Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Book review: Love: A History, Simon May (2011)

I’ve had this book in my collection for a good number of years, and I must’ve bought it when I was living in southeast Queensland, going by the publication date (though I have no recollection of where I bought it). The book was on one of the shelves in my library when I discovered it a few weeks ago and remembered that a relative of a friend had, once upon a time, suggested reading it. I don’t remember if the two events – the suggestion and the purchase – were causally linked.

One thing I am sure I will never forget is the quality of May’s work, though many details will, in time, evade memory’s reach, there are so many things to learn by reading his book. He tries to come to grips with the idea of love after examining the writings of generations of people, beginning his discursus with the Old Testament, then going on to discuss the writings of Plato and his pupil, Aristotle, among others.

But while this book is in fact, in some sense a “history” it is also a part of a broader debate about what it means to live a good life. During his divagations – centred, say, on the period of Greek hegemony in the third century BC – he won’t restrict himself to anaylsing the way that classical authors thought about love, friendship, religion, and marriage (among other things) but takes matters further and tries to identify the traces of contemporary (i.e. 21st century) notions within the thinking of people alive at the time the texts he consults were written and read. He also recaps in short summaries in each chapter, so while talking about Schopenhauer he will take us back to Plato to find links to the past.

So, this is not precisely just a “history”: it is, in fact, a philosophical treatise. Not being in the habit of reading philosophy, I have to guess that, in future, I shall do so with greater frequency – going by the pleasure available to me from reading this book.

May says that the search for love – common to all humans at all times, even though the way that it is pursued and its objects might change over time – is due to a human need to be ontologically grounded.

To find a home. Of course, the caveats included in the preceding paragraph are broad. In fact – and May is at pains to highlight this – we think rather differently about love today compared to, say, a third century BC Athenian or a 1000 BC Hebrew speaker. For this reason, what we mean by the word “love” might, to our eyes, look a lot different to what a person – we can only know by consulting texts – living in those eras might have meant when using it. But because of writing we have texts, and it’s May’s job to communicate to us ideas they contain.

Who, though, is “we”? A person living in a developed, pluralistic democracy might think differently about God than, say, a person living in rural India or a person living in metropolitan Argentina. Because May delves into the details of the texts he consults, and because he tries to enable us to understand them using language that we can easily comprehend, we are given the opportunity to engage with the text fluidly – via the medium of ideas – but the focus is exclusively on the Western tradition. And though book deals with notions that are probably, at least in part, alien to people alive in the 21st century, a person living in Buenos Aires might see things in the words of Aristotle that evade me, and likewise for a person living in a small town in Kerala, in southern India. In a sense each person reads a different book, though the text remains unaltered regardless of whose hands hold the volume.

The notion of a deity God seems, to me, to be a consequence of the human tendency toward subjectivity. The “I am” of the Jewish monotheistic deity an outgrowth of humanity’s ability to see itself in opposition to its environment, and possibly also of economic changed economic circumstances, which saw people living in larger agglomerations of dwellings (towns) supported by farmers living nearby in the countryside.

Greek mythology had mankind existing as offspring of beings that a god (or gods) had, at one point in time, sundered the one from the other – with love being an endless search for “one’s other half” (an expression that continues to be used today). When I was reading this part of the book I was reminded of a prehistoric statue (see photo below) I saw in Jordan. I wrote for a post published on this blog on 5 July last year:
The Ain Ghazal statue in the Jordan Museum … has not been properly understood to this point in time. It is dated to 7500BC, so it is Neolithic, and it was discovered in Amman in the 1980s along with 31 other plaster statues. The label in the museum goes on to say: “We don’t know its meaning, but we know that the people who made it were skilled craftspeople living in a thriving village.” 

But May by no means restricts himself to prehistory or the classical era, and takes us through the centuries roping in authors of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment and regions beyond. Always with one eye on the past and one on the future (our present moment in the 21st century). In this way his book is, like a man in love, ontologically grounded although to experience the past in the present is something that religious literalists, to use another example of a type of person very different from myself, try to do. 

I was less enthusiastic about May’s use of Proust – it is difficult, I think, to view the narrator of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ as a stand-in for its author, or even as some sort of paragon; he seems to me to be a flawed individual, as different from you or me as the next person – but May’s analysis filled in, for me, gaps in my understanding of antiquity. A difference separating the Greeks and the Romans – separating east and west, the spiritual and the logical – is implied in his reading of texts from that era.

Love is an idea, as much as a biological imperative, and different people at different times have defined it in different ways. The very diversity of approaches catalogued, the different ways of solving the problem of existing in the world, is the book’s strength. ‘Love: A History’ is a lot of fun to read, raising spectres and phantoms of the past – like a haunted house in an amusement park – in a way that makes you think they might still be alive, and giving you ways to compare your own mind to the minds of dead men and women. It’s a kind of “best of” compilation that samples and layers strands of thinking or threads in a crazy quilt you might throw over your legs on a winter’s day as you sit on the couch, reading.

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