Monday, August 13, 2012

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Love

Love: key to the illusion of immortality.

Especially after the troubadours and thanks to the modern celebration of the individual, most people now think love is the most important and meaningful thing in the universe. And by “love,” they mean mainly romantic love between life partners and parental love for children. This conviction is represented in the philosophical movie (with the disappointing, New Agey ending), Tree of Life, in which a character says, “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

From a biological perspective, the centrality of those two kinds of love makes sense, since such strong emotional bonds are clearly mechanisms needed to preserve our genes: romantic love steps in after the particular sexual impulse wanes, keeping a couple together to care for the helpless infant that’s naturally produced by the sex act, and parental love binds parents to their children, the latter being the vessels that carry their parents’ genes into the future. So indeed, if you don’t love in those ways, the genetic code that supports your life, at least, will likely be erased with your death. The movie Tree of Life spiritualizes this biological truth, pandering to American theists with a vision of an afterlife, implying that love is needed to avoid hell or to maintain a social network to make heaven enjoyable, or some such mob fodder.  

Psychologically rather than biologically, the point would be that people who love tend to build up a rich store of memories, so that time doesn’t seem to pass as quickly to them; they’re too busy living to notice the months and years ticking by.

An existential cosmicist, though, would rewrite the movie’s line as follows: “Unless you love, you’ll appreciate that all life flashes by (compared to the duration of the cosmos).” Love preserves the genes and creates new individuals, but doesn’t actually make anyone immortal; instead, love creates the illusion of immortality by preoccupying a person with a host of day-to-day familial chores, social functions, celebrations, and so on. Without the rich experience caused by romantic and parental love, a person is free to dwell on the horrible philosophical facts of natural life. The loveless soul then lapses into alienating angst, cutting the person off from the community and thus depriving him or her of a wealth of distracting memories. Time then seems to leap forward for such a person, as shown in the film Synecdoche, New York. Love is crucial, then, not as the key to actual immortality, but as the stage for the play of a “life well-lived,” the bright lights and drama of which distract from the horrors that lie behind the scenes.

Thus, the choice to succumb to biological instinct as opposed to philosophical or mystical anxiety is the choice between two forms of alienation. You can detach from cosmic reality and live in our now mass-concocted fantasy world in which romantic myths paper over uglier biological truths or you can commune with the undead god (mindlessly creative nature) and forgo the social games that most people play.

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