Category Archives: Thinking

books and loves: an immigration

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“When he had taken a last swallow and put down the cup he’d get up and say thank you and go—so she had to think of something to say, quickly, to mend, justify, the pickup.
What about you?
It was the wrong thing—there! She’d done it, it came out god-awful as Showing Interest, and she thought she heard him take a breath in order to deal with it, with her; but he only put out his hand for the sugar-bowl, she hastened to hand it to him, he helped himself to another spoonful for the dregs in his cup. He would keep silent if he wanted to, he could speak if he wished, it wasn’t up to her.” ~ The Pickup, Nadine Gordimer (12)

I was staying at a beach house rental this past summer for a multi-family holiday and noticed a small bookshelf shoved off in a corner of the dining room. I always enjoy looking—just looking mind you I certainly don’t need more books to read— but I am curious, pure objective curiosity, as to what books there may be in any given corner of the world. So I took a gander.

Choosing a book has a feel that is similar to a pickup, doesn’t it? Especially when one is just looking at a random take-one, leave-one type shelf. It was an odd and motley mix. An unpredictable mix of high brow and low brow “summer reading” fare. What catches my fancy and why is an internal mystery I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. As I have matured I am only aware that I simple surrender to it—in love and books, it’s the same.

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer is an extraordinary book. I’m still well under its fog. Whenever I get very involved in a work of fiction the feeling I have when I must turn the corner down and lay the book aside for a moment to deal with reality, is like coming back from another country, another realm.

This book, which concerns a South African woman, Julie, and an Arab man, Ibrahim, is a powerful account of the unaccountable intimacy between two people. Gordimer articulates by direct and indirect means, obscure and exact thoughts and language, the unexplainable attachment of two people—unexplainable to others, of course, but also to themselves. The story is told mostly from Julie’s perspective. The intensity of their difference: she a white woman, he an “illegal” from a poor Muslim village of an unnamed country highlights what is true in all relationships—the inescapable otherness of the beloved which occurs within the closed cocoon of a romantic relationship, a private sphere, alone and freestanding, within the outside world.

“Brooding in a bed in the dark has a kind of telepathy created by the contact of bodies when words have not been exchanged.” (187)

The story is beautiful, sensual, and oddly inevitable. The story follows the lovers from their pickup in South Africa to an unnamed desert of Ibrahim’s origin. I couldn’t think of any other way it could have ended—the ending being something of a beginning. There was a small chance of the man not acting so much like a man, but that was never going to happen, so the course upon which the novel struck at the end had to be.  And it leaves one feeling frustrated, resigned, and sad, while at the same time one surrenders to the romance, the unspoken parts, the fidelity to self, and trust in the other—and if not the other than the desert which stands for the stability of time and Nature, humbling us all, reminding us of our smallness in the face of its persistent, calm beauty. The book does not leave one thinking they can know how it all turns out, it only leaves one knowing it had to be this way.

“He gave his wife his smile, that of himself which was for this one: for her.” (155)

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The Joy of Circles

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If ever there was a book that perfectly summed up the case for why I love books, [The Archimedes Codex] How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist by Reviel Netz and William Noel would be exhibit A. The reasons why, as points covered in this wonderfully entertaining read for bibliophiles and lovers of multidisciplinary fields in action, include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. The book as a material object
  2. The book as a historical record
  3. The book as a conveyor of information
  4. The book as a technology
  5. The book as an advancer of technology

All this and more comes together in one. Noel and Netz take turns in the telling according to their areas of expertise. Noel, as Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Museum in Baltimore was given the opportunity by the anonymous owner of the codex to steward the study of this famous palimpsest. Netz’s specialty is in ancient science, and so between the two we get a very through understanding and deconstruction (literally) of book provenance, structure (with forays into paper, ink, and binding), forgeries, conservation, and cutting-edge methods of reading the unreadable, as well as a brief history of Archimedes, his impact on the whole history of math and science, the differences between how math was approached in ancient Greece compared to our own age, and quite a bit of the actual math involved. For me, it was a thrilling read. History, science, math, literature, and book studies all in a single object—the most ubiquitous and under-rated technological wonder of them all: a humble book.

