What is love? (And what does art have to say about it?)

What is love? (And what does art have to say about it?)

Philip McKibbin

What is love? Chances are you’ve given this question some thought. In all likelihood, it’s something you’ve dwelt on a lot. Love occupies a central place in most of our lives – even if we wouldn’t admit it to others, and even when we don’t admit it to ourselves.

Around the world, calls are being made for politics to be more loving. Over the past few years, in the United States of America especially, these voices have intensified. Politicians have used the word ‘love’ to describe their platforms – most compellingly, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Social initiatives have arisen, such as Valarie Kaur’s Revolutionary Love Project, which ‘champions the ethic of love in movements for justice’. And books have been written, among these Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, which offers a plan for change.

Already, this ‘return to love’ is being taken advantage of by demagogues. Donald Trump professed his love for Mexico in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, while demonising Mexicans and campaigning to build a wall to keep them out. And in 2019, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, in an effort to deflect criticism from his destructive politics, declared his love and respect for the Amazon rainforest as it was burning. These are both clear instances of the language of love being misused for political gain.

The word ‘love’ presents a serious challenge – and the problem isn’t only that certain people are less-than-sincere when they use it. ‘Love’ is used to refer to very different things: even when we aren’t being manipulative, we talk about love in very diverse ways, some of which bear little relation, if any, to each other. How we think about love is informed by culture, language, everything. What connection is there between the idea of love as, say, divine grace and the notion of ‘falling in love’, what Slavoj Žižek defends as a ‘totally contingent encounter’ that changes your entire life – or my love of [vegan] hamburgers? When we enquire, it quickly becomes obvious that saying what ‘love’ is might be as difficult as defining art…

Those of us who wish to defend loving politics, as I do, need to be able to say how it might work. This involves offering an account of political love and giving examples of what loving politics looks like in practice. If we don’t do these things, we risk putting forward a vision of politics that can be easily dismissed as nonsense, adding to the perception that a politics of love is necessarily insubstantial. That is, we risk doing far more harm than good.

I suspect artists have a role to play here. As a writer, I think first of literature. Like Kurt Vonnegut, ‘I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve.’ (He goes on: ‘Mainly I think they should be – and biologically have to be – agents of change. For the better, we hope.’) Artists imagine new possibilities, and inspire others with their work. Love is often the subject of art: New Zealand artist Shane Hansen explores aroha (love), kotahitanga (togetherness), and whakapapa (relatedness) through painting and sculpture, attending to our relationships with our histories, each other, and the natural world we inhabit. And sometimes art inspires love: Chinese painter Qi Baishi’s works prompt us to reflect lovingly on the non-human animals who are here on this planet with us. Of course, I am not the first person to comment on the apparent relationship between love and art. Many people turn to artists to express our love.

If we want to realise the Politics of Love, we need to determine what love is. This is extremely difficult. Part of the problem is that it isn’t at all clear where we should begin. We might ask philosophers about it – but, as Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins note, philosophising on love is perilous ‘even for the most cautious thinker’:

‘What seems at first to be an obvious point about sexual desire turns out to be an embarrassing confession of eccentricity; what is argued to be a general feature of love turns out to be no more than a prominent feature of the author’s last failed marriage.’

(Or, as Stendhal writes, ‘I am continually beset by the fear that I may have expressed only a sigh when I thought I was stating a truth.’) So, philosophy might muddle us more.

Perhaps we should ask the artists…

Poets! Poets are supposed to know about love – aren’t they? Well, it probably isn’t what Philip Larkin was referring to in the opening line to his famous poem: ‘Love again: wanking at ten past three.’ Surely it’s more like Shakespeare’s ‘star to every wand’ring bark / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.’ (Whatever that means.) Or even Jack Gilbert’s ‘romantic love with its bounty and half-life / of two years.’ Surely. But do these mean anything at all for politics?

