On Women, Beauty and Love -- again; part 2


[Van Eyck - The Arnolfini Portrait]

I begin with The Symposium --

Of the seven speeches in The Symposium, the speeches of Aristophanes and Socrates/Diotima are the two which present an enduring, mythic and also dark picture of erôs -- Love. Both speeches describe love as the desire for something lacking, but only the account presented by Diotima seems to offer some hope for mortal men in search of wholeness and completion. That apparent hope unfortunately rests on a grand illusion which seems to itself give birth to some serious dangers -- what does Diotima's picture of love mean for our understanding of beauty? What does it mean for our understanding of love? How much does it assume?

Aristophanes presents a mythic account of erôs which is both fanciful and perceptive. According to Aristophanes, mortal beings were originally of three varieties, each variety being an amalgam of the genders as they are now known. These primitive humans were strong and defiant and, as such, were too much of a challenge to the gods’ power and rule. Zeus decided that these beings should be punished and decided to split them all down the middle. With one other dexterous anatomic correction, Zeus gave human beings the ability of interior reproduction, allowing for a simulation of the original fused state,

This, then, is the source of our desire to love each other. Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.

Aristophanes’ description is telling; love desires a fusion of parts, and will thus result in a perpetual pursuit of the missing part. The lover in this description is he who feels the pain of his wound and longs to have it healed; he longs for completion, and for a return to his original harmonious state.

For Aristophanes, love is the desire to be returned to the original state of wholeness and harmony. Lovers thus exist in one of two states, either the lover is searching for the beloved who will complete him, or the lover has found his beloved and is longing for a complete fusion. Aristophanes describes what it would be like for a person to meet his lost half,

And so, when a person meets the half that is his very own, whatever his orientation […] then something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment.
The lovers who are fortunate enough to find one another would feel such a strong sense of desire that if Hephaestus were to appear and offer to fuse them together, to make one out of two, they would accept his offer wholeheartedly. But as much as lovers may desire complete fusion, they will never achieve it; the gods divided the primitive human beings as a punishment, and no god would ever heal that wound. Aristophanes presents a bleak picture of love; the lover might never find his missing half, persisting in the misery of endless pursuit, or the lover may be fortunate enough to find his missing half, but be made miserable by the impossibility of any real return to wholeness. Aristophanic love is not a state of being, it is a continual struggle and pursuit which has varying degrees of misery and yearning,

‘Love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.

Love is not the name we have for a satisfied desire; it is the name of unsatisfied and continuing cravings, a fitting punishment from the gods.

It is from this mythic description of love that we derive our notions of Romantic love, soul mates, missing pieces, etc -- all of the happily-ever-afters come straight from this myth of completion. What those derivative stories ignore is the implicit failure of this attempt to regain that which was lost. They ignore the darkness -- ignore the subtle warning that no unity is possible and that to hope for unity is futile. Those derivative myths also assume that this unity is possible -- and that the unity entails some happiness -- entails some stasis. How much danger has this myth promoted?

There is another problem. At some point this myth was joined with the myth that Diotima presents -- in Aristophanes' myth there is no talk of beauty and gender does not determine who is the Lover and who is Beloved. But Diotima introduces the Ideal of Beauty and in so doing introduces the second of the two myths of Love.