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Existentialists In Love

Interview by Richard Marshall.

And what do I mean by romantic loving? I define it as being passionate, meaning that it includes sexual attraction, even if it’s not realized. It’s personal, meaning that it’s love of an individual, which differentiates it from spiritual love. It involves the hope that it will last, which makes it different from lust. It also involves a yearning to be together.

For the existentialists, “existence precedes essence,” meaning that there are no soulmates, no perfect matches, no other halves. We’re free to choose our relationships, and it’s up to us to take responsibility for creating connections that are meaningful to us, rather than leaving it to fate to have us accidentally stumble over the one. The main objection to this is that maybe you can’t choose whom to love.

The other issue with romance is – as you suggest – that it tends to devolve into power games. All too often, love is a desire for control over the other and explains, in part, jealousy. Nietzsche describes lovers, who let their will to power run recklessly wild, as behaving like selfish dragons defending their golden hoard. Love ends up as war, with lovers trying to exert their will to domination over one another.’

Skye C. Cleary is a philosopher and author. She lectures at Columbia University and Barnard College, and previously the City University of New York, and the New York Public Library. Skye is the Managing Editor of the American Philosophical Association’s blog, an advisory board member of Strategy of Mind (a global executive learning firm), and a certified fellow with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Previously, she was an international equity arbitrageur and management consultant. She was born in Australia and lives in New York City. Here she talks about existentialism and romantic love, romantic loving, merging, Max Stirner, egotistical love, Kierkegarrad’s aesthetic love, and why the religious alternative is a damp squid for romance even if a better bet, why Nietzsche thought friendship better than romance, Sartre’s sado-masochism, De Beauvoir and her relationship with Sartre, her view of authenticity and how it relates to romance, and why ultimately she agrees with Nietzsche that friendship beats merging. One for all the winter existentialists out there ….

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Skye Cleary: Short answer: existential confusion. Long answer: Before philosophy, I was an arbitrage trader, a management consultant, a journalist (briefly), and did an MBA. It was during my MBA that I discovered philosophy. I found Simone de Beauvoir in an organizational behavior course while discussing boardroom dynamics, and learned about Homer, Schopenhauer, and Sartre in foundations of management and entrepreneurship classes.

It was also about that time that Hazel Rowley’s Tête-à-Tête: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre was published, which was serendipitous because as a twenty-something woman, pressure to ‘settle down’ seemed to be building up all around me. Friends were doing it. Hollywood films were filled with the usual stories of finding “The One”, they marry, have babies, and live happily ever after. With marriage as successful as the flip of a coin, I wasn’t at all clear about why people still did it, or whether and why I should. I also wondered why people fall in and out of love, and whether it’s possible to choose to love, or to choose to stop loving. I wasn’t sure where to start with those questions, but Beauvoir and Sartre seemed to be grappling with similar themes, and this evolved into a PhD.

Existential confusion is still a normal state of my being, but at least after having studied philosophy, I am learning to live with the ambiguities of existence, realizing that it’s not only OK, but healthy, to know that we don’t have all the answers. The original meaning of philosophy is the ‘love of wisdom’, but it’s love in the sense of a longing for the truth, meaning that it’s lacking, we desire it, and pursue it passionately.

3:AM: You’ve linked existentialism to romantic love. Can you sketch the broad contours of this idea; what is it that makes you think that existentialism can help us explore and understand romantic love fruitfully?

SC: How we love is shaped by so many external factors – friends, family, pop culture – that it’s easy to forget about what’s meaningful for the people in the relationship. It’s also so easy to be swept away in a frenzy of romantic intoxication and sexual infatuation which, of course, is one of the best things about love. But it can become a problem if lovers neglect other important parts of their life (like their career and personal ambitions) or make major life decisions (like marriage) based on a transient rush of dopamine. The early stages of falling in love are euphoric, like being addicted drugs. Yet, also as with drugs, the rush gets less intense over time, and we’re forever chasing the love dragon. While may be possible to re-spark that flame, it gets harder, but there’s no need to be too upset if relationships evolve into something else because deeper, more stable, longer-term relationships can be great too. So, an existential approach to romantic loving shows that once we free ourselves from externally-imposed expectations about how we ought to be in relationships, as well as from being slaves to our passions, then we will be free to reinvigorate love in authentically meaningful ways.

