“…this poor capacity to interpret complex and unfamiliar meanings is a source of endless loss” – I.A. Richards, Practical Criticism.
John Armstrong is one of a flourishing breed – the philosopher who is also a fine writer and able to communicate the concerns of philosophy to a wider non-specialist audience. Like the more well-known Alain De Botton, he tackles the common dilemmas of life in a way that is both accessible and literary.
Conditions of Love is a slim volume ostensibly limited to a “philosophy of intimacy”; however, with remarkable economy, it covers a lot of ground and triggers a series of reflections on the role of the imagination in reading. Conditions of Love takes a number of perspectives on love derived from popular discourse, philosophy, psychology, political theory and literature. From this Armstrong generates a series of vignettes, or short, interconnected essays on subjects such as infatuation, romance, tragic love, charity, sexuality, maturity and the place of love in the meaning of life. Drawing from influential literary representations of romantic love, such as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, to the psychological and political explanations offered by Freud and Marx, Armstrong slowly pieces together an argument about how we might think about love with more complexity and nuance. He also uses love as a lens through which we might ask questions about the organisation of society and the values by which we live. Armstrong argues that taking love as the common element, we “see difficulties as difficulties, because they are obstacles to the realization of love” (125). An example of this is his refreshing reading of Marx, who, Armstrong contends, is a revolutionary precisely because he got to the core of capitalism’s alienating effects: “If we have to devote our best energies, and almost all of our time, to making a living, and if in doing so we have to become highly competitive, or ruthless, we don’t have much of ourselves left over for love. We can love only on the margins of our lives and with the residue of our capacities. This takes on a tragic dimension when we no longer believe that a better economic system is viable. Love, which stands as the natural goal of living, is massively subordinated to the pursuit of the means of living” (123).
Conditions of Love prompts us to reflect not only on how love is experienced, but also how it is imagined. Armstrong suggests to readers that thinking carefully about how we narrate and represent love has direct implications for how we experience it and the significance we ascribe to this aspect of our lives. He also suggests that the predominance of infatuation, or the cultural centrality of stories about the initial phase of love, has limited our thinking about love’s experience. Hence we have Romeo and Juliet as the Western love story par excellence, which is about a relationship only a few days old, but no story of comparable power about a ripened relationship. In modern times we have turned to psychology to explain the emotions and behaviour of intimacy. However, even here the explanations we form can also narrow the range of possibilities and fail to explain those loves which do not follow a template. Diagnosis, rather than poetic subtlety, seems to be the alternative to romance. In short, Armstrong’s book is about imagination and the necessity of our developing a wider repertoire for thinking about love.
Conditions of Love also critiques prevailing popular discourses of romance and the search for intimacy. The essays examine the search for a transcendent experience that ‘completes’ us — a powerful narrative in modern society. Armstrong sources this version of love to Aristophanes’ myth that the human race was once made up of hermaphroditic beings who were split, and who forever more search for their missing half. Armstrong argues that this has become an influential story to explain the search for ‘the one’. The preoccupation with compatibility in contemporary discourse about love is, Armstrong argues, a by-product of Aristophanes’ myth – -we are searching for completion in an ‘other half’. Armstrong’s view is that the search for the ‘perfect match’ is misguided. He argues that the search for someone who is perfectly compatible does not make any allowance for the ways in which love is an adaptation to another and also a change in the self – -we are not just jigsaw pieces looking for the fitting counterpart. Instead, love is transformative and one of its chief virtues is the way it stimulates creativity.
Throughout the various essays into the roles of love and the ways in which we have discussed it, Armstrong repeatedly returns to the necessary work of the imagination. It is imagination that is the primary focus of Armstrong’s work, and, for a reader of literature, the most suggestive. He broadly divides the work of the imagination in love into two camps. Firstly, there is the imagination of infatuation, which falsifies and embellishes the image of the beloved. This is perhaps the one we are more familiar with in popular discourse about the role of fancy in the mind of the lover – that love blinds us to the other’s faults and exults the other beyond the realm of the fallible and human. Armstrong uses an image from Stendhal whereby a branch is put in a salt mine and is, after a period of time, drawn out again – covered in diamonds, a fabulous salt-encrusted jewel. Armstrong interprets this image as symbolic of one of the tasks of the infatuated imagination – it takes an ordinary person, the beloved, and, like the branch, ‘encrusts’ their image with projections, wishes and fantasies. The ‘actual’ person, as they are seen by a neutral observer, has disappeared beneath a layer of adoration.
There is clearly creativity involved in this first, ‘delusional’ part played by imagination in love. However, Armstrong argues, if this were the full extent of the loving imagination, we would never move from the first flush of romance to a more long-term relationship.
