Wednesday, December 07, 2005
The What and Who of Love
The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, distinguishes between the “what” and “who” of love. When we first meet someone, we typically love him or her for what they are – i.e., the various archetypes we believe they embody. (For instance, I personally prefer women with wide hips, large breasts and without a penis.) However, it is also possible to love someone for who they are; that is to love them as singular individuals.
The “what” of love almost invariably fades when we discover that the object of our love is not what we took him or her to be (like in the movie The Crying Game where the guy discovers that his lady-love didn’t fulfill the “without penis” rule). In fact, most often the “what” of love is our own construction, representing what we want someone to be, rather than who they really are. But eventually we find ourselves unable to runaway from the truth; that his three-inch monster isn’t really three inches and her ability to recite the entire alphabet in a single burp isn’t as big a turn-on as we let on. There’s simply no running away from it. In time you’ll have to stop pretending that the reason the woman you’ve been dating for the last three years refuses to accept that you’re a couple is not simply because she’s playing hard to get. (Rather, it may have something do with the fact that you haven’t seen each other in five years and she lives over two hundred miles away with her husband and four kids.) Thus, we inevitably come to realize that those we love do not really embody all the qualities that caused us to fall in love with them in the first place. This makes the “what” of love, at best, transient.
But the “who” of love refers to the act of loving someone, not because they fulfill a list of criteria on a checklist, but as the singular entities they are. For example, growing up I had a dog by the name of Bubbles. She was pot-bottom black, with white patches of missing fur, one eye, a broken nose and a bad habit of chasing after cars (except that she did it while they were still parked; which, incidentally, explains the missing eye and broken nose). In short, Bubbles was the most unsightly and inane mutt I’ve ever come across. However, I still loved Bubbles more than any other dog on my block for the simple reason that she was Bubbles. The difference between the “what” and the “who” of love is the difference between loving shaggy dogs because they are shaggy and loving Bubbles simply because she is Bubbles.