Why Exult? Part III
Why is it that we—our hearts, anyway—become so set on loving not just other people but other particular people? Doesn’t a huge portion of our trouble in life come from this simple, but seemingly unavoidable reality? Why do our hearts have to be so discriminating? Who are they to know, anyway? Why is it not possible for our minds to play a simple trick and insert a different face into the frame of our affections?
After all, we are living in the “age of mechanical reproduction,” as Walter Benjamin wrote about art, but as now seems to apply to nearly everything. The whole concept of the Internet and allied technologies is that they can create a virtual world. If we can do that, what will be left to desire? And what desire will be left with which to desire it?
In huge swaths of our lives, the new technologies have insinuated themselves in mind-bending ways. As they change everything from how we conduct our personal lives to how we perform our work, they do so in very precise ways the merits of which we can pinpoint, analyze, and debate. Yet they also do so in more sweeping ways that are harder to assess. One of the underlying assumptions driving so much of the breathtaking innovation and many people’s open-armed embrace of what the new technologies have to offer is that more and more parts of life can be simulated. It is reminiscent of—and not unrelated to—the drive, in robotics, to simulate the human being. Tellingly, such efforts at mechanical cloning always falter when it comes to the replication of human emotion.
In the realm of the affections, there are concrete reasons why we might search for someone to stand in for someone else, yet it is this precise realm that seems to resist all such efforts. We might understandably wish to come up with a way to simulate the strong feelings that we feel for a particular individual so as not be so beholden to him or her. The reasons include the usual suspects, ones that have been with us long before the microchip: inaccessibility of the object of our affections; grief at the loss of a lover or companion through separation, death, or another twist of fate; or just the waning of passion caused by a mundane series of disappointments, mishaps, or misunderstandings. And the attempts to achieve such emotional simulation reveal a history of inventiveness that most likely maps directly onto the entire span of human history itself. But just as impressive as these efforts is the mountain of evidence we have accumulated for what they add up to: naught.
Unless we find a way to fool ourselves better, it is highly improbable that we can ever manage to disabuse our hearts of their true commitment to a particular person. And it is also questionable whether we should even try.
In this series of posts, I have been mulling over the completely moot question of why we should wish to desire at all, given all of the foreseeable and unforeseeable pain that inevitably causes. The pain I had in mind was the searing-cold-knife-blade-into-the-chest variety that can follow upon what is or is thought to be the permanent loss of the beloved; the kind that seems to empty one’s inner self of everything that fills life with joy and meaning; the kind that drove Puccini’s Tosca to leap to her death after she found out that her beloved Mario had been wrenched forever from her loving arms by a death squad. His staged execution, the intended act of simulation, turned out to be excruciatingly real.
But there are other painful emotions that fall far short of this extreme of tragic loss. The full experience of these other affective states can be extremely difficult and unpleasant and can also make desire seem undesirable. Our culture, while pretending to be all about desire, actually removes its possibility in the name of our supposed protection and therapeutic healing, making all strong emotions that are the basis of exclusive attachments suspect.
One of these painful emotions is jealousy, an emotion that would not exist if there were any chance of a kind of saving reproducibility of love. Jealousy is something that seems to have no place in today’s world of self-possession. At best it is a sign of immaturity and insecurity; at worst it goes against one of the shibboleths of today’s consumer culture, the commandment to smile for the camera and appear to be having fun at all times. It smacks of grasping, smothering, restricting, controlling, possessing. It seems unnatural, a sign that self-interest has taken over. Or it is pathetic, a sign of weakness, suggesting that one should get a life (presumably not this one).
This morning, just as I was opening my eyes to the new day, I was flanked by my dog, who had taken advantage of my sleep state, as he does each morning, to settle in where it was warm and cozy in my arms rather than in his own dog bed. My daughter approached to wish me good morning and, seeing my canine companion, greeted him affectionately. At that point I greeted my daughter. As recurs in this situation with unbroken regularity, a loud and pained sound, half squeal of delight and half agonized moan, was emitted involuntarily from deep within my dog’s throat. The sound is as unpleasant as the proverbial fingernails on a chalkboard: at once irritatingly loud and ridiculous. Normally perfectly well-behaved and the model of true gentlemanliness, this animal’s closest brush with objectionable behavior is at these moments. It is obvious why he reacts to them the way he does. He’s jealous.
