Existentialism and Romantic LoveReview - Existentialism and Romantic Love
by Skye Cleary
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
Review by Robert Zaborowski
Jan 26th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 4)

The book's title is not to be taken literally, for it is less about existentialism and romantic love and more about romantic loving read in the light of five philosophers considered as existentialist by Cleary (I suppose if you ask anyone to name five existential philosophers they may not be those from Cleary's list). It goes beyond the theme also insofar as two German and one Danish 19th-century philosophers plus two French 20th-century thinkers are considered more extensively than only because of their views on love. Each chapter has a similar length and a similar structure: presentation of main elements of philosophy of the author in question, especially relevant to romantic loving, then solutions proposed, finally a critical section called Key considerations. The books starts with a general introduction and ends with a general conclusion. If you are interested in love and romantic love but have no interest in the authors presented, you can read only these two chapters, since they contain a lot of stimulating food to thought about love seen as an inextricable part or content of existence and about romantic loving as such.

In the "Introduction" Cleary sets her central argument, which is "that existential philosophies reveal to us the notion that once lovers free themselves from preconceived ideals about how romantic lovers ought to behave, and free themselves from being slaves to their passions, they will be free to create relationships that complement and enhance their personal, authentic endeavors." (1). She also makes a couple of useful distinctions. For instance, Cleary presents six major concepts of romantic love as it is understood in the Western thought. Thus there is romantic love as described by Plato's Aristophanes in the Symposium: romantic love is a way of returning to a union of two people. There are also variants of this merging approach and Cleary presents some of them. On the one hand you have a longing for a "we" with the idea that love is all one needs, that lasts forever and cannot do evil. On the other hand, romantic love though conceived as merging is approached as a dialectic tension between need of merging and need of asserting one's own individuality (for example, Solomon gives as many as four components constituting romantic love such as sexual desire, desire for reciprocity, love of a particular individual, and aiming at creating a shared identity). Another view takes love to be a personally constructed narrative. Lovers have something in common, shared interests or shared history (I guess this is different from a shared history of lovers qua lovers, i.e. since they have been in love, which is, on another view, a constituent of love, one of particular importance when discussing the issue of replaceability of a lover). Next comes romantic love understood "as either passionate love or companionate love - or a combination of both" (6). This definition relies however on other species of love which are not, I am afraid, unequivocal in their meaning. It is not therefore clear to me what it refers to. The remark that it starts passionately but slows over time is probably not unique to this view of romantic love, and to say that "passion and friendship are not mutually exclusive and both are necessary in romantic relationships" (6) doesn't help either. One variant of this approach describes romantic love as "an emotional rollercoaster ride" (6). Another stance brings together passion and intimacy. In this context Cleary gives a series of several combinations (after Sternberg) distinguished by the components they include, e.g. intimacy alone is liking, passion alone stands for infatuated love, decision and commitment (but with no passion and intimacy) is empty love, passion, decision and commitment make fatuitous love, while intimacy and commitment bring about companionate love, finally intimacy plus passion plus decision/commitment mean consummate love. This is what romantic love aims at, since in itself it includes only two of the three: intimacy and passion. According to the fifth way, romantic love is "a means of expanding one's boundaries" (7) and of transcending one's given situation; and on the sixth it is tantamount to passion for procreative purposes together with care devoted to offspring. Cleary isolates five features characteristic of romantic love as it is considered in the book for the sake of discussing the five existential authors. Accordingly, romantic love is a passionate (including or not sex), and personal, it entails looking for a union, taking the union as permanent, and includes companionship and intimacy which deter the potential selfishness. In her "Introduction" Cleary says also how she understands existentialism (concern with "finding meaning in life", (9)) and gives the reader six key themes inherent to existential philosophizing; in addition she presents her main lines of approach (love as relieving anxieties, love vs. choice, love vs. freedom, love vs. authenticity), and explains her selection of the five authors ("because they contributed significantly to the development of existential ideas" (17)). I think the clarification she provides of the themes she engages with in her book can convince the reader that they correspond well to the selection of authors, even if initially the choice of the five can seem peculiar. One proviso should be kept in mind: in her book Cleary speaks about "heterosexual loving relationships [...] loving as opposed to love [...]" (19). In this context "the existential view is that love becomes meaningful through actions directed toward another" (19).

