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Love Really Can Thwart Tyranny

Love Really Can Thwart Tyranny


Long before Freud articulated the conflict, or at best the tension between the enduring psychic – and therefore cultural – forces of Eros (life-drive) and Thanatos (death-drive), the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Empedocles, paved the way for this by positing the corresponding pair of countervailing concepts, Love (philia) and Strife (Eris) or Hatred (neikos). According to Empedocles these forces act upon the four elements – fire, earth, air, and water – to construct and destroy, alternately, the cosmos or world as we know it. 

For the ancient Greeks, cosmos was the opposite of chaos, so one can infer that, given the antagonistic relation between Love and Strife, the cosmic world is never completely ordered, but is always an amalgam of these two archaic rivals, with now the one, now the other, dominating. K. Scarlett Kingsley and Richard Parry (2020) comment as follows on the passage where Empedocles described this process: 

Immediately one is struck by the comprehensive symmetry of this scheme. It seems to address coming-to-be and passing-away, birth and death, and it does so with an elegant balance. The four roots come together and blend, under the agency of Love, and they are driven apart by Strife. At the same time, elements have an active drive toward homogenization on the principal [sic] of affinity… While this passage describes periods when one of the forces is dominant, it also describes a cycle. One force does not finally triumph over the other; rather, their periods of dominance succeed one another in continual alternation.

The resemblance between this description and Freud’s on the relation between Eros and Thanatos (quoted in the article linked above) is striking, and testifies to the enduring awareness of human beings that love and hatred are not only interpersonal phenomena, but surpass that level to embrace the cosmic whole in terms of a cyclical process of creation and destruction. 

Accordingly, the divine act of ‘creation from nothing’ (creatio ex nihilo; the official interpretation of God’s creative act by the church) described at the beginning of Genesis, may be seen as an act of divine love. The well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 13:13, namely ‘So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ may also be seen in this light. Why? Because if love is the ‘greatest,’ it means that it must be presupposed by the other two as the generative, creative force without which neither faith nor hope would make sense. 

Against this backdrop one might wonder what is meant by the title of this article: ‘Love is all you need…’, with its echo of a familiar Beatles song, ‘All you need is love…’ What reminded me of it recently was when my partner and I watched one of our favourite movies again – Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007); a kind of asynchronous companion piece to Milos Forman’s anti-Vietnam war musical, Hair, of 1979 – which concludes where the protagonist(s) perform the song. 

As this suggests, the narrative of Across the Universe (which is also the title of a song written by John Lennon) is interspersed with the Beatles’ music (functioning as a kind of chorus commenting on the unfolding events), but sung by the actors in the film, notably Evan Rachel Wood (Lucy), Jim Sturgess (Jude), Joe Anderson (Max) and T.V. Carpio (Prudence). 

As in the case of Hair, it is an anti-war musical with the Vietnam War as backdrop. Like all wars, the Vietnam War in these two films represents the destructive force of Thanatos, or Strife/Hatred, while the relationship between Claude and Sheila (in Hair) and between Lucy and Jude (in Across the Universe), respectively, instantiate Eros or Love. The fact that Across the Universe ends with Jude singing ‘All you need is love…Love is all you need’ to Lucy on a rooftop building in New York, after a brief separation, communicates the temporary triumph of Eros/Love over Thanatos/Strife – temporary, given the cyclical nature of the alternating dominance of the one over the other. This pertains to their own love-relationship, in which a temporary break-up precedes a loving reconciliation, but also signals the eventual end of the Vietnam conflict. 

Some of the music of the Beatles in this movie is resplendent with signs of love; not only the ultimate ‘All you need is love…’, but songs such as ‘All my loving,’ ‘If I fell in love with you…,’ ‘I wanna hold your hand’ (sung by T.V. Carpio in her lilting, hauntingly beautiful voice), ‘Oh! Darling,’ ‘Let it be,’ and ‘Hey Jude’ (which, predictably, involves the character of Jude). 

