Love is a Battlefield

By GN Devy 0

And we’re fighting for our future. Our fraught quest to find meaning in love might be what makes us human, argues GN Devy. It imbues mankind with a cosmic grace

Edvard Munch: The Kiss, 1897 Oil on canvas 99 x 81 cm, Munch Museum, Oslo Photo © Munch Museum

Edvard Munch: The Kiss, 1897 | Oil on canvas, 99 x 81 cm | Munch Museum, Oslo | Photo © Munch Museum

One of the celebrated lyric poems of the English Romantic poet Shelley opens with the lines:


      One word is too often profaned

      For me to profane it,

      One feeling too falsely disdained

      For thee to disdain it

The poet refrains from using the word “love” until the second stanza; and there too, he marks it as an unmentionable:

      I can give not what men call love

      But wilt thou accept not

      The worship the heart lifts above

      And the Heavens reject not,—

Shelley’s is a classical statement of what used to be described as Platonic love—spiritual, intuitive, inward, not to be violated by word or act and sacred even more than life itself. Plato himself held that the “madness of love is the greatest of heaven’s blessings” and “at the touch of love every man becomes a poet”. The mysterious power of love, its unfailing ability to transform the human-beast into an angelic being, its utter irrationality, is celebrated in the literature and arts of all civilisations in all ages.

The word “love” has forever excited the human imagination. In many ways it has moved countless individuals more profoundly than even hunger and fear of death. Yet, love has not been an unchanging, eternal emotion, nor has it had exactly identical connotations across cultures and over different epochs in history.

In Europe, from the ancient Greek culture of Homer to the modern Industrial civilisation, the notion of love witnessed several radical shifts. The love of Paris for Helen of Troy is beyond the moral, a quirk of the Olympian gods directed towards ending an epoch and beginning another. Not much different in its self-destructive quality is the love of Orpheus for Eurydice. Both are suffused with valour and self-annihilation, a heroic striving towards the impossible. Similarly, the love of Antony for Cleopatra is pure death wish, like the moth drawn towards the burning flame. Though utterly destructive, it is irresistible. Or as Shakespeare put it, “It hurts and is desired.”

However, during the late Middle Ages, love acquired the reputation of being a pure act of madness, a symptom of an acute attack of melancholia, the most dreaded diseases of the puritans. Thus we see Shakespeare talking of it as no more than a lunatic frenzy:

      The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

      Are of imagination all compact:

      One sees more devils than vast hell can hold—

      That is the madman: The lover, all as frantic,

      Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt

It is the destructive power of love and the self-consuming lunacy as its compelling feature that Milton scaled up to a cosmic proportion a century later in his Paradise Lost. He picked up the Biblical myth of man’s original parents and placed the sense of guilt for their inaugural “knowledge” at the centre of his theology. The subsequent generation of writers, the Romantics, managed to give love the dignity it deserves, but that was shortlived. With Freud’s construction of the unconscious, love got tied almost without any redress to desire and aggressive lust.

Throughout its fluctuating trajectory, love in the European imagination remained a synonym for destruction, lunacy, guilt, shame and secret fear. The individual’s loneliness that was at the heart of modernity brought love’s difficult journey to its fateful conclusion, making it a sheer impossibility, an absurd statement of alienation.

Of course, woven closely together with these denials of love, there have also been some of its moving and alluring affirmations. Jesus Christ, willing to go to the cross for spreading the message of love; Dante’s “Beatific” vision as the ultimate in spirituality; Shakespeare’s iconic depiction of power and innocence in the mutual longing of Juliet and Romeo; Gustave Flaubert’s presentation of the unbridled Madame Bovary; and DH Lawrence’s evocative Lady Chatterley experience of an everlasting tenderness, for instance, capably provide the antithesis of the dominant European discourse of love.

The Indian myths of love range from the longing of Nala for Damayanti, Puru for Urvashi, Dushyanta for Shakuntala, and the Yaksha in Kalidasa’s Meghdootam for his estranged beloved. And, there are also the strong women like Savitri in deep love with Satyavana and Vasantsena for Charudatta. One may tend to seek an easy juxtaposition of love in India as against love in Europe. One may argue that these mythical, literary characters do not appear to reflect any sense of guilt, shame or fear in relation to their sentiment of love, nor is love considered by them responsible for destruction, end of a dynasty or a fatal self-negation.