Chapter two is about "Max Stirner and Loving Egoistically". The German radical individualist made a critique of romantic love insofar as it involves liability, self-renunciation and dependence (to be sure, other forms of love, e.g. parental love, are subject to his critique for the same reason). Any promise or obligation to someone else is an illegitimate constraint for an individual, who, in reality, is solitary and a "unique one" (Stirner's words). According to his adage, "Nothing is more to me than myself!", or "If it is right for me, it is right", he developed a conception of self-love, which strengthens "the unique one". Perhaps Stirner's most important premise regarding love is that a person can fully love only herself because she is the only person she owns completely. Self-ownership includes one's body, ideas, will, interests as well as doings and self-determination and self-creation. Since love is an act of appropriation, loving other/s means appropriating another person/s which is, for obvious reason, possible only within limits. Stirner goes as far as justifying crime, provided that "it is an assertion of one's autonomy" (26). This is where the crux lies: only he who is self-mastering is permitted to commit it (for example, a greedy person is not an autonomous person and consequently she is not allowed to commit a crime since she is a slave to her desires) [[1]]. However, it should be said that Stirner put more emphasis on positive freedom (freedom to) than on negative freedom (freedom from). He is also well aware that "we tend not to be free from everything" (27). Accordingly, freedom can be reformulated as power or creativity, one especially regarding oneself. Since Stirner sides with "the principle of the individual in the process of becoming and overcoming oneself", Cleary considers that "Stirner was the first to articulate the existential idea that "existence precedes essence", which is a key reason he can be placed as a progenitor of atheistic existentialism" (28). Loving others is what makes the person who loves richer and happier. But this happens only if loving is a result of a conscious choice: if the loved person turns out to contradict the lover's freedom, it is better to dissolve love into indifference. I think that this position is, to some extent, self-destructive. Unless myopic, I can hardly ignore the fact the other, if adopting the same position - and why shouldn't she adopt it -, is also a "unique one" with all the consequences that can be harmful for me. And little is said about what comes out of a union of two "unique ones", even though "the most interesting and exciting experience of loving could be with another unique one" (42). But most often lovers are not equal and "those who are not will be consumed" (42). In her critical remarks Cleary makes a point about the unfalsifiability of the claim that everyone is egoist or the tautology of saying that "one cannot act against one's will because the act is the will" (37). It could be also said that Stirner's approach makes a realistic account of the separability of one's body and mind, without going as far as to posit closed monadism. It is a serious challenge for any conception of love as altruistic: for instance why do I love another person if it is not, in one way or another, out of my deep, existential, so to speak, involvement? There always must be something that precedes the act of loving. On the other hand, if loving relationship is based on exploitation I can wonder how reciprocal love is possible at all since reciprocal exploitation is self-contradictory in the sense that my aim is to exploit without being exploited. How, therefore, a reciprocal selfishness, a "union of egoists", as Stirner calls it, can be possible at all? It seems that by going to the extreme Stirner's account reveals that loving should be grasped in other terms than dichotomy of altruism vs. egoism since both lead to absurd conceptual consequences such as being altruistic egoistically or being egoistic altruistically. Notwithstanding this difficulty, Stirner's approach to romantic love can be read therefore as an attempt at isolating it from naive elements and disappointment and making it stronger and realistic.

