love. week seven.
city. new york city
It goes without saying (and we certainly do say it frequently) that love can make any life worth living. It’s no coincidence, then, that the words ‘love’ and ‘live’ are nearly indistinguishable. But there’s a darker side to love. A side of love that is perhaps more intimately related to death than we’d like to believe.
“My Lords, if you would hear a high tale of love and death…”
So begins the original love story, between Tristan and Iseult. And in that line is contained so much depth, so much struggle, so much humanity that we barely need to read on. But Tristan it’s hardly an exception in coupling love and death. Here’s the beginning of Romeo and Juliet:
“A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage.”
And the Sufi poet tells us that:
“The repose of love is a weariness; its onset, a sickness; its end, death.
For me, however, death through love is life;
I give thanks to my Beloved that she has held it out to me.
Whoever does not die of his love is unable to live by it.”
Death through love. Isn’t that the central thread around which every great love story is woven? Even the stories that end, not with death, but with a Happily Ever After, make it clear by their omission that the Ever After is hardly important. It’s boringgggg. No one is actually interested in the married life of the lovers. More precisely, no one is interested in the life of lovers. We’re only really interested in their death, and how it came to be.
Well, perhaps that’s a bit extreme, but (regardless) there does seem to be a link between death and love, a link that doesn’t seem to make any sense.
And so, after last night’s heavy snowfall blanketed the city in white, I took a long walk around the slushy East Village to think my way through this mystery. Here’s what I found.
1. There is a sense in which stepping into love is equivalent to stepping out of your self. We can refer to this as self-transcendence, but we can just as easily call it self-obliteration. (If you step out of yourself, who’s left? Can your self survive without… yourself?) I think that there are four ways to look at this concept.
In one way, you can see falling in love as a voluntary act that allows you to go beyond your normal sense of self and all of the concerns, anxieties, desires that go along with it. Schopenhauer and Buddha have both gone down that path. They believed that human suffering is a function of individuality, and if we are able to move beyond individuality, perhaps we can move beyond suffering.
That sounds nice, and I’ve heard some great feedback from those who’ve tried it, but a movement beyond the self would also seem to be a means of killing the self. Death through love.
The second way to look at this would be to say that the lover isn’t stepping out of themself, as much as they’re being crushed by the force and power of love. This is where the idea of passion becomes key. The Bible relates that anyone who looks in the face of God is immediately killed. Not as a punishment, but simply because our material self is unable to withstand the contact without losing itself amidst the surge of spiritual energy.
There have definitely been times that I felt crushed by my love. I’ve lost control of myself, control of my decisions, control of my thoughts, and perhaps even control of my life. Can you truly fall in love without losing control? Can you truly fall in love without giving over your life to it? Without being obliterated by your love?
The third way to look at it is to see passion not as a total loss of self, but rather as a perpetual delaying of our desires. Denis de Rougemont talks about how passion is created when we are striving for something while simultaneously pushing it away. After all, nothing kills desire like satisfaction, nothing kills our sex drive like having sex. In order to be in love, we cannot have what we love. And so, this constant build-up of pressure creates a passion which pushes us outside of ourselves (that is, outside of our desire for satisfaction), and we actually work to deny ourselves the very thing we desire so much, just to prolong this state of passion. Our passion overwhelms us. It takes the thing which we desire most, and flings it out of our reach, only to approach it once more and repeat the endless cycle. Our love only persists insofar as we deny ourselves its realization.
Here, death through love is not a state of being, but an activity. We are constantly killing ourselves off, so that new life can sprout. (Coincidentally, this would explain why I’m always sabotaging every vaguely romantic relationship before it can develop into a long-term commitment. When I’m really paying attention, I can even catch myself in the act. Once, right as a girl agreed to go out with me, I chose that precise moment to tell her that I’m poor and unemployed, which isn’t really even true! Just kinda true… Needless to say, that date never materialized.)
The fourth way is rather straightforward. In falling in love, the lover recognizes that there is something more valuable than themself. Indeed, something more valuable than their own life (and what other life do we have besides for our own?). A mother will gladly die for her children, a husband for his wife, and a soldier for his country. This is not done reluctantly, but enthusiastically. In the process of sacrifice, the lover is not giving something up, but gaining something new. After all, the lover cares more about the well-being of their beloved than for their own life. The most sacred hero in any culture will always be the soldier who dies on the battlefield, protecting their loved ones back home.
This does not mean that the lover must die for their beloved, but just that every lover is already in a state, hopefully for the first and only time of their life, in which death may be more desirable than life. And, it is in this sense, that the issue of death is the only true referendum on the sincerity of the love. They cannot be detached. The lover is either living for themself or living for their beloved. I can sympathize with the ancient king who beheaded his mistresss as soon as he realized that he was in love with her. His crown demanded it.
