Marc De Kesel

Both the monotheistic and the pagan god are defined as love. However, unlike Yahweh’s, the love of a pagan god is exclusively erotic. And erotic means transgressive. 

Think of Zeus, the head of the Greek Olympic pantheon. His innumerable affairs, both heterosexual and homosexual, the crowd of illegal sons and daughters he begot, the number of mortal hearts he broke: all this makes clear he can be considered as much the emblem of erotic love as is the love goddess’s son, Eros himself. 

Attic red figure of  Zeus and Aigina , ca 450 BC

Attic red figure of Zeus and Aigina, ca 450 BC

Even more than Eros, Zeus shows the pagan divine love to be morally indifferent, if not simply ethically condemnable. The isle Aegina was depopulated, so a Greek myth tells, because Zeus’s wife Hera was angry at her husband having seduced the nymph Aegina (who had given her name to the island). And as often, Zeus had done his ‘thing’ by bluntly making misuse of his power. An Attic red figure shows him pursuing the nymph using his scepter as a lance. 

When a pagan god loves you, things can end sad both for yourself and for others. Which implies that you should never take his divine behavior as a moral example. Certainly not in the case of Zeus’s sexual activities. 

Ferdinand Bol,  Aegina waiting for Zeus , ca 1650

Ferdinand Bol, Aegina waiting for Zeus, ca 1650

And yet, Zeus’s acts are not without exemplary function. Take for instance one of the myths accompanying the birth of Alexander the Great. It tells that, in reality, Alexander is not the son of Phillip, the man of his mother and the king of Macedonia. It was Zeus who fathered him with Philip’s wife, Olympias. For that purpose, the Olympic god did not recoil from abusing even the religious feelings of his beloved/victim. Since Olympias was adherent to a holy snake cult, Zeus had taken the shape of a snake to seduce her. And during the moment suprême of his act, Zeus’s eagle was there to use the famous thunderbolt to blind the husband, who by accident or suspicion had entered the room. 

In the Palazzo Te in Mantua (Italy), Giulio Romano has visualized the story in a fresco which is famous and infamous at the same time, if only because it is one of the few ‘pornographic’ images in Renaissance painting showing clearly an Olympic god in full erection. The large size of the fresco as well as its highly public place in the palazzo are remarkable, even for the ‘libertine’ Renaissance spirit of that time. 

Giulio Romano,  Jupiter seduces Olympias , 1526-1534

Giulio Romano, Jupiter seduces Olympias, 1526-1534

Zeus’s behavior is misleading and cheating. He is brutally mean, and his act is far from being an example to follow. And yet, that act nonetheless fully honors Alexander, both his nature and his power. He is born out of a divine, morally transgressive act . And this is why he is predetermined to be called ‘the Great’. 

Is then the monotheistic God free from this kind of transgression? Not exactly. He, too, often takes position beyond the Law – the Law, by the way, he himself has laid on his people. But in the monotheistic texts, this transgression is never performed in the erotic sphere. Even when Yahweh commands his prophet to transgress the Law by marrying a prostitute, eroticism is never the end but always the mean of the action. In Hosea (1:2) we read that Yahweh said to his prophet: ‘Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord.’ Hosea is obviously not supposed to enjoy his acts. He only has to show how one should not act. His transgressive deed is a negative example. ‘Israel, you should not be unfaithful to me by worshiping other gods; see my prophet and you will realize what you are doing: you make love to prostitutes, to idols, while it is Me who is your One and Only God’, so Yahweh explains through Hosea’s acts.  

Marriage of Hosea and the Prostitute   , Bible of Saint André au Bois, Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne sur Mer, 12th century

Marriage of Hosea and the Prostitute, Bible of Saint André au Bois, Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne sur Mer, 12th century

However, this One and Only God operates no less beyond the Law than did Zeus. But instead of the realm of erotic enjoyment, he enters the realm of mere violence. Yet, contrary to popular opinion which accuses the monotheistic God of immorality, one must stress that, here too, Yahweh’s transgressive violence is not meant as an example to follow. No one is God and, consequently, should act as if he is God. Yahweh’s transgressive acts is only meant to show where the Law has its base and origin. It allows a glimpse in what Blaise Pascal defined as the ‘mystic foundation’ of the law. 

The ground of the Law is its beyond. The Law has its origin in freedom, i.e. in a position free from the Law. Both the pagan and the monotheist tradition acknowledge this. Yet, where monotheism considers that ‘beyond’ as agape, i.e. as love fulfilling all desire (and, consequently, destroying all that is left unfulfilled), paganism supposes that beyond as the realm par excellence of unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire, as eros

Two kinds of love: love as eros, and love as agape. Two kinds of love corresponding two ways of defining the divine, of the realm beyond the Law at the same time founding that Law: on the one side the divine as explicit transgression, as lawless love beyond of any ethical norm; on the other side the divine as ‘solving’ that transgression and turning it in the realized aim of man’s ethical and existential drive.  

That dichotomy is the secret heart that beats in our culture already from the fifth century onwards (the century in which Augustine’s amor combined eros and agape). It is a ‘secret’ beat, indeed, for though contradictory, both go together and hide their impossible ‘liaison’ behind the pink ‘cloud of unknowing’ in which all our discourses on love have bathed and still bathe.   



God is love, the Gospel of Saint-John tells us. But He is not exactly a lover. At least, not in the Biblical tradition. Yet, he might have been one in the pre-biblical tradition. 

On an ancient trade route in the south of Israel, in an artistic atelier of the eighth century BC, at a place now called Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a potsherd was found showing the drawing of a couple, a man and a wife, accompanied in the background by a female lyre player. Above the drawing we read: “… by Yahweh of Somron (Samaria) and his Asherah”.

Amulet of the Egyptian god Bes

Amulet of the Egyptian god Bes


The inscription is written in the Phoenician language. This is not a counter-indication of its authenticity, since the relation of Israel and Judah with the Phoenicians was at its highest at that time. Concerning the drawings, many scholars recognize in them figures of the Egyptian god Bes, and claim that there is no connection between the inscription and the drawings – the inscription, it is supposed, being added later. Yet, according to others things remain uncertain, some even claiming that one of the figures does show Asherah, the mother goddess of Canaan, who traditionally is related to El (the Ugarit chief god) but is staged here as Yahweh’s companion, his consort or wife. 


Asa, king of Judah, destroying the idols, Bible Historiale, 1372

Asa, king of Judah, destroying the idols, Bible Historiale, 1372

In any case, in its totality, the scene pictures the monotheist god Yahweh in a context incompatible with the monotheist narrative. This would not be problematic if the potsherd dated from the second millennium BC. But it dates from the eight century BC, i.e. the golden age of the Hebrew language, coined by prophets like Hosea, Isaias, Jeremiah, and others. It is the age in which monotheism establishes itself, which it does in a violently critical gesture to the then-existing religion. The social context supposed in the books of the prophets – as well as in 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles – shows a wide spread pagan religion against which the monotheist Yahweh cult is often desperately fighting. It is by breaking gods that Yahweh becomes the one and only monotheist God. 

So, it is not completely unthinkable that a picture such as the one found in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud shows us Yahweh and his wife as they were part of everyday life in antique Israel before the Exile (eight and seventh century BC). Yet, it is only after the annihilation of that image that Yahweh has developed into the monotheist God as familiar to us today. 

In Deuteronomy  33: 2-3 (at least if we can trust the translation of the biblical archeology scholar Meindert Dijkstra), we see Asherah sharing the stage with Yahweh: 

YHWH came from Sinai
and shone forth from his own Seir,
He showed himself from Mount Paran,
Yea, he came among the myriads of Qudhsu,
at his right hand his own Asherah,
Indeed, he loves the clans
and all his holy ones on his left.
 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
	font-family:"Times New Roman";}
     Ashera , ivory cover, Minet el-Beida (harbor of Ugarit, Ras Sjamra),  13th century BC.

Ashera, ivory cover, Minet el-Beida (harbor of Ugarit, Ras Sjamra),  13th century BC.

And in 2 Kings we read: 

The carved image of Asherah that he [Manasse, king of Judah] had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to his son Solomon, ‘In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever … (21: 7) 


In the age before the Exile, the time to which the  Kuntillet ‘Ajrud  potsherd is dated, even Judah’s king related Asherah to Yahweh. Monotheism only emerged in the very fight against this kind of phenomena.     

Monotheism did not so much fight the female side of the divine as it fought sexual difference or, even more drastically, difference in general. The monotheist God incorporates the idea of a being that is not marked by the differences with which all other beings are marked (life/death, man/wife, et cetera) – and this is precisely the thing in which He himself differs from all else that is. All is equal in being different from the One without any difference. 

What is more, the monotheist God is that non-difference that inhabits the heart of all that is, and it is now He who makes things differ from themselves. In that sense, we humans differ from ourselves – i.e. we grow, live and die, have relations (including sexual ones) with one another, et cetera  – by the grace of a power that never changes and perfectly masters all those differences.  

