Love's Paradox

Curator's Note

For Jean-Luc Nancy, love’s meaning is to be found entirely in the act of its utterance. To define the term further, to elucidate the qualities that one loves or declare the amount or degree of one’s feelings, is to diminish its uniqueness—to universalize that which finds its power in its individuation. In a lecture given to a group of children and reproduced in the collection God Justice Love Beauty, Nancy contends that, “When I say ‘I love you’ to someone the sense of love is there, but not necessarily in a complete or immediate way” (66). It is then love’s incompleteness and unlocatability that, for Nancy, accounts for its potency.

But there is also an insurmountable tension at love’s core. In discussing saying “I love you” for the first time, Nancy proposes that, “The more afraid we are, the more we put off saying it and the more we enter into the truth of how a lover feels” (82). This central conflict is rendered as follows: love’s form is constituted in saying “I love you,” but it is in the absence of this utterance that we feel it the most. This is love’s paradox.

This paradox too extends to hatred, a term that, for Melanie Klein and indeed the accompanying clip, is so obviously linked to love. In Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Frank (Henry Fonda) are united in a not-yet fully acknowledged bond, a union that if professed would immediately lose its power. But despite its sharing the shape of Nancy’s love, theirs is a relationship of hatred; Frank has long ago killed Harmonica’s brother in a particularly sadistic way but has since forgotten the event, and it is Harmonica’s goal to have Frank remember this incident without Harmonica himself declaring it. Here, the two finally agree to consummate their union in a duel, the outcome of which will result in the pronouncement of their relationship.

For Harmonica and Frank it is in the preamble to their declaration, what here takes the form of a gunfight, that their emotions are most available. But it is in the declaration itself where the form of their love/hate is finally constituted (indeed through a literal coming into focus), a moment that illuminates but diminishes their feelings. It is in this way that something of hate (and love) always dies in its birth.


Great post Kal, thanks for getting things started this week. I think the clip is a valuable illustration, but I am most interested in this idea of a "felt-sense" versus the enunciation of love. I admit, I have not read the Nancy text you refer to, so perhaps I misunderstand, but what seems key here is that love is something that can only flourish within one's self. That is, in attempting to "materialize" love as a "thing" through its enunciation we end up diminishing it. But, then, doesn't this raise the question of who love is for? In saying "I love you" it would seem that we may lose that affect because now it is rendered as an emotion, acknowledgement, agreement, or contract. In this way, it seems that to "be in love" necessarily entails its secrecy at confirmation's expense.

Thanks Adam, and I think you are absolutely right to point out the problem of “secrecy” here. In this model love’s leaving its idiosyncratic state and finding its figuration through expression necessitates a reduction of feeling (what takes on the qualities, maybe, of some feeling of relief or release, as when you say “I love you” for the first time), but I agree that this gives love the form of never being quite confirmable. There is, then, a kind of mystery here: love’s expression never quite meets even your own felt experience of it (or perhaps just before it), and it is therefore impossible to (1) fully express your own sensations and (2) ever confirm that anyone else feels the same way or even understands what you are feeling. What this brings to mind, though, is one of what is for me the central tenets of love: hope. That is, its non-verifiability becomes its central trait, and one must enter into some relationship with hope (or maybe trust) that furthermore heightens this prefigured sensation (which is always then again reduced in expression). Perhaps then this is how love gets renewed, in a kind of cycle of sense -> expression -> hope -> and back to sense.

Thanks for this, Kal. The paradox you're describing between love's presence in enunciation versus in unarticulated feeling–and, as you put it, in the illumination/diminishment involved in enunciation–seems to point to the risk inherent, even central, to love. And I'm thinking of the following exchange in Adaptation (2002): Donald: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn't have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.

Charlie: But she thought you were pathetic.

Donald: That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That's what I decided a long time ago.

Arguable cheesiness aside, there's something there to me in the notion of "her business, not mine." If feeling is diminished, or divested, in love's articulation, maybe something of that can be retained or protected if the enunciation isn't aimed at verification or reciprocation by the loved? Or is that kind of declaration even possible?

Thanks Veronica. Regarding "cheesiness": it seems to be a bit of an inevitability here, I'm afraid, so I'll take a shot at some myself. I'm not actually convinced that a declaration of love without any hope of reciprocation or verification is in fact what I'd call love. Part of its structure, I think, is the constant failing at ever quite getting there--if that makes sense. A failure of reciprocation is not just true in the case of unrequited love but love generally, as there has already been a kind of double-death by the time reciprocation is possible: the death at the first articulation and then the death at the second. Some science again from the film: after being asked why he has killed a local family he was ordered only to scare, Frank produces the amazing line "people scare better when they're dying." And we might say that they love better too. Love without death--this is to say love without its own dying and a rebirth in the possibility of verification--is not exactly love at all. Is it?

Kal, your bold and fascinating choice of Once Upon a Time in the West reminds me also of one of my favorite narratives, The Count of Monte Cristo, which also focuses on revenge (a specific course of action based on hatred, like Harmonica's quest here: Frank's recognition of his past misdeed must come from himself to satisfy Harmonica). Edwin Dantes needs things just the right way, too, and his implicit concern is with winning back Mercedes, achieving happiness and maybe even professing love, as much as getting even. Revenge might supply a relation to hatred analogous to seduction and love—“seduction” understood in a very broad sense, anyway. I'll still have to mull over the implications of love's enunciation diminishing its presence, or that “in the absence of this utterance that we feel” love most. I'm persuaded that this can be true in some cases, such as an argument with a loved one that reaches a point where one feels obligated to allay fears and say, “No, honestly, I do love you.” But even then, it seems to be premised on a love-as-feeling … rather than, say, as process. Would something change, for Nancy, for you Kal, or for us readers, if we shifted the definition of love in the premise from one to the other?

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