Rewriting the Book of Love

Erik Gray reviews "Love: A New Understanding of an Ancient Emotion" by Simon May.

Rewriting the Book of Love


WHY DO WE fall in love?

It’s a tough question. Evolutionary biologists say that it’s due to our hardwired instinct to propagate the species. But that answer, quite aside from its tendentious heteronormativity, fails to address the real question: why do we fall in love with this person, out of all the people in the world? Plato says we fall in love because we perceive beauty in the beloved, which inspires us with a desire for that greater, absolute Beauty of which it is an image. But again, this leaves open the question of why one beautiful person in particular should be the focus of intense love and desire, while others are merely objects of admiration. It also raises what philosophers have come to call the “trading up problem”: if I love you because of some combination of virtues you possess, then, logically, I should transfer my affection if I find someone who possesses the same virtues to an even greater degree. Yet that scenario seems neither ethical nor true to experience; I don’t love another child more than my own, even if I objectively perceive them to be more virtuous. These difficulties have led many philosophers of love to leave out the question of “why” altogether, and focus instead on what happens once the thunderbolt, or Cupid’s arrow, has already struck. As for the source of the emotion, they are willing to throw up their hands and say, with Michel de Montaigne: “If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel this cannot be expressed, except by answering: ‘Because it was he, because it was I.’”

That answer doesn’t satisfy Simon May. His new book seeks to define exactly what it is about a person, or a thing, that inspires love. According to May, love is our joyful response to whatever holds out the promise of what he calls “ontological rootedness” — whatever, in other words, seems to offer us “a home in a world that we supremely value.” Whether you love God, your parents, your country, or someone you have just met, you love them for their ability — or potential — to give your life the grounding it innately craves. May specifies four qualities of the beloved that contribute to that sense of rootedness: an origin or heritage with which we can identify; an ethics to which we aspire; a power to intensify (or even, at the limit, to grant or deny) our existence; and a calling toward a new life or destiny. When we meet with the being who encompasses all these things, we experience the unmistakable symptoms of love.

Love: A New Understanding of an Ancient Emotion is the follow-up to May’s earlier volume, Love: A History (2011). Follow-up, rather than sequel: the new book is written to be comprehensible on its own, which means that it necessarily repeats material from the previous one, especially in its first half. Still, the two works differ in their emphases. Love: A History describes major developments in Western theories of love, from the Bible and Plato to the early 20th century, in order to show how we came to our current prevailing notions about love’s nature. The idea of ontological rootedness, with which Love: A History begins and to which it returns at the end, is introduced not just as a supplement but as a stern corrective to those notions. Yet if the first book was partly historical and partly polemical, the new one is almost entirely polemical. That polemic — the sense that May is striving single-handedly to dismantle some of society’s most sacrosanct beliefs — together with the wonderful clarity of the writing, which is rigorous without ever feeling technical, and the strength of the original premise, make Love: A New Understanding compellingly readable.

The trouble, as May sees it, is as follows. Our current conception of love is based on the model of Christian agape: love that is disinterested, unchanging, affirming of all aspects of the beloved, and above all unconditional. But there are two problems with that model. First, that understanding of agape is a comparatively recent development, one that is at odds both with Scripture and with most of the history of Christian thought, which has usually viewed God’s love as very much conditional, partial, and judgmental. Second, even to the extent that we do find elements of such idealized, selfless love in early Christian thought, it is only God who is conceived as being able to love in this manner. Gradually, however, theologians began to assert that humans too — with the help of God’s grace — were capable of such love. Eventually, the notion of grace faded away, with the result that human love is now generally conceived, by philosophers and by popular culture alike, in divine terms that it can never possibly realize. May finds this misconception not only frustratingly illogical but deeply pernicious.