In this perspective, it becomes a little clearer why the monotheist God cannot be defined as ‘eros’, since eros is a name for the irreducible, ever proliferating difference that, according the antique Greek, marks us as human beings. Eros is the term for the human condition marked by difference that does not refer to ‘one’ difference. Monotheism, then, can be defined as the ‘making one’ of differences: all that is, is marked by one difference, i.e. the difference from the One who is not marked by difference. When Christians define the monotheist God as love, it is precisely not erotic love, but agape, the love that has overcome all differences. 



Marc De Kesel

In the history of Western thought, Xantippe has no good press. Unhappily married, her marital complaints only turned against her, since her husband, who was no one less than Socrates himself, was unassailable. This is why, unable to battle with his intellectual superiority, she often felt forced to use other-than-rational arguments. According to a specific iconographic tradition, she at times provoked or even maltreated him. This relational strategy was of little help anyway. His rationality made him immune to such attacks. 

Anonymous,  Xantippe and Socrates , ca 1600-1630

Anonymous, Xantippe and Socrates, ca 1600-1630

Precisely this rational hegemony rendered Socrates deaf to his wife’s complaints, suggesting to her that her husband’s heart was not at home, with their children, but with the young men of Athens’s agora

This was indeed Socrates’ daily activity: chatting with young Athenians about philosophical issues, including love – read pederastic love, for this was the ‘eros’ practiced and discussed in Athens’ public space. And with regard to love, Socrates all too often was ready to dance on a line that invited him to go beyond the realm of mere talking. 

So, it is not completely incomprehensible that Xantippe felt rather sad. And for the ‘sad’ things she did with regard to her husband, he is as much to blame as she is herself.

What would have happened if Socrates had not been deaf to his wife’s complaints? What if he had been an example of patience and empathy with respect to his beloved? 

An artistic depiction answering that question exists. The great baroque musician Georg Philipp Telemann wrote a musical comedy, Der Geduldige Socrates, performed in Hamburg in 1721, with a scenario of the then well-known Johan Ulrich von König, who had extensively copied his ‘model’: La Patienza di Socrate con due mogli, written by a certain Nicolò Minato (1680). 

Because of the numerous wars Athens had waged against other cities, there was a lack of young soldiers and, consequently, a need for more children. Which is why the authorities permitted citizens to marry more than one wife. Given Xantippe’s abrasive personality, Socrates took the opportunity to marry a second wife, Amitta.  This only made things worse, however, for the two women endlessly quarreled and did not stop asking for the wise man’s judgment to settle their disputes.  All of his interventions failed to stem the animus tide. The opera ends with Xantippe’s decision to divorce Socrates. 

Anonymous ( after Henri Gascar),  Socrates and Xantippe , ca 1685

Anonymous ( after Henri Gascar), Socrates and Xantippe, ca 1685

Behind these two depictions of Socrates, there is the intuition that, although an expert in love, he misses the point entirely when it comes down to the concrete love of women. Either he dominates them, or he is himself dominated by them, by his wife – or his wives, as is the case in Telemann’s opera.  

It climaxes, so to say, in the image where Xantippe literary rides him, as if he were her horse or mule. Sitting on his back, riding crop and bridle in hand, she goads him on, even luring him with bait, eager as he is. See the great philosopher: his ‘philia’ for ‘sophia’ is but rude ‘eros’. 

Jan Sadeler,  Aristotle and Phyllis , 1587-1593

Jan Sadeler, Aristotle and Phyllis, 1587-1593

Yet, this is not so much the image of Socrates, as it is of Aristotle. ‘Aristotle & Phyllis’ became a real topic within the iconographical tradition of Renaissance and Baroque art. The theme goes back to an Exemplum of the thirteenth century, which tells the story of the philosopher warning his pupil, the young Alexander (who would later become ‘the Great’), not to spend so much time with his beautiful wife,  Phyllis, so that he might concentrate on more serious matters, like philosophy. When her lover obeys, Phyllis is outraged. As revenge, she seduces the old philosopher – successfully. To prove his love to be sincere, she requests him to come to her room crawling on hands and feet – which he does. Alexander, being informed, watched his lover riding on the back of his teacher in the position we know. Asked about this, Aristotle replied to his pupil: “If she could do it to me, and I am old and wise, what couldn’t she do to you, young and inexperienced?”.

Rather than blaming philosophy, both the Alexander/Phyllis and Socrates/Xantippe stories show the very core of philosophy: thinking reduced to its very essence, eros.  




Marc De Kesel

"There are people who would never have been in love if they had never heard love mentioned."  Thus we read in a ‘maxim’ by François de la Rouchefoucauld, the well-known eighteenth century French moralist.

What if this maxim is to be taken more seriously than we typically suppose?  What if love is first of all a word – “just a four letter word”, as the title of a famous Dylan lyric sung by Joan Baez suggests? What if, at the end of day, love is basically a matter of the words we share with the beloved? Love, not so much having its base in what one feels for the beloved (however authentic these feelings might be), but in the words, in the signs addressed to her? 

Love is a word. This not the same as saying 'love is a sign'. For then, love would basically be the same for humans as for animals. Animals, too, are capable of making signs, and make full use of them in their ‘courtship display’. Yet, what if – contrary to what scientists of love today like to believe – our love is not to be reduced to animal behavior because of the way humans – precisely and only humans – deal with signs? 

And how, then, do humans deal with signs? If structuralism is right, the signs we use aren’t simply signals. Humans do not understand signs as directly expressing the things to which they refer. Of course, such signs exist: think of the lights on a crossroad for instance. In that case, one signifier refers to just one signified. But these are exceptions. Among humans, signs cannot simply be trusted. Certainly not love signs. Why? Not only because of love’s nature, but also because of the nature of signs as well. Signs used by humans first refer to other signs. Their signalizing capacity is due to the network of signs to which they belong and that function is disconnected from what these signs are referring to. Only in a second moment do they denote something real, which is why they are not univocally bound to that reference, and why they are able to mean a variety of things. The same signifier can mean in one context something contrary to what it means in another. 

Woman carrying a phallus painted on ancient Greek vessel c. 480 - 450 BC

Woman carrying a phallus painted on ancient Greek vessel c. 480 - 450 BC

Take the somewhat weird, however clear, example of the male erection. It can signify the intention to brutally violate a defenseless victim and it can be the sign of the agreement for a most tender love intercourse. And it can signify a countless number of possibilities in between. For instance it can, robustly represented and borne by young girls during a procession, invite the audience to honor Dionysus and attend a tragedy festival, as was the case in Ancient Greece. 

What a sign means depends on the context or, more precisely, the intersubjective relation in which it functions. And this intersubjectivity is supported precisely by the autonomy of the signs the participants are delivered to. 

To be what it is, love needs words: words spoken by someone and understood by another. Those words provide the indispensable support to the lover, to the beloved,  and to their mutual relation. Without the word ‘love’, love is impossible or even non-existent. Thanks to words, there is love.  

Yet, this is the very reason why love is so insecure. Being a word, the link it provides between the signifier and the signified – and, subsequently, between the lover and the beloved – is by definition uncertain.  That link has its foundation in a disconnection; and love is, in some way or another, always built upon the repression or denial of that very disconnection. 

Salvodor Dali,  Le grand masturbateur  , 1929

Salvodor Dali, Le grand masturbateur, 1929

On some of Salvador’s Dali’s paintings, somewhat in the margin, a man and a woman are kissing one another passionately. What is shown in the center is the ‘surrealistic’ reality behind that kiss. One of these paintings, Dali entitled “The Great Masturbator”. It expresses, so to say, the risk involved in every amorous intercourse: that the word upon which love is based, rather than bringing the lover more near to the beloved, locks him up in his own feeling and makes him a “masturbator” rather than a lover. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ” (John 1:1) 

It is clear now why, for humans, the Word is their “beginning”, i.e. what provides them ‘ground’ or ‘foundation’. And it is clear, too, why that Word  has to be with God. In itself, it is too little a foundation, since it is a signifier that lacks a substantial ground and, therefore, is doomed to endlessly refer to other signifiers without ever reaching its final signified. Which is why that endlessness needs the womb of an infinite God. Only the Almighty can embrace that vain endlessness and turn it into infinite power. God’s Word: a sublime way to hide the lack of ground underneath the poor word "love."    




Marc De Kesel

The very first time Helena faces Paris, she brings her hands to her head and adjusts her veil. This we learn from a magnificent Greek vase of the fourth century AD. Paris stops his horse and, surprised, gazes at Helena, who bows a little. Is she taking off her veil, or, on the contrary, will she put it over her head? Either way, love is in the air. On the left, we notice Aphrodite gaze approvingly over the scene. It’s she who arranged the meeting. In his famous ‘judgment’, mortal Paris had elected her – instead of Hera or Athena – the most beautiful among the Olympic goddesses, yet not without having received Aphrodite’s promise that, in return, he would be given the most beautiful among Hellas’s women. Which is happening right now, thanks to Aphrodite’s son, Eros, who sits on the ground and enjoys the success of his arrows.