Iris Murdoch – who has the distinction of being both a philosopher and an artist, specifically, a novelist – holds that art and morals are one and the same, and that through art we learn how to love. In her essay ‘The Sublime and the Good,’ she writes,

‘Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality. What stuns us into a realisation of our supersensible destiny is not, as Kant imagined, the formlessness of nature, but rather its unutterable particularity; and most particular and individual of all natural things is the mind of man…’

The value of art, she argues, consists in enriching our understanding of the world and the people who share it. Murdoch thinks that love – ‘the non-violent apprehension of difference’ – is extended by art. But this ‘is not to say, is nothing to do with saying, that art is didactic or educational,’ she writes. That art improves us is incidental. ‘The level at which that love works […] is deeper than the level at which we deliberate concerning improvement.’

One of the less controversial things that can be said about love is that it is relational – but love, as I understand it, does not have as its first focus our obsessions, our attentions, or even our wants, which is how we tend to talk about the concept. Instead, it concerns itself with how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the world we share. Love for others is most often experienced in our friendships and romantic/sexual partnerships. But we must not make the mistake of thinking only in terms of people: other animals, and the rest of the non-human world, should also figure in our politics. Our task, then, if we wish to realise the Politics of Love, is to discover – and, if we are artists, do our best to articulate – what loving relationship looks like. We must be both open-hearted and open-minded, for there is much to learn.

Of course, not everyone agrees that politics should be loving. Some people argue that love is not tough enough for the hard world of politics, while others insist that, as people, we are not ‘good’ enough to realise love. Some even question its importance. Cultural critic Laura Kipnis, in Against Love: A Polemic, savages the concept – before conceding: ‘To be against means to be opposed: resistant or defiant. It also means next to: beside or near.’ (Although how near her work really is to love is unclear…) But the importance of this project is hardly in doubt: here, at the very edge of climate catastrophe, only a few of us have realised that the lyricists were right all along – that, to quote New Zealand singer-songwriter Shona Laing, who treats environmental themes, ‘love’s the only way to save the day.’

Some thinkers have entertained the idea that love does not need elaborating, that its meaning is self-evident. In one of his notebooks, Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus suggests that love is of such importance that we should simply defer to it:

‘If I had to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page I should write: “I recognize only one duty, and that is to love.”’

(At the time of his death, however, Camus was planning a cycle of works on love, including a play merging the Faust and Don Juan legends. He clearly had more to say.)

Personally, I am drawn to the related, but slightly different, idea that love is irreducible: that all of our attempts to explain it, while hinting at what love really is, ultimately misrepresent it. I look to two historical figures: Te Whiti o Rongomai, the prophet of Parihaka who led the passive resistance movement against the unjust confiscation of Māori land, and Martin Luther King, Jr, the Baptist minister and civil rights leader. These men used spiritual language, and in so doing gave political expression to the ineffable – to that which words cannot but misrepresent (however slightly; and however much they also manage to convey). Where they truly succeeded in expressing the spiritual was in the actions they inspired. If we determine to understand the spiritual not as gods or as God but as love, we may be closer not only to appreciating it, but also to understanding why it has confounded so many.

We in the so-called ‘Western world’ continue to return to the Ancient Greeks – to privilege them as we do the rest of our culture. This is especially true when it comes to love. For many of us, turning to concepts such as agápē (universal love), érōs (sexual love), philía (friendship), and storgē (familial love) satisfies a need for deeper meaning. Well, why not give consideration to these perspectives? There might be some insight there. At the very least, such an excursion is necessary, because it will help us to appreciate why we think the way we do now. Imagining how these understandings led us to this point may let us notice some of the avenues we missed along the way. Appreciating how we came to think as we do will free us: it will allow us to explore more of the world’s thoughts and create new possibilities…

