Is Love Unconditional? New Book Defends Compassionate, Unromantic Love

Is True Love Unconditional?

The following is an excerpt from On Romantic Love: Simple Truths About a Complex Emotion by Berit Brogaard. The text proposes that love can be rational and controllable, in spite of popular conceptions.

Is love unconditional?

If you love a person romantically because of the way she walks or the way she talks, it may seem that romantic love is always conditional. After all, your beloved might lose the attributes that made you love her in the first place. Romantic love then would seem very different from other forms of love. You don’t stop loving your kid when the dimples in his cheeks fade away and he starts to smell like teen spirit.

A common belief, though, is that your beloved will stand by your side in sickness and in health. Popular movies like The Notebook portray heroic old people who continue to love their spouses, in spite of enormous hardship. They love them in spite of the fact that an important part of the beloved’s brain has become beset with plaques and tangles, in spite of the fact that the beloved thinks the spouse is the pool guy, in spite of the fact that they are incessantly ransacking the fridge for something edible because they don’t remember that they just ate a three-course dinner. But we don’t need movies to teach us about eternal love. We learned it at the first wedding ceremony we attended as little munchkins. “I, Rose, take you, Tiger, for my lawful husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” This is the love we cherish, indelible love, the love that outlasts permanent changes in personality and bodily function. And there is indeed something sickening and calculated about certain kinds of conditional love. If you stop loving your spouse because he loses his hair, gains five pounds, and develops crows’ feet beside his eyes, you are vain.

But you can be vain without loving only conditionally. If something is conditional, it comes along with a condition. If you were to tell your beloved “I will love you for as long as you have all your hair, your ripped abs, and your smooth baby bottom skin,” your love would be conditional. You have promised to love for as long as the condition obtains and no longer. When the ripped abs turn into a beer belly, your affection for him becomes a figment of his imagination.

But you are probably not that vain. You are not putting a phony condition on your love. You love your beau without a condition and hence (in some sense) unconditionally. To love unconditionally is not the same as loving your companion no matter what. If you love unconditionally, you are not specifying, and could not specify, up front under what conditions your adoration will pass. But there may nonetheless still be circumstances that could put an end to it. If your sweetheart starts beating you with a stick, your affection for him might quickly come to a close.

Quite naturally, you may have become accustomed to equating “to love no matter what” with “to love unconditionally.” If, however, “love” here is meant to refer to romantic love, then I profess that I know few instances of the former. Spouses stay together in sickness and in health but staying together doesn’t entail loving one another romantically. Afraid of entering the love-starved singles market, couples stay together long after their infatuation has faded, which doesn’t take much more than a year’s time. As author and humorist Fran Lebowitz is quoted as saying in Tom Steele’s The Book of Classic Insults, “if you can stay in love for more than a year, you’re on something.”

Compassionate love is more likely to survive obstacles than its romantic counterpart. Few parents stop loving their child even in the grimmest of circumstances. Their love persists even when the misanthropic monster is found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder. They love their child for the reason that he is their child, their bloodline, their creation. The explanation for this unbending steel bond may be biological, or it may be cultivated by our family-obsessed society. But the fact that parental love in many circumstances can survive almost anything doesn’t make all instances of this type of love rational. There can be circumstances in which loving one’s child is no longer justified. For example, in a New Yorker interview the father of Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooter, says that he wishes his son had never been born.

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Before You Go

Joshua Cohen as James Joyce
There's something particularly Joycean about Joshua Cohen, and not just because the writers share nearly identical round eyeglasses or a penchant for long sentences and penning 800 page novels. The most obvious parallel between the two is Joyce's Ulysses and Cohen's Witz, for their stream-of-conscious language play and paper weight at 736 pages and 824 pages, respectively. But elsewhere, too, they render their drastically different landscapes similarly: Joyce meticulously dictates the corners and crosswalks of Dublin throughout several books the way Cohen investigates the virtual space of the Internet and the blogs that populate a simulated neighborhood in his short story collection Four New Messages. Both have a knack for dirty jokes and amusingly rendered (sometimes solo) sex, and their characters need not be likeable for us to love them anyway.
Joan Didion as Virginia Woolf
I don't know that any contemporary essayist could stand up to Virginia Woolf the way Joan Didion does. While Susan Sontag and Zadie Smith could rub shoulders with them just fine at what would possibly be the best dinner party of all time, there's a way in which Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Didion's "In Bed" and "On Keeping A Notebook" are pure songs to each other. Both have written definitive essays on place (Woolf's "Street Hauntings" about London, Didion's "Goodbye to All That" about New York), and each confronts and closely protects the hazy space between private and public life. Woolf and Didion are extraordinarily elegiac writers, whether sitting at a desk in England watching a moth die on a window sill or waiting in a Maui hotel room for a typhoon that will never arrive, both are laudably restrained and aware of limitation within the spaces they're compelled to investigate.
Rachel Kushner as F. Scott Fitzgerald
The protagonists of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers might have been great friends had they lived within the same novel. Fitzgerald's Nick and Kushner's Reno both observe more than they act, and exist at the edges of cultural movements in New York--the pre-Depression extravagance of the Long Island elite, and the art scene in a destitute 1970s Manhattan. They're narrators who watch closely enough to cast cutting--and true--dispersions. "They were careless people," Nick says of Daisy and Tom. And Reno, watching her fair-weather companion Giddle, determines that she has no true friends "since they were merely an audience to her performance." It's also worth nodding at the silly gendered reviewing The Flamethrowers received -- "a macho novel by and about women," Adam Kirsch wrote. I don't know that we'd call Fitzgerald a particularly "masculine" writer, but I've yet to hear The Great Gatsby coined a "feminine novel."
Kevin Powers as Ernest Hemingway
It's hard to read The Yellow Birds and not think of Hemingway's languid yet spare sentences and straight delivery. There's the overlapping subjects of war in Powers's acclaimed novel and in a handful of Hemingway's, perhaps most notably A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the authors are in conversation beyond their subjects, down to an echoic yet non-derivative cadence. While Powers's narrative unfolds a bit more digressively--we shift ahead and then back in time, being led by a narrator's thoughts more than chronology--both Hemingway and Powers's writing is highly attuned to the tactile elements of war. We're haunted by the sand of Powers's Iraq, and the pine needles of Hemingway's Spain.
Alissa Nutting as Anaïs Nin
What calls Anaïs Nin to mind so strongly when considering Alissa Nutting is less the women's writing styles than the literary world's reaction to their subjects. Both are controversial writers, and critical responses are often centered more on that controversy than the writing within the books themselves. Tampa, a sexually explicit novel about a pedophiliac 26-year-old female schoolteacher, was called by many the most controversial book of 2013. A conservative reading public had trouble with Nin's erotically charged narratives, and the feminists who might have welcomed her disagreed instead with her ideas of femininity. Both women are particularly psychological writers in their investigations of taboo sexuality--Nutting's narrator who insatiably longs for her 14-year-old students, and Nin's incestuous relationship with her father. These are two of the gutsiest women we've seen in literature, and both craft--and sometimes embody--undeniably riveting femme fatales.

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