Love has often been compared to a merging of two souls into one. The Empress Alexandra of Russia said as much when writing to her husband, Tsar Nicholas II, in 1914 that "We make one."
Similarly, the philosopher Alberti praised marital love in 1432 for the "close bonds and united will" existing between husband and wife. In 1958 the poet Sylvia Plath described her love for her husband as a feeling of being "perfectly at one" with him, whilst a much earlier female poet, Anne Bradstreet, wrote in 1678 that she and her husband, even when apart, were yet "both but one."
A final example of the "two makes one" ideal of love is that of the seventeenth century English poet John Donne, who wrote to assure his love that "Our two souls ... are one."
A similar way to describe love in Western culture is as an intertwining of two souls. The Ancient Roman philosopher Plutarch compared the joining of a husband and wife to "ropes twined together." The American philosopher William James declared to his wife in 1882 that "I feel your existence woven into mine;" whilst Agnes Porter, a governess, wrote in 1791 of the children she loved that "they entwine around one's heart."
This raises a problem. Western societies are dominated by the philosophy of liberal individualism. According to this philosophy, the most important thing is that individuals are left independent and autonomous so that they can create themselves in any direction.
But if love is thought of either as a merging or an entwining of two people into one, then love is in conflict with the above aim of liberal individualism: the achievement of an autonomous, unimpeded individual will.
So what happens? How do liberals respond to this conflict between love and individual autonomy?
There have existed liberals who, in theory at least, have taken the logical step and rejected love. My favourite example would be the Spanish anarchists, representing a radical wing of liberalism, who passed a resolution that for those comrades experiencing "the sickness of love ... a change of commune will be recommended."
The Australian/American pianist and composer Percy Grainger was another who was willing to reject love (in favour of lust). He once declared,
That's why I say I hate love ... I like those things that leave men and women perfectly free ... The reason why I say I worship lust but hate love is because lust ... leaves people perfectly free.
Another example concerns the writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), most famous for her novel Out of Africa. A biographer, Judith Thurman, has noted that,
The most compelling heroines in Dinesen's tales ... make a sacrifice of sexual love for some more challenging spiritual project─self-sovereignty, knowledge, worldly power─which enables them to be themselves.
As a final example there is the more recent case of the New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke. She managed to shock even some feminists when she justified her decision to remain childless by asserting that,
You've got better things to do with your life, unimpeded.
Notice the terms used to justify the rejection of love (whether maternal, marital or sexual). The aim is to be unimpeded, to exercise individual freedom, or to claim self-sovereignty─all of which relate to the basic goal of liberal individualism of being an autonomous, self-creating individual.
To be fair, it's unusual for liberals to reject love in such a blatant fashion. It's more usual to try to somehow combine the goal of love with the goal of autonomy.
At a basic level you can see this in the fashionable slogan of single girls in the 1990s that "I might want a man, but I don't need a man." This makes love acceptable within the framework of liberalism by turning it into an act of individual will.
The "solution" of the above slogan, though, is only a face-saver. It papers over the reality that most young singles do experience a need to find someone to love in order to feel complete. This is something inborn and resistant to individual will and reason, which is why it's hard to openly acknowledge in a liberal culture.
A more sophisticated attempt to marry love and individualism has been made recently by the Australian sociologist Don Edgar. Now remember, the task for a liberal like Don Edgar is to somehow imagine relationships in which our individual reason and will would not be impeded. How does he do it?
What he suggests is that there be no external authority in how we choose to express relationships, no restraints, but that instead there should be an "intimate negotiation" between two persons, and a "careful construction of an agreed but unique modus operandi."
Edgar likes the description by Anthony Giddens (another sociologist) of the shift toward more open and negotiated human relationships as the coming of "plastic sexuality," where every permutation of sexual behaviour is acceptable provided it is based on mutual respect, disclosure of personal feelings, an equal negotiation of what is acceptable and not an act based on power or coercion.
The funny thing is that Edgar announces at the end of all this that "I'll personally stick to hetero marriage." And this gives away a major weakness in his convoluted attempt to try to make love acceptable to sovereign will and reason.
Most of us reach an age in which we experience an instinct to settle down and have a family. What we then seek is a happy marriage and not just "some intimacy, some form of commitment" which is all that Edgar is prepared to bequeath to the younger generation.
What the older generation owes to the younger is to uphold the conditions in which it's possible to marry successfully, rather than to leave it to millions of competing wills to negotiate a relationship in a climate of self-serving individualism.
It's not plastic, open or unique relationships that young people need, but stable, secure and workable ones, in which some measure of independence can be sacrificed to a healthy and natural interdependence.
(First published at Conservative Central 18/10/2003)
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