Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?

In the great Nature-nurture debate, Nature casts the ultimate vote. Prometheus finds this sort of completion in his Romance with Asia. If it makes you fight, as Shelley did from the time he was a boy, for political justice, then who is to say it is not true love? As natural creatures, we have one fundamental task in life and that is the task of reproduction. But when we merge these qualities, we become whole and free. If an attraction doesn’t make the individual more creative, more humane, more generous, and more eager to redeem the world (or at least some corner of it) then it is not love. Where does such creativity come from? You can get lucky. The Romantic wants love to be his spiritual life, but he will not rest easy with what we might call spiritual love. To him, love was sacred — too sacred to be confined by mock sacraments, such as churchly marriage. Love without that true other half is not possible, and must by necessity be sad. This was perhaps the most potent philosophical attack on erotic idealism, though Nietzsche, who saw Schopenhauer as his master and guide, did take up the question some years later. They are people — dare one say — whose erotic lives have become their spiritual lives. How does Shelley’s vision of love and Romance respond to Schopenhauer — and all the other enemies of Romantic love who have been, and still are, abroad in the world? Is it possible to be anything but a fool to Schopenhauer and Darwin’s procreative Nature? We know, or think we know, that love promises ongoing bliss, yet it so often ends in sorrow. We play with full and productive seriousness, as Schiller said that we might when we made ourselves one. They had eight limbs (spider-like) and were fused in the middle. The question is from a song famously performed and co-written by Eric Clapton, the guitar maestro, for whom love could, apparently, be a sad affair in life as well as in art. Nothing should stand between a man or woman and the embrace of the soul mate. “Layla,” the song he’s best known for, has him down on his knees, begging for love from a woman who, the story goes, happened to be George Harrison’s wife. It’s narcissistic love, Oedipal love, the spiritualization of sensuality, the love of one biological entity bent on improving the species for another. Shelley was a proponent of sexual love. It’s a universal condition, erotic suffering. According to Plato’s Aristophanes, there was a time when human beings lived in a condition of bliss. The soul mate, Aristophanes believed (perhaps with some irony), is the person who makes us complete. All worldly-wise people know that the path to erotic satisfaction is not an easy one, perhaps nonexistent. If you thrive and make and do for others, not yourself, when you are in love, then it is love worthy of the name. What Nature cares about is the health of the next generation. ¤
Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia. Shelley’s poem suggests that you can prove it on your pulse. We are pushed — driven — in the direction of an individual to collaborate with. This scrutiny and examination is the meditation of the genius of the species concerning the individual possible through these two, and the combination of its qualities. It doesn’t matter that both of the parents will dedicate themselves entirely to the baby. Who is Shelley’s Prometheus? That’s what many people think. His newest book is  The Heart of the Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching. For Shelley, if love was authentic, it had powerful erotic attraction and sexual consummation at its core. Cities then
Were built and through their snow-like columns flowed The warm winds and the azure ether shone,
And the blue sea and the shadowy hills were seen. For Shelley, the only love that matters is the love that feeds creation. In this insistence on the creative impulse, Shelley creates a definition of authentic love that defies the skeptics and isolationists. Two people lived together as one body. Schopenhauer had his own interpretation of love. She is his soul mate — the being that Aristophanes describes when he speaks in Plato’s Symposium. For Schopenhauer, sexual desire is at the core of our being (like, well, Darwin). He wants it to include all the passion that Darwin and Schopenhauer evoke. According to Schopenhauer, it is because Nature brings people together regardless of their personalities, their wants and desires and dreams and hopes. If what you have is “dull sublunary lovers’ love, whose soul is sense,” as Donne immortally put it, then yes, you’ve created a world of only two people. If love makes you more thoughtful and you take a step, no matter how shaky, in trying to answer the everlasting questions, then that, Shelley suggests to us, is true love. Schopenhauer has an answer for the disappointed:
However loudly those persons of a lofty and sentimental soul, especially those in love, may raise an outcry over the gross realism of my view, they are nevertheless mistaken. Says Schopenhauer:
