You Always Hurt the One You Love. Jealousy and Proust.

Marcel Proust, whose search for 'lost time' has been called the greatest novel ever written. It's definitely one of the longest ever written (6 volumes), but is entertaining and not too difficult to read, provided you don't mind occasional sentences that stretch to over a page.

Proust's views on love are fascinating. For Proust an essential part of love is jealousy. (You need to cast aside pre-conceived ideas about love and jealousy to really appreciate what Proust is saying, even if you don't agree with him.) Jealousy is important for Proust because it points to the very nature of love that Proust believed people most often misunderstand.

The starting point for understanding Proust's ideas about love and jealousy is his view that each person will experience the world in a way that is completely unique to them. Because each person's life experiences are unique, to them, then their experience of the world is also unique to them. (This doesn't mean that 'everything is subjective', only that no two peoples' experiences are ever the same.) Also each person seems to be born with a particular 'personality' that is uniquely theirs, and this only adds to the sense in which how they experience the world is unique to them. I'm drastically simplifying what Proust said here, but you get the basic idea.

Because of this the affections and words and acts a lover bestows on a person will always seem to be exclusively aimed at the other lover, who will feel them in that way. But for Proust these acts and words always remain to some extent a message that only the original lover truly 'understands', as they are emitted from their 'world', that only they really inhabit. This doesn't at all mean they have no love for the other person, that they don't feel this love intensely, only that what the love means to them will always to some extent be something they can only understand. The other person's interpretation of that love will then also come from within their own world. So the feelings they have for each other are exciting and joyous and intense, but they 'mean' something specific to each person.

For this reason Proust says all love lies. Not consciously, and he doesn't mean people try to deceive. He's saying that love is by nature deceptive, because people don't (and can't) ever completely share each other's worlds. You always hurt the one you love, as the song goes, not because you're a bastard but because at the heart of every relationship there remains an essential divide between people that can't be crossed. Two worlds that remain two worlds.

Now at this point you might think Proust is bit of a cynic about love. But that's not his intention at all, to demolish love as an idea. What did bother Proust was the confusing of friendship and love. He thought friends could share ideas and likes and dislikes, and ideas, and that this didn't ever challenge anybody's 'world' because these things are not really expressions of anything that deeply personal. Believing this or that thing or liking this or that thing can be easily done from within a comfort zone where the people involved really don't need to explore the other person's world - they can just stick with ideas and feelings and move on when they get bored with them. For Proust love on the other hand is an attempt to enter the other person's personal world, and so represents something qualitatively different to friendship.

Now while he saw that you couldn't ever really enter another person's world entirely, the positive side of this way of looking at things is that there will always be an essential and creative difference between lovers that should be a delightful unknown for them. The other person will always be new and fresh because they are always coming from another place, and true love is living those differences and constantly being surprised by them. Proust would have been horrified by the modern assertion that those who marry should be 'really good friends' first. While he wouldn't say that was a bad thing, he didn't see it as at all necessary, and in fact he saw that often the strongest loves are between people who might agree on almost nothing or share none of the same interests.

So why did Proust see jealousy as an essential aspect of love? Because he saw jealousy as the attempt by a lover to make their world and their lover's world align completely. To remove the possibility of the loved person deviating from them in any way, in thought or feeling. Strongly jealous people are not content to 'just know' that the other person loves them, and to allow that person to have other parts of their world that may not be shared with their lover. It wants a total alignment of the two worlds, the erasure of difference, the stamping out of the possibility that their lover may have experiences that aren't shared with them, but with other people (and of course, worst of all, with other potential lovers). Jealousy is essential in love, for Proust, because he believed that without experiencing jealousy in love we won't be forced to understand what love is really about. (Proust believed that the most fundamental truths in our lives won't be learned by us unless they are in some way forced upon us, by experience. His novel describes life as an 'apprenticeship' to these various experiential hard truths.)

Of course many people never learn from jealousy, and repeat the same types of relationship over and over with different people. What Proust would have people understand from jealousy is that the attraction they feel for others comes from the differences between themselves and these other people. A person who doesn't interest them, who they don't love, will have differences that don't gel with them, just as some chemical mixtures do nothing while others explode, and others produce beautiful colours. And where the differences do gel, they will always be an inexhaustible source of surprise and joy in a relationship, as the two worlds interact without ever merging into one. And it will be the other activities the beloved is involved with which will potentially enrich those differences even more, so that their interactions with other people and other activities will continuously enrich their relationship with their partner.

What this also shows is that what it is we love in another person is actually not 'in' them. The differences which attract us and sustain our relationships are continuously fed from other people and activities that our beloved is involved with. And that essential 'personality' they are born with, which is less a thing they have than a way of being in the world. The outcome of relationships which are weighed down by jealousy is inevitably a sort of sterile stalemate, with the beloved circled and trapped to prevent interaction with the world around them, so that the jealous lover can (they think) finally control their lover's feelings and thoughts. But without that wider interaction there are increasingly no feelings or thoughts or differences, except maybe hatred at the entrapment.

So you don't always hurt the one you love, if you understand what jealousy is telling you. You will instead always delight and surprise them. All easily said and less easily done, by most of us, but then that's what life is about - learning.

Next time I'll finish this off by linking to the title of Proust's novel: In Search of Lost Time. Jealousy most profoundly is teaching us something about time.


Popular posts from this blog

The Morality of a Speed Bump. Latour.

Reductio Ad Hitlerum, or what's wrong with Godwin's Law

Posture. The Great Big Rump.