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love. week twenty nine.

date. 2021

city. new york city


June 2

The Kotzker Rebbe said that there is nothing as whole as a broken heart.


In his first album, Leonard Cohen echoes this with: “We teach old hearts to break.” Later on, in Anthem, he writes (what would eventually become something of a motto):


Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in


Finally, in Hallelujah:


But listen love, love is not some kind of victory march, no

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah


All of which leads me to ask, does love require a broken heart?


I often think of a broken heart as the absence of love. When someone I love dies or goes away, my heart is broken. When love is lost, my heart is broken.


But perhaps Cohen sees love, not as an emotion, but as a perpetual struggle or challenge. Love, not as something to be attained, but to be performed.


A full heart does not struggle. It is proud. It is complete. It can give of itself, and it can just as easily hold itself back. It is not ‘on the line’. It is not at risk. It is self-sufficient.


Love plays itself out in our thoughts, our emotions, and most importantly in our actions. Sometimes we prevail in love, and sometimes we fail (prevail/prefail?). We never get to declare our love, as if some absolute state has been achieved. No, love declares itself.


love is not some kind of victory march,

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah


Like a river with its tides, love establishes its own ebbs and flows, mirroring some obscure calendar of seasonal dispositions.


Love cannot exist on credit. It must pay up front. Love cannot be trusted. It must present evidence each time it makes a claim.


I read an interview with Martha Nussbaum this morning where she said the following:


What Dante says is that [pride is] a kind of master vice. He depicts the proud in Purgatory as bent over like hoops so that they can’t see the outside world at all. They can only see parts of their own bodies, so it’s like you’re the whole world. Insofar as you have it, it cuts off your eyes and view—you’re not seeing the other person. That’s how you can treat a person like a thing. Denying autonomy, denying subjectivity—and you’re not listening to the person’s voice. So his anti-type is the Emperor Trajan, who is very, very powerful, but who listens to a poor woman when she comes to him and wants justice for her son. Dante depicts his openness as the virtue that’s opposed to pride.



Perhaps, like humility, a broken heart is open and feeling, while a full heart is proud and sealed off, like Dante’s hoops.


But Cohen and the Kotzker Rebbe don’t talk about an open heart, they talk about a broken heart. And that implies a degree of suffering and inadequacy.


I suppose they’d say that if you don’t suffer in the face of the other’s suffering, and if you don’t feel inadequate in the face of the other’s inadequacy, then what kind of love are you even talking about? In this sense, a full heart is not just proud, but more importantly, it’s stone cold.


In a previous post I mentioned Tolstoy’s repeated claim that to love is to suffer. In other words, to love someone is to feel their suffering as your own suffering. Only worse, because their suffering is totally out of your control. So, to love another person is to allow yourself to be constantly and perpetually vulnerable to their suffering. It is to accept suffering as a part of life, rather than erecting ever higher walls to block it (and, by extension, the world) out entirely.


So long as she lives in a broken world, a lover’s heart must too remain forever broken.



My Favorite Prayer: by the Dalai Lama


One of my favorite prayers

Daily, I repeat this

Sometimes a hundred times

In different locations, or different times

Like that:


“For as long as space endures

And for as long as living beings remain

Until then may I too abide

To dispel the misery of the world”

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