There is something quite peculiar to be found in the deep, unconscious seriousness with which two young people of opposite sex regard each other when they meet for the first time, the searching and the penetrating glance they cast at each other, the careful inspection all the features and parts of their respective person have to undergo. Nature cares absolutely nothing about ever after. We are propelled to find the best mate to create the healthiest possible child. Or to put the question in a better way: Who is Prometheus once he is unchained and joined with Asia? The child is the object — not the pleasure of the parents. Thus Schopenhauer — and thus, the Darwin of Origin of Species, who depicts Nature as a great “pigeon fancier”, spectacularly adept at breeding the healthiest, strongest possible pigeons. Nature does not care much about the powers of nurture that a given couple might be able to generate between them. Why does love fail them so often? They must have cartwheeled from place to place. Even rock stars suffer in love. This was clear even to the writers and thinkers we call Romantics. Does this love get poems written, discoveries made, move people to justice? No, all Nature cares about is creating a bouncing, healthy, thriving little integer who will go on to produce more of the same. We think and feel at the same time, conquering what Eliot called the dissociation of sensibility. Nature is not worried about whether the male and the female in question are compatible or not. For is not the precise determination of the individualities of the next generation a much higher and worthier aim than those exuberant feelings and immaterial soap bubbles of theirs? Freud says repeatedly that lovers create a world in which only two people exist. Is it a societal flaw? Why is the erotic life so often full of grief, sorrow, or at least radical disappointment when it is supposed to be — and of course on occasion actually is — a world of joy? Shakespeare has a lot of fun with the erotic mobility of our esteem in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the characters, their eyes anointed with love’s balm, snap from despising to worshipping each other. He has not only created the works of poetry that matter — for as Shelley says, all true poems contribute to a giant poem always in the making — but also made scientific discoveries, to free men from pain and to prolong a joyful life:
He told the hidden powers of herbs and springs,
And Disease drank and slept. He has been the one who made cities and seen the azure ocean flow between the white columns as they stand on the cliffs. Can you ever see through the haze of obfuscation, ever truly recognize the authentic beloved? Clapton had it wrong — love doesn’t have to be so sad. — and matters became too exasperating, he was prone to look to the heavens and cry out, “Schopenhauer, help me!”) Nietzsche, as might be expected, fell into Schopenhauer’s dim view of things. Yes; true. Death grew like sleep. Do not judge yourself by results, the Bhagavad Gita says, but by what you aspired to do and how potently you have thrown yourself into the effort. If your love makes you kinder, more compassionate, more generous, then that is true love. From then on, people have roamed the world, looking for the missing part of themselves, the half that had been sundered on that sorry day. Why are so many individuals miserable in love? The question for Shelley’s lover isn’t simply: Does he set me aflame? They were all and everything in themselves. If love makes you and your beloved more generously imaginative then you have beaten the biological imperative — though you will be indulging biology, too. That is, we use them to help us gain the favors of the beloved. He also seemed to endorse multiple loves: “True love in this differs from gold and clay / That to divide is not to take away.” But no one should think of Shelley as an avatar of promiscuous abandon. We work and play at once, making our avocation our vocation, as Frost puts it. And it often seems that Asia is the more analytical of the pair. If love makes you braver — readier to stand up and fight when fighting is what’s needed, then that is true love. But that’s the definition of lazy love. They are Romantics, and Romance is their highest good. Love, to count as love, must be sexual love and based in the drives, but it must pass beyond that too. Why does love have to be so sad? He wants his love to be as physically intense as possible. If it makes you ready to sell something of what you have and give it to the poor, then that is true love. Without him, without her, we are only partial beings. We labor and know the fruits of our labors as being our own and not the property — in fact or in conception — of another (Marx, indirectly). How can you be happy in love, from Schopenhauer’s harsh and rather Darwinian vantage? We are all mind and no heart, all analysis and no imagination, all work and no play — the list goes on. (Though without that natural imperative, Shelley says, there is no true love.) But if love begets “Ode to the West Wind,” then it is something else again. who when my being overflowed / Wert like a golden chalice to bright wine / Which else had sunk into the thirsty dust.” That is, she gave him focus, aim, objective, form. Did Shelley believe in free love? With the mind, Iplot and plan to secure what I want — but of course in love there is no I, there is no individual. Though unless we are as wise about love as Shelley was, it probably will be. He surely wrote a ferocious polemic against marriage: “[W]ith one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe, / The dreariest and the longest journey [we] go,” he says of that institution. One of the first people to tackle the question, years before Clapton ever set eyes on Layla or anyone else, was Aristophanes. “Ay me,” says Shakespeare’s Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “for aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history / The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Why is this so — assuming that it is? So, people wake up from the dream of love and they find themselves ill-matched. He claimed that Romanticism was the spiritualization of sensuality — an attempt to confer meaning and respectability on the pleasures and needs of the flesh. When the two are joined together, Prometheus attains full powers. To unbind himself from his limitations, physical and metaphysical, Prometheus needs to perform two tasks: he has to repudiate the spirit of revenge and he has to fully embrace his beloved, Asia. Nature has no concern whatsoever about the happiness of the two people who come together to create the best possible child. Is this theory rather off-putting? It afflicts us all. Life is. Even rock stars get the blues. And we are filled with happiness when we have found our object and been accepted. You see this in one of his first major poems, Prometheus Unbound. It is a matter of transpersonal drives much stronger than we are. Shelley famously defined love as “a going out of our own nature and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own.” The definition sounds abstract and a bit cold, as though Shelley’s sense of love was Christian and monastic, but nothing could be less true. It is she who seems to have more gift for metaphysics. The instincts must be engaged and the appetites must be awakened. The mind, in this theory, actually functions as an unpaid attorney — an advocate for Nature — acting in the interest of the species. Shelley answers that it comes from love and from unbinding the imagination from the constraints imposed by repressive cultures and by the mind’s own timidity. She spends herself in shrewd, lawyerlike questioning of the poem’s weird spirit of transformation, Demogorgon. The idea is to create a winning baby, not to live happily ever after. SEPTEMBER 9, 2018

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. Rarely. He taught the implicated orbits woven
Of the wide wandering stars; and how the sun
Changes his lair and by what secret spell
The pale moon is transformed when her broad eye Gazes not on the interlunar sea:
He taught to rule, as life directs the limbs,
The tempest-winged chariots of the Ocean,
And the Celt knew the Indian. (“As high as we have mounted in delight,” the poet says, “in our dejection do we sink as low.”) Perhaps we should simply reduce our expectations, anticipate disappointment and dissatisfaction. Might we, by creating a better culture, make erotic life a sphere of enduring joy? Is it in ourselves? The intellect creates the stratagems that make love into a version of war. In love, we use our intellects instrumentally. Though I persist in thinking that no effort, however shaky, is to be disregarded, if it comes from a loving heart.  
 
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Why does love got to be so sad? Nature, Schopenhauer says, does not care for our happiness at all. It comes from the joining of lover and beloved. We plot and plan thinking that we are fulfilling our own desires, when in fact we are pursuing the desires of Nature. Though he wrote years before Darwin, his notion of Romantic love was Darwinian in virtually every way. It does not matter to Nature that the child-to-be will live in a house full of books or listen to Mozart while he is in the womb. 19,  Romance
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member  or purchase a copy at your local bookstore. Love that matters for Shelley not only dispenses sexual bliss, but fires invention, imagination, creation. But he wants more than that, too. Love is a peril and all the rest. How rarely does this happen? (About same-sex attraction, Schopenhauer has, alas, little that is illuminating to say.) Happiness is not part of Nature’s plan. You can wake up and find that besides being a splendid biological match, you two are a human match to boot. He only respects love that leads to more work, and works. For Shelley, love was the primary venture in life. The gods split these rolling unities apart, and made them into two people. Shelley will not repudiate the instincts. It’s the question of what happens to the flame. They were complete, though they were also, to be sure, rather grotesque. But many people are erotic idealists — they seek joy in love. Why does love have to be so sad? The intellect finds all of the beloved’s better qualities and enhances them. If not, then it’s merely the old biological delusion. Nature brings them together through the laws of attraction — her laws — and then, her work done, leaves the scene. When love ceases to inspire fresh creation, it is no longer love. Nietzsche may have been in a particularly prickly mood that day, but he clearly rejected the more charitable view of things: the Romantic as someone who aspires to make his or her erotic life into a spiritual life. This brings us back to the Romantics. Love is an affair of the Will, Schopenhauer says. (Nietzsche was so dedicated to Schopenhauer that when he was in the army — conceive of Nietzsche in the army! But they were merry, so merry that they made the gods jealous. Thinking of her, he cries out: “Asia! But in love, the intellect also deceives us, weaving a story about the beloved and creating a narrative that justifies the love we feel. Is it in our stars? But the Romantics were willing to take the ideal of love and Romance as being at the center of life and consider the possibility that an erotic life can be a spiritual life.