Ancient Greek art is full of nudes. Yet, it is mostly the men who are naked. And if female nakedness is shown, it is seldom without being veiled. As is the case here on the vase. Yet, as we notice, nudity and veil do not contradict or exclude one another per se; On the contrary, here, the veil even emphasizes the nudity. As if Helena adjusts her veil precisely to acknowledge Paris’s erotic gaze, to allow it, to accept and even to encourage it. What you’re looking for, she seems to say, is here; it is with me, beyond the limit that I wear and put now over (or off) my head. The most remarkable thing, however, is that she does so although her veil is entirely transparent. Even in complete nakedness, when nothing can be hidden, it is the a veil that makes the nudity erotic. 

Ceramic decoration representing a woman wearing a veil, identified as a Celtiberian Goddess. Museo Numantino, Soria

Ceramic decoration representing a woman wearing a veil, identified as a Celtiberian Goddess. Museo Numantino, Soria

The veil installs a limit, a frontier. Historically, it might be first of all the frontiers of the house, be it in an ambulant version. Antique society – as with many societies still nowadays – knows a strict segregation between men and women. Even in the way the house is divided. The part that gives out onto the street is meant for men. The one in the back giving out onto the paths leading to the washing place, is meant for women. Male is the public sphere, including the part of the house where guests are received. Female is the private sphere (with, for instance, the gynaika). When a women leaves her proper territory and enters the public space, she, as it were, has to take her territory with her. Which is to say she has to wear a veil. Walking on the agora, she still remains separated from it – ambulantly ‘home’ so to say. And this goes for immortal women as well. The oldest pictures of goddesses we know show them mostly veiled. See for example the beautiful wall painting from the pre-Roman Iberian peninsula. 

In segregated societies, the veil is an element meant to keep both sexes clearly separated from one another. Which is not to say that, then, the veil stops functioning in a sexual way. Nothing escapes eroticization, certainly not a veil, for it is a sign letting men know that precisely behind the veil is the object their desire strives after. By veiling herself, the woman does not simply exclude her from the world of men, she also turns that exclusion into an appeal addressed to their sexual desire, an appeal inviting them to leave their own male, public sphere and to join women in their private, intimate world.

Western European society, although deeply rooted in antique Mediterranean and (consequently) segregated culture, has lost that strong codified use of the veil centuries ago, certainly in the highly cultivated milieus. But as an erotic garment, it has always kept its function. Look for instance at a painting by Alexander Roslin where this particular use of the veil is difficult to deny. Or at the more recent one painted by Madonna’s favorite painter, Tamara de Lempicka.

Alexander Roslin ,  Femme au Voile  (1768)

Alexander Roslin , Femme au Voile (1768)

Tamara de Lempicka,  The Flower Wreath II  (1932)

Tamara de Lempicka, The Flower Wreath II (1932)



Marc De Kesel

A balancing act on a branch. 

And on that branch a knight, a lady and a unicorn.  

Meekly, the latter lays down head and horn on the lady’s lap. At last, he is where he belongs. You can read it from the delight on his face. 

The face of the lady speaks a different language. Does she look into the mirror? Or is she spying – beyond the mirror – the knight who, at that very moment, is driving his lance through the unicorn’s smiling body? Anyway, this is what his eyes are saying. 


What will follow is not difficult to guess. But it isn’t that sure either, if only because of the branch on which the entire drama balances.

It is a strange, somewhat villainous gift, occurring on that branch. A knight wants to give himself to a lady, who within a few minutes will give herself – will she? – to him, be it not without first having killed her beloved unicorn. ‘A deadly gift love is’: is this the message the lady reads from her face in the mirror? 

Love is gift. It is giving what you don’t have (Lacan). The lady does not have the unicorn. She possibly might think that, but later, when the knight will have taken the unicorn away from her, she will lack nothing. Did she not, with her charms, capture the unicorn for no other reason than, precisely, to present it to her knight’s lance? Is that capture and its demolition not the condition required to give herself to him? And for her knight, to give himself to her? 

What do lovers give to one another? They give each other nothing. A deadly nothing which, by the heavenly force of smiling, is always already immediately repressed. 

This is the weird miracle of love. And, yet, only therefore, living on the shaky branch of love is possible.   


However, that nothing is never simply nothing. It at least requires an infinite amount of words, songs, images, and stories. One of them – a Christian one, tremendously popular during the Middle Ages (and later prohibited by the Council of Trent) – tells, precisely, about a unicorn, who was no one else that Christ himself. 

Enjoying heaven’s glory, God’s son knows he must leave, to descend down into our world of death and sin, and, there, to incarnate himself so he could save us from our mortal, sinful condition. But this is not precisely what his divine guards, the angels, can allow. They won’t let him go, and when he nonetheless escapes, they all go after him. Angels become hunters, hunters in search for Christ-Unicorn. And the latter has to run as fast as he can, for he has to find his Virgin and, with his horn, has to fertilize her, so he finally could be born as man, as mortal being, ready to, by his death, save us from that very death. 

Go to New York, to ‘The Cloisters’ Museum, and admire there the beautiful Flemish Unicorn Tapestries. 




Marc De Kesel

“I am the way and the truth and the life.” This is one of Jesus’ most famous sayings (John 14: 6). And since his Father is love, and he himself, because of his sacrifice, is the evidence par excellence of that love, it is love which is “the way and the truth and the life.” Love is what characterizes the post-messianic realm which Christ inaugurated. In that realm, love is all there is. Love, not in the sense of eros, but of agape

‘Love is all there is.’ We moderns have kept that saying and sing it in the billions of songs that daily blow over the planet. Yet, it is not agape we sing about, and neither is it mere eros: it is agape and eros, inextricably mixed up with one another. 

Jean Bellegambe,   Mystic Bath of Souls  , 1505-10 

Jean Bellegambe, Mystic Bath of Souls, 1505-10 

Is modern love, then, still ‘the way, the truth and the life’?  Is there truth in love, even when eros is involved? 

Jacques Lacan’s answer is not simply positive. According to him, there is truth in love, but only as being repressed, denied or veiled by that very love. The truth of love is not to be found in love itself, but in desire, in the unsatisfiable eros underlying the love relation. In order to function properly, in love, the underlying eros must be lived as if it is satisfied. Which is why the beloved, who is reduced to the (impossible) object of desire, represses that reduction and does so by longing for the lover’s desire from this very (impossible) object position. Although it is humiliating to be mis-recognized in my subjectivity and, thus, objectified by the other’s desire, I like it, since as his object I long for him as my desired object. The satisfaction of both the lover and the beloved is built upon the repression of being one another’s (impossible) object of desire. 

Truth emerges when one acknowledges the lacking ground of her love and takes upon her the unsatisfiable nature of the desire that binds her to the other. Truth is the recognition of love’s ‘lie’, i.e. of the fact that it represses its erotic ground, its condition of unsurpassable desire.

Lady Bertilak, ca 1310

Lady Bertilak, ca 1310

Alain Badiou’s definition of love seems similar to Lacan’s, but rather indicates the opposite. According to Badiou, too, the starting point of love is the position of abject object: of not belonging to the world, i.e. to the ‘set of set’ of representations constituting reality as we suppose it to be. Love emerges beyond all that-is-what-we-think-it-is. Love is an ‘event’, an experience that escapes all settled representations constituting our world. Nothing necessitates me to love my beloved. There is never a sufficient reason for this. She falls apart from all the women I know, but yet, in all her singularity, she is the one and only, she is my ‘event’, and I cannot but show full commitment to her. 

And what is truth here? Not the acknowledgment of the fake, fictitious character of my love, i.e. of the unfulfillable desire underlying my love – as Lacan says. For Badiou, love is the acknowledgment, precisely, of the truth of that event and of the full commitment with respect to it.  

Love is ‘eternal’, be it ‘for the time being’, thus Badiou. Based in the singularity of an event, I love my lady ‘forever’ (“from her to eternity”, as an Australian poet put it), perfectly knowing that there is no such thing as ‘for ever’. Yet, truth is precisely that commitment in favor of that singular event. It unconditionally acts as if love is eternal and eternally true. In the eyes of Badiou, in that ‘as if’, there is more being than in all we commonly consider so. 


Sygne de Coûfontaine


It is the time when the French Revolution is hunting the Ancien Regime’s aristocracy. Their entire family killed, Sygne and her cousin swear to do all they can to restore the House of Coûfontaine, even if they have to give their lives. The cousin’s visit is brief, for in his company, he hides the pope whom he released from French captivity and, in all secrecy, conducts back to Rome. What he does not know is that revolutionary guards have followed him and, at that very moment, are surrounding the house. It is then that their leader, Turelure, enters the room. Alone with Sygne, he gives her the choice: either you marry me, making me the father of the future Lord of Coûfontaine, thus saving your noble House; or you refuse and I arrest you, together with your cousin and the pope, and confiscate what remains of your family properties. After speaking to her father confessor, Sygne marries the executioner of her family and bears him a son. Even when, later, her cousin points a gun at Turelure, she jumps in front of her husband and dies, hit by the fatal bullet. 