3:AM: What do you mean by romantic loving? Has it a history – or is it something decisively contemporary and linked to modern sensibilities and socio-political and economic conditions?

SC: Romantic loving is a fairly new concept. Sure, humans have been falling in love for as long as we know, but until recently, it was rarely the case that you could spend your life with someone you were passionately in love with. ‘Romantic’ was a term that became popular a few hundred years ago when things like art, architecture, and music were described as Romantic (with a capital R), because they were grand and heroic and adventurous, like the Roman empire. In the 19th Century love started to be described as romantic too. And with industrialization, the need for economic and power alliance-based marriages dissolved because domestic production declined, and there was less of a need to keep the family business going within the family. With romance literature reaching a mass market, the allure of the love story spread. The ideal of marrying the person with whom you are in love, to be together forever, is a seductive narrative. If only Romeo and Juliet didn’t have to die to be together! Imagine how blissfully happy they could have been had they been allowed to marry! It’s only with the rise of respect for individual rights – including women having a say in whom they marry and no-fault divorce – that coupling has become a matter of personal choice (instead of arranged) and romantic love has become the main way of pairing up in the Western world.

And what do I mean by romantic loving? I define it as being passionate, meaning that it includes sexual attraction, even if it’s not realized. It’s personal, meaning that it’s love of an individual, which differentiates it from spiritual love. It involves the hope that it will last, which makes it different from lust. It also involves a yearning to be together. Some definitions include concern for the lover’s welfare, intimacy, and companionship, too.

3:AM: One idea used to help us understand romantic loving is that of ‘merging’. So what is this and why is it so important?

SC: Plato has a lot to answer for here. In Symposium, Aristophanes tells the story as to why, when we fall in love, it feels like we’ve found our other half. People used to be strange creatures with two faces, four arms, and four legs. One day, they upset the gods. Zeus was angry and sliced them all in two. Ever since then, we’ve been floating around looking for our soulmate, to reunite into our organic whole. Finding a lover, then, completes us, and balances out our deficiencies and excesses.

It’s a cute story, but we’ve kept this abstract language of merging while forgetting the absurd myth that underpins it. It’s problematic because it implies that there’s only one person out there, out of billions, who can complete us. “The One” implies that it’s a monogamous bond and that the union will result in perfect eternal happiness, which cultivates the illusion that if you’re with the right one then love will be super easy. If lovers break up then, according to this idea, they were mistaken. It must not have been true love, or one or both of you are faulty. It also implies that love is pre-determined: your perfect match exists; you just have to find him or her.

This story is a major source of disappointment and frustration in romantic relationships. For the existentialists, “existence precedes essence,” meaning that there are no soulmates, no perfect matches, no other halves. We’re free to choose our relationships, and it’s up to us to take responsibility for creating connections that are meaningful to us, rather than leaving it to fate to have us accidentally stumble over the one. The main objection to this is that maybe you can’t choose whom to love. To this, I say that we might not be able to choose the facts of our existence (our ‘facticity’), such as raw animal attraction, but we can choose whether and how to act on attraction.

3:AM: The first existentialist thinker you examine in relation to romance is Max Stirner. Of the five figures you discuss he’s probably the least well known to non-experts so could you say a little about him first?

SC: Max Stirner is more famous for his philosophy of anarchy and egoism than for love, and yet he is one of the underappreciated fathers of existentialism – especially his idea that we are “creative nothings.” His main project was owning oneself (Eigenheit) which the existentialists evolved into the concept of authenticity. What’s important for Stirner is not to be tied down by the duties and obligations that other people try to impose on us, as well as to free ourselves from being controlled by internal cravings such as avarice, greed, or infatuation. To live is to rebel – against the constraints that threaten us, so that we can choose our lives on our own terms. He’s also one of the original philosophers of YOLO, in a carpe diem sense. He didn’t coin it, but he does advocate for burning the candle at both ends. Life is to be squandered and enjoyed. Forget ‘know thyself’; get value out of yourself instead.