Chapter three deals with "Søren Kierkegaard and Loving Aesthetically". Kierkegaard's main interest lies in the individual and the personal subjective experience. Life can be approached in three ways. The first stage or lifestyle, aesthetic, is the most relevant to romantic love or so it seems. Two of Kierkegaard's characters, Don Giovanni and Johannes the Seducer, are associated with loving, since their lives are centered around love search to the extent that they can be both considered serial lovers. Although structured inherently into dreaming, seeking and desiring, this stage is about loving unreflectively. This is not the case of Don Giovanni who loves women for the sake of seduction, the faster the better and impersonally, and of Johannes whose love is reflective and intellectual with a maximum duration of six months. The latter's love stories are games, art strategies, even wars. For both, Don Giovanni and Johannes, pleasure stems from "the power they have over others" (56). But the fact that they are never involved emotionally and treat women as sex objects, makes them bad candidates for romantic lovers. The proper aim of the aesthetic stage is to look for a pleasant life, which, however, leads to depression because of discovery of emptiness and meaninglessness of life. Once the aesthetic stage has appeared meaningless, a solution for the individual is to leap into the ethical stage. It is about being human and about "making active reflective choices, accepting social norms and morals and recognizing the corresponding duties and obligations to society" (57). But an ethical lover is not a romantic lover. For example sexual passion, no small matter in romantic love, is irrelevant to ethical love. Yet, on the other hand, an ethical lover can, on face of it, appear similar to the romantic, especially when he is unhappy in his love. This is often the case of marriages, since "married couples can be just as anxious as aesthetic lovers [...] because neither guarantees lasting love or security" (59). This is why Kierkegaard's second and recommended solution is the highest stage of love: a religious one. Love is directed towards God but can be relevant also for any other person provided that the relationship makes the loving person an authentic individual and as much human as possible. It is only at the highest level of existence that man frees himself from anxiety and provides himself security. Kierkegaard's philosophy is thus presented as a therapy of anxiety which permeates the lower levels of life as well as passages from one level to another. His personal experience with Regina Olsen was all but romantic and Kierkegaard's break off of engagement stemmed from the inconsistency between marital and philosophical life. Again, this is hardly romantic because objects of love are used, if at all, for the sake of the religious person's fulfillment. A person who has a choice between her personal freedom and romantic loving is aware that the later makes her easily dependent on her desire to have her love reciprocated. But, as Cleary says, "[i]t is precisely because religious love is not preferential that it cannot be romantic" [69]. If, therefore, none of the three Kierkegaardian stages is relevant to romantic loving, one can ask why to include Kierkegaard in a treatment of romantic love at all.

