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."