For Sartre, the ideal of romantic love is a prolonged state of mutual subjectivity — a state of mind enjoyed by two persons which involves each of these persons seeing the world "through the eyes of the other." An ideal lover "puts himself in the shoes of his beloved" in abandoning his outlook on the world for hers. He thinks as she would, sees, touches, and feels as she would, and affirms as valued all the principles and goals to which she is herself attached. As such, he renounces any critical standpoint with respect to his lover — any standpoint from which she would be constituted from without as an object having such and such properties; e.g., as basically honest but not without some self-delusions, pretty but not beautiful, open but yet not altogether uncomplexed, and so forth. Such properties are discernible only from a point of vantage which our ideal lover, in loving, has left behind. He now tastes of her subjectivity, and no longer of his own.
However, an ideal love is not unrequited. In affirming the other as subject, a lover affirms a subjectivity which is in turn affirming him, as subject, and so something like the normal situation with which we began is re-established. The lover subjugates his own consciousness to that of his beloved in constituting the world through her eyes, yet finds (since she is reciprocating) that the world so constituted is his own. She has returned the gift, as it were — unopened, yet bedecked with her ribbon and seal. Fitting enough, she would avow, since on her account of things she was only responding in kind to the return of her gift, unopened yet personalized. Much like Kierkegaard's Abraham, lovers have first to give the world away in order that they might receive it back again, enhanced.
Sartre would talk easily in terms of the metaphor of the returned gift, adding that the nature of the gift is that of freedom — not the freedom by which we choose, say, between A and B, where A and B are two alternative courses of action, but rather the more basic, constitutive freedom by which we let there be a world of choice to begin with. For his, romantic love has for its ideal the permanent exchange of two such freedoms — each freedom affirming the other, which is in turn affirming it, and so forth. Love thus becomes that primordial partnership which all other partnerships have for their ground, or basis. It is the partnership by which a God would enter in contract with another God, or with His mirrored image.
Putting off for the moment the question of whether or not such an ideal is even possible in principle (who finally plays the role of subject in a case where subjectivity is traded off between persons like a hot potato?), or whether or not, if possible, the ideal is actualizable, granted the contingent nature of persons who might aspire to it, it is clear that there do occur situations to which descriptive terms of the sort used by Sartre apply very well. A young person "in love" will attest to this fact. For him — our young lover, to whom the experience of a new and consuming love has just happened — it makes sense to record a certain transfer of ego-consciousness in the face of his beloved, and an extent to which his world becomes the world she puts together, with him in mind. For him, her eyes have become deep and devouring, and no longer pose any threat. They are no longer holding him at arm's length, and establishing in so doing a canyon-like abyss over which words and gestures must be hurled, frantically, as hopeful missiles. The bite has gone out from beyond these eyes. They have softened. To look into them, lovingly, is now to lose track of the distance which normally separates him too from the world. He is "out there" in the world, as an adventurer in her arms. His usual tactic — that of suspending the world in judgment at the same stroke that he withdraws from it, into himself, is abandoned. To be sure, he is no longer himself. He has lost himself in her eyes — in the pure presence which she has become before him. He is drunk in by those eyes, a-swirl, and recovers himself only as seen, lovingly, by her. He is her, through her eyes, and she is him, through his. The world is theirs, together.
Sartre's attitude toward romantic love is by no means an optimistic one, but it is nevertheless not his feeling that such moments of fused consciousness do not occur. People think they do, and on this score people have the last word. Instead, Sartre reminds us, and for reasons which we will soon discuss, that these instants are exceptions to the rule, and that consequently we are not to look to them for a principle in terms of which we might understand relations between persons by and large. States of mutual subjectivity, or shared consciousness, are fleeting and fugitive at the very best, and thus could never provide a practical basis for explaining relations between most persons at most times. Romantic love is a sort of fluke — an anomaly within the context of a general (although as yet unspecified) rule about people.
Leaving aside for the moment any theoretical discussion of love — a discussion in the absence of which Sartre's attitude would be altogether arbitrary and partisan — it may be seen that his pessimistic reminders do have the evident facts on their side. Take our same two young lovers — each lost by will and design in the other's deep and selfless eyes. What might be expected to happen to them? Where do they go from here? Can a mutual subjectivity be borne about the world on four shoulders without its being changed into something else? Can love last? Just what does happen, in the end, when young eyes meet?
What does happen, sooner or later, is that one or both of our lovers will recover their own proper subjectivity. One or the other of them will eventually think a private thought (perhaps even a private thought having to do with the excellence of their love) and with this, the spell will shatter and evaporate. "Wow," he might soliloquize. Or, "The Frenchman's mad. It can happen." Or, "How long will this last?" The content of the soliloquy matters little. In any case we find our young lover reflecting on his lot — setting it at a distance from him in order that he might scrutinize and appreciate it. He is objectifying that experience which began as the participation in a mutual subjectivity — wrenching himself back and away from the experience in order to understand and comprehend it. But of course he cannot have his cake and eat it too. To the extent that he understands his experience of loving, he will no longer be experiencing it. Mutual subjectivity objectified is no longer mutual subjectivity, but is something else. Our lover has turned into a theoretician. And a theoretician is not, qua theoretician, a lover.