This is a member of one of the dog breeds most known for getting along with households with multiple members, for making a deep bond with each and every member of a family, from infants to octogenarians. There are other breeds that have a tendency not to get along as well with children than others but this is not one of them. And some breeds are notorious (or famous–this is part of the point I aim to make shortly) for developing a primary bond with only one person. He is not of that ilk either.
Yet, even when this little dog is ensconced in the very embrace of one member of his human pack, a moment of potentially divided affections can nearly rip out his heart from the sound of it. Only a major show of affection on the part of all of the parties involved in this sudden emotional crisis, this paroxysm of panic, can reassure him enough to get him to calm down. There’s no question of falling back into the trance state of unbroken connection. That will have to await another time. It’s as though we have to reassure him that he will still be loved if one of us shows affection for another.
Canine jealousy suggests that the constellation of emotions provoked by the feeling of possible or impending loss of the affections of the beloved to someone else are not, as so many communes and other reform movements in the nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. have made them out to be, just another bourgeois claim to ownership stemming from our indoctrination into the wholesale system of private property. Dogs don’t own property, last I looked. Is it possible that those emotions–the fear and unease, the anxiety and panic–are part of the experience of loving and being loved when that love is at its most natural, not least?
This is not at all an endorsement of jealousy. It can and should provoke the emotions of fear and worry that lead toward prevention; we should be vigilant in keeping it from wreaking the total destruction of which it is capable. At its worst, it can be fatal, as our notions “jealous rage” and “crime of passion” suggest. At its best, even, it can make us look and feel ridiculous. My dog always looks a little sheepish when his panic subsides and he realizes the interloper that was out to snatch away his blissful connection was a phantom.
When jealousy is untrammeled by countervailing resources at our disposal, phantoms can be as destructive as real threats. Jealousy is as often as not unfounded. Foreshadowing of the terrible loss she was to sustain, an irrational jealousy concerning Mario had plagued Tosca. She continually harbored suspicions that he must be making love to other women yet, in fact, his love for Tosca was as ultimate—as inimitable—as her love for him.
But here is where we can glimpse the role jealousy can sometimes play in our most intense human attachments. It teaches us, in no uncertain terms, the answer to that adrenaline-pumping wolf howl of George Thorogood’s, “Who Do You Love?” Without being aware of that—without knowing, even at a deeply unconscious level, who it is we can’t bear to do without—we might live altogether differently. Tosca turned out to have all too short time on this earth with her beloved. Thus, her jealousy may have been what ensured that she sought out and treasured all moments of love and intimacy they were to know together. Her jealousy may have angered Mario, whose passion for Tosca did not deserve to be questioned, but maybe it also riveted his attention so that vital vocalizations and enactments took place and precious time was not wasted. Wasn’t it how he learned of the extreme vulnerability even this beautiful, beloved woman could experience when it came to a single, irreplaceable person—himself? When they both could see how unfounded her jealousy was and how his assurances of love dispensed with it, mirth resulted and their intimacy deepened. Giving a (limited) hearing to jealousy, an emotion that seems negative by definition, ended in something else entirely.
Of course this doesn’t always happen. When it does turn out that true love is equally shared, the discomfort and piercing pain and dread of jealousy is still something that people who have experienced it would no doubt prefer to avoid. When it does not turn out that the love is equally shared, of course, it can be the precursor to even greater agony. In either case, such a feeling can also remind us of the sheer fragility of what it is to have experienced in the past another person in such a way that he or she becomes inextricably lodged in our very psyche for the present and foreseeable future. It is understandable why we might try to dodge or deny the whole range of emotional states that can arise when a particular person stands out from all the rest as unique, irreplaceable, and all too real.
Jealousy’s critics, its main detractors, like all those who would simply have us do away with inconvenient or complicated emotions by not feeling them, seem to me to be spokespeople from the party of reproducibility, and it is that party that is in the ascendancy. It is much easier to let someone recede from vision if we never felt that powerful force that is human desire at its apogee. The party of uniqueness, after all, knows that if we lose someone, the splendor that is that person can never find a substitute, just as we don’t have a prayer of simulating the very particular love he or she inspires in us.
This is another reason why it might seem sometimes to be a mistake to desire and exult in the ways only possible in a world in which people—and our experiences with them and of them—are not interchangeable. We can be “cool” and “chill” now in the glorious age of “whatever.” In the calculus so often regnant today, no particular individual counts too much.
Just try telling that to my dog.