The Definition of Love

The Definition of Love

Although I ultimately failed in my attempt to capture chapter by chapter Stendhal’s book of essays about love, I do like how this particular juxtaposition turned out — that of Stendhal’s crystallization theory with Erich Fromm’s construction of love as an activity, not an affect. So I’m returning it to my site with some small edits.

Crystallization is Stendhal’s ingenious description of the projection of feelings and virtues that travel from the lover to the object of affection. Here is how he describes it:

At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original’s branch is no longer recognizable.
What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.

But this is just the initial stage. Stendhal claims that in love, for the crystallization to take its fullest form, doubt and difficulty must creep in. Here comes the material for the standard romantic comedy plot, except in 19th century Paris, Stendhal saw it playing out more like a blood sport where women always had the upper hand.

The second crystallization occurs when the lover seeks out and occasionally finds proofs that his object of affection loves him:

Every few minutes throughout the night which follows the birth of doubt, the lover has a moment of dreadful misgiving, and then reassures himself, ‘she loves me’; and crystallization begins to reveal new charms. Then once again the haggard eye of doubt pierces him and he stops transfixed. He forgets to draw breath and mutters ‘But does she love me?’ Torn between doubt and delight, the poor lover convinces himself that she could give him such pleasure as he could find nowhere else on earth.

And then eventually you reach the final stage:

The most heartrending moment of love in its infancy is the realization that you have been mistaken about something, and that a whole framework of crystals has to be destroyed. You begin to feel doubtful about the entire process of crystallization.

While this seems like a full description, Stendhal plays around with this theory for much of his book and at times it becomes a little maddening and difficult to follow. It might have been better illustrated within one of his novels instead of tied to his personal experiences.

Regardless, I think Stendhal is getting at something important about how difficulty – sometimes even defeat – can make the object of affection even more appealing.

But I think it’s worth examining whether love should be examined and defined as a feeling. Psychologist Erich Fromm in his book “The Art of Loving” spells out a very different definition of love that is starkly anti-sentimental.

First, for Fromm, love is a human imperative:

The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness. The absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity, because the panic of complete isolation can be overcome only by such a radical withdrawal from the world outside that the feeling of separation disappears – because the world outside, from which one is separated, has disappeared.

So humans are social beings and we need to find connection in others to be complete. But Fromm says most forms of connection we find are not sufficient:

The unity achieved in productive work is not interpersonal; the unity achieved in orgiastic fusion is transitory; the unity achieved by conformity is only pseudo-unity. Hence, they are only partial answers to the problem of existence. The full answer lies in the achievement of inter-personal union, of fusion with another person, in love.

But to anyone who thinks Fromm is selling some simple Hollywood “love conquers all” message, the third part draws a strict line against that as well. To Fromm, love is not about how someone makes you feel:

Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a ’standing in,’ not a ‘falling for.’ In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

So in Fromm’s construct, everything Stendhal is writing about is pure nonsense. It’s an evasion of love, a refusal to give. It’s just as transitory as the ‘orgiastic fusion’ he so hilariously drops in to describe sex. So you can just forget all of Stendhal’s categories and poetic descriptions, Fromm is saying, because attraction, vanity, mind games, idealization, and anything else that keeps people at arm's length from each other is the antithesis of love. Genuine, necessary, healing love for Fromm is about two people sacrificing for one another.

I can’t argue with Fromm. As tough minded as he is, I think he offers the most positive and humanistic approach to human relationships that I’ve read. But even in accepting that he’s right, there are a couple “yes, but ...” responses I feel are necessary here.

The first is categorical. Yes, perhaps Stendhal is using faulty terminology and is adding to the confusion about love by talking about it in this manner. But even if Stendhal is really talking about the ways that human beings avoid love, that too is a subject worth discussing, because we probably spend more time in our lives finding various distractions from Fromm’s definition of love than living in it.

The second argument I want to make is that while Fromm can de-prioritize feelings, he cannot fully explain them away. And to illustrate this, I’ll refer to the recent movie “Perfect Days,” directed by Wim Wenders. It’s about an older man named Hirayama who lives a very simple, spartan existence and works cleaning public toilets in Tokyo. The first section of the film focuses on the routine and simple pleasures of his day to day life. Part of his ritualistic approach to life consists of listening to classic rock songs on his drive in to work, including “House of the Rising Sun,” a very interesting song to hear in the context of a person living in the land of the rising sun.

But in Act II, we start to see some challenges to this ritualistic life and his serenity. His work partner is inconsistent and draws him into mini-dramas. His niece drops by his apartment and he must adjust to her. And in a very subtle, wonderful scene, he goes to a restaurant he apparently frequents often and kindly chats with the restaurant owner (who goes by Mama) as she prepares meals for several guests. Then Mama is enticed by the guests to get up and sing – which she apparently does often and someone has a guitar on hand to accompany her.

Mama sings, in Japanese, “House of the Rising Sun.” Wenders is a master of film grammar and he makes it obvious to viewers, simply by the look on Hirayama’s face, that he is in love with her. This fact will be validated later in the film, but I raise it in this context because I believe that movies are powerful because they accurately reflect the way we can and do get carried away by emotion. Fromm, while being highly humanistic in his analysis of love, has left out something essentially human.

We cannot help but to be drawn to certain people, to be charmed, to play favorites, to equate those people to music, and often cannot fully describe why. Sure, we can build lasting connection and value through our efforts, and can do this, over time, even with people we aren’t initially drawn toward.

But for many people, that process begins with feeling. And it applies to much of life, not just romantic love. People tend to do their best work when they believe in what they are doing. It’s the same in love. It is an activity and the most noble one, but it begins, very often, with simply being charmed by someone and perhaps a little intoxicated.

So, there’s a place for discussing crystallization and Stendhales affect-based view of love. However, it’s worth keeping Fromm’s construction in mind as well, because that’s the long-term approach that preserves love and ultimately allows human beings to be less alone in the world.