Viewing the film again, it reminded me of the time I spent at the University of Wales in Cardiff as a research fellow, where I had the privilege of attending a Cardiff Symphony Orchestra performance of the Beatles’ music. Imagine a philharmonic orchestra performing songs like ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ in a symphony hall, then you would get an impression of the greatness of the Beatles’ compositions, and of the thoroughgoing thread of Eros/Love in it. 

Before my stint in Cardiff, when I was at Yale as postdoctoral fellow, I had seen all of the feature films of the Beatles – from A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to Let It Be (1970) – at the 24/7 movie house on the Yale campus, the Lincoln Theatre, and even then, around the time of the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, these musical extravaganzas seemed to me to point an accusing finger at the warring parties.

By now readers should be catching my drift, as it were; what I am driving at is the fact that, at present, we live at a particularly intense juncture manifesting the dominance of Thanatos/Strife, which requires an equally intense reactivation of the forces of Eros/Love, to be able to defeat the destructive technocratic and neo-fascist forces running rampant in the extant world (at least for the time being). There are many ways to do this, and as long as one keeps firmly in mind that love has different manifestations, this should not be difficult to do.

The ancient Greeks recognised several; they distinguished among at least four kinds of love, to wit, Eros, Philia, Agapé, (charity) and Storge (and one could add Philautia or self-love), which denoted (respectively) erotic love, fraternal love, or friendship, godly love (the love for God but also of God for humans, and the love of what is divine in every person), and family love. By cultivating these kinds of love in this time of darkness, one would already be striking a powerful blow against the globalist technocrats. Remember, too, that love requires action to be set in motion, as it were, whether it is a kind act to a fellow human being, or (paradoxically) fighting the cabal at various levels with the ultimate aim of restoring love to the world.

A recent television series highlights the last point, above. It is titled All the Light we Cannot See (based on the novel by Anthony Doerr) and is set in the context of the final stages of World War 2 in a French seaside town called Saint-Malo, where a blind French girl (Marie-Laure) and her father, who used to guard the collection of precious jewels in a Paris museum, have taken refuge with the latter’s uncle and his sister. Marie listens to someone inspirational whom she knows as ‘the professor’ on a shortwave radio set, and unbeknown to her a young, gifted German soldier serving as a radio operator has been listening to the wisdom of the ‘professor’ as well – who talks to his listeners about ‘all the light we cannot see.’ 

Cutting the story short, the most valuable jewel guarded by her father – a diamond called ‘the sea of flames’ – is hidden in the apartment they share with her great-uncle and his sister, who turn out to be members of the resistance. A mortally ill Gestapo officer, Von Rumpel, is after this jewel because he believes this otherwise ‘cursed’ gem possesses curative powers. In the final episode Werner, Marie-Laure, and Von Rumpel come ‘face to face’ in the apartment – despite being blind, Marie has amazing compensatory sensory powers of hearing and touch – in the apartment, and between the two of them the young people prevail over the foe. 

The film narrative is a love story, but not in the usual sense, which is only activated at the end of the narration – an amorous beginning, when the story of hatred (Thanatos) and suffering, interlaced with love (Eros) among people concludes. What strikes one is the palpable manner in which the love binding together those who resist the Nazi aggressors enables them to continue, despite the loss of loved ones along the way. 

To avoid spoiling the series for anyone, suffice to say that the sacrifice of the lives of central characters in the story, for the sake of the living (an archetypal motif in Western art and culture, the paradigm being the death of Christ), is a fundamental expression of the encompassing love pervading this poignant cinematic artwork.

This resonates with Forman’s Hair, where the hippie character, Berger, sacrifices his life for Claude by being unexpectedly sent off to Vietnam in Claude’s place when he stands in for the latter to enable his (Claude’s) first ever sexual encounter with a woman, before being shipped off to war. The juxtaposition of war (Strife, Thanatos) and love (Eros) could not be clearer than in either of these two cinematic works.