3:AM: You discuss him in terms of egotistical love. Can you sketch what this is?

SC: Imagine you’re walking down the street and you bump into some friends. You’re happy to see one another and one of them suggests having a drink together. Do you go because you feel an obligation to do it? No. You do it because you think it would be fun, or it’s of mutual interest or benefit. Similarly, when it comes to love, Stirner asks why would you be in a relationship with someone you don’t like? It’s absurd to be, or stay, in a relationship purely out of a sense of duty. We think that love is supposed to be unselfish. Stirner would say you’re fooling yourself. Love is egoistic because it’s about satisfying our desires. More controversially, he suggests that when we love, it’s not so much about the other person, but rather we love ourselves being in love. While we might appreciate another person, we do so in the same way that we appreciate a bottle of wine. If the wine turns sour, we might still love the beautiful bottle, but we wouldn’t be expected to say we love the wine.

Stirner’s philosophy doesn’t necessarily preclude long-term deep and meaningful relationships, but it’s not exactly conducive to them either. Nevertheless, what I like about this approach is that he emphasizes love as a choice, and that it would be better for us to be honest with ourselves about why we’re in relationships. It’s OK to walk away from those who are toxic in our lives, and to socialize with people who inspire us and nourish us – and for whom we can do the same.

3:AM: What is Soren Kierkegaard’s account of romantic love about? You label it ‘loving aesthetically’ – can you introduce us to Kierkegaard’s notion of the ‘aesthetic’ first?

SC: In Either/Or, Kierkegaard (under a pseudonym) wrote about the existential journey to meaning in life in terms of three spheres: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic sphere is the most primal; it’s child-like, bursting with possibilities, and guided by hedonism. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the ultimate aesthete. He’s a seducer extraordinaire, driven purely by his sexual urges. Kierkegaard didn’t approve of this lifestyle, although he describes it in such glittering ways that it’s obvious he admired Don’s charm.

This lifestyle might look fun and glamorous, but ultimately it’s meaningless because it lacks real commitments. The alternative, Kierkegaard suggests, is an ethical lifestyle, in which one accepts social norms and duties – such as getting married. There are plenty of issues with the ethical lifestyle too, including that it can be super boring. So, the challenge is to live ethically without losing aesthetic passion, and at the end of the book, Kierkegaard hints towards another alternative: the religious sphere.

3:AM: So how does this help us understand romantic love?

SC: Kierkegaard wanted to secure love. Romantic love is fleeting and frivolous, and marriage is supposed to provide more stability. However, marriage actually isn’t secure either and certainly won’t make love stay. Kierkegaard’s ultimate recommendation is to ‘love thy neighbor’, that is, to love regardless of whether you’re loved in return.

The problem with Kierkegaard’s solution is that it isn’t romantic any more. However, he helps us understand why a constant flow of transient relationships can be so unfulfilling and lonely. Dating apps and websites make it easy to run the risk of forever churning through brief encounters. People scroll through thousands of profiles with endless possibilities – like Don Giovanni scanning the streets of Seville for anyone in a skirt. We won’t know ahead of time if leaping into a more committed relationship is the right thing to do. It’s scary, but making a definitive choice to be in a relationship can be hugely rewarding. And although mature relationships often do lose some of the sparkle, it’s important not to forget to appreciate and nurture romantic effervescence.

3:AM: Friedrich Nietzsche is the third figure you look at. How does he approach romance? Is power the key here?

SC: Nietzsche didn’t think much of romantic love. Not because he didn’t have much (i.e. any) success with it, but because he was disgusted that we base marriage on it. Passionate feelings fade, usually after lovers have already walked down the aisle, so it’s absurd that we make life changing decisions while under love’s delusional spell. However, he did admire marriage’s function of turning love into a more secure foundation for families – if people decide to stay together. Which isn’t always a good idea, since marriage tends to strangle people with habits and rules and overfamiliarity.

The other issue with romance is – as you suggest – that it tends to devolve into power games. All too often, love is a desire for control over the other and explains, in part, jealousy. Nietzsche describes lovers, who let their will to power run recklessly wild, as behaving like selfish dragons defending their golden hoard. Love ends up as war, with lovers trying to exert their will to domination over one another.

