Love is a relational emotion as central to the human condition as the need for physical sustenance. It is an emotion inescapable in both public and private life, with much of popular entertainment devoted to romance and relationships. But its ubiquity is no guarantee of understanding – love is still viewed as a mysterious force in peoples’ lives, an experience and bond that resists easy categorisation. It could even be argued that love is the relational emotion most resistant to forms of commodification, economic or otherwise.This resistance to commodification is to be welcomed; love’s resistance to understanding less so. It is, of course, an emotion open to various interpretations, but taking Hegel as a starting point would be a good start. Paul Ricoeur, in his book The course of recognition, provides a helpful reminder of how Hegel used the word Trieb to explain what love actually is – i.e., ‘the desire of the desire of the other’. Taking this as a starting point, via detours through the work of Axel Honneth and Simone Weil, Ricoeur fleshes out this notion of love by stating that ‘lovers recognise each other by recognising themselves in models of identification that can be held in common’. A power ‘more primitive than desire’, love as Trieb brings together so many relational senses at once – a sense of worth, acceptance, acknowledgement, regard, respect and belonging – that its status as an object of desire in itself is inevitable.
But Ricoeur wisely balances this take on Trieb via its opposite – the absence of the desire of the other. This flipside of love is a painful experience, as to be unloved is to be disregarded, and to be viewed as undesirable, in Ricoeur’s (and Honneth’s) words, a painful form of humiliation:
Humiliation, experienced as the withdrawal or refusal of such approbation, touches everyone at the prejuridical level of his or her ‘being-with’ others. The individual feels looked down on and from above, even taken as insignificant. Deprived of approbation, the person is as if nonexistent.
They say that love is blind, a statement that may or may not be true. Given Hegel’s plausible take on the meaning of love, it’s more likely the case that (to borrow another popular notion) a thin line exists between love and hate, a thin line that separates the presence of desire from its absence. The hatred of absence, of humiliation, of disregard, of others who refuse to offer desire, is also a powerful force in people’s lives, a force as worthy of investigation as that of love itself.