The Wise Have — Impossible LovesOctober 24, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Posted in ethics, love, political, weil | 4 Comments
I write to you today in response to an article that some of my friends have been pointing to urgently but not really talking about: On Repressive Sentimentalism, by Mark Greif. The piece is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Greif proposes that progressive politics has allowed itself to be straightjacketed by the rhetoric of the religious right, defending gay rights in terms only of marriage and feminism in terms only of abortion. The particular problem he sees is that progressives seem to unquestioningly accept the ways that the right characterizes these as sentimental issues: marriage is a happily-ever-after union with your destined partner, and abortions are tragic. How else might we view these issues? Greif proposes that the promise of the gay rights movement is not simply equal marriage rights for all, but the possibility that the institution of marriage itself could be radically questioned. The nuclear family once served a number of socioeconomic functions that it no longer does, which has has left marriage with only an emotional function, and one that it does not even fulfill very well. This part of the argument is worth quoting at some length:
[The nuclear family] is no longer necessary as the site of the pre-capitalist workshop. It is no longer the only structure for child-rearing, as children now come out of so many differently constituted families. The family no longer houses the old folks of several generations. It’s no longer even the privileged secular space for intimate confession and support, as this modern necessity is increasingly outsourced, well down the class ladder, to therapists, gurus, and members of all the helping professions. When marriage has as its main purpose a total and unique defense against loneliness and isolation and anomie, then it’s been saddled with a function too grand and dishonest for it ever to meet; no wonder it will seem imperfect, disappointing, not yet the right, ﬁnal marriage.
The appeal to anomie simply ignores, post-1960s, the emotional capacities we’ve gained. We now resist atomization and anomie with the wide range of unusually warm, non-exclusive and simultaneous friendships, often verging on erotism but not compelled to it, both across and within the sexes, and among straights and gays—this extraordinary birthright the ’60s gave to all those of us born, say, after 1969. The range is better than any narrowing. The multiplicity of friendships trumps the marriage structure. Yet these relations really survive, and thrive, only until marriage begins to clear its throat, and they are jeopardized by the cowardly constraints of couplehood. Marriage is lye poured upon the petri dish of the new relations of erotic sociality.
For better and worse (and for richer and for poorer), marriage is also almost inevitably intolerable to any post-’60s individual who counts the accumulation of strong experience and passionate feeling as the sine qua non of meaningful existence.
I will have some things to say about this in a minute, but for now I will continue with the paraphrase. Marriage, sentimentalized as a forever-bond, prevents people from recognizing the other interesting ways that they could be connecting with people. The abortion debate is similarly restricted by sentimentalization; Greif argues that progressives should stop calling abortion “sad but necessary” and start calling it “right and good” — the issue, he says, should be freedom rather than choice: free and legal abortion is required for women to have the most basic equality with men in terms of planning their lives. The connection between the two issues — marriage and abortion — is, of course, sex. Both debates come down to a squeamishness on the part of the religious right about the idea of sex without consequences, which Greif defends as not just fun and fulfilling, but deeply important to developing a more inclusive and tolerant morality:
You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies. [...] Sexual cooperation is the other side of our basic human nature, and matches and disarms economic competition. Conservatives look to the chimpanzees, utopians to bonobos. One viewpoint prefers that side of our evolutionary ancestry that punches and rapes; the other that side, of equal propinquity, that rubs genitals and makes out.
