Existentialism and Romantic Love

Skye Cleary. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 208 pages. $95.00.

By Doug Phillips

If you’re of a certain age then you’ll remember, as I do, a series of television commercials for Calvin Klein’s Obsession—directed by David Lynch, shot moodily in b&w, scored heavily like a fugue, and figured as usual with the impossibly beautiful, the way Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus are both impossibly beautiful. Mixing equal parts memory and desire the commercials also featured a richly-intoned voiceover reciting passages from Fitzgerald and Lawrence and, most poignantly, Hemingway. From the latter’s The Sun Also Rises we hear Jake Barnes ruminating in a dark hotel room, the atmosphere thick with romantic longing and existential loneliness while the trams below pass sadly into the Parisian night. It was late-eighties shtick for sure, and a shameless appropriation of fine writing to move product, but it was also under Lynch’s direction who only a year or so before gave us Blue Velvet, a spiced cauldron of love, power, sexual desire, sadism, masochism, and existential wonder. Some thirty years later this heady mix of philosophy and heart is the subject of Existentialism and Romantic Love, Skye Cleary’s informative if unspicy take on what it means to love romantically in a world which, after Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” As the poet suggests, salvation may be sought in the promise of love (“Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!”), but caveat emptor dear reader: the world hath none.  

In similar fashion Cleary plays the same game of give and take as Arnold, tacking earnestly between solutions to save your love life and reasons galore for all the ways they won’t. If by the end of her book your view of existentialism is widened—which is likely—your love life, be warned, will stay pretty much as it is: complicated. Cleary’s project then isn’t so much one of intervention—a philosophical prescription, say, for boning up your romantic life—as it is one of illumination, a vast unspooling of quotation and paraphrase from five existential thinkers to shed light on the darkling plain of romantic love. 

Like any good scholarly work Cleary’s is thoroughly sourced, but the sheer number of endnotes in this case (on average 100-plus per chapter) gives the unfortunate impression that its author is still on the outside of her material, rather than inside and assimilated. The result is the occasional brow-raiser, including a seriously reductive account of “romantic loving” and marriage that makes a number of questionable claims, such as “economic-based marriages became obsolete” with the growth of capitalism and industrialization, or that “romance came to be equated with courting” in the 19th century. Although “romance” and “romantic” and “romanticism” are what Raymond Williams calls “keywords” with complex histories, they are easy to conflate, which Cleary often does, leaving readers to wonder whether she’s referring to the Romantic period (of Keats and Shelley), to Romance (of Sir Gawain and courtly love), or to modern day notions of small-r romance in the form of Matchdotcom. To my surprise, Cleary doesn’t include among her many sources Denis de Rougement’s landmark Love in the Western World, which would not only help her sort out these “romantic” distinctions but offer a grounding of the very divide (between romantic and marital love) to which Cleary applies her existential lens. Other brow-raisers include Cleary’s declaration in her introduction—not once but twice (and again in her conclusion)—that her scope is limited to “heterosexual loving relationships,” which leaves me wondering whether she thinks non-heterosexual loving relationships are immune to existential considerations. But she never explains. The obvious answer is of course no, and Cleary shows as much (without seeming to be aware of it) in her late chapter on Simone de Beauvoir, whose love life included intimate relationships with both men and women. 

While Cleary concludes her study with Beauvoir, one of the most recognized names among the existentialists, she opens with perhaps the least known figure, the much-neglected Max Stirner whose interests in such things as subjective truth echo the work of his contemporary Kierkegaard and anticipate the thought of Nietzsche, Sartre, and Beauvoir (together the five subjects of Cleary’s study). A “proto-existentialist,” Stirner rebelled against social conventions (and so figured importantly for Albert Camus too), refused anything having to do with duty or obligation, and “scoffed at the idea that loving necessarily involves self-sacrifice and unselfishness.” Kant, in other words, he wasn’t. Instead Stirner shows us what it means to love “egoistically,” and in doing so he brings to mind that 20th century crapehanger Philip Larkin who, in a similar mood of self-regard and existential drift, asks: 

How can you be satisfied, 

Putting someone else first

So that you come off worst?

My life is for me.

As well ignore gravity. 

As for Stirner himself, writes Cleary, “One can compromise on anything except what one deems to be right and important for oneself—that is, one’s self-chosen principles.”

If “loving egoistically” isn’t your style, then Cleary offers next an account of “loving aesthetically,” with Kierkegaard as her guide. To be sure, Cleary glosses in equal measure all three stages of what Kierkegaard thought to be our existential condition (the Aesthetic, the Ethical, the Religious), and weighs the pros and cons of each in relation to “romantic loving.” Aesthetic love, for example, is predicated on the pursuit of pleasure, purely for its own sake and without deeper meaning—and so doomed to end in what Kundera calls the unbearable lightness of being. Religious love, in contrast, is a heavy burden indeed. It is “unegoistic,” writes Cleary, and “requires loving others even if they make you unhappy.” In between is the Ethical stage, which entails “accepting social norms and morals and recognizing the corresponding duties and obligations to society.” If that isn’t depressing enough, there’s more: “Kierkegaard suggests that this means turning away from Don Juan’s trysts…and instead choosing despair and marriage.” Okay, but who wants that? To her credit, Cleary doesn’t say. As the case is throughout her book, she’s careful here to describe without prescribing.  

