Sunday, April 20, 2008
Book Report: "Studies on Love" by Jose Ortega y Gasset
The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) made a name for himself in the 1930s with Revolt of the Masses, a book which lamented the industrial era's effect on Western culture. It created, he said, a need for specialization which led to a stunted humanity characterized by mediocrity and the "median man' of which he observed: "This planet is condemned to the reign of the median man. As such, the important task is to elevate the median as much as possible."
Ortega abhorred the dehumanizing effects of science and its handmaiden, reason, upon the life of this world. Nonetheless, as editor and publisher of the El Sol newspaper, and as the leader of his own political party in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, Ortega was a logical voice in an era when violent passions would ultimately prevail. While not nearly as seminal a work as Revolt, a collection of Ortega's essays edited from El Sol, and packaged as Studies on Love (1939), is certainly his most charming. In this collection, Ortega, a professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid, takes reason and trains it upon that greatest of human mysteries: Love.
Here are the results:
Ortega sets out, as a good philosopher, to define his concept and begins by debunking the equating of love with happiness. "Who doubts that the lover can receive joy from the beloved? But is it no less certain that love is at times sad as death, a sovereign and mortal torture?"
He quotes the letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to her untrue seducer: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the desperation you have caused me and detest the tranquility in which I lived prior to knowing you."
Love's hypothetical happiness disproved with an example, Ortega bores into his subject. Love, he maintains, is incitement. "Through a pore opened by the arrow launched from an object of affection springs love, actively directing itself toward them...It flows from the lover toward the beloved -- from me to the other, in a centrifugal direction."
As an emanation toward the object, love is not unlike hate, the difference being that love flows toward its target positively, whereas hate proffers negativity. Both, however, generate heat produced in varying degrees. "All love," he notes, "passes through phases of diverse temperature and, subtly, the language of love talks of those relations which 'cool,' and the lover complains of the beloved's tepid responses, of their coldness."
The third aspect to loves definition must naturally, perhaps hopefully, take into account the point at which lover and beloved are united.
Ortega insists that love not only errs upon occasion but is essentially an error. "We fall in love when our imagination projects nonexistent perfection upon another person. One day, the fantasy evaporates and with it, love dies."
The idea, like so many around us, is born with the Greeks: Plato to be specific. Ortega points out that for Plato, all love resides in the desire to unite the person who loves to another being blessed with perfection, in the volition of our soul toward something excellent, better and superior. "Let the reader try generating a state of enchantment -- sexual enchantment -- in an object which provides not a single aspect of excellence, and see how impossible it becomes."
Sexual instinct, he points out, may preserve the species, but does not perfect it. Throw love into the sexual mix, however, and enthusiasm for that other being, for their body and soul in union indissoluble, and what you get is a gargantuan effort to improve the breed.
"With the erotic process barely initiated, the lover experiences a strange sense of urgency to dissolve their individuality into the other, and vice versa, to become absorbed by the beloved...This recalls the doctrine of the Saint Simonians, according to which, the true human individual is the loving couple."
Our world, Ortega says, is cluttered with innumerable objects whilst the field of our conscience is very limited. The details of this world engage in a kind of fight for our attention, which supplants one object with another, according to its importance. "Mania," consequently, is a condition of focus extended beyond the limits of normality. Ortega suggests that all the great thinkers have been maniacs. "When they asked Newton how he was able to discover his mechanical understanding of the universe, he responded, 'By thinking about it day and night.'"
Love, our philosopher says, works the same way, represents an anomalous focusing of attention upon another person. "It does not constitute enrichment of our mental life," he points out, "just the opposite. It grows rigid and fixed, prisoner to a single being. Plato called it Theia mania (divine mania). Nonetheless, the person enamored has the sense off life being much richer. In the reduction of their world, it seemingly grows more concentrated."
For a lover, then, the world ceases too exist, having been supplanted completely by the beloved.
Loves Fatal Machinery
Curiously, the evolution of enchantment lacks spirituality, depending as it does upon the paralyzing of our attention -- that which regulates mental activity -- leaving the lover dependent upon a series of automatic, mechanical processes. Love, Ortega reasons, is an imposition which mocks free will. The great heartbreakers know this, that once they've managed to affix someone's attention to them, total preoccupation is possible with a simple tightening and loosening of the string attached to their romantic prey.