In chapter four Cleary focuses on "Friedrich Nietzsche and Loving Powerfully". This is to say that for Nietzsche human relationships should be governed by power, strength, autonomy and freedom. Accordingly, he is critical of love but only, as Cleary remarks, as far as it is based on sacrifice and weakness. In other cases love reveals itself as ""the most angelic instinct" and "the greatest stimulus of life"" and "in his letters [...] as a critically important part of life" (73-74). Because of the cultural heritage, especially Christianity, loving relationships are conceived in the light of four fundamental issues that make love problematic. These are: distorted view of femininity, unnatural character of agape, demonization of sex, institutionalization of marriage. Nietzsche provides advices in all four areas in order to reevaluate loving. As for the image of women being expected to conform to men's ideals, Nietzsche's advice is not to change their situation because the change "could only be for the worse" (77). Women rather should use their situation as advantage, as they do when, for example, they use their intelligence, cunning and beauty. Losing their strength results in becoming masculinized. As regards the impartial and indiscriminate nature of loving one's neighbor, Nietzsche advises self-mastery. Loving is better understood as a manifestation of one's strength, independence and passion about life, all the more because love itself is not an easy task. One loves whom he thinks worthy of it, what amounts to loving a person who fits the best one's own shortcomings and excesses. Unfortunately, the search is rarely successful. In order not to sink into a delusion, to stand up to obstacles and traps of loving, one needs strength. Nietzsche advises also moderation in desire for possession. It is, however, understood differently by men and by women: while men desire to dominate women, women want to sacrifice themselves for love. For both sexes domination and submission is a way to gain power over the other. Finally, Nietzsche advises not to remove obstacles but to face them. Constantly challenging and overcoming oneself is a hallmark of a strong will which helps loving actions to perdure. As for sexual loving Nietzsche first suggests to "de-demonize" the body and passions. They are natural and neither should nor can be eradicated. He proposes regular sex because only that which is realized, ceases to be a fantasy. Alternatively, what contributes to the process of de-demonizing sex is sex education. So far sex has been demonized because people have been kept uninformed about it. In what concerns marriage Nietzsche "praised the fact that marriage had become the culmination of romantic loving" (85), yet he was aware that too often romantic loving is short lasting while the institution of marriage is meant to persist a long time. Since the initial basis for romantic loving is sensual, and sensuality is fleeting, any marriage relying on romantic love is shallow. This is why to promise loving feelings forever is unrealistic. It is therefore better "for lovers to promise each other loving actions instead of loving feelings" (86). While feelings are involuntary, people have control over their actions they can choose and so their promise are realizable. As an option Nietzsche suggests also a trial relationship or multiple subsequent marriages. Another possibility is to consider the institution of marriage as a basis for building a strong family regardless of love as this was the case in ancient Greece where marriages were rational arrangements. Nietzsche stresses also that within a marriage out of romantic loving, the selection of partner is not made for the sake of a good offspring which is, as a matter of fact, a deep sense of marriage. Characteristically for Nietzsche, parents should look for improving - and not simply for perpetuating - the human species. This renders careful mate selection crucial. Lovers should also be careful with their desire to merge with one another insofar as it can endanger their own individualities. Again, strength and self-mastery are a valuable resource because "strong lovers master their desire to merge or make the same and instead embrace their differences" (93). Nietzsche's last advice for lovers is to become good friends so that they "inspire, educate, and help one another to become better people" (94). As friends, lovers are open to new experiences and are given new opportunities for self-overcoming. Cleary criticizes Nietzsche for his overgeneralizations and contradictions. However, I am not sure if her objections are relevant. She recognizes that although "Nietzsche did not specifically refer to loving as romantic, he did indeed grapple with the key elements of romantic loving [...]" (97). How to understand this statement? If he did not refer to romantic loving but only in a general way to love, maybe Cleary's criticism is then misplaced or, at the least, not applicable in the light of the topic of the book. If one decides to appropriate Nietzsche's thought into a discussion on romantic loving, he should not then object that his thought is not entirely applicable to the topic he chooses to appropriate it, even if it turns out that the appropriation is fruitful in several aspects. Nevertheless it might be noted that Cleary's critical section regarding Nietzsche is, interestingly, the shortest of all in the book.