Great friendship, on the other hand, is a much better basis for relationships in Nietzsche’s view. Great friends educate and inspire one another, and push one another towards the ideal of the Übermensch. Nietzsche seemed skeptical that many people would be able to do this while also being romantically involved, but I think we can – and that it’s the best kind of love.

3:AM: Jean-Paul Sartre had an interesting love life, and sex life. Some might say that his biography doesn’t auger well for romance. But his ideas about romantic love are complex – can you sketch them for us and say why you call them ‘sado-masochistic’?

SC: The goal of life, for Sartre, is to know yourself. Love is one way to do that. Or rather, it’s one way we think we can know ourselves completely, since it’s ultimately impossible. Self-reflection only goes so far. Just like the eye cannot see itself, we need a mirror to look at ourselves, but to understand our being more deeply, we need to know how other people think of us. This gaze of the other is so important for Sartre that he says we wouldn’t know ourselves without the other.

Lovers can be the best mirrors because they tend to know us more intimately than anyone else. This is a curse too, though, because the more we care about another person, the more we want to know what they think of us, the more power they have over us, the more dependent we are on their views of us, and the more we want to try to control that view. There are two main strategies we use to try to find out the other’s views – their secrets – about us: possession and being possessed. That’s the sadism and masochism. We try to force the other person to reveal what they think of us, or we try to be subservient, to assimilate into the other.

Both strategies are doomed to fail because we can never merge with another, and can never know what another is thinking. Even if they tell us, we can’t know that they’re being honest. This is one of the reasons why, he says, hell is other people, and why love contains the seed of its own destruction. I think he’s right about this, but it’s not the whole story. Sartre wasn’t big on solutions. For that we need to turn to Beauvoir.

3:AM: Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre were in a long-term relationship. Is there anything to be learned from their relationship in terms of understanding romantic love?

SC: The challenges of juggling freedom and commitment in love. They were free to fall in love with others, but were still committed to one another. They attempted to overcome jealousy by agreeing to tell one another everything. However, since Sartre said he lied to all his lovers, including Beauvoir, it would seem that they couldn’t reconcile this. It’s unclear whether that’s because it’s human nature to want to transgress, even when we have everything we want, or simply because they found it easier to lie than to face up to the consequences of the truth. I admire that they attempted to live their philosophy and wrote about it extensively – the tensions, agonies, and ecstasies of relationships – and showed the importance of trying it anyway, because the world only takes on meaning by leaping into love.

3:AM: The notion of authenticity is what her contribution to understanding romance comes from. So firstly, how should we understand authenticity here?

SC: Authenticity is the ability to freely choose your own projects in life, to stretch into an open future. Beauvoir wrote her most famous work The Second Sex in the 1940s, when women were only just winning the right to vote, and the predominant destiny for them was, still, to be housewives and mothers. So, they weren’t free to choose their own destiny. They weren’t free to strive for authenticity.

3:AM: And how does de Beauvoir relate this to romance?

SC: For Beauvoir, authentic relationships involve a mutual recognition of two freedoms. It’s accepting each other as free and equal, and respecting one another’s independent projects. It means overcoming the desire to possess or be possessed. It’s about freely and actively choosing to be together, and not doing it out of necessity, or because it’s expected, or because you’re defaulting to the easy option.

What’s important about Beauvoir’s work is that she shows concretely how we can work our way out of the power games that Sartre outlines, and bridges the gap between Nietzsche’s ideal of friendship and love. She shows how trying to dominate another and being a slave to love are both moral faults because they involve either annihilating your own being for another, or hijacking another’s transcendence.

Love based on friendship is a better way to think about relationships than merging because, although there is still the risk of power struggles, great friends respect one another’s freedom. They are generous, they cooperate, and they support one another’s flourishing. In ideal relationships, lovers transcend together, meaning that they have their own projects, but also create a future together by working towards common goals. Not only does having common goals give lovers something to talk about, but it also deepens their understanding of one another.

3:AM: And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

SC: Ok:

1. The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

2. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

3. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

4. Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard

5. At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

[Photo: So Young Lee]

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 16th, 2017.