Thus, the synopsis of L’otage (The Hostage, 1911), the first of three theater plays by Paul Claudel written about the ‘Coûfontaines’.  

Sygne’s deeds are acts of love. So is her oath and so is her marriage: acts of love for the House of Coûfontaine. To save the house, she has to give it to the one persecuting it. Not only has she to sacrifice all that she has sworn to live for, but she is also deprived of the privilege of dying for it. She has to sacrifice her life, but she has to do it alive. 

Herein is her difference from Antigone, that other emblematic figure of sacrificial love for the family. Transgressing deliberately the laws of the city, she buries her brother Polynices, the city’s enemy number one (who, together with the seven other cities he reassembled, waged war against Thebes). But unlike Sygne de Coûfontaine, she is able die for her brother. Sygne, however, in order to save what she longs for, is left nothing, not even the pride to die for her cause.

Claudel originally wrote two different endings to the play. In one of them, Sygne – while dying of her cousin’s gunshot – is asked by Turelure, her husband, to confirm that she has deliberately saved him. In that version Sygne’s answer is nothing but an endlessly repeated mute ‘spasm’: a “sign saying no” – “elle faisait signe que non.”  In that mere sign remains her only pride. That sign is what remains of the heroic refusal that once marked the antique hero. 

Antigone’s refusal to obey the law was performed as having a proper place, albeit a deadly one.  Signe’s refusal is performed as having no place at all. It is reduced to a mute sign. 

Jules-Eugène Lenepveu ,   Antigone  , ca1840

Jules-Eugène Lenepveu , Antigone, ca1840

Antigone’s love is performed as not coinciding with the love for her city. And, while performed, Sophocles’ play gives that kind of intolerable love a prominent place within the city. Her act of love is a sacrifice, but the play itself gives that sacrifice a proper existence. Sygne’s act of love is a sacrifice as well, but contrary to Antigone, she immediately has to sacrifice that very sacrifice. Her sacrifice coincides with the immediate repression of sacrifice. Claudel’s play shows modernity’s impossibility to acknowledge the sacrifice that sustains that very modernity. 

The sacrifice of Sygne is similar to the one required by a totalitarian system. Even falsely accused, the victim is supposed to admit his guilt. This is the only way to prove his loyalty to the ideology. The fact of protesting against the system is already considered as a proof of guilt. For if one really loves the true system, one sustains it, also in the case of false accusation. And what is more: the false accusation gives him the opportunity to prove the purity of his love for the system. 

In modernity, the seventeenth century idea of pur amour is never far away. 


Roman Love / Caritas Romana


Marc De Kesel

Condemned to starvation in a Roman prison, an old man is kept alive by the milk he sucks from the breast of his daughter who visits him every day. Once surprised by a guard, the authorities did not put her on trial. In fact, they released her father, even providing him food the rest of his days, so impressed were they by such a selfless love.  

No, this is not a Christian story. It is the truly pagan tale of Cimon and his daughter Pero, as told by Valerius Maximus in his De factis dictisque memorabilibus (Of deads and sayings of memorable men, first century ). The title ‘Caritas Romana’, ‘Roman Love’, must be of a later date, influenced by Christianity. In the eyes of the Romans, Pero’s act tells an emblematic story of pietas – more exactly, of family pietas. One should respect the elementary relations of kinship, even if a transgression of society’s law is required in doing so. 

Caritas Romana, Pompei, 1st century

Caritas Romana, Pompei, 1st century

In Valerius Maximus, the story of Cimon and Pero is preceded by similar story, this time about an imprisoned mother breast-fed by her daughter.  “Where does the sense of duty not penetrate?”, Valerius asks. Even in prison, family piety is present. Valerius then reinforces his argument by adding the Cimon and Pero story. Cimon had buried illegally his father and, therefore, was sentenced to death by starvation. Illegally, Pero breast-feeds her father, not afraid of the death sentence that awaits her. The family piety of the father is honored by that of his daughter. 

In the seventeenth century, the Caritas Romana iconography became very popular. In the next century, its success lasted, but then the daughter was often accompanied by her child. Had people become sensitive for the perverse, incestuous connotations that could be read in the image? With a child on the mother’s hip, such connotations were less easily made. 

Charles Mellin,  Caritas Romana, 17th century

Charles Mellin, Caritas Romana, 17th century

  Carlo Cagnini (After), Caritas Romana, 18th century

 Carlo Cagnini (After), Caritas Romana, 18th century

The iconographic topic of an older man drinking from a young lady’s breast has its Christian version as well, and here, an erotic reading is less easily avoidable. It is the image of Bernard of Clairvaux drinking the milk from the Holy Mother’s breast. In fact there are several legends uniting Bernard to that breast. One tells of a vision he once had in front of Mary’s statue, asking if that sculpted piece of wood could really be the Mother of God. At that very moment, the statue sprinkled milk from her breast to his lips – a gesture by which the Holy Mary revealed herself as a real mother, mediating between him and her Son. 

Another version of the legend lets Mary appear to Bernard when he had fallen asleep during prayer. It is then that she is said to have put her breast in his mouth in order to let enter the wisdom of God (“ Lors se mist en oroisons devant Nostre Dame et s’endormi. Et Nostre Dame li mist sa saincte mamelle en la bouche et li aprint la devine science”; in : Ci Nous Dit, fourteenth century French exemplum book). Iconographically, this scene has found its way to the colonies, to Peru, but picturing another saint: Bernadus became San Pedro Nalosco.

Alonso Cano, Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard, 1650   

Alonso Cano, Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard, 1650


Ignacio Chacón, Lactation of Saint Pedro Nolasco , 1680

Ignacio Chacón, Lactation of Saint Pedro Nolasco, 1680

In the Christian narrative of the Lactatio Bernardi, the divine truth does not incarnate itself via a dying male corpse, but a milk-giving breast. It is not the most frequent image of the incarnation, but it is not absent in the Christian tradition either. 

More than we think, Christianity is a religion of the Mother. Which is not to say that, therefore, it is a female religion.   




Marc De Kesel

The Quakers – officially, ‘the Religious Society of Friends’ – traditionally have a strict matrimonial love policy: Man should marry at 26, woman at 22, and their love should not so much be addressed to one another, but to God. According to the Quakers, love should be radically disconnected from lust. Love, even sexual love, is supposed to be lived as pure agape

For them, love is the object of a commandment rather than an inner feeling or libidinal impulse. And it is not solely love which is fully under commandment. Quakers put their entire lives under divine demand. Ironically, it was for this very reason that the judge who in 1650 condemned their founder, Georges Fox, dubbed him and his fellows ‘quakers’, for Fox had said that man should ‘quake’ (shake/tremble) before the Word of God (as is written in Isaiah: “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” (66:2)). Fox and his men reappropriated the judge’s epithet as their emblem: the ‘Quakers’ were born. Once in the New World, in the land of Pennsylvania (named after the leader of their expedition, William Penn), there was no longer a judge to oppose them. 

The Quaker movement itself seems indeed radically freed from any judging impulse. They don’t have any fixed doctrine, neither special liturgical place nor any established liturgy. They do not even have a fixed time schedule for meetings. They gather when some of them feel the need for it, and once together, they remain silent most of the time, unless someone is inspired enough to say or sing something. No doctrine, no institutions, no churches, no rules, no laws: and nonetheless deliberately trembling before the Word of God. 

An engraving of a
Quaker meeting from Colonial America  



 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
	font-family:"Times New Roman";}

An engraving of a Quaker meeting from Colonial America

The double bind relation we discovered in the modern use of the word ‘love’ finds here a most adequate illustration. The Quakers live their lives as fulfillment of the Law. They do not strive for a saint community, since they are already such a community. Hence, they need no doctrine whatsoever. They are the realized doctrine, the realized Law, the realized Promised Land. 

And yet, the weight of the Law is immense. They tremble for it, as they readily admit. But why, then, do they tremble? At the end of the day, because they are not even allowed to tremble. For in fact, they are obliged to do as if they are beyond the Law, as if the promise implied in the Law has been fulfilled in their ‘Society of Friends’. That is precisely why they have no doctrine: a doctrine cannot do without the performativity of commandment or Law. There is no commandment or law that tells who and when one may or may not speak or what one should say or not, simply because they concretely realized what the Law had once imposed. 

This is why, to them, they live beyond the Law. Yet, precisely this establishes itself as a Law, as the Law par excellence, as a Law for which one trembles even when he or she succeeds in having completely obeyed it.  

In many revolutionary politics of late modernity, this logic has ended up in the intolerance of a totalitarian system. Communism declared all men to be ‘socii’ – comrades, ‘friends’ – to one another, but in no time it became a system in which everyone had to do as if he was ‘socius’, comrade or friend to the other – a situation which quickly made almost all social solidarity and friendship simply impossible. 


It is remarkable that, in the case of the ‘Society of Friends’ named Quakers, this has not been necessarily the case. Certainly, intolerance and totalitarian tendencies were – and are still – a constant risk for smaller Quaker communities. But have they not been one of the few colonist groups in the New World that were able to treat the Native Americans in a proper way? Remember William Penn, who succeeded in establishing a treatise with his native neighbors that remained unviolated for more than a century. Remember as well the many 20th century social activists – the founders of Greenpeace included – whose background was Quaker.

