John Armstrong’s “Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy”

I’m not sure how it started – it’s not our usual 11 am fare – but during a coffee break at work last week a new colleague of mine started talking about a book he’d once read about love. As we wandered back to our desks he said that love changes from culture to culture, and that it has assumed a dangerous importance in modern life: we fetishize it, and believe we cannot truly be happy until we have found “the one.”

I immediately ordered a copy of the book he’d been talking about – Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy by John Armstrong. It’s a short volume – only 160 pages – but it covers a lot of extremely interesting ground, and is a wonderful antidote to the way in which our culture does indeed put the first blaze of adoration on a pedestal; often relegating long-term, mature love to a much lower status in the process.

There’s so much here to think about. Rather like How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell, which explains various schools of philosophy in a highly entertaining and accessible way, Armstrong looks at examples taken from (amongst others) Tolstoy; Plato; Stendhal; Freud; and Shakespeare to explore the many faces of love, and its importance within Western culture. Aristotle tells us we must be virtuous to be loved, for example, whereas St. Paul tells us we must look for the good in people concealed by their failings. Stendhal tells us that a lover’s imagination crystallises the object of his affection, transforming her into an unreal ideal. Psychoanalysts have told us that our childhood relationships with our parents predetermine our relationships with our lovers, and that we can therefore be guilty of tracking childhood trauma into adult relationships. What I found most interesting, however, was the idea of responsibility that runs throughout the book.

One the problems with believing that there is one person out there who is destined for us (as Plato would have it) is that, as Armstrong wryly points out, it turns love into a treasure hunt. Love is not something which happens to us when we stumble across our perfect mate; nobody is perfect, and love has to be earned and worked for. And that is what romantic literature can sometimes entice us to forget – real love isn’t frozen forever at the point at which we first fall for someone, and it isn’t a right. As the weeks, months and years pass, love grows up with us – it is not, in Armstrong’s words, “a kind of garment which merely goes on top of, and does not in any way change, the inner person.” It takes work – a combination of all of those things championed by love’s literary mouthpieces – and it can’t feel the same forever, because we don’t stay a certain way for the duration of our lives. I particularly enjoyed his description of katabasis in this context (which I’ve now learnt means a descent of some kind):

“In the moment of katabasis we come down from the ordinary plateau of indifference, we recognize the dark background of existence – its loneliness, disappointment, fragility – and from here we see clearly just how much we really need (like the emerging melody) the hesitant tenderness of another person.”

If you have loved the same person for many years, and been loved in return, those small moments of “hesitant tenderness” might be as precious as the first flush of infatuation when you met.

It’s also very funny: John Armstrong is brilliant at poking fun at our lofty romantic ideals.

“We desire the perfect counterpart of our soul, the person who will always understand and respond. All we can actually get is someone who is, intermittently, pretty sympathetic and fairly interested and understanding – provided they have not had a hard day.”

That’s not to say he’s cynical, though. As a die-hard romantic, the two things I took away from this are that first, love is not properly personified by youthful passion. It is a fundamental need which somehow needs to find its place in our humdrum lives and changing moods; and that often isn’t very easy, because human beings are a mass of tensions and “closeness always brings us face to face with something other than we expected.” When Catullus said “odi et amo”, he was right on the money – and as such the hard-won love which has lasted through the years, no matter how many times it has had to transform itself to survive, is a very special thing indeed and should be celebrated. Secondly, love is an achievement, something you earn through cultivating your own best qualities. It doesn’t just happen to you, and it won’t feel the same forever – which isn’t a tragedy, or a diminishing of Keats’ “bright star”, it’s just a quiet inevitability.

Finally, just as an aside if you haven’t read Don Paterson’s poem, Poetry: A Version of Antonio Machado (which I came across in my 2015 Faber & Faber Poetry Diary), I’d certainly recommend it – especially in the context of what Armstrong is saying here. He beautifully expresses the fact that love poems tend to speak of “the atom” of love rather than its “later heat”, and closes with the lines:

Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water
sings of nothing, not your name, not mine.

That feels like a fitting conclusion to a book which ends by saying that the search for love shouldn’t be motivated by vanity; instead “we might make a loving from a loveless life – if only we can find the right sort of talk.”

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