I suppose I ought return now, having wandered over my tangents, to that question about love, romance, and sex. To do so, I first must return to McCulloch, who wrote a fascinating essay in 1969, “Of I and It.” His thesis: “those events that occur as intended may be experienced by the actor as I, me, mine; all else, as it.” He nodded to those like Hobbes, whose Leviathan, and its faith in subordinating particular bodies within that of an artificial body politic, he quoted by way of introduction, and those like Foucault and Searle whose interests, as I alluded before, I perceive in the way of the Kantian “epistemological knower,” whether by studying how the control of knowledge renders power, or analyzing our intentions through our knowledge about communicative acts. McCulloch though was too much of a scientist and advocated for the seldom understood “empirical knowers” (dare I say of logical sense):
“To know the beautiful, the holy, the universe, or even my lady, in the sense of being one with them, is to know even as a scientist knows his little domain of data. If you ask him what he means when he says that something is real, he will tell you that it is real if it goes by some law of its own! But his test remains like that of the self-distrustful sentimental lover. He is sure that it is love, and not just his invention or his fancy, only when it goes against him.”
It comes perhaps as no surprise then that he ends with a Ginsburg poem – no, not Allen’s, but his father Louis’ – “Octopus in an Aquarium Tank,” as if begging us to pursue the promises of the Devilfish, once the wonder of scientists becoming self-aware neuroscientists fascinated with this invertebrate’s nervous system able to operate without any feedback.
There was a time I too was a confirmed epistemological knower who believed faithfully in the power of narrative – in the stories we tell ourselves – to understand ourselves and our world. It was, as again McCulloch puts it, a theory of consciousness and self-consciousness in terms of their “social sense of the agreement of witnesses.”
I became though like Katya in Chekhov’s “A Boring Story.” Once in love with the theater and inspired to be an actress she becomes disillusioned upon actually living that life and sponsoring its activity. She returns, tainted with the sins of a broken relationship out of wedlock and an illegitimate child who died, to live near her once guardian, an old, renowned doctor slowly dying between his scientific lectures. Although regularly courted by a pompous philologist, her real love, albeit a somewhat daughterly love, is for the doctor, and she tries to make his life more comfortable, recognizing his own family fails to really see him and his struggles to survive, whether that be to support their increasingly aristocratic tastes, or his students’ demands for intellectual social climbing, or to just breathe as his health fails him.
Chekhov, a sometime confident of Tolstoy, so often visited that shared tension between decisive action – of sovereign will or intent – and scientific contemplation – of the stream of conscious awareness of the attended moment-by-moment of the here and now, and the tension too between intimate, expressive love and social conformity and its blind indifference.
Katya’s doctor recognizes that sovereignty – as in Baudelaire – was being usurped as a person’s right as it was slowly being placed in some nebulous, indifferent artifice he cannot free himself of no matter the spite it causes him. The tragic end is that Katya in her existential angst demands action from her beloved doctor; she wants him to do something to help make her feel better, and he cannot do anything but respond “there’s nothing,” that he is incapable of helping her, that he doesn’t know, and with that she leaves him as he feels the loss of her treasured love and being.
What’s more, that moment of loss occurs precisely when the doctor is away trying to discover, at his wife’s insistence, whether his daughter’s suitor is a fraud or not. Just as he discovers the suitor is indeed a fraud, the doctor receives an indifferent telegram telling him to come home because his daughter, a student of music, and the fraud, a self-proclaimed critic of music and theater, had married.
One is implicated in the indifferent truth of the success of deceit. One day, if I ever pull myself together, I’d like to write about what happens to Katya after she leaves the doctor. I imagine her, broken, returning dejected to that pompous philologist that courts her, but only in private, for it gives him cover to mock the society that refuses to recognize her. She confronts him with this truth, demanding he act on his real convictions, and to marry her. He delays, he hedges, he makes grand promises for weeks and months, between jealous barbs at her old doctor, and then one day, as she breaks habit and, at considerable expense to herself, visits him at his classroom, he reveals himself as a prisoner of the very society he detests, for upon seeing her, his own autonomic nervous system revolts in a spontaneous thunder of hacking, and he too pretends to fail to know her but as anything more than some forgotten old acquaintance, throwing her right back into the grips of the doctor to whose authority he in fact deferred.
It is the bind the modern philosopher like Descartes puts one in. Love – to be true love, or something with eternal value – must be volitional, and as for those passions of the body, for them to become of authentic value, rather than mere deceptive errors, they must be purified of their worldliness, or more precisely, reasoned into clear and distinct ideas.
I myself am confused by love. I told that man in search of a soul mate that I wavered in understanding it as a political emotion of justice qua Martha Nussbaum or an historically imposed ideological manipulation of empire qua Elizabeth Povinelli, and in understanding romance as those formalized rites of honorable courtship or nature formally strained – may we say alienated – in moral, aesthetic ideals, masking the underlying brute Machiavellian machinations of our hungry sexual desires and animalistic appetites.
Either way, neither is as destitute as that existential angst of helpless indifference, the real antithesis of love. It is this I think that troubled Kierkegaard in his Philosophical Fragments written under the auspices of Johannes Climacus (whose Ladder of Divine Ascent was evoked too by Wittgenstein at the mystical end of his Tractus, to his mentor Russell’s blind and deaf horror.)
Kierkegaard attempted to understand this paradox, in which the imminent is negated in the essence of God or the Universe at the same time its emergence is an existential leap of faith in its very divinity. This passion is Socratic or Christ-like, at the cross of the erotic and self, the love of that of another and that for one’s self, in which the self becomes the surrendered spoils of the war of eroticism, of that which one must unconsciously seek to survive, to exist, a spiritual trial whose paradox understanding shatters. This passion, Kierkegaard suggests is not necessarily love, but concludes something “we must simply try to find a name for.”
To end once more on McCulloch, it, an indifferent evil that is always real, like an historical event or developmental conflict, unlike the nebulousness of goodness, like a future expectation based on a past promise, must be negated, ought to be refuted:
“In presenting this thesis to you as an invasion of communication theory into psychology and philosophy, it is my hope that it will sooner or later encounter evil, namely, a flat contradiction in fact. Only such a fate will prove that it was not a pseudologiafantástica but the theory I intended it to be. I commend it to you for refutation.”
And so it goes, I buck against that horse whisperer who would break again my heart, that organ Harvey declared, against Descartes’ mechanical objections, the life of animals, “the sovereign of everything within them, the sun of their microcosm, that upon which all growth depends.” But why is it I feel we have become but ghosts in a machine?