My rating: ***
Badiou, Alain with Truong, Nicolas (2012) In Praise Of Love. Trans. Peter Bush, London: Serpent’s Tail
I approached this short essay interview about the notion of love (as it is enacted between lovers) with caution. I was not expecting a 75 year old male philosopher to have much to say that would resonate from a female point of view. There was however slightly more on the table than I expected and some of the discussion provided potential food for thought which crossed gender lines.
I was particularly interested by Badiou’s comments criticising the portrayal of love as something that exists in a moment outside of time. This is a view that pervades romantic literature. It is a love that cannot be enacted in the real world or survive through time. It is also reductive, fusing the difference of two into one. A philosopher like Levinas (whose religious focus Badiou rejects but adapts for more secular purposes) would argue, of course, that love presumes difference and can only exist where difference exists, it is never reduction to the Same. Badiou remarks:
‘I think many people still cling to a romantic conception of love that in a way absorbs love in the encounter. Love is simultaneously ignited, consummated and consumed in the meeting in a magical moment outside the world as it really is. something happens that is in the nature of a miracle, an existential intensity, an encounter leading to meltdown.’ (p. 23)
He cites Tristan and Isolde as an example, continuing that we need to challenge this romantic conception which although it might be beautiful in art fails to make the transition to real life. He notes: ‘Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world’. (p. 24) The duration of love is seldom dealt with in fiction (p. 50) which usually focuses on the ‘ecstasy of [..] beginnings’ (love at first sight, the ‘encounter’) and ends with ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’. He mentions Samuel Beckett as a somewhat unexpected exception. (I might add paranthetically that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is of course a demonstration of the pitfalls of trying to apply the myths of romantic fiction to everyday existence.)
One can look at this problem in relation to a variety of TV series and films. The stock standard romantic comedy of course usually falls within the expected boundaries of the magical encounter and then the happy end. Another ploy is to kill off one or both partners in order to preserve the purity of their love and happiness from the ravages of time. Many American TV series try the strategy of indefinitely postponing what the writers seem to regard as the inevitable suburban and domestic doom of all relationships, by failing to get the couples together in an infinitely prolonged process which fans commonly label as UST or unresolved sexual tension. Henry Jenkins, the noted scholar of fandom, complains about this common fan frustration in a post on his blog titled ‘A Rant About Television’s Difficulty in Representing Committed Relationships’. He observes:
I often suspect that Hollywood’s inability to depict relationships that grow over time has everything to do with the divorce rate in the entertainment capital, very little to do with the constraints of the medium (given how well television depicts the unfolding of interpersonal relationships over time) and even less to do with the desire of fans. (One of the things to pay attention to is how many of the “commitment” episodes for television series are written by a small handful of writers who have consistently ruined every couple they touched.)
He also adds interestingly that ‘contemporary writers seem incapable of writing such relationships — could it be because they are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup?’ The convenient (American) production myth has it that if you get two characters together in a series, viewers will lose interest. Perhaps this is because the writers can’t seem to imagine a relationship other than a white picket fence with both partners doomed to the drudgery of ball and chain domesticity. (Perhaps these writers could read up a bit on alternative models for relationships such as the ‘commuter marriage’, popular in academic circles). A couple of series which readily spring to mind in terms of being unable to come to a sensible resolution on this front are Remington Steele and La Femme Nikita (the 1990s series). There are many others. Jenkins cites Castle as perhaps an exception, but I beg to differ. Like Bones, I find that if the writing in this series is able to sustain fairly basic (and not terribly adventurous) characterisation, it is less successful in demonstrating how those characters are modified by their relationships with each other.
Attempts to show long(ish) committed relationships in romantic comedies like Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) can also be dreary, unconvincing and unbearably saccharine. One can only wonder what demographic this particular film was addressing. The story takes place from the point of view of a rich executive male (Nicholas Cage) with a Ferrari and a string of one night stands, who slips into a parallel world of ghastly suburban domesticity of seemingly volontary semi-poverty with a one time girlfriend. The film – or writers – seem irretrievably torn between (what they regard as) the moral example which is life in the suburbs versus the guilty but exhilarating freedom of a high-flying Christmas-neglecting single life.
Returning to Badiou’s terminology, there is good material out there which shows love between couples (of any orientation) as duration rather than the momentary eruption of the eternal into the real, but one has to search for those rare examples amidst the mountains of dross which foreground the love/romance event with all its artificial boundaries and dubious links to the transcendent eternal.