Critical Love Studies

By Merve EmreMay 3, 2020

Critical Love Studies
I LIKE TO IMAGINE that Sam See would have started a new field called “Critical Love Studies.” He would have started it because love in all its strange guises was his intellectual preoccupation, and because love had always struck him as a peculiarly useless feeling. By “useless,” I do not mean inert or ineffectual. Rather, for Sam, love had no discrete object, no codified purpose, and no logical end. This was a belief he shared with one of his most admired, if least expected, theorists of sexuality, Charles Darwin. In Darwin’s theory of evolution, love was the only emotion that did not “habitually lead to any special line of action,” he explained in The Expressions of Emotion in Man and Animals. It was never clear what, if anything, you could do with love, or what you should let it do to you.

Love’s uselessness distinguished it as a type of “aesthetic feeling,” Sam claimed in Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies. So too did love’s grounding in desire. Banished from considerations of aesthetic judgment by Kant, desire was the drive that Sam sought to restore to art and to love. Just as all aesthetic judgments originate with the feelings of a single, sensational body, love betrays a “subjective response about pleasure and displeasure.” Love brooks neither censure nor classification. It is a fool’s errand to try to persuade a friend to stop loving someone whom you experience as a source of acute displeasure, someone whom you judged unworthy of her attention and care. It is also a fool’s errand to explain why you love someone by describing his or her generic qualities. I do not love a person because he is tall, dark, and handsome though he may very well be all these things. Similarly, not all tall, dark, and handsome men are pleasing or desirable to me. To adapt Kant’s observation about aesthetic experience in The Critique of Judgment, love is not general. It is intensely and intently particular.

In its sensuality, its obscurity, and its uselessness, love, as Sam imagined it, did not resemble the idealizing stories of devotion celebrated by the courtly and Romantic traditions. The medieval lyric and the 18th-century epistolary novel alike insisted on love as an alliance brokered between virtue and morality. Their plots dramatized how, after a moment of blind impulse, the lover came to possess perfect insight into his beloved’s mind and found therein the qualities of goodness — chastity, fidelity, compassion, grace — that would ennoble him in the eyes of others. Love demanded wholeness, harmony; the synchronization of two peoples’ minds; the alignment of individual feelings of passion with social judgments of value.

Yet a curious thing happened when love leaned so heavily on morality. The more the lover came to know about his beloved — the more he found to admire in her and thus, in himself — the more he began to turn away from the affective state that Sam’s favorite artist, Björk, calls “big time sensuality”: “the hardcore and the gentle” energies that animate passion and make desire both extremely pleasing and extremely agitating. In fictions of idealistic love, “[s]exual passion is almost entirely replaced by the very real passion for virtue — for the calm pleasures of domestic life,” writes Leo Bersani, another of Sam’s cherished theorists of sexuality. Sensuality is a source of confusion so intense and so unassimilable that it cannot be confronted directly. Desire must be disavowed; repudiated; cast off as an intruder in an otherwise happy home. The fear it presents is “a curiously moving and persistent one,” Bersani concludes: “[T]he fear of the potential blindness of passion, of the dehumanizing indifference of the lover to the moral personality of a person he or she seeks merely to possess at any cost.”

If this seems neurotic, sentimental, sexist, and (for me) supremely unsexy, for Sam, it was objectionable primarily for how it made love contingent on knowledge. The courtly and Romantic traditions of love turned on transparent thoughts and well-ordered feelings: the exercise of constant vigilance over one’s own heart and mind, and mastery over the hearts and minds of others. According to these traditions of idealistic love, desire is frightening for how wide and dark it revealed the gaps in our knowledge to be. For what is desire but the inability to have anticipated in the past what could not be accommodated in the present? The inability to make what we want equivalent to what we think we ought to want? In this sense, desire is a testament to our ignorance, our inadequacy. “It takes courage to enjoy it,” sings Björk of big time sensuality, and if you listen, you will hear how the swoops of her voice — high, soaring, rapturous — get cut off by growls of retreat, by fear at the intensity of her own beseechments. In place of this high, and in place of this fear, idealistic love promises the milder pleasures of the known and knowable world.

The logic of love as the pursuit of knowledge and the banishment of desire reaches its most strident pitch not in literature, but in sociology — specifically, in Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, a book that Sam despised. He despised it for how coolly it asserted what many of us already, sadly suspect: that most people lack courage. Cowardice, conformity, and aversion to risk are precisely what allow someone like Luhmann to think about love systematically. Love, Luhmann argues, is a medium of communication: a mechanism for making selections within a complex world and for imbuing these selections with meaning and coherence. What is peculiar about love, according to Luhmann, is how it anoints a single individual the horizon of meaning-making in perpetuity. In its most efficient state, love is a social institution that perfects private, exclusionary forms of knowledge shared between two people:

The entire experience of the partners should be an experience shared in common. Each partner should tell the other what they experience every day, each should tell the other all about their problems and resolve them through a joint effort. […] The institutionalization of non-specific, communicative openness presupposes discretion. Discretion relies on recognizable system boundaries and also, in this case, on both partners being aware of and respecting the same system boundaries. It also depends on each knowing that the other does so and being able to expect this of them. These requirements find expression in the predicted marital type known as “companionship.”

