Thursday, February 18, 2010



For three years, my close friend Joe Simeone composed an operatic adaptation to the 1952 play "Dial M For Murder." Last week, I attended an opening in which he presented several passages from his work. In brief, the opera follows the same intricate plot as the play: A man named Tony blackmails both his wealthy wife, Margot, and another man named Lesgate; Tony exploits the blackmail to entice Lesgate to murder his wife; the plan goes wrong and Margot kills Lesgate in self-defense; Tony manipulates the evidence to pin the murder on Margot; the police arrest Margot and she is sentenced to death; an enterprising police detective worries about the verdict and discovers that Tony orchestrated the result; Margot goes free and discovers her husband's betrayal.

Through the operatic form, Joe Simeone tells the story with a keener eye for emotion than plot. He did not compose an "operatic thriller;" he composed an opera. As such, he explores the emotional relationship between Tony and Margot with greater detail than the play. At the outset, Simeone tells us that Tony's and Margot's marriage was "loveless," but that Tony had recently begun to shower affections on his wife. To make that point, the opera begins with a sweeping aria in which Margot reveals that she has "rediscovered" her love for her husband. This is ironic, of course, because Tony has already betrayed her; he is even planning to kill her. During the aria, Margot sings a remarkable line: "It's a risk to believe love is real."

Margot may seem naïve for daring to believe that her devious husband actually loves her. But she is not alone. We all want love in our lives because love is a tantalizing pathway to happiness. Yet love is a troublesome thing because it cuts in two directions. We can love and we can be loved. Real happiness exists only when both elements find expression in a relationship. When only one person loves, the result is unrequited disappointment because the other does not return the feeling. And when only one person receives love, the result is awkward discomfort. Put another way, love only really "works" when there is no disparity between the emotions on both sides.

Sigmund Freud said as much. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud explained that human beings generally "strive after happiness; they want to become happy and remain so." Civilization and its Discontents (Strachey, trans. p. 25). He went on to explain that happiness has both a "positive and negative aim," namely: "[the] absence of pain and unpleasure and the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure." Id. Additionally, Freud noted that happiness cannot arise as long as unhappiness exists in a person's life. And unhappiness is "much less difficult to experience" than happiness. Id. at 26.

Freud identified three main sources for unhappiness: (1) our own bodies, which are doomed to aging, pain, discomfort and decay; (2) the external world, which can "rage against us with unimaginable forces of destruction;" and (3) our relations to other men. Civilization and its Discontents at p.26. He went on to say that unhappiness flowing from our "relations to other men" represents the worst possible unhappiness: It is the unhappiness of betrayal, deception, unfaithfulness, personal disappointment, spurned love, heartbreak, frustrated yearning and all the other bitter emotions that arise when our relations with others do not follow the path we wanted.

If so much unhappiness can flow from relationships with others, why do people bother with them? Freud posed the same question. He offered one surefire way to avoid "relationship unhappiness:" "Against the suffering which may come upon one from human relationships the readiest safeguard is voluntary isolation." Civilization and its Discontents at p. 27. He called this the "happiness of quietness." By eliminating a source for unhappiness, a person makes it easier to experience happiness.

But Freud acknowledged that "voluntary isolation" is not very satisfying. After all, mere freedom from unhappiness is nowhere near as fulfilling as experiencing positive happiness. For that reason, Freud explained that human beings constantly gamble on love to satisfy their "passionate striving for a positive fulfillment of happiness." Civilization and its Discontents at p. 32.

Put another way, freedom from unhappiness and pain is not enough. People want the ecstasy and joy that flows from real, positive happiness. And positive happiness flows most strongly from that most dangerous category: Relations with other men. Still, the potential emotional payout from love is so great that people all too willingly take their chances with it. Nonetheless, Freud warned: "The weak side of this technique is easy to see; otherwise no human being would have thought of abandoning this path to happiness for any other. It is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love." Id. at 33.

Against this background, Margot sang more than she knew when she observed: "It's a risk to believe love is real." Love is an extremely dangerous risk. When a person dares to abandon himself to love, he makes himself "defenseless against suffering;" he even risks "helpless unhappiness" if he does not get the emotional payout he expects from the relationship. Worse, these unhappy results depend exclusively on "relations to other men." Specifically, the "love pathway to happiness" depends on how another person acts and feels. We humans are subjective creatures. We know only what we sense. Facts exist only to the extent that we manifest a subjective belief in their reliability. In that light, it is very difficult to gauge whether another person feels any emotion as we do, let alone love.

Beyond risk, love is about knowledge. Freud said that love has two components: Loving and being loved. We only feel love's joy when we know another person feels strongly about us, too. It is not enough to feel strongly about another person. Rather, love's intoxicating pleasure only really arises when we are satisfied that another person feels as strongly about us as we do about them.

But how do we know that? It is hard enough to know what exists in anyone else's mind. Yet when we risk our happiness on love, we force ourselves to decipher what another person feels and thinks. This is extremely difficult; in fact, it is nearly impossible. There is no way to know for certain whether another person loves us, because we cannot literally step into that person's mind. Rather, we must examine secondary facts to make inferences about the other person's beliefs. This is an imperfect method at best, but it is the only one we have. Even direct statements from our love interest are not definitive proof of what he feels. Humans are, after all, infamously dishonest.