Next up is Nietzsche who teaches us about “loving powerfully,” even if, as Cleary notes, “Loving relationships appalled Nietzsche because he thought that they were all too often based on sacrifice, weakness, and disappointments.” His view of marriage was equally dim, which he thought certain to suffocate free spirits. “Like a spider caught in its own web,” Cleary analogizes, “marriage ends up being a trap in which the spider (free spirit) cannibalizes itself.” Against such disheartening prospects Nietzsche recommended above all self-mastery in order to keep one’s head straight in matters of love. He also advised two-year contracts between romantic partners, on the logic that it’s better to bow out early than suffer love’s inevitable waning. And not unlike his fellow writer Anton Chekhov, who believed he would make a good husband if his wife, like the moon, did not appear in his window each night, Nietzsche urged couples to give one another plenty of space. Of course, we should perhaps temper all of this good counsel with the fact that Nietzsche’s own “romantic aspirations were never reciprocated.” Plus, Cleary adds, “Nietzsche tended to love women who were already married, in love with someone else, using him to become famous, or put off by his walrus mustache and awkwardness.” 

Rounding out her study are chapters on Sartre and Beauvoir, whose names are synonymous with the whole existentialist enterprise, and whose lifelong romantic partnership would, in many ways, give both example and grief to their philosophical beliefs. Though never married, they considered their commitment to one another “primary,” while their affairs with others—of which there were scads on both sides—were “secondary.” Although this arrangement worked generally well for the two “primaries” involved, it resulted in mostly unhappiness for the “secondaries,” many of whom were none too pleased to discover their “secondary” status. With existentialism’s most famous couple in mind, readers will no doubt be intrigued by Cleary’s take on Sartre and “loving sadomasochistically,” as well as “loving authentically” by way of Beauvoir. In both chapters—perhaps the strongest of the lotCleary shores up her arguments by drawing generously from the two writers’ deep well of philosophical and literary works. 

Having set out to widen her readers’ understanding of romantic love through the prism of existential philosophy, Cleary offers a useful primer to anyone interested in the subject, especially those coming to it for the first time. There are however some questionable stylistic moves, which threaten to torpedo the good stuff. To begin, it feels throughout that Cleary has written this book with a dissertation committee in mind rather than a flesh and blood audience who might actually have a stake in the promise of her title. That is, despite her book’s heart-bestrewed front cover, there’s little pulse in Cleary’s prose, the lack of which contrasts sharply with the fleshiness of her subject matter and the messily wrenched lives of those who populate her book. 

Cleary also gives the impression throughout that the book she has written—and which she is responsible for—exists somehow apart from her: “Existential philosophies provide the narratives to interrogate implicit assumptions about romantic loving behaviors and expectations, and to bring into question saccharine romantic fictions.” Elsewhere she writes, “In this way, existential philosophies uncover a fresh approach that reinvigorates and revitalizes romantic loving.” Notice the disconnect between her subject (“existential philosophies”)—which by definition is predicated on the notion of human agency—and a prose style that admits to none. Ever. Existentially speaking, Cleary leaves no trace of her fingerprints, no evidence of her own singularity, which is an odd choice of form given existentialism’s emphasis on agency and the perils of “bad faith” (i.e., evading responsibility). The ghostliness of her prose is further reinforced by its mechanical organization and frequent signposting. Each section of her book is scored into numerical units (“There are six major ways of conceptualizing romantic loving in the western world”), then scored again (“Six of the key themes that characterize existential thinking are…”), and again (“There are five key points for discussion…”), until finally she risks wearying her readers the way PowerPoint wearies, well, everyone. And this kind of thing occurs in every subsection of every section of every chapter. As for the signposting, here’s a typical sentence: “The next section outlines some of the key features of existential thinking before proceeding to identify the questions that it raises with respect to romantic loving as outlined above.” These are rookie mistakes made by academics both young and old: the presumption that their audience wishes to be led by the nose rather than dazzled. 

As philosophies go there’s hardly one sexier than existentialism, its very name redolent of 1940s Parisian cafes, of black-clad intellectuals clutching their Heidegger and late night cups of coffee, of Albert Camus—a cigarette draped moodily from his lip—smoldering before the lens of Cartier-Bresson’s camera, of rebellion, despair, loneliness, Jake Barnes, élan, and love. If such impressions are steeped more in romantic ideals than fact, then I suppose I’m in trouble. After all, Cleary warns me in her introduction, romantic ideals are fraught with all kinds of trouble, never mind disappointment.  

Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.