He may become aware of his withdrawal, and attempt to correct it — to bet back into the experience of sharing a world once again. "Just a short breather," he may remark to himself. "She never knew the difference." And perhaps she didn't. Her head was turned, after all. And the music was loud. So he calls her name, full of expectation. She smiles quietly, and turns to meet his eyes. "That was the way it first happened," he remembers. He looks intently at her, waiting for those eyes to deepen once again — to lose their edge, and to lavish upon him their view of the world — a world in which he will figure as a focus. He waits patiently for her to dissolve as an object-for-him, and to become instead that friendly subjectivity which he will recognize as his own, amidst glad shouts.
Only, this time, it might not happen the same way. He's trying now, and to the degree that he tries he withholds his half of the lover's bargain. Only insulated subjects can try; a truly shared subjectivity has already achieved its goal, and feels no lack which an effort might be needed to remove.
To be sure, it might not happen at all. A woman might now remain before him, not his beloved. A girl: the one who smiled at him almost three weeks earlier at such and such a location — the one who, etc., etc. He knows very well who she is. He has her firmly in his conceptual grasp. Facts about her scurry now across his mind, each of them defining in their flight part of an object — a beautiful object, a responsive object, an interesting object, but an object nevertheless. They are unwelcome interlopers, these facts. They are facts for him alone, and not for the two of them together. The object they define is not the subjectivity he wants to make his own once again. The object is in the way.
The experience of love is a fragile thing, and will not always resurface on command. It must be coaxed back into the open, and the tactics used to bring this about are standard ones. They constitute what we might call "love behavior," and have for their goal the re-establishment of something like a state of shared consciousness. "I love you," he might say, out of the blue, and in a quiet desperation. The expression has the desired connotations, and sometimes works. For the one who hears it, and responds, the world withdraws a step, and becomes less urgent. Facts no longer press in, silently begging their proper due. Objects recede into a friendly and distant circle, leaving the winsome listener at its center, dazed, and in the pure presence of her lover. The words "I love you" sometimes work in getting it back together again — unless, of course, she has the feeling that she was told that for a reason. What was on his mind? What's he doing? Why did he feel that he had to say that? Even "I love you" has a leaden ring to it at times. Resorting to the locution as a remedy is risky, since it either cures for a time, or kills. And of course when no remedy is required, the expression is superfluous altogether. When eyes meet, no trumpeting is in order, nor any affidavits required.
"What are you thinking?" he might ask. This ploy is similar, and aims at the intrusion of one subjectivity into another. Get inside her head, if you can. That's how it happened before, roughly. Only, before, he didn't have to ask. He knew what she was thinking, or thought he did. And she was under the same happy illusion. That's what it meant to have the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of another. Her thoughts were as his, so he felt. He knew that she had him, in his love for her, on her mind. And she did. "What are you thinking?" he might ask. The damage is done before the question can be retracted as a mistake. She recoils from it, resenting its implications. The question reveals clearly what had been but suspected a moment before: there's a need to ask. The instant of love was brief, and is now past, and there's evidence around to prove it.
"I love you" and "What are you thinking" are but two expressions often used by lovers engaged in the project of establishing, or of re-establishing, the feeling of having a common point of vantage on the world — of being one, bipartite subjectivity, instead of two, mutually antagonistic ones. There are other techniques which serve the same end. For example, our fallen lovers may put themselves in new situations together, relishing the moments during which they react to these situations together, and in like fashion. The cinema (that's why she holds his hand when the hatchet appears), the retreat into the mountains on a spring weekend ("The air makes you feel good, doesn't it?" he'll ask), the mad dash to Rio the week after Carnival ("a crazy thing we're doing, the two of us, isn't it?"), are but obvious examples. The object of all such behavior is to generate common attitudes and responses, and these common attitudes and responses function as substitutes, even if in a programmed and "canned" fashion, for those few instants of time when love was new, and two minds one. As a matter of fact, these tactics cannot be relied upon to recreate such instants. Romantic love either happens — in Secaucus, New Jersey, or on the banks of the River Seine — or it doesn't. Some people like to travel alone, and never go to the movies.