I could go on and on, at length, about the pervasive artistic and literary thematisation of the perpetual struggle between love and hatred – or, in less obvious form, between creative cultural practices and destructive ones. But perhaps a brief elaboration on the relation between these two antagonistic forces and two other indelible powers in human society should be scrutinised to place things in a broader playing field. I am thinking of the relation between love and hatred, on the one hand, and reason and imagination, on the other. And where better to turn than to the Bard, who is always on hand for a Shakespeare lover like myself. 

Among his many plays that thematise love (and by implication its mortal enemy, hatred), the one that stands out in this regard is A Midsummer Night’s Dream (circa 1596) – the familiar tale of Athens and the forest of fairy king Oberon, his queen, Titania and the mischievous Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow), who drips flower love-juice into the eyes of humans and other creatures alike. 

Athens represents reason, while the forest stands for imagination, and Shakespeare shows his astonishing insight into the relationship between the two by having four young Athenians, romantically entangled, enter the forest in desperation because the father of one of the two women has decreed that she marry the man she does not love. Needless to say – this is a romantic comedy, after all – everything works out hilariously (but also seriously) in the end, with Puck ensuring that the right woman gets her man in both cases before returning to the citadel of reason. 

The upshot? Approximately a hundred-and-eighty years before Immanuel Kant turned the philosophical tradition on its head in his Critique of Pure Reason by demonstrating that reason and imagination are not deadly adversaries (as had largely been taught in philosophy), but epistemic allies instead, Shakespeare anticipated this epochal intellectual event. He did this by delineating the indispensable path that humans have to travel to be able to become mature, rational beings: one must go through the enchanting forest of the imagination before returning to the sober dwelling-place of reason (Athens) a wiser person.

Differently put: art and literature are not enemies of reason – they are partners in the quest for knowledge. And in the quest for wisdom and for love, one might add. This insight is invaluable at a time when imagination as well as reason should be enlisted in the struggle against tyranny.

Not that fatal misunderstandings do not occur in this regard. This is masterfully illustrated in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society of 1989, which places A Midsummer Night’s Dream within the frame of a tragic story enacted at a prestigious New England high school. Although Mr Keating, the inspirational English poetry teacher, attempts to bring his students to understand the value of imagination, not everyone understands that he does not intend this to be at the cost of reason. It is not a matter of choosing between the two; it is a question of placing these faculties in a life-giving embrace

Unfortunately one of Keating’s star pupils, whose tyrannical father disapproves of his son playing Puck in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, threatens to send him to a military academy, and the son’s despair drives him to suicide – with predictable consequences for Mr Keating’s tenure at the school. The final scene in the film testifies to the reassuring fact that his teaching has not been in vain, however. 

This complex film interweaves divergent threads such as comedy, tragedy, imagination, reason, hatred, and love, but only viewers with a receptivity to its representation of life in all its multifaceted glory would appreciate it. I recall a colleague from the English Department of the university where I was teaching dismissing it as ‘romantic rubbish.’ He was not using ‘romantic’ in its popular sense of tear-jerking romance novels, but in its historical literary and artistic sense, which challenged the overly narrow, rationalist conception of reality that one sometimes encounters in cultural products of the 18th century.

This is graphically depicted in William Blake’s satirical painting, Newton. The painting shows the scientist in a distinctly uncomfortable-looking, crouching position, naked and using a pair of compasses to draw a geometric figure on a scroll. Clearly, Blake did not approve. 

One does not have to reject science in favour of art, however. Mr Keating’s teaching in Weir’s Dead Poets Society embodies the realisation that both of these faculties have their place in life, for instance where he tells students passionately that disciplines such as engineering are essential because they sustain life and society, but that they are not ‘what we live for!’ 

What we live for, he intimates, is to love. Just like Shakespeare and Kant, who was a major source of the development of romanticism, Keating believes that we should allow imagination and reason to coexist, but that love (in the encompassing sense) is the only thing that makes life worth living. If we wish to defeat the cabal – which clearly does not understand the first thing about love (except that they need to destroy it, lest they lose the fight) – we should not waste any opportunity to affirm Eros in all its creative magnificence.

All you need is love

All you need is love

All you need is love, love

Love is all you need…

John Lennon

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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