Decades into his long life, poet Robert Graves defined love as “the recognition of the integrity and truth of another person in such a way that…you both shine when you perceive the quality in the other.” A generation later, poetic playwright Tom Stoppard defined it as “knowing each other…knowing oneself, its truth, its truth, on the brink of death, the mask slipped off the face.” This undisguised truth is the antidote to the most dangerous work of fiction the Romantics have inherited—their model of love as a union of lover and loved, a kind of fusion of self, with a sign of mutual completion rather than mutual recognition and delight in two parallel perfections.
Such cheerful acknowledgment of others is the foundation of love and the foundation of morality—both require not a bridge to the self but a self-denial, and both are subject to a fundamental misconception that breaks the foundation upon which they rest. Almost every religious, spiritual, and contemplative tradition in the history of our species, when stripped of its mystical and counterscientific aspects, carries at its heart an ethic of love. But also central in almost every tradition, especially in the West, is the dangerous falsification of love into one’s own hands.
Known as the Golden Rule, it mistakens the reality of the self for the only reality, taking one’s desires, desires, and longings as universal and assuming that the other specifically shares those things—negating the other’s sovereign reality, and denying the possibility that a very different person might want to do something very different. for him.
The cure for this disease of the self is to remember that there are many kinds of infinitely beautiful life, each with its own unique longings and visions of beauty, goodness, and joy. Nothing reminds us of this more easily than art, inviting one to enter into the intimate realities of the afterlife—the word ‘sympathy’, after all, arose in the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art—and no one has this reminder brighter than the unfashionable novelist-philosopher. Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999).
Long before her classic 1970 movie good lord, with his beautiful conception of art as an “occasion for self-abandonment,” Murdoch began to develop these ideas in an article titled “The Sublime and the Good,” originally published in Chicago review in 1959 and was later included in the Posthumous Magnificent Collection Existentialists and Sufis: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (a public library).
Art and morals… are one. Their essence is the same. Their essence is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the very difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, as well as art and morals, is the discovery of truth.
In the same era as Alan Watts, across the Atlantic, warning that “life and reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you give them to others” as he introduces Eastern teachings into the West, Murdoch builds on the parallels between art and morality through the multiple dimensions of love – Personal and political, individual and collective:
The enemies of art and morals, the enemies of love, are the same: social conventions and neuroses. One may fail to see the individual… because we ourselves are immersed in a social entity that we uncritical allow to determine our reactions, or because we see each other exclusively as such. Or we may fail to see the individual because we are completely trapped in our own imaginary world in which we try to paint things from the outside, not internalizing their reality and independence, making them our own dreams. Imagination, the enemy of art, is the true enemy of imagination: love, an exercise of imagination… a practice of overcoming oneself, expelling imagination and tradition… is indeed exhilarating. It’s also, if we do it right which we rarely do, it hurts.
In a sentiment that recalls James Baldwin’s reflection on love and his wistful remark that “there is nothing more than freedom, once one has had it,” Murdoch adds:
The tragic freedom involved in love is this: We all have an indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the existence of others. Tragic, because there is no prefabricated harmony, and some, to a certain extent we never cease to discover, are different from ourselves … Freedom of confrontation is exercised by one another, in the context of an infinitely expandable act of imaginative understanding, of two infinitely Irreducible to different individuals. Love is imaginary recognition, that is, respect for this other.
Complete this part of Existentialists and mystics – which also gave us Murdoch about art as a resistance and key to great storytelling – with beautiful, almost unbearable love letters, then revisit Tolstoy on love and morals.