A palimpsest, for those not familiar with the term, is a document (in this case a codex, which is a book in our familiar form as opposed to a book in scroll form, say) which has been erased (in this case, scraped away off the parchment, as opposed to erased off of paper) and written over again. What looked like a simple prayer book, was actually written over several books of Archimedes. Of those Method survives in the palimpsest alone. No where else! What may seem to be an act of unforgivable folly—using Archimedes text as scrap paper! is the very thing that allowed its improbable survival. And so we are grateful.

The process of reading the Archimedes text underneath the prayer book (and to add extra fun to the challenge, a modern-day forgery of illuminated illustrations), is difficult difficult lemon difficult* not to mention painstaking. I will admit that I have at least a passing interest in rare books and book conservation, so the technical aspects of the work of uncovering the text was fascinating to read. But, I would think it interesting to any reader if for no other reason than to gain a better understanding and measure of respect for a book’s structure and material evolution (or de-evolution as is sometimes the case—I’m looking at you, acidic paper!)

But, fascinating too were the passages dedicated to Archimedes, his way of thinking, and enormous impact on science, in fact, some of the most sophisticated technology employed in the effort to read his text would not have been possible without his proofs and methods.

The revelations of Archimedes true intent in regard to the Stomachion, for instance, read like a mystery novel. The Archimedes Palimpsest, incredibly, has pushed back the historic timeline of when combinatorics were first thought to be robustly considered and developed. Combinatorics, I might add, had no practical use to Archimedes, and yet, without that particular field of mathematics, computers would not be possible and you would be sadly deprived of learning about this book from me. Full circle. Is there anything more satisfying?

*to randomly quote, as I am wont to do, the very funny film In the Loop

**Illustration from p 45 of [The Archimedes Codex] How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist

Beauty is Lurking Everywhere

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“The most notable and revolutionary feature of Darwin’s theory of mate choice is that it was explicitly aesthetic. He described the evolutionary origin of beauty in nature as a consequence of the fact that animals had evolved to be beautiful to themselves.”
The Evolution of Beauty, Richard O. Prum

I once came across this wonderful sentence: “Beauty is lurking everywhere.” Damned if I know from where, but I latched onto the sentence, if not the author of the sentence, with a rare tenacity (at least as far as my mind’s usual light grip on factoids is concerned). If I was forced to guess I’d say Shakespeare…but given Shakespeare’s proclivity to produce delicious bon mots by the boat load, that feels like cheating—it’s like guessing a particular invention came from China.

I was prompted today to not be such a terrible blogger (it’s been about a year…) and get back to my purpose here which is to help me not forget all the books I read! And, as well,  make a good reading suggestion for others at the same time. What’s the fun of reading if you can’t share the fun?

So, back to beauty—Richard O. Prum’s fascinating book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—And Us asks the next logical question for a person who believes, as I do, that beauty is indeed lurking everywhere, and that question is: but why?

“Throughout the living world whenever the opportunity has arisen, the subjective experiences and cognitive choices of animals have aesthetically shaped the evolution of biodiversity. The history of beauty in nature is a vast and never-ending story.”

Prum focuses on Darwin’s book which followed Origin of the Species, Descent of Man. Darwin was not satisfied with the problem of beauty which his theory of natural selection could not adequately explain. The peacock’s gorgeous arrayment left Darwin feeling nauseated. Not because of the excessive pulchritude, but because those long ridiculous feathers can not really be much help in survival, not least of all of the fight or flight variety.

What is so wonderful about Prum’s book is his expertise in ornithology, his explanation of the null/ not null practice of data collection and how that suppresses a whole lot of data, scientific bias, as well as his promotion of the subversive nature of what Darwin was really getting at—female empowerment. At times the book feels like a feminist apologia. Why is beauty lurking all around us? Because the ladies like it like that.

