On love's variety: a philosopher's search for the ideal

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The Nature of Love, Vol. 3: The Modern World, by Irving Singer. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 473 pp. $24.95. Love is as varied as wave shapes in the ocean. The student of love, like the wave-watcher, becomes a connoisseur of variety. If he is scientific about it, he sees the shaping force and law beneath the flux.

Irving Singer, a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has developed a method of historical analysis flexible enough to deal with all kinds of love, from Greek homosexual love in Plato, to the philia and agape of the New Testament, to the courtly love of medieval romance, to the Romantics, for whom love was magic.

These various shapes of love Singer calls ``ideals.'' His ``pluralism'' won't allow him to dislocate them from their historical contexts. The first two volumes of ``The Nature of Love'' (now available in paperback) showed him to be quite sensitive to the various priorities they have represented in the past.

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The final volume brings us to the present. In ``The Modern World,'' Singer offers readings of Freud, Proust, and Sartre, among others. He shows how their work was formed in reaction to the 19th-century ideal of ``merging'' of the identities of lover and beloved. More often than not, the great modern writers portray love as impossible, as a field of failure and regret.

Singer's reading of Proust explores the belief that ``the only paradises are paradises lost.'' Jealousy, fear, and agony are the lot of Proust's modern lovers. Singer dismisses attacks on Proust's homosexuality insofar as they take the form of an ad hominem attack on Proust himself. He notes that ``the narrator in `A la recherche' admits to being neurotic and recognizes that his own disabilities may have given him distorted perceptions of other people's behavior.''

Since Singer's own pluralistic method puts a premium on ``other people's behavior,'' this admission qualifies Proust's standing as a witness to love.

Existentialism provides Singer with some brutal tests for love. Having read the analysis of Freud, we are prepared for Jean-Paul Sartre's assumption ``that sex is a fundamental reality in all human relations.''

But Singer rejects Sartre's belief that ``love consists merely in a desire to be loved.'' He says, ``Though Sartre finds the essence of human consciousness in its freedom, ... he never recognizes that this freedom - creative as he knows it to be - is capable of making others valuable over and above their appraisive utility as persons by whom we may wish to be loved.''

Singer argues that in late Sartre there are indications that he was opening up to love's possibilities. He quotes another commentator's words: Existential love involves a ``sometimes violent alteration of self that is always torn between our ideologically all-pervasive need for independence and autonomy, and our equally all-pervasive obsession with romantic love and shared identity.''

It's a good time to ask: What of Singer's own ideal?

In the chapter on Shakespeare in the second volume, which turns out to be the physical center of the completed work, Singer notes that by the end of many plays, ``hostility has turned into concord, ignorance of erotic reality into well-earned sophistication, love into matrimony.''

At the beginning of the final volume, he says he will ``be arguing that romantic love is part of the search for a long-term relationship such as married love, and that married love not only completes the aspirations of romantic love but also permits some vestige of its continuance within the new context of marriage.''

The ideal of the happy marriage faces some hard tests in Volume 3. Singer clearly wishes to preserve some of the magic of Romanticism. His own ideal starts with the give-and-take in love.

In the essay that introduces the whole work, he explains that love involves two moments of valuation - appraisal and bestowal. Appraisal includes the objective value of the person in society, and bestowal the creative giving of value by the lover over time. Toward the end, he introduces his useful categories of falling in love, being in love, and staying in love.

Falling in love couldn't be more popular. Singer values staying in love. He admits that ``faith in marriage as the appropriate context for heterosexual friendship has disappeared'' but argues that, in fact, marriage is strong enough to withstand the ``sometimes violent alteration of self'' between individual freedom and romantic love.

He defends his statement that love is ``the art of enjoying another person'' by adding that love is not simply an achieved state but ``is pervaded by a search for values and a longing for what we consider good.'' Unlike the current reductivisms of psychiatric, feminist, and theological writers, Singer keeps in view the whole, complex, concrete situation of heterosexual marriage.

The virtue of Singer's pluralistic approach is that, retaining what is best about romanticism, it serves the various ends of law, society, body, mind, heart, and the potential of the individual.

``The Nature of Love'' does do justice to ``the disparate, pliant, and normal confused character of human affect.'' This masterpiece of critical thinking is a timely, eloquent, and scrupulous account of what, after all, still makes the world go round.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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