My undergraduate seminar on love ended in a peculiar way. About half way into the class, I distributed the usual student evaluation forms, then left the room while they were being filled out. When I returned some 15 minutes later, the students were gone; they had misunderstood me and thought class was over. This is the first time this has happened in over 25 years at UCLA.
Thus did fate prevent me from drawing conclusions about love from the books we read in the course, which ranged from Plato‘s indispensable Symposium to my favorite postwar French novel, Marguerite Duras‘s Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein. But I know readers of these Chronicles will understand any conclusions I might draw in the context of my overall view that the very essence of the human is to continue to evolve in all its aspects. There can be no final explanation of any aspect of the human, unless it is an aspect we are willing to part with, to return to “nature.” Thus, for example, we may wish to do without astrology and study the stars without immediate reference to ourselves (but newspaper columns make clear that astrology retains its cultural authority even if we no longer “believe in” it). But we would hardly want to do without love.
Love is the quintessential human activity; the little world of the couple is directly analogous to the human world as a whole. For love remains alive only as long as it defies final explanations, as it retains an element of unpredictability. Cliché would have it that, as they come to know each other increasingly well over the years, couples necessarily “fall out of love,” while nonetheless continuing to love each other. But if love is truly the center of one’s life, then falling out of love is really the end of love. Successful couples are those who stay in love, whose love matures and changes its forms of expression, but remains as intense as ever. There need be no end to these changes; the more the couple have experienced together, the more material they have for the little dialogical games lovers never tire of playing with each other.
When skeptics ask how the open-endedness of generative anthropology is consistent with its formulation of an originary scene of language, we answer that love too begins with a scene–not necessarily the dramatic one of the coup de foudre, love at first sight, but the necessary moment of realization that one is indeed in love. At this point, the relationship is just beginning, yet its entire potential is latent in it. The couple discovers throughout their lives the possibilities that were inherent in this first moment, not because they were there preformed as early geneticists thought babies were in the egg, but because their potential for life’s interactions was already there. The richer the possibilities, the more creative and unpredictable the life that follows is likely to be. Potentiality is not preformation, but the disposition to creativity; it allows us to anticipate new degrees of freedom, not precisely what they will be.
How do these observations fit in with the idea, expressed at the beginning of my course as well as in these columns, that the relation between those who love each other is best characterized as tenderness? What indeed is the link between tenderness and generative anthropology?
At the origin, the sign representing the central figure permits the participants to act without coming into conflict. Instead of a paradoxical situation that cannot be resolved without violence, emission of the sign is a behavior all can participate in. The central being as the mediator of this common activity of communication is consequently the recipient of a new form of attraction, which we may already call love. For we desire its presence without, for the moment at least, wishing to appropriate it for ourselves. Its being-there is our guarantee that the peaceful, violence-deferring exchange of signs between me and my fellows will continue.
I cannot be said to feel tenderness for an object that stands against me as something invulnerable, inaccessible. But the central being is not a transcendental abstraction, but a real creature, and in that guise, it cannot remain invulnerable to our appetites. The sparagmos or rending-apart of the sacrificial victim is the fate of the material being that stands in the center; its sacredness cannot remain incarnate in it, but must be understood as residing permanently in a transcendental realm.
The sacred is transcendental, but its manifestation is in this being that I love, which has brought peace to the community. It is when I understand that what I love is impermanent, mortal like myself, that I feel tenderness; but I would not love it were it not the worldly presence of the sacred. It is this truth that is expressed in Christianity by the Incarnation of God in the person of the Son. But one need not be a Christian to be inspired by the union of meaningfulness and mortality in another human being to the tenderness of love.
It is indeed tenderness that attunes me to my beloved’s mutability. The richness of experience is not an open-ended unfolding; life is finite. If mortality for the young is an abstraction, age allows us to experience it in detail well before the final moment. What we love in the Other is not mere variety, but a trajectory that cannot return to its earlier moments. Vigny’s line, already quoted here, Aimez ce que jamais vous ne verrez deux fois refers not merely to the person we love, but to every moment we have shared together. And it is this care for every moment of human existence as an element of the sacred that inspires the doctrine (so eloquently defended recently on the GAlist by James Williams) of resurrection.