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’.