I think these are all valuable and interesting ideas, which is why I’m bringing them to your attention, but something about this article didn’t sit quite right with me, and after some thought I realized it was this: Fundamental to Greif’s argument is a valuing of freedom with regard to our interpersonal relationships — marriage is bad because it restricts that freedom, limiting our ability to get to know and love our neighbors, and outlawing abortion is bad because it prevents women from being able to determine the course of their lives. But what happens when you do decide to bring a child into your life, whether by giving birth or by adoption? You commit to loving a person, sight unseen, who may not turn out to even like you very much. You commit enormous amounts of financial and emotional resources to a person who may walk out the door on her eighteenth birthday and never speak to you again. Even if your relationship with your child doesn’t fail quite that dramatically, it’s almost certain that the relationship will not turn out exactly as you imagined — and yet you are still ethically obligated to that relationship at least until your child reaches adulthood. My point here is that it is actually impossible to conduct all of our relationships as though we had no long-term obligations to them. Greif mentions “unorthodox childrearing and communal parenthood” in his list of reforms that utopians have historically fought for, but I think that solution misses the point in two ways. First, it is extremely difficult to manage both legally and socially in today’s world, though it might be viable as a longterm progressive goal. Second, if you were going to make something like communal parenthood work, and have it be more like a family than like an institution, it would have to involve serious commitments to the parenting enterprise on the part of at least one if not several members of the commune — which gets us right back to my point that the freedom to terminate your affective ties at will runs up against a limit case when you are talking about a parent’s affective ties to a child.
The fact that we have a profound — I hesitate to use the world “absolute” — obligation to our children is, I think, an argument for the importance of other kinds of interpersonal commitments, too. I agree wholeheartedly with Greif that the world would be a better place if the family unit were not so tyrannically policed, if family configurations other than man-woman-child were recognized and accepted, but I also think that without commitment there can be no family. (This does not, however, have to mean exclusive romantic commitment.) It’s nice to imagine a commitment-free world where you might be able to wake up each morning and freely choose whether to continue living with and loving your family members, but I think Greif is overstating the amount of choice we could theoretically have in the matter. In “Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know),” Jacques Derrida points out that choices like this are extremely difficult if we take them seriously: “As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other I know I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me also to respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others.” He gives the somewhat trivial but still troubling example of his cat: why should I feed my cat and ignore all the stray cats in the world? In terms of the family, one might ask: why should I feed this child and not all the children starving in Africa? Why should I devote my time and energy to this partner when there are so many other worthy partners in the world?
A family is, frankly, convenient to most people precisely because it provides us with a fairly easy answer to the terrifying ethical question posed by our limited time and resources and shouted at us by George Thorogood: “Who do you love?”. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Even if we bracketed the question of child-rearing, I don’t think a world without any concept of family is particularly desirable.
That said, I think there are some worthwhile lessons to be learned from Greif’s vision of a sexually-liberated utopia even if you refuse to throw the baby of commitment out with the bathwater of traditional marriage. For one thing, I think he’s right that most people do themselves a disservice if they allow a single romantic relationship to stifle all their other connections to people. I also think he’s right that it would be a mistake to let any romantic relationship go unevaluated — but commitment to a romantic relationship “for better or for worse” doesn’t have to mean not trying to make it better, or not leaving when it’s unfixably worse. The trick is to not allow yourself to slide into complacency, and Greif is not wrong to characterize marriage as an institution that seems almost designed to encourage it — but that doesn’t mean complacency is inevitable.
I turn, as I often do, to Simone Weil. One fragment in her notebooks goes like this: “Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.” Weil has a gift for making counterintuitive statements that are strangely compelling, forcing you to change your habits of thinking, and this line is no exception. Two kinds of impossible loves come to mind first: those that are prevented by circumstances, and those that are unrequited. Weil is perhaps trying to tell us that these unrealizable loves are valuable because they ask us to make a change, to either break free from those repressive circumstances or to try to improve ourselves to be worthy of our beloved. Possible loves require no such change, and therefore do not help us grow. (This, I think, is similar to Greif’s position.) But there is a third kind of “impossible love” that Weil might be referring to: not the love that is denied us, but the love that we — impossibly — receive. If you can remember that everyone who loves you is a miracle, and if you work every day towards deserving that love, then I don’t think it matters whether you love fifty people or just one person over the course of your lifetime. Love can always change you for the better if you let it.