On Love

Ulrich has a long intimate discussion with Diotima, which begins with Ulrich disparaging Arnheim, Diotima’s would-be lover.

“A man is vain when he prides himself on having seen the moon rise over Asia on his left while on his right Europe fades away in the sunset–this is how he once described to me his crossing of the sea of Marmara. The moon probably rises far more beautifully behind the flowerpot on the windowsill of a lovesick young girl than it does over Asia.” (I,509)

“Wherever you have intellectual ferment taking the form of convictions, it also appears almost immediately in the form of the opposing convictions. And where it is embodied in a so-called leading intellectual personality, then the moment that personality is not freely saluted on all sides, it feels as insecure as if it were in a cardboard box tossed into the water. We have a tendency in this country to fall in love with noted personalities, like the drunks who throw their arms around a stranger’s neck, only to push him away again after a while, for equally obscure reason.” (I,510)

 Ulrich asks her if she has ever been deeply, madly in love.

“We still say, nowadays, I love this woman, and I hate this man, instead of saying I find that person attractive or repellent. It would be a step closer to the truth to say that it is I, myself, who arouses in the other the capacity for attracting or repelling me, and even more accurate to say that the other somehow brings out in me the requisite qualities, and so on. We can never know where it begins, the whole thing is a functional interdependence, like the one between two bouncing balls or two electric circuits. We’ve known all that for a  long time now, but we still prefer to regard ourselves as the cause, the primal cause, in the magnetic fields of emotion around us; even when someone admits that he is merely imitating someone else, he makes it sound like an active achievement of his own. And this is why I ask you again whether you have ever been uncontrollably in love, or furious, or desperate. Because it is at such times that you can see clearly, if you are at all perceptive, that in such an overwrought state  we behave no differently from a bee on a windowpane or an amoeba in poisoned water: we are caught in a storm of movement, we dash off blindly in every direction at once, we beat our brains out against brick walls, until, by some lucky chance, we find an opening to freedom, which we promptly attribute, as soon as our consciousness has crystallized again, to a calculated plan of action.” (I,515)

 Diotima objects that his description of love seems to deprive us of free will.

“No. Think about this: If God has ordained whatever happens and always knows what will happen, how can a human being commit a sin? It’s an old question, but it’s still as good as new. What kind of trickster God would it be who sets us up to commit offenses against him, with his own prior knowledge and consent? He doesn’t merely know in advance what we are likely to do:there are plenty of examples of such resigned love; oh no, he makes us do wrong! That’s the situation in which we find ourselves today, with respect to each other. The self is losing its status as a sovereign making its own laws. We are learning to know the rules by which it develops, the influence of it environment, its structural types, its disappearance in moments of the most intense activity: in short, the laws regulating its formation and its conduct. Think of it, cousin, the laws of personality! It’s like talking of a trade union for lonely rattlesnakes or a robbers’ chamber of commerce. (I,516)

 Diotima is moved by Ulrich’s authenticity and briefly wonders what it would be like to love him.

She looked at him, smiling. It was like being with a wayward brother, in whose company one could do anything that came into one’s head. Ulrich was smiling too. But his smile was like a blind window, because now that he had indulged himself in this sort of talk with Diotima he merely felt ashamed of himself. Still, she had an intimation of the possibility of loving this man; it would be something like her idea of modern music, that is, quite unsatisfying and yet full of something excitingly different. (I,519)


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