However, a closer scrutiny may reveal that, perhaps neither love nor tragedy as forms of representation appear to have exercised the imagination of creative minds in India. At least, not till medieval times when the legends of Heer and Ranjha, Saleem and Anarkali, and such, started gaining ascendancy. Yet, even in those centuries, the non-destructive love of Radha or Mira continued to retain centrality in the spectrum of the desirable spiritual or psychological impulses. Of course, one cannot conclude on the basis of these uncomplicated examples that Indians have been kinder to love than Europeans. The truth is probably quite the opposite.

In our history, the relatively more open society of the early Vedic times turned itself repeatedly into something ghettoised and morally rigid. Bold, courageous women as characterised in the Mahabharata, appear to have been brought to suffocation within the inflexible frame of the caste code. The pre-Kalidasa Shakuntala could not resurface with all her wanton will in the poet’s time, and the questing Savitri of the pre-Christian era was reduced in later centuries to the exemplar of wifely devotion. Despite the much celebrated Radha and Mira of myth, history and legend, Indian women have had to suffer a near animal-like existence, caged within the typecast identities of wife or widow, denied expression and space to both show and experience love.

There is, in most Indian languages, a commonly used English compound noun—“love-marriage”. It means marriage outside one’s own caste. The wide currency the phrase has goes to show that for centuries love was in no way associated with marriage. If at all, it had an overwhelmingly negative connotation. A man and more so a woman expressing his or her “love” for a person of the opposite sex was subjected to social boycott, isolation, kangaroo court justice and, occasionally, mob-lynching. Love in those circumstances was read as a synonym for immorality.

Over the last century and a half, social reformers in India have had to fight many battles in the long-drawn, still ongoing, struggle to establish love as a natural human emotion. Literature, theatre and cinema have made very significant contributions to lifting the status of love from taboo to totem. But the khap panchayats continue to exist and the caste and tribal distinctions still cling to us like an ominous shadow to a cursed body. Just as Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is a severe indictment of the idea and the practice of caste, so is the heart-rending question of the tragic heroine of Mughal-e-Azam, “Pyar kiya toh darna kya? Pyar kiya, koi chori nahi ki, pyar kiya.” (Love is no crime, why should one be so terrified?) The question resonated in the minds of Indians like nothing else had. The courage and clarity with which it was asked made the movie a classic for all time. It was a reminder, though, that love is still illicit, still needs to fight for the space it should take for granted.

One should add that love is not a sentiment defining the man-woman relationship alone. Love can be the foundation on which several other fundamental relations need be built. These include the relation between humans and nature, between man and God, between individuals and society and, of course, one’s relation with one’s own self. Such an all-pervasive love was at the heart of the life and teachings of Buddha, Christ, Mira and Gandhi. This higher-category love is what Buddha called karuna and Gandhi called ahimsa. One way to understand the futuristic nature of the concept of love is to read it in terms of these near synonyms. The other is to look at it from the perspective of its antonym, hatred.

One of the critiques of modern Western rationality is that it generated not only science but also violence. And just as science held logic as its ultimate test of authenticity, violence held hatred as its core validation. Over the last hundred years, hatred has driven the Nazis to create the Holocaust, whites in South Africa to practise apartheid, communists to carry out frequent purges, nation after nation to wage destructive military conflicts on neighbouring nations, terrorists to make entirely innocent people victims of brutal attacks. In the name of ideology, faith, territory and race, all drawing legitimacy from stereotyping, hatred and excessive self-love, humans have earned the distinction of being the unique species engaged in systematically exterminating its own members.

Limitless greed should be added to hatred as a related antonym of love. It induces silent genocide, triggers involuntary mass migrations, results in proliferation of ecologically destructive projects and generates emotion that makes love an outcaste, a pariah in the imaginaries of the futures. Hatred-driven violence is more manifest in modern times; but it is not that the past ages were entirely free of them. It is an enigma that, despite knowing the spiritually healing power of love and its great social dividends, love has been a constant loser in the arena of lived lives of humans.

