I’ve often found serendipity and instinct better guidelines for conducting research than methodical persistence, and in that spirit have been dipping in and out of any number of theoretical books lately, looking for inspiration. One of the writers who really makes me think, time and again, is Martha Nussbaum and it was in Love’s Knowledge, in the chapter of the same name that I came upon this paragraph:
‘We deceive ourselves about love – about who; and how; and when; and whether. We also discover and correct our self-deceptions. The forces making for both deception and unmasking here are various and powerful: the unsurpassed danger, the urgent need for protection and self-sufficiency, the opposite and equal need for joy and communication and connection. Any of these can serve either truth or falsity, as the occasion demands. The difficulty then becomes: how in the midst of this confusion (and delight and pain) do we know what view of ourselves, what parts of ourselves, to trust? Which stories about the conditions of the heart are reliable ones and which the self-deceiving fictions. We find ourselves asking where, in this plurality of discordant voices with which we address ourselves on this topic of perennial self-interest, is the criterion of truth?’
Now there’s a good question. How do we know that we love, and how do we know that we are loved? The knowledge of the emotions is intense but fragile, its lightning strikes leave us blazing with a passion that compels and convicts….until it cools. Love’s knowledge looks like the Holy Grail and the scientific theory of everything rolled into one, but it rarely stands the test of time. Can a truth be open to mutation and transformation and still remain in some ways true? And there’s another paradox about it too – the knowledge of love can make us feel superhumanly lucid, but it can also cloud our vision with powerfully insistent fears and anxieties. To love is to be supremely vulnerable, and so for all the fine emotions love awakens within us, there are many pitiful and defensive ones too. It’s intriguing how often blindness is invoked in relation to passion; we talk about ‘blind devotion’ and about being ‘blinded by lust’, and there’s nothing like love for putting you into a ‘blind panic’. Love is often considered to be a compelling force or drive, divorced from doubt or hesitation, and yet it’s not just Proust who knows that love is also attended by obsessive interpretation and analysis. Are love and knowledge the perfect bedfellows or are they more like oil and water? Is love just too unstable a frame for judgement, and is judgement too heterogeneous a framework for considering love?
Nussbaum points out that for centuries, love and the intellect have been kept philosophically separate. Love and desire were considered to ‘bewitch’ the intellect and thus distort and compromise it. Objectivity, contemplation, cool rationality were the privileged terms in constructing schemes of knowledge, and love was viewed as the enemy within, undoing the good work of logic with its partisan appeals. And yet one only has to think of the way that loving someone alters, enhances, deepens the knowledge one has of them, to recognise that emotional intelligence should not be neglected and excluded from the intellectual arsenal. And equally, to have knowledge of our passions is a level of civilisation that it is surely imperative to reach.
I suppose that I think there are two distinct levels of knowledge, one created by the intellect and one by the emotions, and that they cannot be compared because they are radically different. They are equally both correct, and if you could, as it were, produce spectacles with one lens adjusted for reason, and one for emotion, you might end up looking at the world with twenty twenty vision. But in the absence of such technology, an oscillating, uncertain hesitant appropriation of the truth is all we can hope for. So, to know whether or not we are loved would require a shuttling movement between the impact of our emotions and the analysis of our logical reasoning; our sudden plummets into uncertainty and abandonment being balanced by an intellectual assessment of the situation, our exhilarating convictions tempered by a little rational restraint. And yet, I wonder; is this really an inclusive compromise, or does it simply spoil the best of either world?
Nussbaum explores the conflict between love and reason through an analogy with the conflict between literature and philosophy. In each case the understanding of self-knowledge and the criterion for measuring its truth value are wildly different, but the very project of self-knowledge lies at the heart of both. ‘Self-knowledge, even if vaguely specified, is a goal with real content and real importance, capable of organising further inquiry’ Nussbaum considers. ‘In this way it resembles the ancient Greek concept eudaimonia (“human flourishing” “the good life”), concerning the further specification of which there was little agreement, but which, as a concept, still served to organize ethical debate for centuries.’ However difficult it may be to understand our emotions, however troublesome to harness their primal power to the cargo of reason, the good life cannot be lived without our cautious, persistent and gentle enquiry into their possibilities and their effects. For there can be few greater joys than to love and to know we are loved, in full possession of our rational faculties.