We will, for example, give greater attention to the world’s Indigenous knowledges, and ask what they have to teach us. I think, first, of the Māori cultures of my native Aotearoa. This is natural, because on my mother’s side, I whakapapa (relate) to Kāi Tahu, the largest iwi (tribe) of Te Waipounamu (the South Island of New Zealand). We might find inspiration in whakataukī (sayings), such as, ‘Ehara te aroha i te kiri moko, engari koia tērā e pupū ake ana i te whatumanawa.’ (‘Love is not tattooed skin, but it is that which swells up from the depths of one’s being.’) And waiata (songs) could help to elucidate the concept – such as ‘Tai Aroha’, which was conceived by tohunga whakairo (master carver) Kereti Rautangata (Tainui, Te Arawa) and translated by mātanga reo (language expert) Wharehuia Milroy (Ngāi Tūhoe), and which begins, ‘Ko te aroha anō he wai…’ (‘Love is like water…’). Why continue to insist that one cultural tradition holds more insight than any other? Why limit our understanding?

We must not rely on received wisdom, though. It is extremely important that we think critically, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of all ideas, lest we act on (or continue to act on) harmful ones. And we should try to imagine newer, better ideas, too!

I choose to understand love as an orientation or ‘attitude’ – not a disposition as such (because love is something we choose), and certainly not a character trait, but rather a way of relating, as individuals and communities, which is consciously affirmed.

The Politics of Love rejects the notion that feeling and thought must be separated. Many people think of love as an emotion – but importantly, it is intellectual, too. Love can even be rational. It might make use of rationality as the poet Audre Lorde describes it in her interview with Adrienne Rich:

‘Rationality […] serves the chaos of knowledge. It serves feeling. It serves to get from this place to that place. But if we don’t honor those places, then the road is meaningless. Too often, that’s what happens with the worship of rationality and that circular, academic, analytic thinking. But ultimately, I don’t see feel/think as a dichotomy. I see them as a choice of ways and combinations.’

(Indeed, we will not dismantle the system of oppressions – racism, sexism, etc. – that prevents us from fully realising love without rationality.)

And it re-imagines our relationships. Self-love is foundational, as all the visionary thinkers on love affirm: by loving ourselves (‘and no one said only’ – Lorde, again) we are able to fully extend our love to others, including other people, non-human animals, and the rest of the natural world – the planet, its systems, and all that they contain…

The Politics of Love, as I envision it, is a values-based politics: it operates through loving values – such as compassion, responsibility, and trust – which are able to guide decision-making and inform policy. It also upholds what we might think of as ‘critical commitments’ – to equality; to non-violence; to, perhaps, consistent anti-oppression… – which are integral to its creative potential, and also offer means by which systems can be challenged. What love offers us is not simply freedom; it extends so much more!

In the collection What’s Love (or Care, Intimacy, Warmth, Affection) Got to Do with It? Hu Fang, for his science fiction exploration ‘Dear Navigator’, writes:

‘What makes humans human is precisely that, as the part of nature that is full of sympathy, they mutually complete the other things that exist in this world.’

The thought is certainly incomplete: so much of non-human nature is sympathetic (many other animals experience emotions analogous to ours) – and so much of human nature isn’t! Still, it captures, I think, something of what our love might aspire to. What if we imagined love as that which ‘mutually completes’ the world that all of us share? We might design a politics that realises integrated relationships not only with and amongst ourselves, but also with the rest of the world – which, of course, we participate in, and are, anyway, constituted by.

The Politics of Love, then, gives structured expression to the affirmation that we are important – that all of us are important – that the world, and everything in it, has value. Our love brings into focus everyone who has been marginalised and everything that has been relegated to the periphery. It holds all of us in sight: it sees all of us, including, especially, those of us who have not been seen. In doing so, it reveals us in our entirety: it sees the ‘we’ in other animals, in ecosystems, in the biosphere… in rain, and in the soil it nourishes…

The question, ‘What is love?’ is also, ‘How should we understand love?’, and for those of us who care – for those who take this world upon ourselves, however humble our aspirations, however grand our hopes – it translates as: ‘What responsibility do I have to help extend our understanding of love?’ I believe art has a purpose, which is to inspire love. But where love will lead us, and whether or not it will save us – I don’t yet know.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com

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