What protected a Quaker love ideal from the totalitarian trap? 

The Quakers’ minority position?





Marc De Kesel

Does love pray? Is it prayer when a lover begs for the love of his beloved?

But, first, what is prayer? The question is not unimportant, certainly not when this word gathers in itself a double meaning, similar to ‘love’ itself (see under A).

‘Prayer’ has first of all a religious meaning. Conscious as they are of their finite condition, mortals pray to immortals for favors and support. Unlike them, the gods have their realm beyond death. It is from there that humans are given life and, consequently, thence that their lives are taken. Prayers constitute a crucial element in human commerce with the divine: both as a response to gifts already given and in hope of future benefaction, humans offer gifts to their gods. This commerce, this asking is prayer.

  Guido Reni, Mary Madeleine in prayer, 1627

 Guido Reni, Mary Madeleine in prayer, 1627

Just like temples, sacrifices, processions, and all kinds of rituals, praying not only sustains humans, but the gods as well. A god to whom no one prays fades into obscurity. Remember the famous ‘Götterdämmerung’  of Wagner’s opera. Just like love, praying obeys the logic of gift-giving, i.e. the threefold procedure of giving, receiving and presenting counter-gifts. This practice precedes the ones who are acting in it; it precedes the subjects involved –which is to say that these subjects are, rather than the agent of that gift-giving, its very product. Gods, too, are only gods thanks to the prayers of mortals. 

Love is characterized by a similar structure. The lovers have to pray for the other’s loving, and they remain lovers only for so long as prayer last. It’s the praying – the love-demand – that constitutes them as lovers. 

Yet, the meaning of  ‘prayer’ has not only a religious origin, but a monotheistic one as well – and, contrary to what is commonly thought, these are not the same. Of course the monotheist, too, prays; but to be really monotheistic, his praying has to admit that in a way it is senseless, for his God is only God to the extent that he cannot be influenced by human prayers. This is the hallmark of his truth, and truth is what distinguishes him from pagan – i.e. false – gods. He is of course able to answer man’s prayers and most of the time he does so, but not because he is petitioned in prayer, but only because his sovereign goodness decides so. And in order to be faithful to his God, the monotheist has to acknowledge and to incorporate this in his very praying. 

A remarkable conclusion is that, applied to love, the monotheistic prayer puts forward love’s erotic dimension, i.e. the dimension of its unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire. Each prayer longs for God, emphasizing at the same time the impossibility of that longing ever to be fulfilled. Here, we meet the deeply erotic character of monotheism. By identifying the object of human desire as an abstract, unreachable God, it confirms the primacy of desire over satisfaction, i.e. the primacy of eros over agape.  

Albrecht Dürer,  Praying hands , 1508

Albrecht Dürer, Praying hands, 1508

Yet, in its extreme consequence, monotheistic eros is highly cruel. This we learned already from the Christian cult of the pur amour. Even if the object of his desire makes him an abject subject doomed to eternal non-satisfaction, man can decide to love God nevertheless. Embracing self-destruction can be lived as man’s ultimate act of love. 

Here, in an extreme way, praying prays for nothing, but offers its mere utterance as a praise for God. Praying is praising God and, in that very praise, acknowledging that God does not need to be praised at all. 

The senselessness of my prayer coincides with its ultimate sense, just as the lack of an answer to my love is put forward as its ultimate answer. 





Marc De Kesel  

In matters of love, O has a history. Histoire d’O tells the story of a beautiful young woman named by the single initial O, who in order to prove her love, gratifies her lover’s wish to give herself to other men’s cruelest sadistic phantasies. No, O is not forced. Time and again she is asked if she is deliberately willing to do so. If she finds herself in the position of erotic ‘victim’, it is out of her own free will, but out of pure love.

The author mentioned on the cover is Pauline Réage, a name totally unknown in 1954, the year the novel appeared. Only in 1994, Dominique Aury, a French literary critic and assistant editor in the famous Parisian editing house Gallimard, revealed herself to be the one behind Pauline Réage. Which is to say that the author was Anne Desclos, for this was Dominique Aury’s real name. 

Anne  Declos / Dominique Aury at the time she revealed the identity of Pauline Réage

Anne Declos / Dominique Aury at the time she revealed the identity of Pauline Réage

The story behind those pseudonyms is not without a link to the love story behind the novel. Anne Desclos was the secret lover of Jean Paulhan, the director of Gallimard. One day, Jean had bragged that writing erotic literature is a men’s matter; in this, female writers never reach the standard of their male colleagues. Ann took up the challenge and wrote Histoire d’O. The book was – and still is – a huge success. Jean lost, Ann won: women can write on erotic matters as good – or even better – than men do. 

The novel’s success is similar to that nowadays of  E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2012). Why are sadomasochistic phantasies enjoyed by a wide audience, from literary scholars to people who seldom (if ever) read a book?  Certainly not because these readers are sadomasochistic perverts themselves. The majority of them are just ‘normal’ people who definitely would be horrified if ever they were confronted with similar things in reality. But why, then, do they read and enjoy such things? What has this to do with the love relations they themselves cherish? 

One of the elements that may help our understanding is the fact that novels such as Histoire d’O or Fifty Shades of Grey appeal to hidden ideas from the past which secretly haunt our modern mind. As if, on the level of the unconscious, today’s common discourse is still structured by tropes and ideas which we all too easily consider definitively behind us. Contrary to what we think, they still take a part in the basic semantic grammar of the modern discourse we daily breath. 

To confess your love by proving that no humiliation or rejection is able to ever stop you from loving: this idea has its Christian origin in the tradition of the pur amour. Even if God has condemned you to eternal suffering in hell (which, aware of your sins, you cannot but thankfully accept), you nonetheless are capable of loving him. It is even the best condition to do so. Precisely because you have no ‘return’ whatsoever, you love him for reasons that have nothing to do with your own interest. Purified from any selfish motive, you relate to God with a pure love. This is the way François de Fénelon and so many other mystic authors in the seventeenth and eighteenth century defined the pur amour.  (See earlier posts F and I.)  

Novels like Histoire d’O or Fithy Shades of Grey are the explicitly erotic version of the religiously promoted idea of ‘pure love’ – of love as radical selflessness. In a sense, pur amour still belongs to the ‘hardware’ of the way we look at love. This is why, even in post-Christian times, the sacrificial dimension of love is far from being absent. 

Francisco de  Zurbar á n,  Saint Agatha , 1630-1633

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Agatha, 1630-1633

The strange thing, however, is that modernity lacks a proper – scientific or other – discourse to talk about it. This is why the success of such sadomasochistic novels remains a mystery for us, although such fantasy has been a constant in our culture for two millennia. 

In a way, antiquity’s tragedy has been incorporated in the sanctity of the Christian saints, iconographically represented at the same time as victims of sadistic cruelty and exemplary figures of love. They perform their torture as  evidence of their love for the Savior. 

One glimpse of, for instance, Zurbarán’s Saint Agatha teaches you that the function of beauty is to make the unbearable bearable.




Marc De Kesel

When someone has been left by her beloved, nothing remains but the feeling of being ‘nothing’. What have I been to him? Was I anything at all in his eyes? Why didn’t he see that my love for him was everything for me? Alas, for him, my everything was nothing. How cruel can love be! 

To be nothing: it is not only the feeling you have when your love relation breaks down. It accompanies its start as well. Before, you were alone, but once touched by Eros’ arrow, you really feel lonely. For what else you are, then, but your desire for your beloved. Nothing else interests you. You stop eating and sleeping, you lose interest in the job you perfectly liked; your friends are worried about your seeming asocial behavior. Yet, for all this, you do not care for one second. You are nothing, nothing other than your desire for your prospective beloved, about whose desire for you you know nothing . But you do love him, you are nothing but that love, and even if your love will remain unrequited, you prefer to stay nothing rather than to give up your love. 

Or, more exactly, your desire. For love is requited desire. It only emerges when the beloved has the same feeling of being nothing himself because of his longing for you. This is the thing you desire in him: that he desires you; that, because of you, he feels as much being nothing – nothing but desire. 

Anton Sorg,  Tristan and Isolde ,
woodcut, 1484 



 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
	font-family:"Times New Roman";

Anton Sorg, Tristan and Isolde, woodcut, 1484

So, the base of erotic love is to be found in that ‘nothing’, that ‘void’ the lover wants to be filled by  only her beloved. And the only thing the beloved has to offer is his own ‘nothing’, his own void, the unfulfilled condition of his own desire. The lack of one’s desire is filled up by the lack of the other’s desire. 

