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Democracy field notes

On Love and Politics

The following remarks on love and politics were first delivered at a welcome symposium for all first-year humanities and social science students in the Great Hall, the University of Sydney, 27th February 2014:

Good morning and a warm welcome to the University of Sydney.

I was asked by our Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to speak for a few minutes on the proverbial subject of love, and so I thought I’d begin with a surprise thunderbolt: love is a political matter. Yes, your ears heard correctly: not a poetical or pontifical but a political matter.

The p-word is not much in fashion these days, and to link it to love seems odd, if only because love is born of comfort and contentment. If we’re born lucky, love is the cradle of our earliest years. Love is a father watching over a sleeping child; his reassuring voice; the firm clasp of his outstretched hand. Later, love is his golden advice and heart-felt offers of material help. Love is a mother’s caress. It is her gently beating heart; her warm body; her consoling embrace, her willingness to drop everything, and to go the extra mile. Love is hunger and milk; desire and pleasure mixed together. Love is the utterly selfless willingness of parents to teach their children, to nurture their self-confidence, to encourage them to do astonishing things, like love another living being.

We learn later in life that love is bound up with desire. Freud was unquestionably right about that. Hence the wisdom that love is blind. Love begins with passionate love; friendship and other attachments, however heart-felt they are, are never quite the same. They rarely become love. When people softly say wo ai ni (try it in Mandarin!), the words usually throb with excitement. Love is bodily: when we’re in love, we kiss the ground our lover’s feet kiss. Love is delicious torment: we can’t bear to be apart from our lover. We crave their touch, their smell, the twinkle of their eyes, their lips. Speakers of Spanish say: te quiero. I love you means I want you.

You don’t need a professor dressed in a multi-coloured gown and hood to tell you just how explosive is the mix of desire and love for another. True lovers make love as if they’re on the endangered species list. Love (eros) is longing. It breeds sighs. It burns like fuel in a furnace. Love is a fit of apoplexy, a touch of madness. Love’s a sort of honey-sweet torment. It tempts us to pluck petals in hope, or to sing [professor attempts to croon] sentimental songs such as: ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do! I’m half crazy all for the love of you!’

Yes, tone deafness is a curse, so here’s a compensating thought: we live in an age when the word love is everywhere, over-used, and mis-used. We say we love Diet Coke, driving BMWs. We love the beach, cricket, Tim Tams, Little Creatures, sushi or dumplings. Don’t forget One Direction. In one click, you’ll discover dating sites like that promise dating without love, sexual pleasure without falling in love, Love-Lite we could call it. But love isn’t consumption, or disposable love. Love certainly isn’t narcissism; it is its remedy.

Narcissism, self-love, is all around us: we star in our very own selfies and, with a mouse click, there we are, fully uploaded, visible, famous, the centre of attraction, surrounded by others in a hall of flattering mirrors. That’s partly why love comes gendered, why so many men confuse orgasm with love, and why, it’s said by women I know, men rarely fall in love because too many of them fall asleep first.

The fact that love isn’t self-love, or even (as Madame de Staël once put it) self-love times two, brings us to politics. Beginning with a chance encounter, love is passionate interaction with another. It is relational, and inherent in the relationship there’s power, and the possibility of mutual empowerment, and (when love fades) dis-empowerment. Love is everything from deciding one’s sexuality to choosing what shoes to wear, whether to live together or not, who is cooking dinner and how to make plans for this coming weekend. Love is forging agreements, settling disputes, fairly, minus the poison of resentment, or manipulation. Love isn’t a matter for professionals. It’s the practical art of nurturing equality with another.

Money can’t buy love. Strictly speaking, you can’t love your own nation. Albert Camus had a point: nations are far too complex to be loved in their entirety, so that in the case of this fair land adoring our nation would involve loving (say) Captain Bligh and those white colonists who committed genocide in Van Diemen’s Land, or Gina Rinehart, Craig Thompson and Pauline Hanson (I better not go on). Looks alone don’t breed love. Love doesn’t automatically find a way. It can’t be pre-programmed. Love is a close-to-the-body way of deciding with another, fairly and equally, who gets when, when and how. Love is a democratic adventure. By this I mean that love humbles. It can’t be commanded, and for that reason it rarely survives imperiousness. Love makes us equals. Some philosophers and political writers (Henri Bergson and Jacques Maritain, for instance) have said that love, which honours dignity, neighbourliness and mutual respect, is the ‘motive power’ of democracy. The proverbs teach us: Love can’t be compelled. Love laughs at locksmiths. It softens hearts. ‘Die Liebe herrscht nicht; aber sie bildet, und das ist mehr’, wrote Goethe. Love doesn’t dominate; it cultivates, and more. The Qur'an speaks of purification through love. Love can’t survive violence, or bossing and bullying. An originally German proverb says it all well: love is above King or Kaiser, lord or laws.

But love is for that reason plain hard work. Yes, it puts a spring in our steps; the jouissance of love disrupts the humdrum normality of our lives. Love is thrilling, as Aristophanes emphasised in Plato’s Symposium, but as Socrates reminded us (in the same work) love also requires day and night inventiveness, patience, thoughtfulness, trust, correcting missteps, resilience. Learning to say sorry is imperative. The course of true love never did run smooth (Shakespeare tells us in A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream), and that’s why the utter magic of our first puppy love stems from our ignorance that it can all end badly. Love is uncertainty. It’s a bumpy road, it’s taking risks, stretching ourselves with others, a process of give-and-take. Love is potential failure and (when it slips through our fingers) love is dealing with hurt, soothing remorse, coping with injured selves.

So why bother with love if it can damage our sense of self and break apart our hearts? There’s a very short and snappy answer: to lose in love is the next best thing to succeeding, and success in love, which requires lovers to become political, and to act democratically, is bliss on earth. If you haven’t already, try it some time. You might just see what I mean.

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