French philosopher Alain Badiou has a new book called In Praise of Love (New Press). It’s a provocative and charming read. Badiou argues that love is no longer the “tenacious adventure” that it is, and should be.
How can this be so, you might retort. The world is drowning in romantic love and its trappings. It’s obsessed with true love. Scores of reality TV shows talk about finding love, planning a wedding, getting engaged, and confessing to relationship problems.
But that’s precisely Badiou’s point. The managed, safe simulacrum of romance and love has supplanted the more chaotic, random, coincidental, life-affirming experience that Badiou has in mind when he uses the term “love.”
Hence, love is everywhere, and love is endangered. I talk about this in my book, too, when I describe the “post-romantic” age.
In fact, one touchstone for Badiou’s book were the “really disturbing,” ubiquitous posters in Paris for the Meetic internet dating site. The ads promise, “Get Love Without Chance!,” “Be in Love Without Falling in Love!” and get “coaching in love.”
“Risk and adventure must be reinvented” against this kind of “safety and comfort,” Badiou asserts. Because love exists in the wilds and the woods. It’s a frontier, a space where chance and coincidence might develop into something profound. Badiou writes,“love encompasses the experience of the possible transition from the pure randomness of chance to a state that has universal value. Starting out from something that is simply an encounter, a trifle, you learn that you can experience the world on the basis of difference,” and not only on narcissistic terms. “And you can even be tested and suffer in the process.”
Then, there is what we call “love,” which is more like a guided tour. It’s a bus tour along a safe, over-trod, meticulously trailheaded path with the usual iconic sites to be seen along the way, to check off the list, and to experience with companions on the bus who have been pre-screened by their capacities to pay, and their interest. They are your economic and socio-cultural peers. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium (if you’re under the age of 40, you might have to Google that cinematic reference).
The “Wedding Merchants” business and the wedding planners aren’t just about wedding planning. They’re metaphors of the over-managed, stage-crafted, even bureaucratic view of love and romance that Badiou challenges in this book.
It’s best not to wander into the woods, such as they exist anymore, or the untamed nether regions, such as they haven’t been trimmed and hedged for us by our own litigious, risk-averse, safe-sex fixated collective imagination.
I don’t think we can overestimate just how deeply the fear of risk, danger, litigation, heartache, or impolitic behavior has infiltrated and delimited our consciousness. It’s not just a literal set of reasonable concerns concerning, say, STDs or pregnancy. It’s a pervasive fearfulness of passion, and life. And risk-aversion doesn’t pertain just to business, but to matters and habits of the heart.
No, it is better—safer, tamer, more sanitary, and less disruptive—to take the guided tour.
On the tour bus of love you get all the usual sites. You have your wedding, you have the usual guidebooks of marital advice and “Marriage Takes Hard Work” harridans to keep you on track, and who will swat down as “selfish” any wandering expression of a dissenting, ambivalent , or rebellious feeling about love. You have the advice columnists to narrate for you the problems of love and sex. It’s all trite, predictable.
On this guided tour, even the bumps in the road of love are more like the speed bumps manufactured and marked in advance to retard artificially your otherwise reckless, headlong progress. Arguments that feel intensely personal, eccentric, and private? They’re not. We’ve got 20 books for that. Sexual conflicts over bizarre acts, tastes, or predilections? It’s covered in hip, blasé prose in free city newspaper columns every week.
There is no closet, in the good sense of the word—as a place of secret worlds, rather than of shame—in which privacy and desire fulminate. It’s all mapped out for you.
And this love sickness isn’t just a problem of romantic love, actually. The same warily constrained, delimited view of passion too often characterizes women’s views of their life’s work.
Talk to female undergraduates, and you’ll find that they’ve internalized the fearful, sad, timid voice of the pre-defeated—there’s no way that they’ll be able to “juggle” or “balance” or “manage” or insert another dreary verb here the very stuff of life: love, and work.
These young women are prematurely and prophylactically jaded.
Missing in these accounts is a notion of that unruly mission, a quest that you can’t predict in advance when you’re 18, that can upend your plans, where “juggling” and struggling to conform to an other-directed, superficial simulacrum of the rich, “having it all” life of Two Children and a Husband and a Career has absolutely nothing to do with it. Missing, in other words, is the feeling of love for a mission that isn’t about managing the components of life. That passion may be chaotic, but you are, at least, living, and letting your muse drive your ambitions rather than outward conformity to the simulacrum of a “happy life.”
One of Badiou’s points as I read it is that we go through the motions. The more hollow the experience of the romantic quest—in the biggest sense of the term—the more obsessively we think about it, compensate for its absence, and fuss over its outward rituals, travails, pantomimes, gestures, and scripts.
And so it is that we can be drowning in romantic love when romantic love is dying.