This is a review of Simon May’s Love: A History, by guest-blogger Lesel Dawson, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Bristol University. She is the author of Lovesickness and Gender in Early Modern English Literature (OUP, 2008), and is currently working on a project on revenge tragedy, from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon to Tarantino’s Kill Bill, focusing in particular on depictions of mothers as agents of vengeance. She writes a blog for the Huffington Post.
When I first moved to the UK I was struck by how pessimistic everyone seemed (a far cry from California where everyone commands you smilingly to ‘Have a nice day!’). However, after living in the UK for almost twenty years, I’ve come round to British grumpiness as having unexpected practical and psychological benefits. In life, as in weather, if you expect the rain you bring an umbrella and are pleasantly surprised when the sun comes out. However, Simon May has claimed that there is at least one area in which the Brits (along with the rest of the Western world) are die-hard optimists.
In Love: A History, May argues that today’s view of love as selfless, unconditional, and open to all, is the product of our need for something sacred in an increasingly secular world; it plays a key role in our search for moral value, ‘enabling each of us to become an authentic being amid a crumbling and spiritually insufficient collective identity’ (239). May believes that this view not only distorts the thoroughly conditional and self-interested nature of love, but also inhibits the possibility of the real give-and-take necessary for healthy intimate relationships with friends, family, lovers and spouses. Exploring some of the key ideas about love found in theology, philosophy, psychology and literature from Hebrew scripture to Proust, May attempts to explain how this view of love has come into being; he points out some interesting similarities and tensions between major movements and thinkers, and puts forward his own view of love as being part of a wider need for humans to feel that they are ‘at home in the world’ (7). For May, love is a desire for ‘ontological rootedness’, granting (or undermining) a person’s sense that s/he ‘exists as a real, legitimate and sustainable being’ (36).
Although May does not differentiate between the love felt for one’s spouse, child, friend, or country, the exaggeration of love’s meaning is perhaps most evident in romantic love, which at various moments has been thought to offer the lover a means of self-completion, purification, or transcendence. As May’s book makes clear, a number of traditions require that the lover achieve psychic distance from the beloved in order to attain higher goals. Looking across various approaches, I cannot help but wonder if the very process by which the human beloved is elevated to a higher ideal (or seen to embody abstract notions such as beauty and truth) might secretly depend upon not knowing the person all that well. In the Renaissance one of the best cures for lovesickness was sex, not only because it allowed the (usually) male lover to satisfy his desires, but also because intimate knowledge of the beloved was thought to disabuse the lover of his dreams. By actually getting to know the mistress, the suitor would have to relinquish his private self-created fantasy of the beloved in favour of a living, breathing human being.
Unfortunately, some men didn’t find this a very good exchange; for them intimacy with the beloved led, not to an appreciation of her particular qualities, but rather to a sense that they had been duped into believing that someone disgusting was beautiful. Many Renaissance poems, which oscillate between elevating and vilifying the mistress, reproduce this tension, demonstrating the ways in which idealization and misogyny are really two sides of the same coin. Although May does not focus on gender, one can imagine how some of his arguments could be used to demonstrate the ways in which idealistic constructions of love have helped to foster unrealistic ideas of women, contributing to the ways in which women have alternatively been seen as objects of veneration or disgust.
Although May’s account purports to offer a sceptical view of love, his views are a far cry from the materialism of the Roman philosopher, Lucretius, or the subversive radicalism of Freud (both of whom he discusses), or even from some popular ideas which see it as a pathology or addiction. Moreover, despite his warnings about the dangers of overloading love with meaning, he does not think that love needs to be confined to the object of affection in order to flourish. Rather, love—understood by May as a desire for grounding in the world—is always destined to have a ‘double orientation’ (247), directed both at the love object and beyond him or her. Such a view, as May highlights, draws on the writings of (amongst others) Plato, Augustine, and Freud. Indeed, ultimately May can be seen as a reconciler of various philosophies, synthesizing and critiquing approaches while adding his own particular spin.
This is not meant to belittle his achievement. For in addition to offering a history of love and a warning about love’s deification, Love: A History is also a guide to loving well, which May believes should be founded on hard-work, patient cultivation, and a realistic apprehension of the beloved. If May neglects anything, it is the irrational, anarchic, and destructive aspects of desire, and the psychological structures underlying these. And while May draws a sharp line between a possessive desire to control another (which is not love) and love’s true possession based on submission (‘In love as in music, to submit and give ourselves is the only way genuinely to possess’, 247), I wonder if the two are really so distinct. Nonetheless, Love: A History is an intelligent, thought-provoking, and (at times) lyrical contribution to the history of love, which engages interestingly with some of its key philosophies and contemplates how we might ensure that our passionate attachments can deepen and endure over time. In the end then, what at first glance looks like May’s scepticism turns out to be his psychological strategy for love’s cultivation. Although most of us would struggle to achieve the constancy of love advocated in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’—a love ‘That looks on tempests and is never shaken’—if we take May’s eminently sensible advice to heart, we might at least find ourselves a bit better prepared for some of love’s storms.