“What was so radical about this idea was that it positioned organisms—especially female organisms—as active agents in the evolution of their species. Unlike natural selection, which emerges from external forces in nature, such as competition, predation, climate, and geography, acting on the organism, sexual selection is a potentially independent, self-directed process in which the organisms themselves (mostly female) were in charge. Darwin describes females as having a “taste for the beautiful” and an “aesthetic faculty.” He described males as trying to “charm” their mates…..”

Because this theory, Darwin’s theory of the evolution of beauty, is so hard for some to accept as it throws into disarray the parameters of how evolution functions (fittest, Yes! but prettiest too!), the final third of Prum’s book is more speculative than he, or I, would prefer. But it at least leads in a direction of discovery that says damn implicit/explicit misogyny! our evolution is fascinating, complicated, and positively dripping in implications whether some might like what is revealed or not! Prum is not afraid to apply facts and humor in order to recuperate Darwin’s controversial ideas in the service of science. And I like it like that.

In the Face of Kitsch

The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side (78).
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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Strangely, when I picked the book up off a friend’s shelf, I couldn’t quite remember if I had read it— Kundera’s most beloved novel. But I couldn’t put it down (again?). Thanks to my soveryvery archive I can go back and relive The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (a post, now that I am speaking of not remembering, which I coincidentally titled “What I Remember”—but with Kundera one can never clearly delineate the remembered from the forgotten) and Slowness (in which I posted the excellent Slow Love by Prince to accompany my thoughts which is sadly no longer available for viewing, but you can sing it to yourself while you read if you are so inclined).

Happiness, as Kundera writes, is to repeat: “the sweet law of repetition” (299). The unbearable lightness of the non-repeatable is what leaves us in a state of abject unease. And so I let myself be taken away, repeated or not, inside the weight of love between Tereza and Tomas.

Woven in between that story is the tragic story of political hypocrisy and fakery, or as Kundera names it: kitsch.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch (251).

In these days where we appear on the brink of a cyclical, reactionary return to the dark and stupid days of authoritarian bleakness, it is the fakery of it all that really rankles me: The forced cheers of political pyrrhic victories, the outright lies and gaudy veneer of those claiming to represent the “real folks.” The intellectual dishonesty and cowardice is sickening at best, deadly at worst.

When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end up by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mothers who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree “Be fruitful and multiply” (252).

What to do? In this novel, Kundera takes seriously this question. We only live one life. We can not repeat. At this point in time, most of us can choose to shout out against the fuckery of injustices facing our environment and fellow inhabitants—but there is a time looming in the future, and already here for those at the margins, where laughing out loud, shouting, resisting, and fighting against the backward steps, leads to our hastened ignominious erasure.

Which is why I find such solace and sweetness in Tomas and Tereza. It’s not that they describe a perfect love—theirs is full of troubles, pain, and worries, in addition to the crushing political world around them. Their love is a vagabond pushed, or pushing them, farther and farther away from the vacant up-righteousness of kitsch. Tereza nearly lets it go uncredited as love, believing that their love can’t be equal since her love acted as a mission that Tomas seemed incapable, to her, of sharing. But their love is not a mission. It must be. In the end, it’s simple.

“Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions” (313).

It’s an obvious statement to say—we only have one life to live, but this makes it clear to me that there is no mission, there is only each day and hour. The weight of that is freeing. “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas asks. Reason and love will meet us on the other side of history. It must be.

Grasping Truth

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When I came to the sea, I was afraid I might have to spend whole days with hordes of strangers, shaking hands and passing compliments and making conversation—a regular labor of Sisyphus.
—Cesare Pavese, “The Beach” from The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese (22)

Once I got settled into my room and daily life here in Rome, I knew I had a problem. The book I had brought with me to fill in the hours I was not at my internship was all wrong. I don’t often give up on books, and it was not as if it was a bad book—it simply was not the right book.