This is why love can be so strong. Not only does it satisfy the lovers’ desires, it keeps them unsatisfied at the same time. Every moment of satisfaction – of jouissance, as Lacan would say – makes them long even more strongly for one another; for the only thing they get from one another is ‘nothing’, is a ‘lack’ or ‘void’ that again and again inflames their desire. ‘L’amour, c’est donner ce qu’on n’ a pas’, ‘Love is giving what one does not have’:  one of Lacan’s definition of love. The beloved does not possess the answer to the lover’s demand for love, he has in fact nothing to give, but it is precisely that precious ‘nothing’ which he does give to his beloved. Only this ‘nothing’ satisfies her demand for love. As long as lovers give one another the precious nothing they ‘are’ (having become but desire), nothing can break their love.


Except precisely that very nothing. For love’s strength is due to its blindness, as the Antiques told us – or to repression, as Freud would later indicate. Which is to say that love’s strength is at the same time its weakness. It is blindness that holds the lovers together. A blindness for the nothing holding lovers together.

This goes even for divine love. For what does man and God share with one another, once the mystical heart has reached the aim of his desire? What do they share once man is at the top of the Mount Carmel? Juan dela Cruz cannot be misunderstood in this: it is ‘nothing’, the ‘nothing of the six times “neither this nor that”, the “nothing” of “the absence of the way” once one’s way to God has reached its end.



During the Renaissance, the standard iconographic image of Christian love shows a mother accompanied by three or four children. The youngest child is at the mother’s breast, the others are nourished by that other Mother: Nature.  Neither room nor square, rather nature is the usual context in which caritas is pictured. 

Is it not strange that caritas/agape is not performed as, for instance, a social attitude expressing the state of ‘divine sociability (Augustine’s civitas dei), or as an act obeying the commandment of neighborly love? In the 15th and 16th century, Christian love is imaged by a female nude with children symbolizing Nature – already in the sense the word will obtain with Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the original environment supplying human beings in all their needs. Nature considered as maternal generosity, source of limitless gift-giving. 

Lucas Cranach the Younger,  Caritas , ca 1550

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Caritas, ca 1550

It is difficult not to see in Caritas’ image as a mother a resemblance to that other renaissance icon of the mother, the one with a single child: the image of the Virgin Mary. The difference, however, is striking. In the latter, generosity is central as well, but precisely not a natural one. It is not Nature who has given a child to the mother, but God. The child is begotten, not by a natural, sexual act, but by an ‘unnatural Word’, the Word of Revelation coming from outside Nature, revealing the One who was already there before Creation and is able, in his limitless generosity, to restore the mistakes incurred to that Creation after Adam’s fall. 

Giovanni Boltraffio,  Madonna lactans , ca 1508

Giovanni Boltraffio, Madonna lactans, ca 1508

In the Caritas image, the woman is gift-giving in the active sense of the word. In the icon of the ‘Madonna with child’, too, the woman is performed as giver, as Theotokos, the one who gave birth to the Savior. Yet, rather than the agency, she is both the addressee and the medium of the gift-giving at work here. Mother Mary has been given a child. She is the icon of ‘passive’ susceptibility, of a womb willing to conceive God’s incarnation. Instead, Caritas is an actively gift-giving woman. Rather than a womb, she is a source never drying up. 

Caritas/agape, ‘technical’ term for the overcoming of the Old Covenant’s Law, indicates the core of Christianity as the acme of monotheistic revelation. It anticipates the situation after the ‘End of Time’ and gives a taste of how things will be after the Apocalypse, after the destruction of Nature as it is now. And, yet, in Renaissance iconography, Caritas is represented by Nature as it is now, Nature as the generosity of vitalistic and earthly life.  

Is this contradictory? 

Not according to people living in Renaissance Europe. Since God has been incarnated in the natural state of the human, Nature is full of God. Which is why the intellectuals of that time see God present almost in a similar way as the Romans supposed their gods the be citizens of their city. This is why a Renaissance man easily confuses the Christian God with antique gods. Of course, he too does not believe that God coincides with nature, but since God is incarnated in it, every natural phenomenon is pregnant of the divine – and not only pregnant: it manifests God’s real birth, his incarnation. 

So, Nature itself has become the incarnation of God’s ultimate revelation. This is why the difference between the image of Mother Caritas is perfectly in line with the one of Mother Mary. The incarnation which occurred in Mary implies the liberation of Nature which is now no longer marked by lack, sin and death. Nature has become an eternal source of generosity. Mother Caritas is the ‘active’ side of the coin that has Mother Mary on its ‘passive’ side.   

This is why the Caritas image anticipates in a sense our post-Christian times. For if Nature is that in which God is incarnated, it is at same time that in which the incarnated God has been buried. 

Raphael,  Pope Urban I between Iustitia and Caritas , 1520-24

Raphael, Pope Urban I between Iustitia and Caritas, 1520-24

But even as God’s grave, Nature beholds similar characteristics. Remember Rousseau whose Nature keeps all features of the Christian paradise. When he emphasizes that Nature is “immémorablement perdu”, that term takes over the eschatological, apocalyptical reservation with which the Christian idea of an agape community has been preached. 

Mother Caritas supposes Nature to be already the eternal realm of Love beyond sin and death. But one needs Mother Mary to understand that Nature has not yet passed the Eschaton, that the realm of fully realized agape is still to be expected. 

The double Mother figure illustrates the basic ‘double bind’ of the Christian narrative: at the same time living in the land of Love beyond the Law and living that Love as a Law.   



Marc De Kesel

 The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. Love does not harm the neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law”. Thus spake Paul in his Letter to the Romans (13:10). The ‘law’ mentioned here is the one of the Covenant commanding the people of Israel to worship the one true God and to love the neighbor as oneself (Mc 12: 29-31). And so, love is the attitude of the one obeying and fulfilling that law. 

Jan van Scorel,  The Good Samaritan , 1537

Jan van Scorel, The Good Samaritan, 1537

This is at least the way a Jew in the first century understands it. The Jew informed by Paul’s letters, however, understands it in a quite different manner. For he has learned that his people has failed in fulfilling that law, that therefore God’s Son has intervened and, by his sacrificial act of love, has taken upon him that collective failure in order to directly realize the kingdom of love, not only for the descendants of Jacob, the Jews, but for the Greek, i.e. for all non-Jews as well.   

Unlike the Jewish doctrine of Jesus’s time, the Christian manifestation disconnects the fulfillment of the law from the observance of that law. The fulfillment becomes a state on its own, beyond the law, leaving the realm of the law behind and entering the new realm of what Paul calls ‘faith, hope and [precisely] love’. This is why some Christians suppose themselves to be beyond any law, giving up their jobs, refusing to pay taxes, neglecting the laws of marriage – in short, falling into anarchism. Remember that for which Paul reprimands the Christians of Thessaloniki  (1 Tess 4: 11-12; 2 Tess 2: 6-12).

Paul has to tell his followers that love, although being the fulfillment of the law, is nonetheless itself a law still to be obeyed and fulfilled. In other words, love is not simply the state or redemption the Christian enjoys, it is also an imperative: the Christian also has to love, has to make efforts for it; he has to obey love’s commandments. Read for instance his Letter to the Colossians (3: 13-15): “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

A double bind structure characterizes Christian love. It presents the fulfillment of the law as a law still to be fulfilled. The one acknowledging the Christian love message is both saved from sin and death and has still to be saved from them. He has to feel and act as if he has entered the kingdom of love beyond the law and he has to obey love as a commandment, as a law still to be fulfilled.  

The ‘as if’ is crucial here. Obeying the commandment of love, is it possible at all not to do as if  one is already in the kingdom of love, as if one is beyond the law? Is the order to love not immediately also an order to feel and act as if one is already in the realm of love (‘s fulfillment)? What, then, is the ethical value of a commandment that, on a universal scale, obliges us to do as if ?   

It is because of this kind of ethical reasoning that, in his Civilization and Its Discontent, Sigmund Freud recoiled from the universal commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves: “Why should we do it? What good will it do us? But, above all, how shall we achieve it? How can it be possible? My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection. It imposes duties on me for whose fulfillment I must be ready to make sacrifices. If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way.

Freud does not deny the inherent character of love’s sacrificial dimension, but precisely for that very reason, he hesitates at a universal law that commands us to love everyone. A world in which everyone loves everyone out of compliance with a commandment to love cannot be but a sadistic universe, Freud suggests. Love is unsuitable for being the object of a universal law. 

But can love do without any law? 

Miniature from the  Codex Menasse , detail, 13th century

Miniature from the Codex Menasse, detail, 13th century

All great erotic traditions have their ‘laws of love’, their specific code helping lovers in the difficult way to deal with that strange kind of ‘supreme good’. These kinds of law, however, are precisely not universal. They do not tell that we should love, but only how we should love – how we should love, not everyone, but our beloved. And those laws do not pretend to ensure the fulfillment of our desire. They just help us a little in how to manage something which in its core is unmanageable. 

Consider for instance the Fin’Amors, i.e. the poetic tradition of courtly love which tells about the ways  to conquer the unconquerable Lady. That tradition discusses the code the lover has to observe, not so much in order to succeed in his conquest as to deal with – and to endorse correctly – the very impossibility of it. 

Unlike the Christian agapeic love tradition, the  erotic culture of Fin’Amors emphasizes the absolute character of the law and the radical impossibility to get beyond its limits. 