In chapter five Cleary analyzes "Jean-Paul Sartre and Loving Sadomasochistically". Cleary extracts a good deal of thoughts relevant to romantic love from Sartre's work even though he declared that he was not interested in this issue. She starts with discussing Sartre's knowledge of and relation with Stirner, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Then she passes on to Sartre's view of love as alluring: human being is incomplete and love is a way of understanding oneself. Love is a province where one can find a deeper knowledge of oneself, and romantic love is particularly significant because it includes sensual engagement, which makes a relationship more intimate than any other. However, problems of romantic loving are many, e.g. unreliability of language because of the risk of lying, a danger of being modified by another person (in loving relationship the danger is all the bigger because of the closeness of relationship), possibility of becoming an instrument of the other. The closer one is to another, the more vulnerable he is to falling into traps. In loving relations they are, according to Sartre, the following: being enslaved because the lover looks for unveiling his the secrets through the beloved, game of seduction instead of authenticity since "a lover's real goal is a project of the self [...] to appropriate the beloved without the threat of being objectified" (107), masochism, i.e. letting oneself be an instrument, and finally, sadism occurring when the lover uses and forces the beloved's body without reciprocity (curiously sadism as strategy is defective in relation to a masochist: the masochist is not a victim because he is not forced but he chooses). Therefore, romantic loving is both attractive and problematic. Given such a tension, Sartre advises the following in order to better deal with romantic loving. Firstly, he suggests to take love as an action, one which incorporates intention and choosing. Without choice love is but a simple passive experience, but when it is a response to a given situation, one can be and feel responsible for it. Diachronically taken, love is ''a series of actions directed toward an original choice" (114). Secondly, it is better to consciously face the anxiety inherent to love and stemming from the fact that love can have an end. Reciprocity and security are not guaranteed recompenses and it is better to be aware of it. Thirdly, in order to foster an authentic love it is necessary to have the other's freedom and goals in view. Transparency is yet another requisite for securing an authentic loving: this is so because transparency warrants freedom. (In this respect Sartre's relationship with de Beauvoir is a good template.) Lastly, if there are several relationships in one's life, he should make sure about which of them is primary and which are secondary. Prioritizing one over others is a sign of choice and authentic attitude. In Sartre's opinion, disrespecting any of these advices is a mark of bad faith. In her critical section Cleary makes a point about Sartre's behavior in his life towards his "so many mistresses", then about his mistrust of romantic loving. For instance, paradoxically, even if things between lovers go well, even if "lovers become agreeable and accepting of each other", there is still a risk that "they fail to provide any reflection or insight into each other" (121), because they are too close in distance and intimacy. Moreover, Sartre's view of romantic loving is for Cleary too narrow: too much importance is attached to its sexual aspect and, thereby, loving is reduced to a function. More importantly, to consider romantic loving, like Sartre, as non-exclusive is self-contradictory because a lover can prioritize one relationship only. Romantic love is intertwined with a tension between a desire of being merged at the expense of freedom and objectivity and a respect of freedom at the expense of leaving the beloved, "in which case the lover also does not achieve any understanding through the other" (123). It looks as if loving is similar to other phenomena of human existence: either choice can be only frustrating and increase anxiety.

The last author and theme discussed by Cleary are "Simone de Beauvoir and Loving Authentically". Her concern is the distinction between inauthentic and authentic loving and, secondly, "the conditions under which authentic loving ought to be achievable" (125). Although Beauvoir was close to Sartre, both intellectually and in private, there are points where they disagreed (for instance understanding and limitations of freedom). For Beauvoir there are gaps between individuals that are unbridgeable because individuals are separate and have different ends. The main dilemma is that in order to love authentically one should be free from (all) oppressions. Since it is impossible, it is better to admit that there is no absolute freedom. Furthermore, several people represent different freedoms and, for this reason, the conflict is unavoidable. Thus, although others are an essential part of one's world "by infusing [his] environment and endeavors with meaning and possibilities" (127) as well as with "possibilities that would not exist without them" (128), they are also at the origin of conflict of freedoms. Problems of romantic loving are, in Beauvoir's opinion, various and, moreover, they are even more complex because of people's bad faith. For instance, idolizing a lover and making a sacrifice, especially of one's freedom for the sake of security, are one example of bad faith that prevents from authentic loving. A strong desire of unity and of merging with a lover is another pitfall. A tendency to possess or dominate a lover is also a bad faith because it makes or takes a lover as an object while he is an unannexable subject. Other sins are devotion (being in fact "selfishness and tyranny in disguise" (136)), looking for one's own goal and meaning in a lover (it leaves one empty handed when the relationship ends), being stiff and limited ("[t]he more committed to a single project one is, the harder it is to change if it fails", (139)), believing in social or biological destiny. Beauvoir's solutions for developing an authentic loving include: recognizing the lover as free and equal, especially by avoiding master-slave dynamic (be it by dominating or by submission), appreciating lover's differences, transcending not only independently but also together, and aiming together at a common goal. Cleary's criticism of Beauvoir's approach tackles its utopian character and her objections to Beauvoir's philosophy of loving are given the longest treatment of all five in the book. Firstly, as Cleary observes, Beauvoir makes use of utilitarian conception of good which is at odds with existentialism. Secondly she omits the fact that love can give life a meaning. Thirdly, she disparages fidelity and exclusivity in a loving relationship. Next, Beauvoir, like other existential authors, cannot solve the conflict between freedom (read: freedom without limitation) and loving. Cleary remarks that one can be devoted to his lover and have other concerns at the same time because neither is all-consuming. There are also other contradictions. For example Beauvoir mocks devotion to a lover but then she doesn't follow her American lover to Chicago because she chooses to stay with Sartre who needed her (according to her Letters to Algren). Certainly this can sound as an argument ad hominem but maybe in the case of an existentialist this is not so since existentialism is by its very program a practical philosophy. Moreover, Beauvoir by devaluing traditional feminine activities masculinizes women. Finally, Beauvoir's description of authentic loving flies in the face of common sense: not all faith in love is false. In some cases it gives people a feeling of security. However, if Beauvoir is right in considering the contradiction between freedom and loving, she is also right in viewing friendship as "a much better basis for a relationship than one built on merging because it respects the other as a free subject and accepts that the other has independent projects." (159)

