What Love Is: And What It Could Be

Carrie Jenkins. Basic Books, 2017. 213 pages. $26.99.

By Doug Phillips

Forget Plato. Forget Shakespeare. Forget Byron and Shelley. 

And forget Freud, too. 

I think we can all agree—can we not?—that Foreigner posed the problem best in their 1984 power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is,” the soft rock of its romantic angst a staple of Adult Contemporary and thus of dentists’ waiting rooms everywhere. Now, however, the wait would appear to be over. For those of us, like Foreigner, who yearn to know what love is, a young philosopher has come along at last to bridge our understanding, to fill our hearts’ cavities, to set bracingly the number one record straight. To expect anything less from a book titled What Love Is would be to underestimate its author, a Cambridge-trained, self-described “analytic metaphysician” called Carrie Jenkins.

And yet it’s not quite as easy as all that, and you knew that it wouldn’t be. “Trying to state the nature of romantic love with precision,” warns Jenkins at the start, “is like trying to nail some Jell-O to a wall made of Jell-O, using a Jell-O nail.” Just when you think you’ve got it contained it all wiggles away. Still, this hasn’t deterred philosophers from historically giving the heart’s goo a go, with commentary ranging from the pessimistic (E.M. Cioran: “Love is an agreement on the part of two people to overestimate each other”) to the deeply pessimistic (Arthur Schopenhauer: “To marry means to do everything possible to become an object of disgust to each other”) to the please kill me now (Jacques Lacan: “Love is giving something you haven’t got to someone who doesn’t exist”). Were it otherwise—were it true, as the writer Jorge Luis Borges claimed, that “Happy are the loved and the lovers and those who can do without love”—then there would be no call for all of these downers. But Cioran, that most despairing of philosophers, and therefore the loveliest, said it best: “Love’s great (and sole) originality is to make happiness indistinct from misery.” To paraphrase Gloucester: as flies to wanton boys are we to love; it kills us for its sport.  

If this is the case (and I fear like Lear that it is), then must it be everything? Have we no alternative but to submit to the algetic voices above? Not to their pessimism necessarily, but to the assumption that “two”—and only two—must be the bottom line of any romantic relationship? And might this assumption be connected in some important way to the defining of love as overestimation or disgust or illusion or misery

To counter these Continentals and their moody drifts of disenchantment, Jenkins wants to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle via the “careful, rigorous argumentation and critical reasoning” of analytic philosophy. Love’s buzz, she argues, is too fluttery, too amorphous, too winged to be kept rubbed in a cage, and so she wishes to “ditch the idea of a ‘standard model’ for how romantic love should look” in favor of something more generous, more accepting, more capacious in its embrace. But why, you might ask, is there a ‘standard model’ for romantic love in the first place? Why must we limit ourselves to only one romantic partner at a time? And how did we come to believe that romantic love, by definition, is possible between two people, but never between three? Or four? For Jenkins these are pressing questions because “as things stand, romantic love is failing us in multiple ways.” Plus, she says, “We have a responsibility to make romantic love a force for good: to make sure our changes to the ‘script’ direct love toward becoming a better version of itself.” 

This of course raises an additional (and vital) question: if it is indeed possible to change the ‘script’ of romantic love into “a better version of itself,” then what would it be exactly? To begin, this version would include all of those who love, but whose love is non-monogamous. That is, it would welcome into the fold those who practice, like Jenkins herself, polyamory rather than monogamy; who maintain love relationships with more than a single partner, but openly, honestly, and with all the respect and devotion bestowed upon a One and Only. Think here of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but without the deceiving of their lovers. 

What Love Is, then, points first to a problem of definition—to a problem of “script”—and therefore to a problem of language and logic, the twin provinces of analytic philosophy. Though Jenkins cites as a significant influence on her thinking Bertrand Russell (the Grand Poobah of analytic philosophy and former giant of her alma mater, Trinity College, Cambridge), it is Ludwig Wittgenstein (Russell’s colleague and fellow genius) who, I think, provides the real impetus behind her philosophical investigations. It was Wittgenstein, after all, who famously stated in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” And this, it seems to me, is Jenkins’s implied point of departure when she opens her book with the following conundrum: “On the mornings when I walk from my boyfriend’s apartment to the home I share with my husband, I sometimes find myself reflecting on the disconnects between my own experiences with romantic love and the way romantic love is normally understood in the time and place in which I live.” Later, she tells us that her boyfriend’s father, whom she has never met, has little to say to his son these days. Evidently the old man is put off by the fact that his son’s girlfriend is another man’s wife, and that this ménage—this polyamorous arrangement, rather—is undisguised, open, and honestly embraced by all involved. But then why shouldn’t it be? Were our conception of romantic love not so narrowly pinched, our language not so oppressively constricted, then we might have an easier time understanding that monogamy isn’t for everyone (pigeons and penguins aside). And that, possibly, there’s a special place in hell for the person who invented it. 

