Why Fall In Love?
Love calls us to a different destiny beyond the usual.
Posted July 26, 2011
In a recent interview, I was asked why I thought it was important to fall in love. The question took me by surprise because, despite the fact that I've written about love a lot, I would never want to imply that everyone should fall in love - that life is somehow incomplete without love. Our culture is already so love-obsessed that the last thing I would want to suggest is that those who are not coupled up are missing out on something essential. Yet I begin The Summons of Love with the following line: "Romantic love summons us to become more interesting versions of ourselves." So obviously I do place some weight on the experience of falling in love. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what this is, but let me try.
I think that love ushers us to frequencies of human life that we might find difficult to access otherwise. It opens to something more transcendent than the ordinary flow of life, summoning us, precisely, to a different (and potentially more interesting) edition of ourselves. As Julia Kristeva puts it, love has the power to give us the impression that we are "speaking at last, for the first time, for real." It (momentarily at least) elevates us above the daily grind, allowing us to observe the world from a more exalted perspective. It adds a layer of luster to our mundane existence, making us feel empowered and self-connected even as it "decenters" us from our customary concerns.
There are those who would caution us against this aspect of love, ridiculing its capacity to draw us into fantasy-worlds composed of shimmering lures, illusions, and idealizations that are designed to let us down. But I would say that one of the most compelling components of love is precisely its ability to derail us from our pragmatic preoccupations so that we, however fleetingly, manage to touch the sublime and the extraordinary. Our world is already so levelheaded, so stripped of ideals and grand passions, that we sometimes need the energizing jolt of love to feel fully alive. Again, I'm not saying that love is the only thing that can give us this jolt. But it is one of the most effective, which is why so many of us covet it.
Another way to explain the matter is to think about the transformative energy of intimate relating. In my field - contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory - it's common to say that "there is no self without the other." In other words, we don't arrive in the world with fully-formed personalities, but develop our identities through our relationships with the countless people we encounter. Some of these relationships are more meaningful and character-forming than others, so that our parents (or other care-takers) have a greater impact than casual acquaintances. But romantic relationships are arguably unique in that the person we love is often the one who can change us the most, and this is the case even when love fails. As Alain Badiou points out, the "event" of love - being disoriented by genuine passion - makes it impossible for us to proceed with our lives as usual so that no matter how our relationship unfolds (or ends), we have been called to a different destiny.
The problem, of course, is that we can't access the depths of love without opening ourselves to its risks - that the price of allowing ourselves to experience love's mystery is utter vulnerability. This is why it's easy to refuse love's summons, to decline its invitation to self-transformation. And those who have already been burned by love may find this invitation even more challenging. This is why I have been arguing that it might help to stop thinking about love's disenchantments as the antithesis of love and see them, instead, as an essential part of love's trajectory. It might help to conceive of romantic failures as love's way of teaching us the kinds of lessons we might never otherwise learn. When it comes to love, our so-called failures are often (not always, but often) merely new opportunities for growth, new opportunities for singularizing our character. Those who understand this are more likely to welcome love's summons because they know that the happily-ever-after is only one aspect of love - that to love is, among other things, to accept the possibility of disappointment.