Philosopher Alan Watts’ views on ‘love’

Length: 1239 words

“Love is always something more and something different than can be captured by any single definition” (Watts, 2002).

Love is a universal phenomenon of life. Where ever life exists, love manifests there. Love can take various configurations too. While romantic love is the most publicised and celebrated type, parental love, sibling love and compassionate love towards larger humanity are all equally powerful and valid. Besides, there is also the love of art that powers creative energies, and the love of knowledge and discovery that drives a scientist toward this goal. Since Alan Watts is a spiritualist and philosopher, his understanding of love would have encompassed all of these possibilities. This essay would venture the arduous task of confining to words the endless scope and interpretation of this time-honoured concept.

Evolutionary sociology has offered to lay bare the practical and rather mundane reasons why love exists between two individuals of a species. While falling short of defining love, evolutionary sociology does elicit a connection between love and warm-bloodedness – a defining quality of all mammals, including us. (Bender, 1996, p115) It has also established

“a relation between love, handedness, and speech; the disappearance of estrus; and possible mitochondrial involvement in the genetics of homosexuality.

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Further, young mammals need more intensive care than the offspring of reptiles, which lack the biological substrates of love, including milk and tears. Noting that even left-handed mothers tend to hold babies with the head near the heart, it is contended that right-handedness evolved from holding babies in this orientation, and that the localization of speech in the right hemisphere followed.” (Acree, 1999, p.109)

Far removed from the bland theoretical and scientific portrayals of love, the cultural presentations of it take an emotional and artistic hue. William Shakespeare, the playwright of the highest reputation, has showcased love in all its manifestations. His encyclopaedic understanding of human motivation and interpersonal psychology makes the critique and interpretation surrounding his works relevant to this essay. Marcus Nordlund is one contemporary critique of The Bard, and he reckons that “a concept like love is not based in nature at all, but is rather a historically variable construct”. (Schalkwyk, 2009, p.256) In his book Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution, Nordlund goes against the grain of conventional Shakespeare studies and brings attention back on the nature of love in the plays. Nordlund attempts to bring love to its full glory by overcoming the theoretical and political presuppositions it has suffered erstwhile. But the challenge of constructing a new theoretical framework for love is impeded by the broad range of meanings and definitions that are already attributed to it. In most cases these definitions are contradictory and don’t lend themselves for synthesis. Nordlund tries to accommodate all the forms of love in his study of Shakespeare, including a cultural-biological perspective based on evolutionary theory. The irreconcilability of the literary traditions associated with love and the Darwinist and Marxist perspectives is well captured by the following passage:

“Literary scholars generally hold a broadly constructivist view of human emotion and sexual identity. Darwinism posits continuity derived from natural selection that would appear to many to be shamelessly essentialist. Against the Foucaultian view of short-term epistemic shifts and the more broadly historicist notion of cultural distance and difference, it assumes an extreme longue duree of adaptation against which cultural differences are no more than epiphenomena. And in contrast to Marxist denials of the existence of any trans-historical human qualities or essence, it makes no apologies for its belief in a fundamental human nature grounded in biological fact.” (Schalkwyk, 2009, p.256)

There are more challenges to defining love. If we trace the manner in which the word has been used by various cultural groups on different occasions, we would come up with a perplexing yet extremely rich “manifold of uses, some contradictory, some overlapping each other, some with apparently no connection except the signifier, and some with apparent, but very complicated, family resemblances. We would find no core or essence that holds all these uses together.” (Netting, 2009, p.519) Hence a more pragmatic approach would be to just decide what love (or “romantic love”) means, and get on with it. There is also the question of grammar and linguistic limitations. For example, during the Shakespearean era, the word ‘love’ was more semantically flexible than in current times. During the former, the word covered a wide range of phenomena from friendship to even non-emotive phenomena. It is not an exaggeration to claim that beneath these multifarious representations of the word there lies a core, revealed by “Darwinism, materialism [in the non-Marxist sense in which all human phenomena are assumed to be materially caused], and evolutionary psychology”. (Schalkwyk, 2009, p.256)

Just as The Bard is a vital source for understanding love, so are the Greek and Roman intellectuals of the ancient world. The fact that their views on love are still in currency (for example Platonic love still part of the lexicon) underscores not just the universality of love but also the validity of their insights. (Secomb, 2007, p.23) This assessment could be extended to the Poets of Divine Love too. Alessandro Vettori’s book of the same name is an investigation into the intermingling of religious inspiration and rhetorical elaboration behind the work of two main authors of twelfth-century vernacular literature: Francis of Assisi and Iacopone da Todi. (Anichini, 2009, p.154) In this milieu, love is seen as the aspiration for the human to merge with God. The challenges of defining this experience through language are expressed thus:

“The moment in which the human soul merges with Christ represents the peak of mystical experience, and the content challenging any mystic writer. Since this moment is by nature ultra-mundane and ultra-sensorial, therefore ineffable, it creates the conditions for linguistic experiments. Vettori’s analysis is based on the paradox implicit in Franciscan poetry: that especially the language of poetry, despite its high degree of elaboration, best serves the purpose of describing the joining of the human soul with the divine, the experience most remote from human capacities of expression.” (Anichini, 2009, p.154)

The profundity and sanctity accorded to love in the days of Francis of Assisi is a far cry from how it has come to be defined in contemporary consumerist culture. As bookstores are being flooded by self-help manuals, even titles such as How to Marry the Man of Your Choice, How to Get Married in a Year or Less, and How to Marry the Rich have cropped up. The assumption that love is a commodity subject to scarcity is central to these courtship manuals. Female audiences being the base, these so-called scholarly works highlight the short supply of marriageable men and the need for women to compete for them. The book Beating the Odds compares it to the supply-and-demand dynamics of the marketplace. These courtship manuals urge women to use aggressive sales tactics like getting a nose job, colouring gray hair; growing your hair long, etc. It also suggests, “’Be quiet and mysterious, act ladylike, cross your legs and smile. Don’t talk so much.’ The implication is that we can’t expect to be loved for who we really are. A stubby nose, baggy sweatshirt, or loud laugh might drive potential mates into the arms of more “ladylike” competitors…” (Flanagan, 2006, p.41)

In conclusion, the array of understandings of love highlighted above attests to Alan Watts’ observation that ‘Love is always something more and something different than can be captured by any single definition’.

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