In claiming that the common understanding of love today is not just wrong but even slightly insane, May strongly calls to mind the 20th-century Swiss thinker Denis de Rougemont. Like May, de Rougemont traces an errant history of love in which Christianity is the culprit. According to his influential, if controversial, treatise, Love in the Western World (1940), Christianity, including Christian agape, represents an unnatural imposition on Western culture, which well into the Middle Ages remained essentially pagan — specifically Manichaean — in spirit. The result of this incompatibility was the exaltation of passionate love into a religion, begun in the 12th century by Provençal troubadours as a means of reconciling pagan and Christian, body and spirit. But this solution merely papers over a deep, heretical, and irreconcilable division. Love as we currently understand and experience it, therefore, is utterly mistaken, a failed ruse. As de Rougemont puts it in a later essay (with reference to the idea of marrying for love, one of his most frequent objects of criticism): “We are in the act of trying out — and failing miserably at it — one of the most pathological experiments that a civilized society has ever imagined.”

Only occasionally does May indulge in such pointed provocations (such as when he refers to “the disaster that love has suffered in the West for roughly the last two centuries”). But his willingness to expound a thesis that, like de Rougemont’s, really does break with so much received wisdom allows him to provide genuinely new insights into what is, as he notes, an ancient topic. Among other advantages, the idea that love is inspired by the promise of ontological rootedness permits May to group together forms of love that are often treated as distinct or even incompatible: not just love for God, family, lover, and friend, but also love for a great work of art, or for an institution (your alma mater, for instance), or for a natural landscape — all of which can offer the same sense of an exalted home as human relationships. May’s theory extends as well to the love so often felt for tyrants and dictators, which he reads not as perverse, or even misdirected, but as perfectly continuous with other instances of love.

At times, May’s desire to position himself as a lone voice taking on a monolithic tradition becomes a weakness. He tends, particularly in the earlier book, to flatten out Christian thought, often viewing the complexities and paradoxes inherent in Christian theology (as to all theology) as simple hypocrisy. This tendency does not disqualify his overall argument about the influence of Christianity on modern conceptions of love, but it makes for some uncharacteristically weak chapters, as well as some distracting passages that border on invective. (In contrast, his readings of Hebrew Scripture, and of Jewish thought more broadly, are among the book’s highlights.) By the same token, whereas his treatment of older philosophers is invariably complex and appreciative, he usually invokes more recent philosophers only to demonstrate what he considers their errors — even when it would feel truer and more fruitful to see May’s thought as filling gaps in their models of love, rather than refuting them.

Yet whatever unevenness it may contain, May’s book represents a major contribution to our understanding of love. A typically enlightening moment comes in the chapter on divine violence — the fact, that is, that the God of the major monotheistic religions frequently acts in cruel and destructive ways. Proponents of the “New Atheism,” May says, claim that to love such a being is pathological and unethical; but May counters that such condemnation misunderstands the very nature of love. Love is not, like liking, dependent on the love-object’s inherent goodness, but on its ability to root us in the world. Consider if it were your child who often behaved in destructive, even indefensible ways: would you cease to love them on that account? It’s a telling example, one that supports not only May’s central thesis, but also the claim with which he concludes: that parental love is increasingly eclipsing both love of God and romantic love as our ultimate paradigm of what love is.

For all its deft argumentation — and for all its attempts to disabuse readers of their current understanding of love — the success of May’s book ultimately depends on whether readers find his account of love to be intuitively right. In the case of such a basic human emotion, you can’t really argue your audience into agreement, no matter how plausible your reasoning may seem on paper. What you can do, at best, is to offer an account that feels both new and, at the same time, true to experience. Excitingly new, yet immediately recognizable — that’s the paradox at the very heart of love, and it is what Simon May has achieved.


Erik Gray is professor of English at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Art of Love Poetry.

LARB Contributor

Erik Gray is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he teaches courses on poetry and love, among other topics. He has written widely on British and European poetry, particularly of the nineteenth century. His most recent book is The Art of Love Poetry (2018), which considers the relation between poetry and love in the Western tradition.


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