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An existential love

Love by Sartre

You may get so caught up in tweaking the parameters of a narrow subset of your existence until you lose sight of pursuing your ideal self or determining what that ideal self looks like.

As part of my exploration of existentialism, today I listened to a psychologist’s interpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s view on love and relationships on a podcast. Of all the philosophical schools my foray into the search for meaning has brought me, existentialism is the one that has made the most sense. Today’s talk has cemented a deeper certainty that existentialism is the one I ought to explore the most. At one point I wished that I had read his texts myself instead of depending on a third party’s interpretation. However, as far as philosophy scholars go, the speaker was a good, eloquent choice. Sartre’s views on love described ideas and conflicts that I have faced first hand and have had to deal with. They would also have provided a plausible framework for approaching the whole thing, if not for their incompleteness. But such, as I have come to accept after barely scraping the surface, is the nature of existentialism. A philosophy of think for yourself.

The premise, as with all of existentialism, is that we are all condemned to freedom. This is because essence is preceded by existence. By Sartre’s famous words, man first exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and defines himself afterward. Ultimately, your life becomes a project of yourself, where each being is conscious and free. This nothingness creates a sense of deep anxiety which in turn leads us to behave in certain ways. Lacking a “reason for being” makes us want love to be the source of meaning in our lives. You want your lover to be your raison d’être, that you may realize yourself in them. Love becomes an act of possessing another being for our own selves. A rational response to the state of nothingness. The problem with this response is the contradictions inherent in the resultant state.

Once you like someone, you change yourself in order to become what they would like you to be, for them to like you back. You try hard to prove to them that you are exactly who they would like you to be. You do this since man has to define himself and you have chosen your lover to be your sources of realization. This is seduction as defined by Sartre. Sometimes it works. The problem with this is that when you realize your lover is trying to seduce you as much as you are trying to seduce them, that they are also trying to define an objective view of themselves through you, you end up feeling used and it doesn’t last.

Another way of possessing the one you love is by completely submitting to them. You give up your own freedom, in order to become the object of your lover’s desire. Masochism as defined by Sartre. This doesn’t work since by giving yourself up to someone entirely, you are still, in essence, using them as a project of your own life. You have not become less subjective at all. Paying the hand that whips you.

The other strategy would be to dominate your lover completely. You control whatever they do, to ensure that you possess their whole being. Sadism. Here, the other person loses their freedom, ends up exists in the moment without being conscious and free, and that is the problem. You want them to be free, to choose willingly to love you, in order to realize yourself through them. You cannot tell anything about yourself through another person when the other person loses the capacity to perceive you objectively. Transcendence versus facticity.

Upon reflecting on myself and my relationship, I was awed by how much truth this expressed and the insight I got. It explained my reaction to certain occurrences and all the questions I had which seemed impossible to answer. On the one hand, I want the one I love to be free, in order to love me by choice, not through some strategy of my own. That is the only form of love that would satisfy me. However, in order to succumb to such a love, I felt the need to be assured that they will not love someone else. Hence the switch to sadism. This in itself becomes a contradiction since they cease to be free the moment you decide for them that they cannot love someone else. They are not free to love someone else. It also explained the restlessness and dissatisfaction I felt sometimes in the presence of the one I love when I was the one who had orchestrated that presence. I have been stuck in this state of back and forth for such a long time. A state Sartre calls inauthentic love.

Sartre proposes a different kind of authentic love. First, you accept that you have no control over your partner. If lovers accept themselves and each other as free individuals, they would not be caught in this cycle. Once committed to a loving relationship, the best partner would be the one who provides the most reflection in you. The keys to compatibility would be similar world views and for the relationship to be superior to all the other ones you have. Love, therefore, ceases to be a quest of possessing another person’s mind but rather a sort of cooperation between two free beings. This is something he practiced in his own relationship to the rather famous existentialist, feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

What does this mean for me? Recently, I was exploring Richard Dawkin’s insights into why we are prone to sexual jealousy. Why it is all we know. We accept it as an inviolate truth under no sanction and we collectively can’t seem to rise above it. At the core, he argued, it’s an evolutionary side effect. That we should rise above our nature by being altruistic to our partners and their desires. I can’t say I agree. At least not yet. One thing is certain; jealousy is something that I feel and it has influenced some of the principles I have and decisions I have made. It is definitely something I have just started understanding and need to question further. Through his work, Sartre has made me see that all I have been doing is trying to find the right balance that will enable me to possess another person while sufficiently convincing myself that I am not the one who wrought that possession, and yet such a possession is futile in the first place. Perhaps with this knowledge, I can stop fretting over something that is clearly a paradox of existence and figure other stuff out.

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