“Passion is transformed imperceptibly into history and is simultaneously replaced by history,” Luhmann argues. In companionship, history overwhelms the sensations that desire solicits. What two people do together, and how they feel doing it, is less important than the fact that they have done things together in the past, and that they both know they will continue to do things together in the future. Love: A Sketch thus concludes by celebrating the “casualness and interchangeability” of all companionate activities — “an evening spent at a party, watching television, or having sexual intercourse” — as evidence of love’s stability, its triumph over mere feelings.


Sam’s 2011 essay “Bersani in Love” is an extraordinary rejoinder to Luhmann’s systematic love, and the intellectual act from which critical love studies should have been born. The essay was not included in Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, though I can understand why. It is a rangy, wild, breakneck piece. The argument it breathlessly makes — about love, desire, betrayal, sexuality, history, criticism, the novel, Henry James, Samuel Beckett — is one whose many parts I can glimpse but have trouble grasping in full. Reading it makes me feel ignorant and inadequate, which is why I wanted to write about it so badly. “Writing creates the gaps that desire longs to fill,” Sam argues. For him, criticism was always a desiring form. The question that motivates “Bersani in Love” is: What does criticism desire?

Understanding, or knowledge, is one simple answer to that question. Criticism allows us to make sense of something — a fact, a feeling, an art form — by orienting it to a set of beliefs about the world. It also allows us to make this knowledge known to others. To that end, “Bersani in Love” opens with a simple critical observation that doubles as an incomprehensible romantic accusation: “Leo Bersani has been cheating on Henry James for nearly fifty years.” The idea of a critic cheating on a writer only makes sense if you believe, as Sam did, that criticism was a form of “published romance” between a reader and writer. And while no one would expect a critic to be faithful, Bersani had appeared to flirt with other monogamous relationships in the past: “to the novel, to modernism, to psychoanalysis, to Samuel Beckett.” James was neither Bersani’s first lover, nor his last. But he did seem to be his most patiently enduring side piece, the most tolerant of Bersani’s serial betrayals — his “critical promiscuity” (with Proust, Mallarmé, Freud, Caravaggio), his “critical infidelity” (with Balzac, Beckett, Resnais, Rothko). He was the lover to whom Bersani returned to again and again to understand his other relationships and to admire the “homo-ness” of his literary history: the sense he had that these artistic loves had compelled identical structures of feeling without being identical to one another.

What all of Bersani’s artistic loves shared was an intolerance for the idea of art as redemptive, of literature as offering an ethical or philosophical corrective to life. “[V]iews of art’s beneficently reconstructive function in culture depend on a devaluation of historical experience and of art,” writes Bersani in The Culture of Redemption. For Sam, the art Bersani loved was “unredeeming and unredeemable,” an art of secrets, betrayals, and lies, tending to blindness, stasis, and isolation. It was art that jilted knowledge at every opportunity; an art riddled with what Sam tantalizingly called “holes”: the massive gaps in understanding that one yearns to fill with interpretation, but from whose darkness no light can escape. The only thing these holes offer us is a brief encounter with history: a state of past being that is entirely singular and thus impossible to recreate, or to enliven, in the present. Or, as Bersani defines history: “Those encounters and extensions that we usually fail to see outside of art, but are the ontological reality — the universal correspondence of forms — that art realizes for us.”

Art’s betrayal of knowledge was, for Sam, a form of love, and it was crucially different from desire. Desire is “the exciting pain of a certain ignorance,” “the failure to penetrate the sense of the other’s soliciting,” Bersani writes. Love, Sam countered, was “the pleasure of ignorance: the pleasure of renouncing our desire to fill the hole of knowledge, to make knowledge whole, to master those to whom we bear relation.” Our objects of desire are born from our ignorance and nourished by our fantasies. “The fact is that the person counts for little or nothing,” writes Proust in La Fugitive. But they become our objects of love when we give up on mastering them, when we allow them to evince “the supreme value of a permanently inexpressible reality” that leaves us sitting quietly in the dark. “Love shatters itself to give the historical world what desire sought to claim back to itself,” Sam wrote. Love gives “the promise of a future” to what we cannot possess as a part of ourselves in the present.