If indeed humans have not succeeded in establishing love as a fundamental tenet of existence through their collective long history of half a million years, there must be some difficulty in doing so which is deeper than one normally sees. One rather obvious premise in the direction of unravelling the enigma is that, after all, humans too are animals like other animal species, and to be animal is—as wrongly interpreted—to be violent. In this argument, Nature is seen as inherently and amorally violent. However, given the very high degree of socialisation attained by the human species and the complexity of inter-relations entailed in it, the “naturalistic” argument appears too naive to be taken seriously.

A far more helpful insight in understanding the nature of the enigma can come from linguistics. That insight may be stated as follows: even if the formation of society began in history because of the need for physical security, the ease of scouting for food and the pressure to regenerate the species, socialisation did not acquire stability till abstract signs were invented to transact meaning. In simpler words, it was when sound-based symbols came into use for conveying thoughts that humans first experienced being linked in thought with other humans. This linkage is radically different from linkages created by animal instincts such as hunger, fear, and the need for procreation.

Once the process of “being linked in thought” began, a community of holders of a shared meaning started getting formed. Till then, the species was physically united but mentally segregated. We are told that semantically linked human communities start emerging some 70 thousand years before our time. Sociologists call these “phenomenological communities”. They have members with clearly individualised thought experience, but connected by their shared belief in the permanence of meaning, if not of all, at least of certain vocal symbols. These relatively more permanent meanings form a general category called concepts. The farther a given concept is removed from direct sensory experience, the more lasting they become.

Truth is one such concept. We all speak in its name. Wars are fought for defending this or that version of truth. Yet, it would be impossible to establish in any material or logical form what “truth” really is. Beauty, too, is a similar concept. We think we have access to its comprehensive meaning, but put to test one realises how elusive the idea called “beauty” is. Love belongs to this peculiar category of concepts. Perhaps, the most problematic among the concepts in this category is God. Innumerable individuals have made attempts throughout the ages to grasp the idea “god”, to experience it through the sensory or mental agencies within the command of humans and to describe it. The results of their attempts have produced numerous schools of theology, but no ultimate and undisputed description or representation.

Given the nature of these concepts, they come to be seen as deeply related or even as synonyms. Thus, it becomes both possible and necessary to maintain that truth is God or vice versa. Or, beauty is love, or vice versa. John Keats’ celebrated lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”, is an eloquent statement of how the mutually interchangeable universal concepts acquire meaning primarily because they are not supposed to have any meaning that is within the grasp of human understanding.

Since such is the nature of the concept “love”, a concept postulated for keeping phenomenological communities together though not having any “knowable” meaning, our encounter with love is entirely “ours”. To draw an analogy with the similar notion of God: every temple, statue, image, painting, photograph and depiction of God remains essentially our depiction rather than God herself or himself. The impossibility of knowing or fully expressing the complete meaning of beauty or love need not drive one to utter nihilism. Not everything is yet lost in our process of evolution.

The history of language shows that as the human grasp of material reality goes on widening, as the horizons of our perception of what constitutes reality rise higher, concepts that had remained predominantly inaccessible start acquiring clearer contours. They then enter the arena of lived culture. In other words, love is an idea that we need to chase so that we come to a decisive turning point in our evolutionary journey from being an animal to being human. It is our collective future, or as Shelley put it, love is:

      The desire of the moth for the star,

      Of the night for the morrow,

      The devotion to something afar

      From the sphere of our sorrow

The lovers, poets, and lunatics of our time—the emerging communities championing ecology-friendly lifestyles, those in search of beauty beyond the cosmetic, and those engaged in unravelling the secrets that make the cosmos what it is—have encouraging news in the area of language dynamics. It appears that in the midst of the unprecedented collapse of natural languages, some entirely unprecedented symbolic systems are emerging in the form of images with the ability to move across planets. These new symbolic and image-based systems of meaning are beginning to create paces for an as yet unknown way of forming phenomenological communities. For those meaning-communities of the future, universal love may well become a lived experience, liberating it from its prison of the body and the sentiment. It can be the sthayi bhava, an everlasting substance. That is, provided we allow the earth to breathe and to survive.

This article was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.

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