Strange to notice that precisely erotic love supposes the absoluteness of the law, while agapeic love claims the possibility to leave all law behind.   




Marc De Kesel

The Kingdom of Heaven as mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer: the earliest Christians claimed it to be realized in their agape-based communities. Love as the paradigm for society and politics, they had a precise idea of what that means: radical equality, no private property, sharing everything with others. Not without reason, the earliest Christian way of social life had been interpreted as a kind of proto-communist society. 

Similar to Plato’s political idea of The Republic. Except that in that dialogue, love is not mentioned as the thing holding people together. There, it is truth – and the human insight in it – that give society its foundation and unity; which, at a fundamental level, amounts to the same thing as what the Christians had in mind. Their love/agape is nothing but the realization of truth – truth in its monotheistic version. The one and only true God, donator of the Law that his people were not able to fulfill, remediated their failure by abolishing sin and death in the sacrifice of his Son, thus restarting Creation and establishing it in Eternal Truth. The Christian love communities understood themselves as forerunners of the true society to come. 

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 4.06.48 PM.png

So were the monasteries in medieval society: dispersed realizations of the Civitas Dei within the wide realm of the civitas terrenna. But such were as well the anarchistic tendencies that never were absent in Christianity’s political history. What binds the Christian to society is a love that is oriented towards an entirely other, finally true society which has nothing in common with the existing one that is full of lies, corruption, sin and death. Love for Christ made Christians rise in revolt against society’s powers, including Christian powers.  

The love community as forerunner for the ‘City of God’ is one paradigmatic metaphor in the tradition of Christian political discourse. The other paradigm is the metaphor of the love community as a body guided by its head, Christ. Paul describes it in his Letter to the Colossians (1:18). The former rules Christianity’s politics with regard to other communities, the latter rules its inner politics. The Christian loves his own community as being a member of its body and, thus, obeying the head of it, which is Christ or his locum tenens, the pope and/or the emperor (and/or their substitutes).  

The second paradigm dominates Christian political discourses in the Middle Ages, if only because it fitted perfectly well with the feudal organization of the society of its time. And it was supported by the monastic system, however paradoxical that might be. For, seen from a politic perspective, the monastic system was basically anarchistic, representative as it was for the only true society, radically different from the ruling one. Yet, the Christian politics of that time had ‘tamed’ that anarchism and successfully incorporated it within the existing social ‘corpus’. 

  Giotto di Bondone, Saint Francis Renouncing Worldly Goods, 1297-1299

 Giotto di Bondone, Saint Francis Renouncing Worldly Goods, 1297-1299

When Francis of Assisi tried to live the monastic idea, not in a monastery, but in the middle of the ‘earthly city’, he introduced the old anarchistic political love paradigm within the newly emerging bourgeois society. Yet, the ecclesiastical power of his time fully succeeded in incorporating that anarchistic political love principle. Love remained what bound the citizen to its city in the same double sense as before: both love in the sense of loyalty to the existing head of the social corpus and love in the sense of orientation towards the only true society, the Civitas Dei, situated beyond the actual one of untruth and corruption.      

Is the concept of love absent in the post-Christian political discourses? It is at least more present than many presume. Modern politics considers society to be free and based in itself. But how is that ‘self’, that autonomous identity, possible without the support of each of its citizens? In order to be the autonomous, freedom based society it pretends to be, modern society needs the free commitment of its citizens. In a sense, it needs their love. Even in the sacrificial sense of the word. In fact, during modernity, the number of people giving their life for the love of their country has only increased. 

To support the free society that supports his own personal freedom, the citizen has to love that society, not only in loyalty to its ruling powers, but also with a willingness that reaches beyond his personal self-preservation – with a love that anchors in the radical ‘beyond’ of a society to come. 




Marc De Kesel

Since the emergence of theory in Ancient Greece, we commonly think about desire from the perspective of its satisfaction. The lack characterizing desire is supposed to refer to an original absence of lack: to a paradise, an original purity, a non-alienated nature. 

Thus the philosophical myth dominating the West from Plato onwards. Thinking is philia of sophia, love of wisdom, desire for knowledge. The knowledge we long for is supposed to give access to the origin and ground of our very being. Enjoying wisdom is enjoying an ontological fulfillment. 

Thus also the religious myth which, together with the philosophical one, dominates our tradition. Remember Augustine’s saying ‘Inquietum est cor meum donec requiscat in te’, ‘Restless is my heart until it rests in you’.  Desire is unrest because it is not where it longs to be, because it is not enjoying the source of its being, and of being as such. 

The theory of desire elaborated by Freud and Lacan thinks desire as radical unrest – as , incurable unrest not based in any satisfying object or origin, but in itself only, in its unrest as such. Life coincides with this very unrest, it is basically unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire. A satisfied desire would imply man’s death. 

Is then, according to Freud and Lacan, satisfaction of desire possible at all? Yet it is, be it in a specific way. This is what the Lacanian concept of jouissance, enjoyment, is about. Unlike the classical theories of satisfaction, jouissance does not obey the principle of profit but the one of loss. Enjoying the ultimate object of desire, the subject does not gain but loses the object, or loses itself in it. That loss is not a loss of your vain self, allowing you to finally have access to your real being. However vain the self may be, in enjoyment, it loses itself in what is even less than vainness. It is a imaginary loss, a loss not of your real being but of the grip you have on your life – a loss in which you have no longer the impression of being a subject at all.

Enjoyment has the structure of la petite mort: a satisfaction the subject is unable to be present with. Or it has the structure of a potlatch, in which all things enjoyed are destroyed.      

Does love allow enjoyment, jouissance, in the Lacanian sense of the word? Of course, but in jouissance, the lovers do not realize the unity they longed for. Love’s jouissance is loss, loss of the self, loss not even into one another – a loss that even loses love. 

This is why the dimension of self-gift and sacrifice is inherently connected to love. The satisfaction the desire for love is after, implies the sacrifice of the desiring subject. ‘Laisse moi devenir l’ombre de ton ombre’ (‘Let me become the shadow of your shadow’), Jacques Brel sings in Ne me quitte pas. Do not leave me, and therefore, let me disappear. That disappearing is not the expression of the poet’s pain and failure, but of his very jouissance. He wants to become as nothing as a shadow’s shadow.

It is similar to Augustine’s ‘cor meum inquietus est donec resquiescat in te’. Only, in Brel’s song, the ‘te’ is defined as the shadow of a shadow, a less than nothing, a name for the radical loss – for the jouissance – love is aiming at. 

Velazquez,  Christ on the Cross , 1630

Velazquez, Christ on the Cross, 1630

   P.P. Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, 1617

   P.P. Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, 1617

Even Christian religion is not unclear in this. The domain of the divine the Christian soul longs for is supposed to be heavenly, and yet, iconographically, it is predominantly pictured full of pain, death and loss. To disappear as human, to hang dying on the cross, to suffer lethal pains is the image showing the ultimate orientation of Christian desire.    

To Lacan, the idea of resurrection is but a veil to hide the nothing which is behind it, i.e. the realm of radical loss. It is a veil hiding the realm of jouissance. 

Peter Paul Rubens’s painting of Christ’s ‘Elevation of the Cross’ in the Antwerp Cathedral has been the object of a late 17th century anamorphotic reshaping. The horizontal painting shows at first sight a mere chaos of colors and lines, but when looked at from a specific point of view, the cylindrical mirror put in the middle of that ‘table’ shows the crucified Christ of Rubens’s painting. 

To Lacan, this anamorphosis lays bare the transcendental structure of Christian love – and of desire in general. In the chaos of the world, desire is seeking its ultimate object, but that object is put on the very position that allows us to remain blind to the emptiness behind it (the hole behind the mirror in the middle of the painted table). This is the Christian image of the jouissance human desire longs for.

Anonymous,  Anamorphosis after Rubens,  Descent from  the Cross  (17th century), Bird's Eye

Anonymous, Anamorphosis after Rubens, Descent from  the Cross (17th century), Bird's Eye

Anonymous,  Anamorphosis after Rubens,  Descent from  the Cross  (17th century), Profile

Anonymous, Anamorphosis after Rubens, Descent from  the Cross (17th century), Profile




Marc De Kesel

Love, erotic love, is supposed to be selfish. I love my beloved because I love her loving me. Love is about ‘me’. 

Really? Of course, it is about the ‘I’. But is that ‘I’, that ‘subject’, not an inherently impossible subject, precisely in the context of love and because of love? In love, does one not experience, if not the impossibility, at least the inconveniences of being a subject – ‘subject’ in the strict sense of the word: subjectum, hypokeimenon, ground, support, bearer? 

Love is a desire - a feeling, an affection, a being touched – which overtakes and stalks you, haunts and commands you, takes over the ‘ruling’ of yourself. Which is to say that it affects you in your capacity of being an ‘I’, being the owner – the bearer/subject – of your life, your desire, your affection, your feelings. 

