Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why We Need Love by Simon Van Booy

Why We Need Love
edited by Simon Van Booy

Part of a trilogy (see also Why We Fight and Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter, reviews forthcoming), Simon Van Booy collects the words and images of notable minds, attempting to answer the question of love and its necessity to our lives. From Nietzsche to Shakespeare to Cummings to experts in Buddhism, it is a thought-provoking and slim volume that inevitably asks the reader to answer the question for themselves.

“My hope for these books is to present interesting and exciting philosophical ideas in a straightforward, but intelligent, language that can be understood by everyone,” Van Booy says in the preface. “These volumes are not meant to convince you of anything, to be a definitive source, or to offer any new insights on a topic. Their purpose is to simply introduce you to an age-old theme that quite possibly has already taken a key role in your life.”

And who hasn’t loved, really? Save the sociopaths, we all fall in love with someone or something — and if we’re lucky, we get to do it again and again.

“True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.”
— François de La Rochefoucald

I’d seen this quote prior to this volume, and I had it scribbled in a notebook when I was a teenager — written not in an act of self-pity, but as one of smug satisfaction. I’d known love, I felt love, and goddammit, I was special. Now? I don’t agree with the quote at all. I don’t think the numbers are few, but maybe some aren’t paying attention or are afraid. All love is true; it’s only the varieties that change.

For instance:

I love my husband and my children. That’s the “I would do anything for you,” all-encompassing sort of love. There are a couple of others who would land in this category.

I love certain musicians and other forms of entertainment. Noel Gallagher’s songwriting speaks to my soul. It is indulgent, but wholehearted love, despite not knowing him personally.

I love Thai red curries. I love a good sandwich. This does not change. If you think this is silly, ask my husband about the time I finally returned to Pickle Barrel for their steak sandwich. You know the healing power of food; you know you do.

“In contrast to both types of love [brotherly and motherly] is erotic love; it is the craving for complete fusion, for union with one other person. It is by its very nature exclusive and not universal; it is also perhaps the most deceptive form of love there is.”
— Erich Fromm from The Art of Loving

Here, I would argue that there are two subsets of erotic love — the marrying kind and the lustful kind. “But isn’t lust a different thing?” you might ask. Sometimes, sure — just ask Texts From Last Night — but of course they overlap. Rather than describe lust as something tawdry, I would define it more as “passion.” And oh yes is it hard to pin down. We constantly try to define our feelings and are constantly comparing them to what is “normal,” when really it might be beneficial to just let the feelings happen.

Michael Chabon, in discussing his novel Mysteries of Pittsburgh, once said, “I had slept with one man whom I loved, and learned to love another man so much that it would never have occurred to me to want to sleep with him.” He’s married to a woman and has several children, and I often recall this quote whenever someone is trying too hard to label love.

One of the book’s most effective explorations marrying-erotic love is the poem “Without You” by Adrian Henri. I loved it so much, I tappity-tap-tapped it into my husband’s notes section on his iPod. My favorite lines:

Without you I’d have to leave my stillborn poems on other
people’s doorsteps, wrapped in brown paper


Without you Clark Kent would forget how to become Superman,


Without you it would be an offence punishable by a fine of up
to £200 or two months imprisonment to be found in
possession of curry powder,

It’s funny, beautiful, sweet and true.

On the fiction side of excerpts, Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case: A Study of Temperament” is just excellent. She explores the wholehearted love of something greater than yourself — in this case, a young man’s love of theatre, costume and music. Paul runs away from Pittsburgh after his father forbids him to spend any more time at the theater. Having stolen deposit money from his job, he goes on a New York City shopping spree and books himself a room at the Waldorf.

It had been wonderfully simple; when they had shut him out of the theatre and concert hall, when they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually determined. The rest was a mere matter of opportunity.

The whole story is a great discussion on the transforming power of art and what happens when those opportunities are not only taken away, but actively discouraged. It was the highlight of the book for me.

Why We Need Love not only provides insight as to how people have viewed love over time, but it will either illuminate or reenforce your own thoughts on all those great rib-bursting feelings.

Who, being loved, is poor?
— Oscar Wilde


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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