Powerless to Express Love?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Welcome to the first installment of "Ask Uncle Gus," in which I take on questions submitted through Formspring. This series of posts starts as an experiment in creating new content for the blog over and above the post-a-weekday commitment I have already made.

I'll answer questions as they come up, but spend only "extra time" left over from normal blogging (or blog administration) periods to do so. You get questions answered. I get ideas for posts that might not otherwise have occurred to me. The drawback is that it might take some time before I answer the question.

In the short run, we both get more content without my having to make an inordinate time commitment to do so. In the long run, I get a chance to experiment with an intermittent style of blogging different from the one to which I am accustomed.

With that, let's move on to the first question...

Q: What do you think of this statement: Reason is powerless in the expression of love?

A: I think this sentiment is understandable, but mistaken.

The notion that there is no rational way to express love arises in large part because the nature of what is being communicated (love) is commonly misunderstood, the way an individual experiences it is intensely private, and the methods by which one would communicate about it aren't straightforward.

On top of that, all these things would present difficulties even for people who know they love something or someone. Additional difficulties are presented by the fact that many people aren't really sure about what or whom they love. We'll mostly set that kind of difficulty aside in the following discussion and, for brevity's sake, focus on romantic love.

For starters, let's consider a case in which a man knows he loves his wife and wants to communicate that fact.

The first thing we need to do is consider what it means to say that he loves her. I think Ayn Rand sums it up very well:

Romantic love, in the full sense of the term, is an emotion possible only to the man (or woman) of unbreached self-esteem: it is his response to his own highest values in the person of another -- an integrated response of mind and body, of love and sexual desire. Such a man (or woman) is incapable of experiencing a sexual desire divorced from spiritual values. ("Of Living Death," in The Voice of Reason, p. 54)
Crucial here is the fact that love is an emotion. This means that love is experienced in an automatic, instantaneous fashion, much like a percept. To begin to see how one could communicate about emotions, we can begin by considering how we do so regarding percepts.

When someone tells you something is green, or hot, or bitter, or loud, he is attempting to relay the way he experiences some aspect of the world. How, exactly does even this work? You really have no way to know exactly how other people experience "green-ness," heat, bitterness, or loudness, except that practically everyone says so, and over time, you learn that these generally correspond to each other from one person to the next -- and to what you experience as green, hot, bitter, or loud. That is, you learn over time through introspection, seeing how others report their experiences, and noting context that other people experience the world much as you do, and can thus reliably use words to communicate these experiences.

Going beyond the perceptual level, you learn that others might like similar activities or uphold similar ideals to yours, and you can have a fair guess that, as with perceptual responses, emotional responses, are likely similar from one human being to the next.

However, you also start to see differences. Cedric enjoys jetskiing, whereas you hate it, and would rather read. Marie's heart is stirred by the idea of all men sharing what they produce, while you are alarmed that someone could fall for socialism in this day and age. George finds fashion models attractive, but you like the looks of curvier women more. You see that different people -- because of different personal preferences, or because they subscribe to different ideals, or even because they are affected by different (and completely forgotten) developmental influences -- can have different emotional responses to precisely the same things.

And yet, you can understand that they like or dislike these things. If someone says, of an inspirational story, that it made his spine tingle, you have some idea what he means. How, exactly, we experience these different emotions will always mostly be a mystery to everyone else, but we can communicate generally how we feel, aided by such analogies. "It tastes like chicken." "It was like a breath of fresh air." "Whenever I see her, I feel like all my troubles vanish."

So we know that other people feel love, and can gather something about the emotion from what they communicate about it. We can learn further about the intensity of someone's love (and he can show it, often more truthfully than with his words) from actions. Does he say he loves his wife, but spend every evening out drinking with the boys? Or is he reserved about his feelings, yet always doing things for her, smiling whenever she shows up, and always affectionate? Actions are motivated by emotions, and serve as a means of communication -- whether a lover wants to show his love by purchasing a surprise gift, or notices an action motivated by love on the part of his beloved.

How much does someone love someone (or something) else in relation to everything else? Briefly, Ayn Rand noted that values are properly measured hierarchically. The man who gives up his life to save his wife does so because being without her would be unbearable to him. That's a pretty powerful expression of love, if you ask me. (And you did!)

Thank you for that thought-provoking question.

-- CAV

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