And “invented” it is, at least according to the “social construction” theory of romantic love, the script for which, writes Jenkins, has long served the interests of the status quo (i.e. it keeps the Haves from Having Not) and goes like this: “It is romantic love’s role to regulate sexuality and intense bonding by encouraging its development within just one structure—the permanent, heterosexual, monogamous couple (the kind of unit that heads up a ‘traditional’ nuclear family)—while discouraging all other formations.” The problem of course is that the “one structure” mentioned above is a poor if not impossible fit for anyone who doesn’t meet its criteria (“permanent, heterosexual, monogamous couple”). In such a situation the only thing left to do, advises the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, is to extricate yourself from a vocabulary that does not suit you—and to adopt one that does. For Jenkins, that would be polyamory, which, she argues, “directly challenges two often invisible (but ideologically precious) ideas: paternity control through the sexual restriction of women and the conception of a romantic partner as one’s private property.”

In her quest for a better version of romantic love, Jenkins addresses another script, one equally influential that she calls the “biological phenomenon,” whereby romantic love, in the hands of such notable theorists as Helen Fisher, gets explained in terms of evolutionary science, history, and biology. A typical script of this kind will tell us, for example, that a woman’s “nature” is to nest, while men, like mice, want to play in the field. Which is great if you’re a mouse, but if not, not. And while it’s true that men and women often find themselves travelling in opposite directions, monogamy-wise, it’s also true that many are aligned in the same direction, driven by the same inclinations and desires. In fact, reports Jenkins, “Recent studies also raise complex questions about whether women are biologically hardwired to prefer sexual monogamy.” No matter the gender, suggests the poet Anne Carson, the problem is always the same: “The people we love are never just as we desire.” To expect of them that they be at once our lover, best friend, bowling buddy, and pub mate is simply too many fardels for any one mortal to bear. Ironically, then, the social expectation (and supposed biological imperative) that one person—and one person only—be the source of all our earthly happiness may be doing more to destabilize the social order (if current divorce rates are any indication) than to steady it.

At first glance, these two scripts (social, biological) would appear to be mutually exclusive, that is, in competition with one another, but actually they are as entwined as Klimt’s lovers kissing. “The key,” writes Jenkins, “is to show how social and biological accounts of love are not really in competition but are complementary descriptions of a complex reality: love has a dual nature.” How we interpret and respond to this dual nature, however, will have everything to do with whether we find ourselves oppressed by it, or joyfully liberated. Ultimately Jenkins wants to show us that romantic love’s “complex reality” is not something fixed or essential or strictly beholden to nature; rather, it is limber, on the move, and pliant to our best hopes and ideals—even if certain political ideologies try to convince us otherwise. Which is why, urges Jenkins, we must be on our guard: “History testifies that once we are ideologically invested in a status quo, we try very hard to prove—with biology—that it is the ‘natural’ order of things.” Given that “Social stability—including the maintenance of privilege by the privileged—is best served by mass unawareness of the deep core of the social machinery that structures our lives and our loves,” it’s all the more crucial that we pay attention.

Jenkins’s project, then, is to draw awareness to the deep core of the social machinery that structures our lives and our loves” by first calling into question what she terms the “romantic mystique,” that bumfuzzling cloud of emotion that “encourages us to accept love’s ‘nature,’ passively and uncomprehendingly, instead of trying to resist or alter it.” As Freud observed, “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love,” which is why, Jenkins tells us, “thinking carefully and philosophically about love” has “made me feel safer and more confident, aware, secure, and genuine in my own relationships.” If Jenkins’s book can do as much for her readers, as the writing of it has done for herself, then it’s one worth getting hold of, pronto. But as you read, it’s worth bearing in mind the words of another theorist, Mari Ruti, who, like Jenkins, has written extensively on the philosophy of love: “We need to consider the possibility that the more we try to domesticate love, the more anemic our experience of it becomes.”

After all, said Oscar Wilde, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” 

Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his degrees at the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The University of Alabama is home of the Alpha of Alabama Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.