This is where Armstrong gives imagination another, and, by implication, more important role. The second role of the imagination is the one that he argues should be given more credit, and which is the greater source of the ethics of love. While we understand the urge to ‘encrust’ the image of the beloved with infatuated projections, we see its limitations and, traditionally, we expect this phase of love not to last. The second ‘task’ of the loving imagination is what Armstrong calls the “task of the least” – to perceive with attention and insight the small, fleeting aspects of the beloved. This element of Armstrong’s argument is so striking that it is worth quoting from at length:
“It requires imagination to discern ‘the task of the least’ – to see the significance of a detail which a hasty eye would easily pass over – but in this case imagination is not departing from what is really there. Imagination enables us to perceive more acutely.
We often think of perception in terms of what are called ‘analogue properties’ – seeing the shape, colour, texture and comparative size of objects in the world. And it is true that we do not need imagination merely to see what is before us in this sense. But this is a far from complete account of what there is for us to notice … it is not enough to avoid delusion and to set ourselves the task of just seeing what is in front of us. (…)
The capacity to see details as significant requires that we link an unobtrusive word, gesture or reaction with other elements in a person’s life. … Imagination may be thought of in terms of fecundity of options for putting things together. It’s not necessarily the case that the imaginative person can see elements other people are unaware of, it’s that they think up less expected – and perhaps more revealing – ways of putting together the elements which anyone can observe. (…) In other words, imagination can be allied to acuteness of perception, rather than distortion. And this function of the imagination has its natural application with respect to the quieter, less obvious features of a person or a work of art” (95 – 97).
It is in this beautiful passage that we see Armstrong’s vision of the imagination in love intersect with the other capacities we value in creative and critical pursuits – interpretation, insight, the ability to synthesise apparently unconnected facts. The “task of the least” links close reading with the work of ‘reading’ the beloved and hints at the crucial role imagination plays in both.
At this point in my reading of Conditions of Love I found myself thinking of how the role of imagination in love could just as easily apply to why close, careful reading as a project has significance beyond the personal development of the reader. The imagination in love, as Armstrong casts it, allows a lover to interpret details of the other with compassion and insight. Knowing and cherishing another actually increases our creative and critical faculties. What’s more, it demands the development of faculties that are in danger of being cast aside in our rush to cram as much information as possible into as many different accessible formats as we can. We have mistaken the task of “avoiding delusion” and “just seeing what is in front of us”” – information, facts and data – with the imaginative leaps required to see into information, to turn it into insight or meaning. Just having more data is not enough – there must be someone who can interpret it. More to the point, there is a whole universe of texts which presume this work on the part of the reader – where the active imagining consciousness is a necessary ingredient. We call these texts literature.
Interpretation – making meaning out of a synthesis of memory, information and imagination – is the ethical heart of the reading project. As critic I.A. Richards argued,
“‘Making up our minds about a poem’ is the most delicate of all possible undertakings. We have to gather millions of fleeting, semi-independent impulses into a momentary structure of fabulous complexity, whose core or germ is only given us in the words” Practical Criticism (317).
In literature, what we get with ‘the words’ is a gap – they are not complete without a reader, and they need someone’s imagination to do their work.
What I want in a book are the materials furnished for my imagination to do its work. In other words, what I want is a field for the mind to play in, and for this to occur, there must be the right balance between information provided and information withheld. The work and pleasure of reading occurs in the gap between apparent meaning and the implied or insinuated meaning. For the endless delectation of the imagination, there is a degree of uncertainty, of flickering possibility, that exceeds the straight-forward content of the work.
So in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary we get the incredible building up of solid-seeming detail of the provincial French world: the farmhands with their rough skin and wooden clogs, the steam rising from the rump of an ox at an agricultural show, the mud sticking to Emma’s boots as she crosses the fields to her adulterous assignations. And yet, as with the Dutch realist paintings Flaubert’s work resembles with its smooth, flawless rendering of an actual-seeming world, beneath the sheen of this veneer there lies a whole other set of meanings. The job of the reader – as with the viewer of a Van Eyck or Vermeer – is not just to apprehend the objects laid in front of their eyes, but to perceive the relationships, the secret affinities and correspondences that create meaning from a collection of apparently unrelated details.
Close reading is transformative – it converts words on a page and a thousand amassed details into a reading – an interpretation that takes shape in the mind of the reader and which demands more than just the ability to discern what is written on the page. It requires the creation of a second text, the text in the mind of the reader, formed by imagination.
This is a process that, for all its reputation for elitism, is actually available to anyone with some literacy education and a library card. Very little capital outlay is required. Only a great deal of your spare time, attention, commitment, and an intoxicating love of words.