The Philosophy of Love

Most of us associate the term ‘love’ with pleasure, ecstasy and satisfaction. To some it might evoke feelings of a unique torment and mental agony that no other human experience can engender. Love is a broad term, temporally speaking, and our perception of it may change as we progress (or regress) our way through the ups and downs it throws up over the passage of time. Ask a teenager swept off her feet by a rakish lad of 17 or a damsel smitten with a dashing and macho colleague, they will probably wax lyrical about the profound meaning that love gives to their lives. If we ask a middle-aged man who is past the fledgling stage, however, we are unlikely to hear a similar rhapsody. He may instead be inclined to rue his naïveté of the past and carp about why the rosy idea of calf love contradicts reality.

Both these perceptions of love, amongst many others, are ubiquitous. Many who identify themselves as being in love would go through remarkably similar experiences depending on which phase they are positioned in. Renowned Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu penned the following lines for the song Yakkai Thiri: “Ulagathin kadhal ellam ondre ondru athu Ullangal maari maari payanam pogum.” Roughly translated, it means “every love in the world is one and the same, but it travels from one heart to another.” This pithy observation acutely observes the striking similarity in the sensation of love by people around the world, despite the linguistic, geographic and ethnic diversity on earth. Thus, the feeling aroused in a young boy growing up in the karisal soil of Kovilpatti when he meets his girlfriend is hardly distinguishable from that felt by his counterpart in the steppes of Kazakhstan.

This universality is not just spatial but also temporal. In other words, contemporary perceptions of love resemble its historical variety. If you doubt it, all you have to do is pick up a copy of Adolphe, a novella written in the early 19th century by Benjamin Constant. I was introduced to Constant through the module on Political Philosophy at college where his essay entitled “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns” was prescribed as essential reading. As I explored further, I chanced upon Adolphe and devoured it with greater enthusiasm than his tract on liberty. In a slender book, the story of which is speculated to be the author’s roman à clef, the two strands of love we saw above are introduced and anatomised; the euphoric and the agonising. Adolphe can be divided into two interrelated parts; in the first, the eponymous protagonist is lovesick; in the second, he is sick of love.

It is Adolphe himself who tells the story. Straight out of college, he is a romantic yet reticent young man. The coldness of his relationship with his father gives him a certain longing for emotional satisfaction. He has received a decent education and is quite talented enough to leave his mark in any of the humanist pursuits exalted in medieval Europe. A mix of rarefied learning and an emotional vacuum since childhood must have been the reason behind his penetrating ability for observation and analysis. Consequently, he becomes a caustic critic of the social mores and the people that surround him, much like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Despite his disdain for the conventional, Adolphe begrudges his love-struck mates. He writes of the envy that he felt when one of his intimates expresses outward jubilation at winning his girlfriend’s love; “The sight of such happiness made me regret not having tried such an experience myself, for until then I had had no affair with a woman which could possibly have flattered my self-esteem…”

In the throes of a hankering for love, he meets Ellenore. Ellenore happens to be the consort of a patrician who is held in high regard by the society. She soon becomes the object of the entirety of Adolphe’s abundant romantic energies. That Ellenore is much older than him and the partner of a different man does not deter Adolphe. With an effrontery and verve characteristic of youth, he pursues his passion with relentless determination. Adolphe’s account of the incandescent feelings he perceives as a result of his initial infatuation with her speak not just for himself but for all humans who ever loved.

“I did not think I was in love with Ellenore, but already I could not endure the thought of not pleasing her. She was continually in my thoughts: I made countless plans and invented countless ways of winning her, with that callow fatuity which is so confident of success because it has never attempted anything. And yet I was checked by an invincible shyness. All my fine speeches died on my lips or ended up quite differently from what I had intended. Within me a battle was raging and I was furious with myself.”

Relatable, right? Consider the following passage.

“Who can describe the charm of love? That conviction that we have found the being who was destined by nature to be ours, that hidden illumination of life, that new value attaching to the slightest circumstances, those swift hours, the details of which elude us in retrospect through their very sweetness, leaving in our mind only a long trail of happiness; that playful gaiety which occasionally mingles for no reason with our general feeling of tenderness; in our love’s presence such pleasure, in her absence such hope; such aloofness to all vulgar cares, such feeling of superiority towards all our surroundings and of certainty that, on the plane on which we are living, society can no longer touch us; and that mutual understanding which divines each thought and responds to each emotion—the charm of love! Those who have known the charm of love cannot describe it!”

Spot on! The “charm of love” that Constant talks about through Adolphe is the kind of intensely passionate love when you fall head over heels for your first few crushes. It is obsessive and emotionally demanding, but at the same time, uniquely pleasurable. Company feels idyllic whilst separation, however fleeting, is heart-wrenching. Actions are guided by the viscera whilst careful cerebration takes the backseat. A recent article in the Guardian revealed that there is a word for this phase of love; limerence. It is this stage that is most often glorified in popular culture. Something portrayed less often is the less brighter aspects that usually follow after the love has been won. This is what washes over Adolphe after he succeeds in his courtship of Ellenore.

Mesmerised by his charm and somewhat worn out by his persistence despite her polite disapprovals, Ellenore reveals her love for him which she had concealed for so long. This might well be the climax of a run-of-the-mill Kollywood movie. But in Adolphe, the story is only halfway through. In fact, the real story is just beginning now. Ellenore resolves to abandon everything including her patron-husband, respect in the community, the children, wealth and luxury, so as to unite with Adolphe. But a hitherto daring Adolphe demurs in a stroke of sheer cravenness. The woman of his dreams has chosen him over everything else in the world, but he is uncertain. Things take place in quick succession thereafter. Ellenore leaves the house anyway, much to Adolphe’s chagrin; she comes to his hometown, much to his father’s unease; Adolphe feels behoved to ensure Ellenore’s livelihood and takes her to Poland. In fact, he goes to great lengths to secure Ellenore’s well-being and in the process sacrifices much of his time, youth and energy. But he does all this not out of love, but out of a sense of responsibility. The love slowly but steadily wears away. He finds her possessiveness annoying and company, tiresome. She thinks he has changed beyond recognition and has betrayed her trust. They say vicious things to each other, inflicting permanent wounds in the heart. If the first part of the story dealt with how they came together, the second one shows how they drift apart. The rest of the story is excruciatingly sorrowful as we see the couple move from being a happy and loving pair to a bitterly resentful one. A Yale University lecture said that a relationship can be categorised as ‘love’ if it satisfied three criteria; intimacy, passion and commitment. Adolphe and Ellenore have already lost the first two and they are kept together only by a commitment of sorts. That too does not emanate from love, but out of a sense of moral obligation for Adolphe and the absence of any other option for Ellenore. The story ends with Ellenore’s demise. How else could it have ended? One of them had to go! And Constant decided that it would be Ellenore.

Despite the gloom, it is worth reading Adolphe. For love is an indispensable component of human experience and Adolphe is an unrivalled treatise on the subject. Despite the intensity of their relationship before it turned sour, Adolphe and Ellenore never consummate their affair. It remains platonic until the very end. But why? We never know. If it had been otherwise, Constant could have poured some wisdom on the concept of coitus as well.
Nevertheless, the novella already teems with lapidary statements and perspicacious observations on love, romance and much more. The language is particularly refined and precise. Although originally written in French, the English version makes an equally strong impact on the reader. Reading Adolphe reaffirms the fact that love is universal, across time and space.

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

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