I spend my hours on the weekends and after work walking the city. It is not unusual for me to get back to my room having walked ten miles or more (lately, a little more often on the less side of ten as I become more familiar with the labyrinth streets and therefore spend less time doubling back upon my lost way). But even I can not walk all day, and so, once I knew my reading situation was in a bad state—the book, being set in an even more foreign setting increased my feeling of disorientation, I could barely find the will to get ahold of the specific nomenclature of the trades and dialects discussed and I had no feeling for the characters and so nothing at all to hold on to in my own state of loneliness in a foreign city. What I wanted was someone here to speak to me. I headed to the first bookstore that came up on google—a far walk but well worth the effort. As soon as I began reading I knew I had found a friend.

I was finding my boyhood just to have a companion, a colleague, a son. I saw this country where I grew up with new eyes. We were alone together, the boy and myself; I relived the wild discoveries of earlier days. I was suffering, of course, but in the peevish spirit of someone who neither recognizes nor loves his neighbor. And I talked to myself incessantly, kept myself company. We were two people alone (66 “The House on the Hill”).

I had not heard of Cesare Pavese’s work before I picked the book up off the shelf: an acclaimed Italian writer and influential translator who lived from 1908–1950, but he is the one keeping me company now. His stories, mostly set in his hometown of Turin, in and around World War II are beautifully told. There is a melancholy I respond to here in my own isolation—which is to some degree self-imposed by my rather reserved personality which sees in Pavese a kindred spirit. As well as a familiarity and sheer interest of reading stories set in the country where I am, once again, temporarily situated. Having lived in Italy for a short while over ten years ago, but now here alone, I found myself getting lost in the labyrinth of my own mind. Feeling lonely, yes, and deeply reflective, but also the wonder of it all—the beauty of the sights, sounds, and energy of this ancient city.

The second story in my book of selected works is The House on the Hill. It is one of the most accomplished anti-war stories I have every read. Most anti-war stories can hardly avoid glorifying the very thing they are critiquing, but not Pavese’s. There are no heroes, just people—people who get tangled up in the war in the middle of their own already tangled lives.

They promised punishments, pardons, tortures. Disbanded soldiers, they said, your fatherland understands you and calls you back. Hitherto we were mistaken, they said; we promise you to do better. Come and save yourselves, come and save us, for the love of God. You are the people, you are our sons, you are scoundrels, traitors, cowards. I saw that the old empty phrases weren’t funny any more. Chains and death and the common hope took on a terrible daily immediacy. What had once floated around in the void, mere words, now gripped one’s insides. There is something indecent in words. Sometimes I wished I were more ashamed of using them (126).

Corrado is the emotionally distant protagonist of the story. His elegiac telling of the chaos and danger in the period of Nazi withdrawal and fascist defeat of Italy is terrifying. Not just because it is terrifying, but also because it is so hard to imagine and at the same time, given the recent lean towards neo-fascsim in the world—all too easy. And that is preciously the same feeling that Pavese relates in the midst of it all—does one worry about having a coffee in the morning, or whether or not the son of a woman whose heart he broke is his? Or does one worry about being arrested, murdered—or worse evading arrest when all your friends are taken? Life is big enough for all those worries at once. And then:

I came up below the spring, in a hollow of thick, muddy grasses. Patches of sky and airy hillsides showed among the trees. The coolness there smelled of the sea, almost briny. What did the war, what did bloodshed matter, I thought, when this kind of sky shone amid the trees? (92)

But, of course, it does matter, and it all begins to lose sense in the senselessness of war.

It wasn’t discomfort or the ruins, perhaps not even a threat of death from the sky; rather it was a final grasp of truth that sweet hills could exist, a city softened by fog, a comfortable tomorrow, while at any moment bestial things might be taking place only a few yards away, things people only discussed in whispers (125).

As I wander, mostly in a wonderful, timeless, aimlessness around the city of Rome, I can not help but be struck by the beauty, yes—but also by the ravages—the evidence of the rise and fall of empires, religions, individual fortunes, even the Tiber itself.  “At any moment bestial things” have and are still taking place. We are all human beings on this planet, and so, for Pavese, “every war is a civil war” and every victim of war a body that calls us to account.

