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More Than a Feeling

How to Order by Richard Smoley
Home Love, said Dante in a famous line from The Divine Comedy, "moves the sun and the other stars." Elsewhere, in a less famous line, he calls it the force "that turns the world to chaos."(1)

This, I suppose, sums up the paradox of our attitudes toward love, which appears sometimes as a sustainer and often enough as a destroyer. But then the term "love" is applied to so many different feelings that it is a wonder we can make any sense of it at all.

Greek, as New Testament scholars like to point out, has four different words for love, two of which, eros and agape - referring to erotic and higher, "conscious" love - have stumbled through the back door of English and can now be found in our dictionaries. (The other two, storge and philia, refer to family feeling and friendship respectively.)

Other languages carve up the distinctions in their own ways: Danish in the time of Kierkegaard had at least two, and a new translation of his Works of Love somewhat awkwardly has to indicate in each instance whether he is speaking of Elskov, erotic love, or Kjerlighed, higher love.(2)

But we Anglophones, heirs to a language and a culture that have never been entirely comfortable with abstractions, have to make do with a single term, which we are forced to apply to everything from the noblest feelings imaginable to plain old lust to a nauseating Hallmark sentimentality. The confusion is more than academic: how much unhappiness in romance stems from a person using the word in one sense and having it understood in another? Often we ourselves don't know what we're trying to express when we speak of love.

Cutting away as much nonsense as possible, what do we have left? To begin with, of course, there is sex. And the first thing one can say about sex is that it is larger than "I." At its best, the transport of passion takes the consciousness beyond its mundane cycle of concerns; at its worst, sex becomes a force that one cannot control or integrate into one's life. All but the most repressed among us have probably experienced each of these aspects at one time or another.

And then there is romantic love. As countless books and stories insist, it too is far more powerful than "I." Often it is more powerful than sex; otherwise how can we explain unrequited love, where one prefers the anguish of loving from afar to any gratifications near at hand? The Jungians speak of the projection of the anima or animus - the psychic image of the opposite sex that lies within each of us - and if this remains the best explanation in circulation, it too seems a bit simplistic.

For the dynamic of sex and love suggests another possibility: that the one can be transformed into the other. This is one of the central themes of love, sacred and profane - the idea that the energy of passion, the sheer drive to reproduce the species, can be transmuted into a higher feeling, directed either toward one person, as in the case of medieval courtly love, or in other cases, for example with celibate Christian monks, toward God or humanity.

Such a transmutation is sometimes regarded as a matter of technique: manuals of Tantric and Taoist love tell us how to postpone orgasm and direct this unreleased energy upward toward the heart and head. Although these techniques seem to work to some degree, I can't help feeling that mere techniques somehow miss the point. No, something else has to happen, and, though our shelves are groaning with volumes on "sacred sex," I have never seen a convincing account of exactly what that mysterious something is.

Others find the answer in forgoing sex altogether. As the article by John Michael Greer and Carl Hood, Jr. in this issue points out, this was why MacGregor and Moina Mathers, the redoubtable leaders of the Golden Dawn, refused to consummate their marriage: they did not want to dissipate their higher energies on the physical level.

Most of us, having neither the aspiration nor the stamina to follow the Mathers's example, embrace a mixed solution - a relationship with one other person that combines both sex and love. The most conventional form of this remains marriage, but other forms abound in our adventurous age, as Jay Kinney shows in his discussion of the subculture of bondage and domination. And, I suspect, whether you are a staid old married couple or a top and bottom playing master and servant, the problems often turn out to be the same.

Jacob Needleman and John Welwood, in their contributions to this issue, discuss such dynamics; they both focus on the attempt to have a more conscious and authentic relationship. Their insights are worth encountering in their own right and I won't try to summarize them here. But I want to add a point that goes back to Kierkegaard and the curious title of his book.

Works of Love? It has an odd sound when you think of it, for, the primal act aside, isn't love a feeling rather than an activity? I am not so sure. A mother may not feel terribly loving when wakened at 4 a.m. by a screaming child, but she gets up nonetheless. Nor are we likely to feel tremendous yearning for God or gusto for the spiritual path every time we meditate or pray. But still we do it. And this is why I think, contrary to the masses of publications that promise to show us "how to keep the feeling alive," love has more to do with action than with sentiment; it discloses itself less in emotions than in deeds.

Even so, this does not tell us what love is, and that may be too much to ask. But I think it not far from the mark to speak of love as a subtle force or energy - and one, moreover, that is necessary for survival. Perhaps it is Gurdjieff's "reconciling force," or, in the language of A Course in Miracles, the "Holy Spirit" that restores the shattered Sonship to communion with the Father. It unites and yet does not unite, for love in its truest sense can ultimately exist only between two distinct entities; even self-love requires us to see ourselves (or part of ourselves) as in some way "other."

Yet isn't it also true that we experience anyone we genuinely love as part of our own being? Perhaps the ultimate mystery of love is that it constantly shifts focus between one and two, between otherness and unity. Here is where love takes us by surprise. Stealing in when "I" isn't looking, it provides, to our discomfiture but also to our relief, the reminder that there is indeed something far greater than "I."

1. Paradiso, 33:145; Inferno, 12:42.
2. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

(c) copyright 1997 by Richard Smoley and GNOSIS Magazine
All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form requires permission from copyright holders. GNOSIS #43 is available for $10 U.S. postpaid from: GNOSIS Magazine, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114-0217.

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