the deep fallacy of the great coincidence

The wisdom of marriage rests upon an extremely unsentimental view of lovers and their passions. Its assumptions, when they are frankly exposed, are horrifying to those who have been brought up in the popular romantic tradition of the Nineteenth Century. These assumptions are that, given an initial attraction, a common social background, common responsibilities, and the conviction that the relationship is permanent, compatibility in marriage can normally be achieved.

It is precisely this that the prevailing sentimentality about love denies. It assumes that marriages are made in heaven, that compatibility is instinctive, a mere coincidence, that happy unions are, in the last analysis, lucky accidents in which two people who happen to suit each other happen to have met.

The convention of marriage rests on an interpretation of human nature which does not confuse the subjective feeling of the lovers that their passion is unique, with the brutal but objective fact that, had they never met, each them would in all probability have found a lover who was just as unique.

“Love,” says Mr. [George] Santayana, “is indeed much less exacting than it thinks itself. Nine-tenths of its cause are in the lover, for one-tenth that may be in the object. Were the latter not accidentally at hand, an almost identical passion would probably have been felt for some one else; for, although with acquaintance the quality of an attachment naturally adapts itself to the person loved, and makes that person its standard ideal, the first assault and mysterious glow of the passion is much the same for every object.”

This is the reason why the popular conception of romantic love as the meeting of two affinities produces so much unhappiness. The mysterious glow of passion is accepted as a sign that the great coincidence has occurred; there is a wedding and soon, as the glow of passion cools, it is discovered that no instinctive and preordained affinity is present.

At this point the wisdom of popular romantic marriage is exhausted. For it proceeds on the assumption that love is a mysterious visitation. There is nothing left, then, but to grin and bear a miserably dull and nagging fate, or to break off and try again.

The deep fallacy of the conception is in the failure to realize that compatibility is a process and not an accident, that it depends on the maturing of instinctive desire by adaptation to the whole nature of the other person and to the common concerns of the pair of lovers.

Lippmann, Walter. A Preface to Morals. New York: Macmillan, 1929. 30910. Print.


to love is to be vulnerable

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.

Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.

But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960.


the suicidal great passion

Romeo and Juliet also embody another popular misconception: that of the suicidal great passion. It seems that those who die for love usually do so by mistake and ill-luck. It is said that the London police can always distinguish, among the corpses fished out of the Thames, between those who have drowned themselves because of unhappy love affairs and those drowned for debt. The fingers of the lovers are almost invariably lacerated by their attempts to save themselves by clinging to the piers of the bridges. In contrast, the debtors apparently go down like slabs of concrete, apparently without struggle and without afterthought.

Alvarez, A. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971. 71. Print.


Bette Davis on love

Bryant Gumbel: And yet you write that you are always better, in all aspects of your life, when you were in love.

Bette Davis: Oh yes, definitely, as I point out in the book [This ‘N That, her second memoir] and look back. I know I was one of those people that was in love with love. To be in love made my life brighter, happier. Miss Harper once printed that I gave my best performances when I was in love, which is very interesting because she was right. I fell in love with Gary Merrill during Eve and did pretty well with that part. Was very much in love and he with me—with George Brandt—in Dark Victory. Oh, I just think it makes your world a much more wonderful place.

BG: But I would have you thought you being such a professional, that love would have been viewed as a distraction from your work.

BD: No, no, no. I think its an addition to your life in anything you do. Definitely.

BG: Why? Doesn’t it demand it’s own concentration? Doesn’t it demand a certain amount of attention that you might otherwise be giving to—

BD: Well, you have time! You have time for both.

“Bette Davis.” Interviewed by Bryant Gumbel. Today. NBC, New York. 19 Mar. 1987.


freedom through separation

The author is building interconnected readings of imagination, error and desire in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics, a philosophical treatise published in 1677. On Spinoza’s theory of the passions, we can misjudge our own natures and fail to understand the sorts of beings that we really are; we are not well known to ourselves, and the self-knowledge that is the foundation of virtue and freedom is elusive and fragile.

5p2: “If we separate emotions, or affects, from the thought of an external cause and join them to true thoughts, then love or hate toward an external cause and also the vacillation of mind that arises from these affects are destroyed.”

Love and hate are passions in which laetitia [joy] or tristitia [sadness] accompanies the thought of some external cause. So, we might say, for example, that Anna’s love for Vronski is a kind of happiness that she has in thinking of him, and that, by 5p2, she might overcome this harmful passion—both the trouble that it causes now, “vacillation,” and also the trouble that, as a passion it is likely to lead to—by separating that happiness from the thought of this external object, Vronksi, who causes it.

. . . So, by the definition of love, if Anna no longer thinks of Vronski, it follows uninterestingly that her passion, whatever it is, can no longer be a variety of love.

. . . Spinoza emphasizes the right understanding of passion and its subsequent transformation at 5p3 and 5p4:

5p3: “An effect that is a passion ceases being a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.”

5p4: “There is no affect of the body, of which we cannot form some clear and distinct concept.”

These propositions suggest that it is not enough for Anna simply not to think of Vronski. In order to transform her own feelings and to avoid the harm they cause, Anna must also be self-reflective and try to understand herself and her emotions.

. . . To take the example of a passion, Anna may contemplate Vronski, and think of his him as the cause of her harmful passion, but, on Spinoza’s account of imagination, besides being mistaken about Vronski, Anna may be entirely wrong in thinking him the underlying source of the passion and the problem. It would be a mistake, on Spinoza’s account of imagination, to say that detaching her passion from the thought of Vronksi is good for Anna just because in doing so, she comes no longer to dwell on the external cause of her passion.

She certainly may have been dwelling on Vronski; her real problem, however, may be a failure to have recognized the true external cause of her passion (her unhappy marriage; her sense of confinement, and her separation from good company) at all. Detaching her passion from the thought of Vronski would be better understood as an important first step for Anna in doing what she can do for herself, which is to understand her passion as it is in her and insofar as it produced by her.

. . . However, nobility and tenacity are not immune to the other hazards of this method. Spinoza acknowledges generally in several passages in the Ethics that human beings may always be overpowered by external causes. . . . Some passions, we may assume, will always be overwhelming. This point I think is clear in the way that Spinoza qualifies 5p10 itself:

5p10: “So long as we are not agitated by affects that are contrary to our nature, we have the power of ordering and connecting the affections of the body following the order the intellect.”

LeBuffe, Michael. From Bondage to Freedom: Spinoza on Human Excellence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 4546, 75, 9697. Print.