In this light, it is easy to see that love is no easy thing. It does not just a risk; it demands some faith, too, because the facts necessary to establish love are unknowable.

Again, the question arises: With these thematic difficulties in mind, why bother with love? Consider just how much is at stake. By daring to love, a person opens himself to boundless unhappiness and pain flowing from "relations to other men." True, if his love pans out, he feels overwhelmingly positive emotions: That is the potential payout from the "risk." But in order to experience love, a person must satisfy himself that another person feels a certain way. It is impossible to certainly know what another person feels, so love actually involves a double risk: (1) Risking the relationship in the first place; and (2) Risking that a person will feel the way you expect. Disappointment can arise from either risk. There is nothing you can really do to stop it; you can't control how another person thinks or feels. In this sense, love is also a risk because a person must entrust his happiness to the subjective whim of another person over whom he has no control. And because human beings are notoriously untrustworthy and inconstant, it almost seems an unreasonable risk.

If love is so unreasonable, then why do so many people pursue it? The fact that human beings--like Margot--blindly risk love is testament to the assertion that reason does not rule us. If human beings were entirely rational, they would probably never love. After all, rational thinking involves balancing risks against benefits. A rational mind analyzes the potential pain that could result from a transaction and queries whether the potential pleasure is worth the chance. As Freud explained, love can yield immeasurable pain. And because that pain flows from forces largely beyond our control (i.e., the whims of others), it really makes no rational sense to take the risk. Although love offers a huge benefit in pleasure, a reasonable man would immediately see that it always presents an intolerable risk in pain. That risk would invariably outweigh the benefit in pleasure.

But we know that human beings live to love. They cast reason aside. They take the risk, even though it is unreasonable. Put simply, love's emotional payout in happiness is so intoxicating that it overwhelms human reason. Love's pleasure is so hypnotic that it submerges all potential pitfalls. Among those pitfalls is the dangerous need to place individual emotional well-being in the hands of another person--and that person is probably not trustworthy. Men ignore those risks when they love because it just feels so, so good. If reason held men in check, they would never allow themselves to remain blind to the dangers. But blind they remain; they dive headlong into the risks because it just feels so damn good.

"It's a risk to believe love is real." In one line, Margot expressed the timeless--yet perilously uncertain-- human quest for love. She hinted at the risks. She knew there was a danger. But love made her feel so good that she willingly blinded herself to it. She suspended her reason. Objectively, that might appear foolish. But we all have done it. And we probably always will. Love is never objective.

In short, we all desperately want positive happiness. We are not content with the "happiness of quietness." No, we crave "relations with other men." We gamble on positive happiness by playing familiar games. Those games are rarely reasonable. In fact, most are extremely dangerous.

Love is probably the most dangerous game of all: Enticing, risky, unknowable, unverifiable, tempestuous, fickle, maddening; yet offering pleasure beyond imagination. It is a recipe for unreasonable risk every time.


SteveW said...

I have a different view on love. I suck the marrow out of the relationship, knowing that any day it could come to a screeching halt. If I came home tomorrow and Barb left me, I would cherish what I've had to this point without sorrowing in what I would not have going forward. That, to me, is the logical conclusion of the rational mind in that situation. After the loved one leaves or is taken away, the emptiness that remains is an illusion, the top portion of the glass that is mostly full. The only empty, dusty glass is the one that never had love in it.

But I could be mistaken. ;)

Sarah said...

we sometimes believe what we want to believe and not the truth, but when you're in love, or want to have love, sometimes you are blind.

MaxThrust said...

We can never know what the other feels. We see their actions, we hear their words, but that's about it. The trouble is we cannot know what their motivation is. Like the play, they could be professing love, but plotting behind the scenes.

I read a good definition of love the other day. We love our prejudiced and hopeful idea of a person.

"In that light, it is very difficult to gauge whether another person feels any emotion as we do, let alone love."

I would argue we cannot ever possibly know 100%. Like you said, it takes some faith. We have our sensations, and we project and assume certain feelings based on those, a form of self-gratifying empathy.

The ideal of 'being loved' is insidious. To do that, we must behave in a way to elicit our desired concoction of actions, by the other person, so we feel we're loved. To do that, we toe the line of trying to be a puppet master. Demand love!

Good point that it is an unreasonable risk to love. It's a delicate dance to balance our animal side and our reasonable side, but usually the id wins.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Nice to see you back, Steve! I'm glad you can manage a reasonable approach to love. If you can deal with loss and frustrated love in a logical manner, I'd love to know your secret. I think I can use my reason with people I've loved for a long time. But I can never foresee how I'll feel when something unexpected or disappointing happens with them. That's generally when reason fails me.

Matt, I enjoyed that love definition you found. All too often I've fallen into the trap of holding up a "prejudiced and hopeful" idea of a person, rather than understanding who the person really is. On the other hand, with our sensory limitations, it is hard to avoid this result. After all, if we can't certainly know what other people think and feel, we inevitably invite our own prejudices and hopes to fill in the gaps to form an understanding.

Ah, the troubles of subjectivity never end!

Timoteo said...

There is such a thing as what is called "love light" that shines through a person's eyes--it is real and I have (fortunately) observed it a few times in my life.