Love is selfish, they say. But if your love is selfish, it might be first of all in order to protect you against love, against love’s subversive character, against the way it steals the dominion you suppose you have over yourself. It steals away your ‘self’. It affects and subverts the ground on which you stand; it deconstructs your subject. 

Michelangelo Carravagio,  Narcissus , 1598

Michelangelo Carravagio, Narcissus, 1598

Narcissus loved himself. Did he? He loved the one in the mirror. He loved that other looking at him from behind the surface of the water. Waiting for that beloved other, endlessly, silently, without motion – afraid as he was to even move or breath too hard, for every movement in the direction of that other made the beloved disappear in the rippling of the water’s surface. And when, stuck in that impossible desire, Narcissus cried, solely Echo heard him, a poor lady only able to repeat the cry she heard. 

Narcissus’ cry was not answered by the beloved, but so to say by love itself, i.e by an embodied willingness to accept the demand for love, a willingness whose love was so selfless that she could offer the demander nothing of herself but only what she got from him. Echo’s love is similar to the water Narcissus was looking at. It is a unruffled surface, mirroring not himself but his selfless desire, his purely loving – never answered – love. 

For François de Fénelon, the famous French ‘mystical theorist’ of the  late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, love starts selfishly. You firstly love God because of the benefits you get or hope to get from him. This is the normal, ‘erotic’ condition of human love. But to find real love, to properly love the ultimate object of human desire which is God, one has to purify that love from any selfishness. Real love is pure love: pur amour. 

In: Jean-Pierre Camus, La Caritée ou le pourtraict de la vraye charité. Histoire dévote tirée de la vie de S. Louis, 1641

In: Jean-Pierre Camus, La Caritée ou le pourtraict de la vraye charité. Histoire dévote tirée de la vie de S. Louis, 1641

And what, if you know that God, omniscient and almighty as he is, from the beginning of time, has condemned you to eternal punishment in hell? It is an indecent presumption, Fénelon emphasizes: a Christian should not have thoughts like that! Yet, if this nonetheless would be the case, if you should be predestined to hell (which would be, of course, entirely correct from God’s side, for what has a mortal sinner as you ever to reproach the grace that created you?), even then, you can still love God. What is more, Fénelon adds, only then you are in the possibility of purely loving him. Only then, you love him without any hope for return in your favor: radically selfless and, thus, pure. It is the sole kind of love that merits the title of pur  amour.    

Is Fénelon’s pur amour without any self? Is it beyond any kind of ‘I’ or ‘subject ? In fact, rather the contrary is the case. In hell – and, even, only in hell – there is still a subject that loves because he deliberately wants to love, because he himself has taken that decision. Despite all rhetoric of self-loss, there  is a hidden Cartesian self – and, consequently, a strong modern ‘ego’ – underlying the Fénelonian pur amour.  Independent from God (even doubting if God is the goodness they suppose him to be), I and I alone decide whether I love or love not that God. 

It is a strange thing that, under the surface of a selfless agape, the strongest affirmation of the ‘self’ is hidden, while the so-called selfish eros implies a subverted, deconstructed, tragically impossible ‘self’. 




Marc De Kesel

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Apparently Jesus himself is one of his best disciples, as we read in Matthew 12:46-50: “While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”


How is it possible that a religion built on the idea of Love embraces hatred, hatred even with regard to the ones we naturally love the most: father, mother, brothers, sisters – ‘elementary kinship’, Lévi-Strauss would say?

Yet, this is not without a logic behind it. For Love, as the central paradigm in Christianity, is primordially not a family affair, but a social, political, and even cosmic matter. It is the alternative to the Law, paradigm of the Old Covenant, where it was the Chosen People’s instrument to restore its broken relation with God. That people failed in fulfilling the Law, which is why God intervened and sent his own Son in order to take upon him the debt caused by that failure. Which is what happened, and he saved not only that particular people, but the whole of mankind, the entire universe. That act of Love, done by the Father’s sacrifice of his Son, delivered the world from sin and death, and turned it into a New Creation. Living in the realm of that deliverance, breathing the freedom beyond the Law: this is what Christian Love is about.

So, beyond the love attachment of family and friends, there is a divine Love that unites the loving person to all humans and even to the entire universe. Hence, not totally illogical, the commandment to hate the particular and the intimate: sisters, brothers, mother and (even) father, for there is only one Father, who is in heaven. In this, Christian Love is thoroughly monotheist: it concerns the truth, which is universal and, consequently, excludes the singular. A singular god is a false one, for there is only one God who for that very reason is the God of everyone. This is why a logic of exclusion is inherent to monotheism: to love God is to hate idols.

To love God is to hate what he hates.

This is why hate can even enter Christianity’s mystic love tradition. Take, for instance, Hadewijch of Brabant (13th century) who in her Fifth Vision writes (v. 18-20):

Manuscript of Hadewijch's Frist Poem, Ghent, UB, 941, f. 49r.

Manuscript of Hadewijch's Frist Poem, Ghent, UB, 941, f. 49r.

Ic hebbe minen ghehelen wille noch met u, ende minne ende hate met u als ghi.

 (I have attuned my entire will to you, I love and hate the way you love and hate.)

Or, a few lines further in the same Vision (v.52-56):

Doe ghi mi selve in u selven naemt, ende daed mi weten hoeghedaen ghi sijt, ende haet ende mine in enen wesene, doe bleef mi bekent hoe ic al met u soude haten ende minnen ende in allen wesene sijn.

(When you took me in you and let me know how you hate and love in one essence, then, I learned to hate and love entirely with you and to be similar to you in all what is.)

Here, Hadewijch’s mystical desire zooms in on the judging God, on God separating right from wrong, true from false, good from bad. The mystical union she longs for is a unification with the separating power of divine truth. But precisely the splitting character of that power keeps Hadewijch from being united with God. It is, so to say, a split in God that keeps her desire ongoing.

Loving the divine hatred, she keeps on loving/desiring thanks to that hatred.




Marc De Kesel

“By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” So we read in the First Letter of John (3:16). 

What is love, if we learn it from Jesus? To lay down our life for the ones we love. And even to lay down the life of our beloved – if we follow the example of Jesus’s Father, who laid down the life of his only Son for love of mankind. Love is gift, radical gift, self-gift. 

To lay down your life for someone else: is this not all too cruel, and therefore, unrealistic and, if realized, simply inhuman? Yet, even if you do not agree with the hard consequences of such a statement (why should love be self-sacrifice? how could the beloved ever be pleased by the fact that you die for her/him?), it might at least rightly suppose that love is a matter of gift, of gift-giving.

Even ‘selfish’ Eros is a matter of gift-giving. The lover gives himself to the beloved, just as the beloved gives herself to the lover. Is, in such act of love, the ‘self’ given way, abandoned? Indeed, it is. Not in ‘the real,’ but love feels as if it is like this. Eros feels as if it deprives me of my ‘self’. Hurt by the blind arrow, I am no longer the one who I think I am: I am in love, or, to put it more strongly, I am love. I coincide with the desire I feel for my beloved, a desire that has lost its very ‘self’. Just like, after the act of love, I feel pity simply because I feel again, because I feel again my ‘self’, which reminds me that, unfortunately, I have not disappeared into my beloved. That particular, complex feeling, the French erotic tradition calls ‘la petite mort’ (the little death).   

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini,  The ecstasy of Santa Teresa of Avila , (detail)

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, The ecstasy of Santa Teresa of Avila, (detail)

Is this the way man loves God? Surely, the mystical tradition is there to show that Eros is fully present in the Christian tradition. And there, the paradigm of the gift is most explicit. Take for instance Teresa of Avila’s poem entitled Vivo sin vivir en mí (I live without living in myself). In the last stanza, the logic of the gift reaches the lethal acme of its inner paradox: 

Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 8.38.28 AM.png

Teresa dies from not dying: it is a paradoxical way of saying that she suffers because her act of giving herself away has not yet succeeded – because she has not yet definitely disappeared in her beloved God. To lay down your life for the beloved: this is Christian Eros as practiced by so many mystics. Eros, as a positive, wanted privation of the self – as  longing for that very privation – is the way humans are to love God.

 But is it also the way God loves humans? 

At first sight, the answer is yes, as we read in the letter of John: “By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us.” This is what Jesus did – or, what amounts to the same thing, what in Jesus God did. 

Vittore Carpaccio,  Meditation on the Passion,  1510

Vittore Carpaccio, Meditation on the Passion, 1510

This is incarnation. It is God’s kenosis, his very death. Incarnation means that God dies, out of love, for us humans. 

But does God ‘die because he does not die’. Does He suffer from not disappearing entirely within the human. Does He know of the pain caused by the fact that, despite His self-abandoning love, He still keeps on existing? 

It is not exactly what the tradition tells us, but might it not be the most radical form of incarnation? Then, God should really be human, not because of the dying in the moment of His death, but because of the dying as the condition of His life: then, living, He should ‘die because He is still God’. Just like his human beloved ones die because they realize that, despite their love-experience, they still exist. 

This would make the gift-giving between God and man equal and endless. Each of them would keep on giving, without ever succeed in giving himself radically away.