The last chapter is a Conclusion, one very welcome indeed, because it confronts the five approaches presented, analyzed and commented on with one another in the light of the topics and themes Cleary treats in her book. If the five philosophers are critical of romantic loving, this is because almost all elements of romantic loving are to be blamed from the existential point of view, to start with unreflective dependency on relationship undermining personal freedom, or unrealistic expectations (e.g. about the longevity of relationship). Hope is also problematic, not as such, but only if it becomes absolute; so is desire for merging because merging erases person as a separate individual. Prospect of overcoming the instability of existence is limited, because romantic loving is rooted in this very existence, which itself is inherently fleeting. Similarly, intimacy is a tempting promise of completing relationships, a primordial existential category, but since an absolute merging is not possible ontologically, the promise turns out to be futile. Yet, romantic loving is deemed by existentialists creating new dimensions of human life and opening new possibilities. The main advice suggested by the five philosophers is "not to discount the gravity of romantic loving's passionate and intoxicating nature" (169). It is crucial to keep a good balance between authenticity of relationship and one's own freedom. The latter has two facets: on the one hand, it includes being free from slavishness and possessiveness, power games and romantic expectations and, on the other, being free to choose loving actions and priorities as well as to build authentic and meaningful relationships [[2]].

All in all this is a strange book. On the one hand, at face value the project can seem far-fetched. Some authors are not typical existentialists while in other cases they are not paradigmatic authors when it comes to romantic loving. But on the other hand, Cleary makes a fructuous effort in extracting the relevant stuff from the five authors to treat loving and romantic loving in the context of anxiety of existence, choice, freedom and authenticity. These themes, esp. love vs. authenticity, are rarely taken into consideration. For instance a recent book by B. Brogaard, On Romantic Love (2015) makes no use of this concept (authenticity occurs once in the context of Nietzsche's thought). This makes the book valuable and worthy of reading. The contribution of the five authors chosen by Cleary is to show in what sense and to what extent it is possible to do one's best in order to benefit from loving without jeopardizing one's own autonomy. After all, existentially put, loving is not extraneous to the very essence of life: it has an imprint of choice between two evils or, as suggested by Cleary's analyses, between two goods, but not without compromise, for "'Tis hard to love not, whilst to love / Be sad joy [...]" [[3]].




[[1]] This is, in my view, an obscured issue. In fact, I wonder how does one to diagnose whether one is or is not free, this is, if one is actually correctly recognizing and assuming one's current state and, consequently, able to decrypt about being or not allowed to act in a way an unfree person is not.


[[2]] I think now that perhaps more could have been said about loving actions.


[[3]] M. Sęp Szarzyński, Sonnet V: On the Unlasting Love for Worldly Things, transl. R. Sokoloski.


© 2016 Robert Zaborowski


Robert Zaborowski, thymos2001@yahoo.fr, University of Warmia and Mazury & Polish Academy of Sciences


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