as faint murmurs of a heart, beating in the dark.


Roland Barthes: A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
Fred Dreske: The Epistemology of Belief (excerpts)

Plato: The Symposium

Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics

Albert Camus: A Happy Death and L’estranger

Jean-Luc Godard:
Éloge de l'amour (In the Praise of Love) (2001), b/w and colour, 97 mins, feature film
Jacques Derrida: TV interviews (culled from


1 Love as a form of social contract – this idea is usually associated with marriages. This is based on my own experience and observation, but at the same time is resounded among many modern cultures and cultural expressions (literature, movies, etc) and in some writings of post-modern philosophers like Derrida and Barthes. For example, this experience of bliss and joy that I find in love is defined through the relationship between me and the ability of another person to project a kind of comfort that I seek (materially, sexually, socially, or intellectually) with whom I project my love to. That’s why I think marriages are done, more often than not, out of necessity and practicality.

2 This does not mean that Aristotle is egotistic, but he considers self-love to be the highest form of philia, following a logic where in order to love another, one must love himself first.

3 This contingency is popular to most Christians (let alone religious people of any religion), and even more extrem e that its usage, because of popularity has gone beyond the contingent relationship and became interchangeable – as evident in this popular phrase “God is love”. Which I will show in this essay that this is not so.

4 The plight of modernity and even more, post-modernity is that everything is defined through a historical spectacle. Philosophy, technology, cultures, etc – all cannot escape the clutches and demands of history.

5 External world is the living, real world that is independent or separate from our thoughts/mind. The world of experience.

6 Again, the world of experience.

7 If there are substantial sense-data, facts, etc, but we’ll not go into that… it is obvious that I am leaning towards externalism.

8 The world of appearances or the world of sensible things.

i Jacques Derrida - TV interview:

ii Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), Robert Bresson

iii Fred Dreske: The Epistemology of Belief

iv Fred Dreske: The Epistemology of Belief

v Jacques Derrida - TV interview:

vi Roland Barthes: A Lover’s Discourse