Love is not a State of Exception

Photo credit: Aaaniya Asrani, more here.

Photo credit: Aaaniya Asrani, more here.

Lata Mani

This preamble served as a point of departure for my conversation with human rights lawyer & activist Arvind Narrain on August 10, 2014. Extracts will be published in subsequent posts.

It seems as if we already know what love is. And yet there is a lot to be said about love, about what it has come to mean and what it could mean; about its simultaneously self-evident and enigmatic character. 

Love is a stable resting place and a state of flux. As the former it can be a point of anchorage; as the latter – as yearning that eludes fulfillment or unfolds in ways that slip away from one’s grasp – love is a source of disturbance and anxiety. 

Those of a spiritual or religious persuasion consider the universe to manifest the love of its Creator. Love is the first effect after the first cause. One may or may not accept this premise. But is it not intriguing that the nature of love and the nature of life have so much in common, suggesting at the very least the primordial nature of love?

Love and life are both inherently relational, complexly interconnected processes. Both involve dynamic and evolving relationships of interdependence, negotiation, adaptation, cooperation, conflict, struggle. Both require discovery and learning, not just about self but equally about other, indeed about countless others. Both equally imply unlearning. In love as in life, one can look in the mirror of self and find in it wisdom as well as delusion.  One bows before love just as one bows before life, open, curious, expectant.

Neither love nor life is at root a “thing,” a mere concept. Both love and life are experiences. To say this is not to say that there is no conceptual thinking about either. Concepts are the building blocks of cognition: we think with and through them. So it is that shifting ideas about love shape our perception and experience. But that is not all. As has happened innumerable times in history, our experience of love has breached the then prevailing languages of love, affirming new longings, birthing other ecstasies.  

Love is not a free-standing entity but an active state of being. To love is to be in relationship; not in a relationship but in relationship. Love is in that sense more verb than noun. The same is true of life. 

Love’s elemental nature is manifest in how it simultaneously activates mind, heart and body. Love is at once idea, emotion, and physical sensation.  Any notion of love that disarticulates this triadic relationship drains love of its fullness and denies that which constitutes our very embodiment. It renders love a ghostly shadow of itself.

Love is not an obligation. Duty and command have no claim on love though both pretend otherwise. Love conjugates itself with fearlessness, vulnerability and clear seeing. It is a commitment to discovering the truth(s) of relationality and in that context the ethic of one’s responsibility and response-ability. 

Such a process is by its very nature open-ended, with no guarantees and no terminus. We can only prepare for it by remaining open, just as when love arrives unbidden and dissolves our carefully constructed plans. Love, like life, is lit by spontaneity, expectation, discovery, cultivation, joy, grief and unknowing. Love is not a state of exception. 

The dharma or ethic of love is distorted when specific kinds of love – of parent, partner, spouse, child, family – insist on asserting unique privileges. But if love is not a state of exception, on what grounds would particular kinds of love claim special entitlements?  To stake a special claim is to contest the idea of love as freedom to discover the truths of relationality.

This definition recognizes the centrality of free will to love. Love cannot be commandeered into existence or dismissed by fiat. To enforce love or to discipline its circulation is to violate its nature as a species of the freedom to seek truth. At the same time, by placing relationality at the center of the pursuit of truth, this formulation sets aside an individualistic conception of self. It conceives of the individual as a node in a web of nature-culture interrelations. As a node the individual is not separable from the web. Rather s/he is the continual distillation of an evolving engagement with relationality, the sum of its effects. Love is at once cause, energizing force and consequence of this process. 

As cause and dynamizing force, love can shatter existing frames of reference and self-understandings. However, individual experience is more commonly shaped by the cluster of ideas and assumptions that characterize a historical moment. The journey to truth necessarily traverses the minefield of social conditioning and love in the expansive sense described here is a frequent casualty. “Radicalism” is too often content with a politics of antithesis, with simply inverting the discourse of conservatism. Love is thus corralled into small enclosures of competing conventionalisms, prevented from renewing itself and all those who long for it.

Iterations of love are inescapably individual and inevitably transpersonal. This is life on/as a node. Love, capital L, does not hover over us waiting to pronounce judgment with a clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning. And it has sent no special forces to earth to keep us in line. 

The Creator as a punitive, authoritarian overlord is an empty projection. Free will implies its own pedagogy: incremental, tentative, dialogical, dialectical, an evolving synthesis. We are spider and spittle, weaver and woven, the node and the weave.