The lover falls under a "spell," an "enchantment." These, he notes, are words which point to love's extraordinary character. We resort to religious terminology when trying to describe it.
"The curious sharing of lexicons between love and mysticism leads one to suspect common roots." For Ortega, mysticism is also a phenomenon of attention. In the mystic, "God permeates the soul to the point of becoming confused with it, or the inverse, with the soul becoming diluted in God. Such is the union the mystic aspires to. The ecstatic perceives said union as something definitive and perennial, just as the lover swears eternal love.
"Once initiated, the process of enchantment develops with an exasperating monotony," Ortega points out. "What I mean to say is that all those who fall in love do it the same way - the smart one and the dope, the younger and the elder, the bourgeois and the artist. This fact confirms love's mechanical character."
The only exception to this mechanistic rule is found in the question of precisely what attracts the attention of one person to another. Ortega does not shrink from the challenge.
Naked in Love
By demonstrating an interest in someone, we expose much of ourselves that is hidden. "In the election of his mate, the male reveals his essence, in the election of her man, a female does the same," notes the philosopher. "The type of humanity we prefer in one another being sketches the profile or our own soul. Love is an impetus that emerges from the subterranean reaches of our person, and in traveling to the surface dredges the algae and shells of our interior with it."
Ortega posits that not unfamiliar situation which pairs a gregarious woman of beauty with a man considered low and vulgar. The judgment is usually an optical illusion because of the distance involved. Love, Ortega asserts, is the business of minute detail and the fact is that, viewed from far away, authentic love and false comport themselves in a similar manner: "But let's say the affection is genuine," he asks. "What are we to think?" One of two things: Either the man is not quite so vulgar as we thought, or the woman not so select."
The great error, vigilant since Descartes and Renaissance, is that which views human being as living by the dictates of conscience, "that small part of ourselves with which we see clearly and which operates according to our will." The greater volume of our being, he asserts, is neither free nor rational. "In vain does the woman who would be viewed as exquisite try to fool us. We have seen she loves Joe, and Joe is clumsy, indelicate; caring only for the perfection of his tie and the shine to his Rolls."
Ortega argues that a man likes most women that pass within his periphery, but this instinct rarely strikes at the depths of his person. When it does, when that aforementioned emanation springs forth and toward the other, that is love. "If it is an idiocy to say that love between man and woman contains no sexual element, it is a bigger stupidity to suggest that love is sexuality. The sexual instinct has an ample sampling of objects to satisfy it, but love is exclusivity, selection."
Beauty is that which invites selection and Ortega tackles the concept with particular relish. "More than acts and words, it is best to focus on what appears to be less important: gesture and physiology. Because they are spontaneous, they permit the escape of profound personal secrets and do so with exactitude."
He says that society has its "official beauties," those whom people point to at parties and in the theater, as if public monuments, which in a sense they are. Ortega suggests that such women may pique a man's desire to possess, but rarely gain his love. Their esthetic beauty sets them apart as artistic objects and the distance prevents love.
"The indifferent find beauty in the grand lines of the face and in the figure -- in what we typically call beauty. For the enamored, they do not exist, the grand lines and the architecture of the person which beckon from afar, have been erased. For them, beauty is found in the scattered features, the color of the pupil, the curve at the corner of the beloved's lips, the tone of their voice."
Boys and Girls
Ortega believes that woman is more capable of this all-encompassing, almost mystic state of love. He argues that the feminine psyche is less concentric, more cohesive and more elastic, thus better lending itself to the singular pursuit, or attention, required for love. "The feminine soul tends to live by a single axis of attention and each phase of her life rests upon a single matter.
"The more masculine the spirituality, the more dislocated the soul, as if divided into separate compartments," says Ortega. "Accustomed to living upon a multiple base, and in a series of mental fields with only the most precarious connection, conquering the attention of one achieves nothing since the rest remain free and intact."
Ortega points out how the woman enamored is frequently exasperated by a sense that she never has the entirety of the man she loves before her. "She always finds him a little distracted, as if, in setting out for their rendezvous he has left, dispersed across the world, entire provinces of the soul."
For this reason, even the most sensitive of men is shamed by his inability to attain the perfection a woman is capable of lending to love.