What does Henry James have to do with all this? Bersani’s betrayal of James, Sam argued, offered “a history of the novel in which James functions as the fulcrum where literary realism betrays itself and where literary desire must learn to love better.” The realist novel desires history — or, at least, it feigns its devotion to history’s particular times and particular places. But it betrays history when it seeks to escape from it — when it too offers us the “superior finality of art” in place of real life. There is no novelist who betrays history more unrepentantly than James. Though his characters are liars, self-deceivers, and secret keepers, their different incoherencies are all beautifully structured and arranged by the narrator’s central consciousness. Like the force in a centrifuge, the center must be “selected and fixed,” writes James in his preface to The Wings of the Dove. “I understand no breaking-up of the register, no sacrifice of the recording consistency, that doesn’t rather scatter and weaken.” James’s “superior point of view” resolves his characters’ “lying holes into lying wholes,” Sam claimed. Insisting on his single point of view, on following his rules and only his rules of art, James disables the “faculty to see (to subvert and criticize)” that protects us from the tyranny of another’s mind. No wonder Bersani relishes cheating on him.

But James is more than just a controlling lover. He is a killer. Believing in the novel’s vitality, he nevertheless drains it of its “frictional differences,” leaves it bloodless, cold. Love is extinguished by his assertion of mastery, desire by his resolution of all moral and epistemological dilemmas. “James kills the novel precisely because he equates it with life; mastering history, the novel can for James never die,” Sam wrote. “And this is for Bersani why it dies.” After James, the novel — a fading beauty, heartbroken and historical — rebounds with Beckett. Rebounding with Beckett, it loses not only its “idealistic vision of love,” but its desire to represent history, to commit itself faithfully to a particular place and a particular time. “Art renounces the history that it cannot be,” Sam wrote. The only love the dying novel has left to give history is an impoverished, broken sort of feeling.


“Nora had the face of all people who love the people — a face that would be evil when she found out that to love without criticism is to be betrayed,” writes Djuna Barnes in Nightwood. It is a line I have never stopped thinking about, not since Sam encouraged me to read the novel for the first time in 2010. “You are the O’Connor to my Nora,” he wrote in the second to last email he sent me. Sam rarely passed up an opportunity to identify us with characters in novels we both loved. (If it wasn’t Nightwood, it was The Portrait of a Lady: I, Isabel; he, Ralph. If it wasn’t The Portrait of a Lady, it was The Hunger Games: I, Katniss; he, Haymitch; whichever man I was with, Gale; whichever man Sam thought I should be with, Peeta.) But he also knew that the practice of identifying with characters was based on reading their structures of feeling very closely. I have several of his books in my office — his library was distributed to his friends at his memorial service — and I know from studying his annotations exactly what he would have done when he read, “To love without criticism is to be betrayed.” He would have circled “is to be,” drawn a triangle above it (his symbol for a verb tense that intrigued him), and written in the margins: “Who?” “Who has done the betraying here?”

Betrayal, like criticism, is always co-created. For Sam, what criticism desired was not knowledge but community — the company of other peoples’ minds and the renunciation of one’s own fixed point of view. This was why he judged the drama a superior genre to the novel; why the novels that most interested him were the novels written by playwrights; why he believed that Bersani’s most beautiful and most generous works were the books that he had co-authored with Ulysse Dutoit. Together, Sam argued, Bersani and Dutoit create a model of dramatic dialogue through criticism. The “we” that they name and inhabit harbors a “pleasing instability” that defines “a perspective that is at once mine and not mine,” write Bersani and Dutoit. In place of Bersani’s singular authority, in place of James’s love of consistency and his fear of weakness, collaborative authorship thrives on the pleasure of ignorance in the presence of another’s mind. If you are lucky enough, it is a mind that offers itself as careful and caring, differently knowing and differently ignorant from one’s own. Collective criticism is “an opportunity to learn that ‘lessness is the condition of allness,’” Sam wrote.

Against insatiable desire and idealistic love, writing criticism with others brings into being “an incomplete love, a love whose incompletion, whose lack, is also its potential for plenitude,” Sam wrote. It shows us “not only how art fails but how art that fails us loves us, we who cannot escape our mortalities, we who cannot escape our having been invented, we who ‘suffer from this experience of never being anything but a derived self.’” This is the idea of love that connects much of the literature that Sam wrote about in Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies: Nightwood (“Love is the first lie; wisdom the last”); Between the Acts (“Love and hate — how they tore her asunder!”); Maurice (“Love was an emotion through which you occasionally enjoyed yourself. It could not do things.”); The Granite Butterfly (“The prison of love is terrible and dear”); The Waste Land, Burnt Norton (“Love is itself unmoving / Only the cause and end of movement, / Timeless, and undesiring / Except in the aspect of time / Caught in the form of limitation / Between un-being and being.”) “These are the suitors for whom I weave my loom,” Sam once wrote to me, and I cannot help but tally how many of these suitors we share, and how many more I could have shared with him.