The most famous means of getting into the mind of the other is sexual desire, which has the effect of altering the other's mind in just such a fashion as to make it more accessible. At the same time, one's own consciousness is altered in just such a way as to make it more accessible to the other. In each case, the alteration involves a change in the manner in which consciousness determines itself, as such. Usually, consciousness defines itself negatively in terms of its object (e.g., one's lover), bringing this object into being in regard to one set or another of objective properties at the same stroke that it, consciousness, separates itself from that object as being something other than it. In desire, however, this process of constructive nay-saying is relaxed. Consciousness is clogged by desire, Sartre suggests. It bogs down, fluttering, within the most familiar object of all — the flesh which, in some sense, it is. Consciousness incarnates itself as that flesh — abandoning for a moment its usual and distant recesses from which judgments are pronounced, objects recognized as such, values positing as binding, and so forth. Consciousness seeps to the surface in desire — spreading itself out onto an expanse of tingling skin, and waiting there to be met by another, similarly incarnated consciousness. The meeting is uncomplicated, and involves only the touching of those two assemblies of flesh in which, for a time, consciousness has been invested. When subjects consent to alter themselves in this way, and together, the slapping of regions of flesh one against the other accomplishes the same "meeting of minds" by which we have come to understand romantic love in general. Only here, something like a state of mutual subjectivity is attained by virtue of a change in the mode in which subjectivity is enjoyed — by coaxing it up onto the surface of the other's flesh, where, unguarded in its usual ways, it can be ravished by another subjectivity similarly transformed. "Determine yourself as flesh, and with me," the seducer coaxes, anticipating with the joy of lust that common terrain to which he and his chosen partner might soon accede. For a moment, and perhaps only for that instant of sexual climax, their altered minds will coincide with those regions of convoluted and sticky skin which, by that alteration, have become temporarily alive with consciousness. Unsatisfied to wait for wandering eyes to meet and meld, or for errant tactics to succeed in bringing such a meeting of eyes about, they will make love.
If the availability of physical desire as a way to the other is famous, the rapidity with which desire passes is infamous. To be sure, it lasts only so long as is required to bring about the act of physical love by which it is ineluctably extinguished. In this sense, desire is a paradigm example of a self-defeating project. If it succeeds at working for a time, it will by this very success fail to work over the long run. It is thus not a means to any prolonged state of shared consciousness with another person. Sex is a timeless interlude, but not a way of living a life. Simply put, sex ends.
Furthermore, sex ends without having significantly altered anything. That is, once the flush has cleared, and one's breath has been regained, our partner is inevitably rediscovered as an object — perhaps even a contorted, obscene object. It is moreover the same object with which we began our little dance. Its particular properties are just about those which we remember; its generic properties as an object-in-general are identical with those it possessed before the act began. We have no more in common with this thing than we did before. It is only by the sheer dint of memory, or an optimism, that we are now able to transform this object into the subject which, for a brief instant, we knew from the inside. Sex ends, and as much offers itself only as an interruption of the usual course of our relations with other persons, but does not effect any substantial change in the nature of these relations. Desire passes, and returns us to the distance in our lover's eyes. It leaves us lonely.
These then are the terms in which Sartre would describe our attempts to achieve the ideal of romantic love. The descriptions — not outrageously inaccurate according to the opinions of most — tell a story of failure. Romantic love might happen unexpectedly with the meeting of eyes, but is not, as a matter of empirical fact, ever sustained over considerable periods of time. We resort to "tactics" in order to counter this matter of fact, yet by our very deviousness as tacticians we deprive our floundering relationship of the spontaneity — the selfless innocence — without which any talk of "mutual subjectivity" becomes an exercise in self-contradiction. Sex is a channel by which even the most desperate among us are occasionally victorious in bringing about something like a state of shared consciousness, but its evanescence as a project — the rapidity with which desire becomes a memory of having desired — stands as a taunting reminder of our failure by and large to become as one with the other, and mocks sardonically even the efforts by which we might attempt to succeed using sex again.
In sum, the ideal of romantic love — a prolonged state of shared consciousness between two persons — is never attained in actual practice. And this is so as a matter of fact — as a datum of concern to our biographers. It now remains to be shown why this matter of fact is necessary — why it must be the case that any attempt to win the world (and ourselves) through the eyes of another person will end inevitably in frustration. The demonstration will be a theoretical one, and will try to deduce the various failures to which our project of loving is susceptible from the truth of certain statements having to do with the nature, or being, of consciousness itself. If successful, the deduction will be taken both as corroborating evidence on behalf of the ontology from which it proceeds, and of course as an explanation, or ground, for those grim and grisly dimensions of human experience which our young poets, in poeticizing, have always done best to ignore.
Editor's Note: The above essay was written by Markle in 1970 for the benefit of students enrolled in his immensely popular Clark University course offering on the French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. There were hundreds of such students, giving Markle an easy excuse for avoiding the seminar-format teaching he so disliked. A cadre ofloyal undergraduate "assistants" took care of these chores. Instead, Markle gave lectures.
One of these Sartre lectures, performed at night by Markle not just for his students, but for the student body at large and for faculty, was taped. Markle knew about the taping; in fact, he had insisted upon it. Some 800 persons were in attendance, with loudspeakers set up in adjacent hallways for the people who could not fit into the room. The taped lecture appears below, clickable by chapter.
1_Ontology as Premise
2_Interpersonal Relations as
3_Romantic Love as Truce
4_The Fleeting Joy of Love
5_Love as Failure
6_Love Behavior as Remedy
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All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.