Pavese’s voice comforts me in a cautionary sort of way, and gives context to the country that I am immersed in. Of course I am watching my own nation’s news from afar. So while I  worry about where to get coffee without getting lost and missing my loves while relishing being here, I also read the news and worry about whether or not the unimaginable will happen….because we must grasp the truth that it can.

*The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese is translated by R.W. Flint

 

 

 

A Turning Tongue

The peculiar flexibility of human languages to bend themselves to new meanings is part of what makes translation not only possible but a basic aspect of language use. Using one word for another isn’t special; it’s what we do all the time. Translators just do it in two languages.
—David Bellows, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (89)

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reflection at Belrespiro in Rome, Italy

Once I realized I was several kilos under my weight restriction for baggage on the cheap-o airline, I packed a few more books. I reasoned—why not take advantage of the countless hours in transit to read a book long-awaiting my attention? And since I am going overseas, what better book than one on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos?

As I find myself having to turn my English words into Italian, I wonder what is a word anyway? An impossible thing to describe with perfection. And yet, according to Bellos, the same can be said for all things. But of course there are some things that are, as he writes, symptomatic.

Smells, noises, physical sensations, the presence of this or that natural or manufactured object, have symptomatic meanings all the time (70).

Which I know well, as hand gestures and pointing fill in many a linguistic gap for me and my intermediate fluency. Even having said something gives it symptomatic meaning. In other words, the physical world provides tremendous context to our words, many of which would otherwise be meaningless, or difficult to comprehend. Writers are aware of the difficulty—so many words that verbally, in situ, bridge precise meaning, tone, and sense, for the speaker, must be laboriously explained on the blank, sterile, page.

In this way, as Bellos compellingly argues, we are all speaking in translation, trying to find the right word or words—we just usually do it one language as opposed to, like the translator, in two. The aspiration of the nomenclaturista (I just made that word up, but I mean one who clings to the idea of nomenclaturism—the belief that everything has a name—that “words are essentially names” (85)) will never be realized because the words themselves resist meaning only one thing!

Take the word ‘word.’ When did the group of letters, as a single concept, which we named ‘word’ come to signify an oath? as in—you have my word. Indeed, when did it come to signify ‘totally awesome, man.’ My kids say that to me all the time—I might say, “Guess what guys! I’m making your favorite pasta al forno tonight.” And they will invariably answer, “Word.”

As Bellos explains, the oft-abused word ‘literal’ as an adjective, stems from “the noun littera, meaning “letter” in Latin” (109). Sorry to disappoint the purists, but literal was something that was worth writing down, its figurative or literal truth was not the important quality. Its hard to imagine a world in which the skills and instruments of writing were rare, but for a long time they were, and so not every damn thing was written down, only important and “true” things. The literal truth.

To Bellos’ mind, the very act of language is a form of perpetual translation. When people say that poetry is lost in translation, Bellos cries foul. It is not poetry that is lost, he argues. The only thing that a translation from one language to another can not accomplish with ease, or at all, is the embedded sense of the community that speaks with true fluency, which manifests itself in all sorts of assumptions and particularities of grammar which may signal customs, tone, power dynamics, and myriad other subtitles which come with the singularity of really knowing the language and the people that speak it.

It makes no sense to imagine transporting the ethnic, self-identifying dimensions of any utterance. Absolutely any other formulation of the expression, in the same or any other dialect or language, constructs a different identity (338).

It’s a fascinating read, and one that has me thinking deeply about language as I struggle with two.

Because, like many people, I have enough trouble with one. What gives any word I choose to use its meaning? Think of the many concepts we don’t bother to name, or worse, name vaguely—which does not at all preclude our readiness to articulate—or have fun trying. Philosophers love to torture themselves by trying to describe things like ‘freedom,’ ‘human nature,’ and ‘friendship’ and yet these things elude precise meaning. And thank goodness, where would we be, really, if we could describe words like ‘love’—thousands of years of music, poetry, art, and film wiped away in an instant. A pity, e un peccato, in any language.

