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Crazy little thing called active love

Peter Quaranto | Wednesday, February 9, 2005

With Valentine’s Day under a week away, I thought I might weigh in with some quaint reflections on the topic du jour – love. Before we plunge into the American slushy mantra of chocolate sweets and Hallmark maxims, perhaps we ought to reflect upon this evasive, intricate “crazy little thing called love.”

Especially in a university setting, the picking is ripe for erotic queries, ranging from the sociological to the theological, from the epistemological to the mathematical. Yet, all inquiries lead to one: What is the meaning of love? That is the question that I not only pose in this column, but attempt to answer.

The historical narrative of Valentine’s Day contains vestiges of both ancient Rome and early Christianity. The Christian feast day of St. Valentine’s was set at the time of the Roman pagan Lupercalia festival, a period of purification for homes, livestock and most of all, women. In ancient times on this festival day, boys would run around, slapping women with strips of goat’s hide in the hopes of increasing fertility.

The feast of St. Valentine specifically arose, though, from the life of Valentine, a third century priest who was executed for refusing to consent to the outlaw of marriage by the militarized Roman state. It is also believed that Valentine’s state execution transpired because he helped Christians escape from brutal prisons. Thus, Valentine’s Day is really a celebration of the legacy of a man’s courageous acts of public defiance and civil disobedience against the unjust legal system of an empire-state. Go figure.

According to the ancient Greek tradition, there are three types or forms of love – eros, philia and agape. The first being intense, sexual passion, while the second is committed appreciation or respect. Finally, agape, the selfless form of love, puts the good of the other before the good of one’s self. Given the guidance of the Greeks, it would appear that the ideal love is some amalgamation of the three.

Yet, can love be so easily pigeonholed by Platonic forms and Aristotelian logic? Over the years since the reign of the Greeks, there is much in literary tradition that gives life to the contours of our understanding of love. In Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, “War and Peace,” Prince Andrew exclaims, “Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love.” Prince Andrew seems to thrust aside Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” for some form of “amo ergo sum.” I love, therefore I am.

Perhaps, though, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: “Every great love brings with it the cruel idea of killing the object of its love …” Nietzsche, the great nihilistic, believed that traditional Western philosophy, particularly Christian thought, leads us to servile morality, and consequently, servile love that consumes us. In some ways, Nietzsche’s discussion of love runs parallel with that of the character Rosalind, in the Shakespearean play “As You Like It,” who pronounces, “Love is merely a madness.”

I think, however, Nietzsche tends to overlook the softer, gentler, non-killing side of love. Another Shakespeare character, in “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” speaks of that softness: “Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible than the tender horns of cockled snails.” What is softer than tender horns of cockled snails? Yes, true love makes even the hardest warriors the gentlest poets. Would it be unjust to call love transformative?

According to Rainer Maria Rilke, it would be quite just. He proclaims, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is but preparation.” In his writings, Rilke speaks of love in action more than love as a state. He contends that active love is a way of living, a way of seeing, a way of relating authentically and truthfully.

This concept of “active love” is also articulated in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a book that includes everything there is to know about life. In the book, Father Zossima declares, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Harsh and dreadful – quite. Transformative – certainly.

In our recent times, we have come to accentuate the more velvety, cushy, chocolaty, orgasmic elements of love. From the axioms of the card companies to the thrill of “Desperate Housewives,” we have assented to a glorified quick-fix romance of dreams. That is not to denounce modern Valentine’s Day, but to draw attention to its incompleteness. Are we not dishonest and foolish to disregard the rich tradition of understanding love that runs through pagan fertility rituals, Christian anti-establishment radicalism, Aristotelian ethics, Shakespearean monologues and Dostoevskyian moral psychology?

All things considered, though, it is quite foolish to attempt to define love intellectually, rationally or even irrationally for it is beyond our tools of comprehension or articulation. I will simply venture to state this: love is lived in defying, trusting, grieving, sacrificing, blessing, empathizing among other things. Love is an active verb, not a passive noun. So in five days, enjoy your chocolates as we celebrate a way of life, the greatest way of life. For Dostoevsky, as always, was right about the power and liberation of active love.

Peter Quaranto is a junior political science and international peace studies major. He writes from Kampala, Uganda this semester where he is studying. Contact Peter at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.