Kierkegaard is talking about this kind of love when he says that we each must find something that we are completely and utterly devoted to. It doesn’t so much matter what that thing is (whether a person, a religion, an art, an idea), it only matters that we ground our life in “an infinite leap.” Abraham found this love in God, when he agreed to kill his son at God’s request. There was no way for Abraham to rationalize killing his son. It was cruel, barbaric, and senseless. He knew it, we know it. It flew in the face of everything he cared about and believed. Well, everything, besides for the word of God. In agreeing to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham was sacrificing himself; more than himself. He was committing death through love.
To sum up, the four ways I’m thinking about love as an act of self-obliteration are: (1) Self-Transcendence, (2) Overwhelming Passion, (3) Passionate Self-Sabotage, (4) Finding Something More Valuable Than My Self.
2. We are never as loved as we are on the day of our birth and the day of our death.
If I was more of a Freudian I’d say that the loss of my mother’s love created a trauma so intense that I'm now spending the rest of my life preparing (striving?) for the moment when I’ll once again be loved, the moment of my death. The love of the recently departed.
However, there are two ways in which deathly love is superior to birthly love. Firstly, the love of an infant is a love of what the infant might become. It’s love of the child’s potential. Love of a dead friend or relative, however, is love of who they actually were. And, as Hegel reminds us, actuality is always more developed than potentiality. Deathly love is earned and always deserved. Birthly love is gracious and never deserved.
The second way in which deathly love is superior is that it’s reserved solely for the beloved, while birthly love exists in the halo (shadow?) of the mother. The child shares love’s glow, the departed lounges directly in the spotlight.
Also, as Frank Ostaseski says, we experience death, not only in its literal sense, but every time that something we care about leaves, disappears, ends. A job, a friend, a day, a book, a president. And our ability to handle death is constantly being tested by our ability to handle all of these mini-deaths. Do we cling to what’s lost? Do we grieve? Do we deny? Do we honor?
I think that every death is also a birth. And every birth is a death. For, how can something start without something else ending? And how can something end, without something new beginning? My ability to love what is present will rely on my ability to integrate the death of what’s past.
3. I think that death provides an outlet for love. I remember gaping at the gorgeous tombs that generations of Argentinians built for their loved ones in Buenos Aires. I remember the spirit of love and unity that embraced NY after 9/11. And, walking through the snow today, I was struck by the beauty and creativity spawned by the rules limiting indoor dining. Hundreds of outdoor ‘huts’ have sprung up, joyful elegies to those who’ve passed away from Covid.
This ‘outlet’ is both an opportunity to recover from and to shield ourselves from the grief. How many charities were started by grieving relatives in honor of the departed? Love, more than anything else, can provide meaning to senseless death.
I recently spoke with a Jewish matchmaker about her work, and she told me how her work is motivated by… wait for it… the holocaust! She feels that the only proper response to the hate and destruction heaped upon the generation before her, is to work to create renewed love and renewed birth.
Our love is awakened by loss far more than by gain.
4. Love is delicate. The ancient Christians were correct when they insisted that a finite being cannot love an infinite being. For, without delicacy, without vulnerability, without the possibility of loss, hurt, failure, what is the point of our love? We protect what we love, and God needs no protection. So, God cannot be loved.
When the excavators cleared away the ashes that had covered Pompeii for two millennia, they found a city perfectly preserved at the precise moment that it was being completely destroyed. I remember seeing a carved-out hunk of ash in which x-ray images found a mother tightly gripping her baby to her chest, as if to protect it from a million tons of molten lava. A 2000 year long embrace. This is the image that always surfaces in my mind when I think of love. Aren’t we constantly being engulfed in death, destruction, chaos? Aren’t our loving embraces just as futile? Just as desperate? Yet, every time we see our friends and family, we give them a hug. Or at least grip their hand tightly. And for a second, we aren’t alone on this spinning rock suspended in infinite, dark, shivering space. For a moment, we’re together in our constant state of fragility.
5. I went to visit my family last weekend to celebrate Chanukah. My mom will deny it, but she got a bit tipsy on Saturday and asked me the following:
Mom: Do you know that I won’t always be here?
Mom: Because I’ll die.
Me: I know.
Mom: But do you really?
Mom: Do you know that I love you?
Me: Yes, I know.
Mom: That I truly, truly love you? Do you know that?
Me: Yes, mom, I know that. I love you too.
Mom: Because I won’t always be here to tell you. I want you to know that you’re loved. No matter what. You’re loved.
And here we have it again. Death and love come together. I imagine that we’re all vaguely aware that we’re going to die one day, and that we won’t get to experience all of the life that comes after our death. So, we take that infinite stretch of life that we’ll never be able to live and we fold it up—once, twice, sometimes more—and layer it on top of the life that we do have. And those layered sections of life, thick with energy and spirit, we give to those we care about, and we call it love.
Does that make sense? Probably not.