Writing about Sam today, I am stunned to discover his thoughts hiding in plain sight among my own. I am stunned by how much of what I believed I was living or writing anew, in the intellectual company of others, was a reworking of what Sam was thinking nine years ago. How was a betrayal of this magnitude possible? The end of “Bersani in Love” answers these questions in a particularly painful way. “Sexuality is perhaps as close as we come (short of death) to the beneficent destruction of the empirical individual, a destruction that is identical to the body’s most intense concentration on its own capacity for sensation,” writes Bersani. As the parenthetical implies, death is the only experience that shatters and concentrates individual being more completely than sexuality, or, more broadly across Sam’s criticism, eros. Death “releases the body into historical being,” he wrote. The irrevocable pastness of the body means that the only form of relationality left to pursue is “an enduring ethic of self-extension.” Love persists only through acts of “self-scattering” — through books, through words, through thoughts buried and, unexpectedly, resurrected.

“Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the ‘findings’ in a tomb,” writes Barnes in Nightwood. “As in one will be charted the taken place of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as an indelible shadow, that which he loves.” This is a love whose persistence can be hard to see: a hole in your history, or your heart, that you can trick yourself into believing you have patched up. The avoidance of this love is as much a denial of the other, as it is a form of self-deception — a merciful self-betrayal. But your betrayal is exposed the moment you realize that writing about, or alongside, another person’s mind is an attempt to concentrate his scattered self, to draw his shadow into the light. Inevitably, the attempt fails. The living always look back too soon on the dead. The desire for what Sam (echoing Elizabeth Freeman) called “a fully present past” — a fully present human being; his voice speaking from a lost time and place — will always remain unfulfilled. Yet by failing, criticism reveals that this presence was what was desired all along. “Criticism does the work of history as Bersani believes the best art can do,” Sam concludes. A loving criticism, like a critical love, allows “the renunciation of wholeness to shatter us into the sensual holes of history.”

The last email Sam sent me before he died was a “Word of the Day”: “billet-doux,” love letter, or more faithfully, “sweet note.” I can’t remember what occasioned it, but reading his long emails to me today, I am ashamed to discover that I never responded in kind to a single one, though he must have sent dozens over the years. I know I was always delighted to receive them. I know that I read them over and over again, and never more carefully than after a cryptic remark or a cancelled date suggested that I did not know as much about Sam as I thought I did. His voice was intimate, intense, funny, gossipy, and self-deprecating, and I think I was afraid that anything I wrote in response would expose my youth, my awkwardness, my inability to understand what he was really trying to tell me. “You must always be brutally honest with me, M,” he once wrote to me — he knew how brutal my love and my criticism could be — but I never was. His mind was so inhumanly dazzling to me that I mistook all of him for invincible. After he died, I was furious at him for what he kept from me, and furious at myself for my blindness, my complacency in the face of his obvious need. Where he had withheld, I had failed to ask — and to want — to know more. Who had done the betraying here?

Betraying him, betraying myself, I have given history — our history — back to itself. It is a history of ignorance, and it is only now as I write this, that I am learning to find pleasure in its incompletion, its lack. That pleasure is shattering. But it is alive with possibility, a feeling of futurity that love and criticism both demand, and never more impatiently than when confronted with loss. Unlike what Sam described as “Luhmannian techno-pessimism” about institutionalized love, the love he attributed to intellectual communities was fiercely optimistic. “Communities are institutions without systematicity; they are the only forms of group organization that Luhmann won’t circumscribe with his magic numbers because he can’t and because he feels so alone,” Sam explained in a birthday email to me one year. It was an especially sweet note, even for him. “This will risk sentimentality,” he warned. He knew that I had recently left a Peeta for a Gale; then a Gale for a Peeta; then walked away from the whole sad lot of them (though one was still sleeping on my couch; “your becouched sloth,” as Sam referred to him). He knew that I felt alone and guilty. “I am asking you to please believe that, whatever your guilt has taught you, it is wrong if it says that you do not have a community and that you are anything but a person whose actions are based on the affective economy of love, not desire,” he wrote. “It’s simple. Trust yourself. And know, ok?, that care is care. And here.”

I know that I am late in replying to him, but I am asking myself to believe that I am not too late. And I am trusting him when he tells me that care is care. And here.


Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), The Ferrante Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), and The Personality Brokers (Doubleday: New York, 2018).

LARB Contributor

Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), The Ferrante Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), and The Personality Brokers (Doubleday: New York, 2018), which was selected as one of the best books of 2018 by the New York Times, the Economist, NPR, CBC, and the Spectator. She is the editor of Once and Future Feminist (Cambridge: MIT, 2018) and a centennial edition of Mrs. Dalloway, forthcoming from Liveright.


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