*Title inspired from page 29: “In Sumerian, the language of ancient Babylon, the word for “translator,” written in cuneiform script, […is] pronounced eme-bal, it means “language turner.”In classical Latin, too, what translators did was vertere, “to turn” (Greek) expressions into the language of Rome.”

 

Love, Logic, Love

The requirements of logic and the needs of a beloved supersede any contrary preferences to which we are less authoritatively inclined. Once the dictatorial regimes of these necessities have been imposed, it is no longer up to us to decide what to care about or what to think. We have no choice in the matter. Logic and love preempt the guidance of our cognitive and volitional activity.
—Harry G. Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (66)

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Waclaw Szymanowski, Blooming Apple Tree 

I am involved in a year-long research project,* and now have an official reason to indulge my insatiable curiosity on the subject of love—oh joy! I mention it only to preemptively explain the expected preponderance of books about love, the senses, and neurology that may be forthcoming. Although, it occurs to me that there may already be a preponderance—or at least a driving theme— of such books in my reading habits. So be it.

There is a striking and instructive resemblance in the matter between love and reason. Rationality and the capacity to love are the most powerfully emblematic and most highly prized features of human nature. The former guides us most authoritatively in the use of our minds, while the latter provides us with the most compelling motivation in our personal and social conduct (64).

As Harry Frankfurt states, in his book The Reasons of Love, love and logic are what dignify us—they are “distinctly humane and ennobling in us” (64). The entire book is dedicated to examining the preeminence of love in our lives. The mere fact that “caring” distinguishes our attention; our affection; our past, present and future proves, by his lights, the very quiddity of the emotion. Why do we love? Because we care. Not selfishly, or even unselfishly—to use words such as ‘selfish’ or ‘unselfish’ distorts the question—love is a sine qua non condition of being human.

Bertrand Russell alludes to “the restfulness of mathematical certainty.” Mathematical certainty, like other modes of certainty that are grounded in logically or conceptually necessary truths, is restful because it relieves us from having to contend with disparate tendencies in ourselves concerning what to believe (65)

When we commit to loving, we no longer have to deliberate, consider, or weigh the options. That declaration of love—the ‘I love you’ (as Alain Badiou so eloquently described in its form of “stage fright”) is the leaving-off of doubt for the restfulness of certainty. The comparison to logic is clear, and yet, and yet…we all know that love is more prone to distortion than logic (although—politics, for one, could cure one of that notion as well). And we all know that certainty is the domain (again, Bertrand Russell, not to mention Voltaire) of fools and fanatics. Still, when I think of my own children I understand love perfectly. There, in my heart, is a restfulness like no other.

The fact that we can not help loving, and that we therefore cannot help being guided by the interests of what we love, helps us to ensure that we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course (66).

Love, like logic, is constrictive in that we are compelled through the very laws of each to obey. That we do not necessarily choose whom to love is important. Who can solve the mystery of why this person and not that person? Frankfurt suggests that this is a form of freedom. The stage fright of ‘I love you’ is, in this light, a respectful fear of certainty. Given the horrific events in Orlando I am more afraid of people who hold rigid beliefs than I have ever been. I have never understood absolutism, belief, certainty, dogmatism….And yet I do think that love, as a manifestation of certainty, like logic, may inhabit unique space. Neither is capable of doing harm on its own, although both are often used to excuse acts of perversity which defy the very meaning of the words. Love and logic simply are.

One doesn’t choose to love their children anymore than one chooses to believe two plus two equals four. That seems obvious. Not having to constantly re-evaluate or reassess those truths is freeing. Frankfurt sticks to child-parent love for a reason, as he states it: it is a more pure love without all of the distractions of romantic love. Yet for all the complications and distractions, it remains true that all love is freeing in that it is binding. It binds us together and limits how we behave in accordance to what is good for the beloved and the lover: the demands of profane love, that which cares and is caring.

 

*I will be a 2016–17 Kahn Institute Fellow, in the “Shaping Perception” project. My proposed project, which may change slightly as my research develops, is on the relationship between the senses and the emotion of love.