This Valentine’s Day, instead of chocolate and roses, how about pondering the nature of radical love?
Consider the ancient example of Peter Abelard, the twelfth-century French theologian whose penetrating insights into the problem of universals and nominalism altered medieval philosophy, and his lover, the equally brilliant Héloïse d’Argenteuil.
Of course if there is one thing that people remember about the affair it is its tragic conclusion, which has been mourned, romanticized, and parodied over the past eight centuries.
The romance was incendiary stuff for a reason. After a secret marriage Abelard sent Héloïse to a nunnery, and was duly attacked—and castrated—by her uncle’s henchmen. He eventually took monastic orders, and Héloïse became a nun, and the two began a correspondence which is a classic of medieval literature. Their letters are hurtful, tragic, pedantic, and yet still beautiful—in other words (despite the drama of their situation) they were real.
As Héloïse wrote with obvious frustration to Abelard, “The heart of man is a labyrinth, whose windings are very difficult to be discovered.” Where we think of love in the medieval era as pure chivalry, or as a Platonic ideal (Petrarch with his Laura or Dante with his Beatrice) Abelard and Héloïse were real to each other.
So what makes their love meaningful right now? Because at the risk of indulging in that old sentimentalism which has so often shadowed them, Abelard and Héloïse present a model of the continuing radicalism of the word “love.” In not just their sacrifice or their attachment, but most importantly in their dialogue, they present the most radical implications of what love is—a breaking down of the wall which defines the narcissistic self.
Abelard writes to Héloïse that, “You perished by my means, and I with you. The same waves swallowed us both up,” reminding us that hate and love are the only emotions with the power to remake the world, each others’ twined inversion. And though there is something unmistakably frightening in the monk’s confession, he has discovered that his single identity has perished so that a new one can be born. Swallowed by those waves Abelard and Héloïse are not sinking, but rather swimming.
He ends that letter by tenderly writing, “I hope you will be contented, when you have finished this mortal life, to be buried near me.”
Love is the process which undoes the atomistic nature of our individual consciousness. Reminding ourselves, today, that love is not a cultural or social product, but rather a countermeasure against the demonic Prince of this World.
Love is radical because love removes the locus of attention from the self alone. Love is radically transformative because if you think of yourself as a creature separate from commerce or biology, then the concept of being part of something bigger than yourself is inherently opposed to systems of oppression. The French philosopher Alain Badiou says that love is an antidote to self interest. As such, love is a profoundly political thing (as all things by necessity are), but in that all politics is sublimated theology, love is of course theological as well.
Love is at the center of any genuine liberatory politics – love for your fellow human as well as assertion of the right to love. But love must also be at the center of any genuine theology, for what is the story of the Gospels but a type of love story? Badiou writes that love is “an individual experience of potential universality,” a particularly incarnational perspective. Witness the theological profundity of the statement that “God is love.”
In many ways English suffers a deficiency when it comes to the word “love,” which is meant to include romantic, erotic, familial, fraternal, and social varieties under one term. The Greeks had four for our one: eros, agape, philia, and storge.
But in many ways love’s very ineffability is part of its power, a signifier not unlike the word “God,” which is itself the place in which the dialogue and connection which marks love can be enacted. And as God is frightening, often so too is love. Diane Ackerman writes that love
is an emotion that scares us more than cruelty, more than violence, more than hatred. We allow ourselves to be foiled by the vagueness of the word. After all, love requires the utmost vulnerability.
But in our daily reality that is hardened by cruelty and selfishness (same as it ever was) the radicalism of love is that it admits to that powerlessness, to that vulnerability.
Part of love is the conversation of what love is—which is what puts the concept into that rarefied realm of words which say what cannot be said, which simply point to the transcendent things which they signify (again, like God). And despite the machinery of of the market, and the ravages of history, love must endure.
Love is a profound act of faith in things larger than oneself, and the hope and understanding that those things are not just bigger than you, but better than you as well. Badiou, again, writes that “Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.”
The hurdles, and the stakes, have never been higher: real love can and must endure.