“What I want to recount here is the story of lifelong love”
– Jacques Ellul.
The Guardian reports today on how commitment phobia has now reached the point at which dog-rental services now offer temporary pets-for-hire. Zygmunt Bauman, emeritus sociology professor at the University of Leeds and writer of the book Liquid Love, argues that this type of service is symptomatic of a more general trend away from forming lasting human bonds: “In lasting commitments, liquid modern reason spies out oppression; in durable engagement, it sees incapacitating dependency.”
In his book What I Believe (currently out of print; PDF available here), Jacques Ellul provides us with a heartening contrast to this dismal vision of commitment-free “love” (not to mention an equally heartening contrast to the more pessimistic side of Ellul on display in my recent series of posts on his book Hope in Time of Abandonment).
Starting on p.73 in the chapter “Lifelong Love”, Ellul describes a number of stages in the development of lifelong love between a man and woman: passion, common responsibility, recognition and, finally, union. His argument is almost impossible to summarise: the whole section (from p.73 to the end of the chapter) needs to be read as a single unit, and is highly recommended. But here are some particularly memorable passages.
On the acceptance of common responsibility as a test of the truth of the earlier passion:
The acceptance of joint responsibility is the test of the veracity of the love declared. The one was ready to die with and for the other. But it may be revealed that this one was not ready to live with the other, to undergo the test of everyday habit, the test of life, which is no picnic.
On the danger of common responsibility turning into individual absorption with one’s allotted role, combined with attempts to attempts to recollect and rekindle the passion of the first stage “by means of parties, vacations, and anniversaries”:
Yet love made up only of memories is not a vital love. It slips back, and life resides only in the past. If, however, the couple overcomes this temptation, if the work of the one is also of interest and concern to the other, if there is co-responsibility, then the couple lives out a richer love whose history is by no means at an end.
On love as recognition, “the moment when the one truly comes to know the other”:
To believe that love is blind and that lovers cannot see each other as they are was always a gross error. I believe on the contrary that it is love alone that sees truly, and that when a lover says: My wife is like this, then, even if his judgment runs contrary to that of neighbours and friends, it is he who is right. He is not blind to her faults and limitations, but he finds in her (and she in him) what is really there even though others cannot see it. It is the others who are blind.
On dialogue as something “vital for the couple, for each of the two within it, and for love itself”:
A basic rule in life and speech is forgetfulness of self. In dialogue we have to bear in mind that the one is made for the other. Thus I have to efface myself. I have to listen without reacting at once or wanting to impose myself. The important law in dialogue is not to try to be right over against the other, and therefore, even if we are convinced that what we know or think is right, to be silent and to accept all that the other says.
To accept being wrong in a dialogue, to do so against our own convictions, is not at all easy. But it is necessary if the dialogue that is to promote the unity of a couple in its otherness is not to become instead a sterile discussion. We have to invert a common formula and say that we love truth, but we love our spouse even more.
In this way love will grow as the truths that we surrender at once show themselves to be fertile. When we think some months or years later of the bitter discussions that we have perhaps had together, we see at once how useless and futile they were. But when we recognize otherness in dialogue, a new epoch in the growth of love begins.
On “love as union”, the “last stage of this venture and development”:
To arrive at this union, it is not enough for a couple to go to bed together or to play together. For a full and complete union there has to be a growth of love. The two have to go through the stages that I have sketched, to overcome the temptations, to accept the common responsibilities, to recognize their otherness even while maintaining unity in dialogue, to become progressively inseparable and not to be strangers living side by side.
Love as union accepts the impossibility of separation. This is why it is also so tragic, for it is toward the end of life that this inseparability is accepted, at the very moment when death threatens both the one and the other.