I too often let my readers forget that the original point of these columns was to chronicle a spiritual itinerary consisting, hopefully, of provisional triumphs of love over resentment. Resentment may be defined as the transformation of “horizontal” human difference into a “vertical” obstacle to central Being. Love, by actively deferring this transformation, lets us experience difference as a value, a source of interactive behaviors and mediations, notably including the activity that valorizes the most familiar human difference of all, the one that vive la différence! used to be said about.My previous analyses of love have emphasized tenderness as care for the other’s vulnerability as revealed in the originary event. We cannot protect against natural mortality, but we can defer violence toward each other. Tenderness is a gesture to one mortal from another only inconsequentially less so. It provokes reciprocity without demanding it; it is a gift the response to which may be indefinitely deferred.
In one of the earliest Chronicles, I discussed the expression “I love you” as the performative affirmation of a modern, self-conscious variety of love. “I love you” does not simply refer to a preexisting sentiment, but neither does it simply promise the prolongation of that sentiment; it establishes a possibility of sexual relationship, and, at least in principle, solicits a reciprocal declaration. A couple who have exchanged “I love you”‘s is presumably ready, all other things being equal, to become a family unit and to produce and care for children. The common reciprocal use of this expression marks the integration of the romantic love of the troubadours into the bourgeois family.Love is not always requited. The declaration solicits a symmetry, but in a necessarily asymmetrical manner. One does not declare love via “we love each other”; this can only be said after the exchange of “I love you”‘s. Thus the possibility of the declaration that solicits its reciprocation–and risks its denial–is also the possibility of its deferral. This is the stuff of romance narratives. Fearing rejection, one waits for confirming indices, or for a declaration from the other. When the pair finally exchange declarations of love, the story is at an end.
But sometimes no declaration is possible. Such mute relationships have a special poignancy, one that the 1993 film Remains of the Day delicately exploited. In such cases, one realizes that truly to care for the other requires one not provoke a reciprocal exchange. (Stendhal was obsessed by a particular variant of this mode, where the declaration of love can only occur in circumstances that make its actualization in the couple impossible. The purest example of this configuration occurs in his first novel, Armance (1827), where the presumably impotent hero confesses his love only because he thinks he is about to die of a wound received in a duel.) Where reciprocation is impossible, “I love you” is not truly a declaration of love at all, but, however sincerely meant, an statement of egregious desire. A piece of emotional Kitsch, in fact, since the noble association of the words is being used as a mask for appetite. Such embarrassing declarations may occur in romantic narratives as foils to those we are meant to take seriously. But conversely, in the absence of a declaration, even the most inappropriate love retains its dignity. In such cases, we are shown the love in deed rather than word, so that we say (as generally the lover does not, even to himself) “he loves her.” “I love you,” in its implicit demand for reciprocity in both word and deed, imposes an obligation of acceptation or refusal that itself always risks being excessive, whereas the mute gesture of love imposes none. To demonstrate love non-thematically does not impede the future withdrawal of either giver or recipient, and therefore needs never to make the irrevocable decision that the declaration of love necessarily implies, that of whether or not to establish a monogamous family.
Is this analysis “sociobiological”? Some months ago, I lost a few readers when I outlined a theory of sexual difference based on the idea that men related to others externally but that women had in addition the potential of internal otherness, a relationship with the fetus that is prolonged in the extra-uterine relationship with a dependent child. Love is a relationship between equals, but its basic model involves not the necessity but what we may call the structural possibility of producing children–a possibility the absence of which provides an argument against homosexual marriage. Biology is not destiny, but it is the bedrock upon which we erect our cultural edifices. It is absurd to conceive of human love independently of its biological basis, as though the couple defined by reciprocal “I love you”‘s could have ever existed in the absence of its virtual child-raising function. Without the need to perpetuate the species, there would be no sexual desire at all. A generative perspective must understand the limits of the cultural. The originary purpose of culture–to defer violence through representation–is an essentially negative one that, rather than taking the place of the biological-appetitive goals of the human animal, is meant to facilitate their attainment. (What is wrong with sociobiology is not its insistence on our biological nature, but its reduction of anthropology to ethology. This reduction is refuted by the simple fact that the animal world lacks the behavior of sociobiology; there are no animal E. O. Wilsons explaining their species’ behavior by analogy with that of plants–there are no explanations at all.)
The exaltation of mutual love that provides a meaning to the world does so because it is ultimately grounded in biological rationality, and even the delicious deferral of sexuality during courtship is part of this rationality, since it provides a model of fidelity without immediate reward. To make a counter-argument out of the fact that “romantic love” originated outside of marriage is to underestimate the subtlety of the historical dialectic. Tristan and Isolde are fated not to marry and raise a family because the new model of love they exemplify cannot impose itself on the relatively immobile social institution of marriage until it has tightened its hold on the far less inertial public imagination. The historical demonstration of my argument is that today’s married family-raisers speak to each other in the language of the fatal lovers rather than in that of the King Marks of their day, which has been all but forgotten.
But conversely, this implies that caring relationships that for whatever reason cannot be conceived according to the biological model should, whatever their intensity, forgo the exchange of vows. “I love you” demands a binary reciprocity only justifiable by the nature of human sexuality. Love as a pure gift of tenderness, even were the gift to be secretly reciprocated, is better left unspoken.