The Epistemology of Love
Yes, love is in the ruins — and is so, perhaps, perennially. From the most personal of relationships and responsibilities to the most public, love — as the poet Hart Crane once put it — is "a burnt match skating in a urinal."
One of the very best of our storytellers was the novelist and essayist, Walker Percy. Autobiographically, he had honest reasons for seeing life and love as ruined. As the oldest of three boys residing in a house on a Birmingham, Alabama, country club golf course, he came home one day from school to find that his father had committed suicide. That his grandfather had done the same thing a generation earlier placed a burden on the young Percy that lasted for life: when would it be him? So his novels almost always have the threat of suicide lingering in the narrative.
Already using the descriptor “postmodern” in the 1960s, Percy was remarkably attentive to his time in history, and over the years carved out a calling that he came to see as “a physician of the soul.” An unusual sensibility for a novelist, and yet that understanding of what he did and why he did it sustained his artistic vision as he wrote about what it meant to be human in the late 20th century — what he called “the murderous, mechanized 20th century.”
One of his best stories is Love in the Ruins. It is the first of two novels featuring the character Tom More, a fictional descendent of Sir Thomas More, “the man for all seasons” who, in the 16th century, was the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Chancellor of England — and who refused to go along with Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce, so lost his head and his life. Percy’s More is a bad Catholic, a wandering husband who drinks too much, and a brilliant doctor. Written with a finger to the wind to the social turmoil of the 1960s, Percy wrote of Southern life embodied in the institutional frailties of the Love Clinic, a place where physicians and patients are thrown together in their hopes, longing to belong to someone somewhere.
Literally and metaphorically staggering his way through the story, More develops a machine that promises to save the day for the Love Clinic; he calls it “the qualitative/quantitative ontological lapsometer.” For anyone with ears to hear, attentive to the Enlightenment Project of the last few hundred years, Percy here captured the fundamental flaws of the modern world, fictional as they were in imagination and conception. When More is asked about the nature of a lapsometer, he replies — innocent as a dove, wise as a serpent — “It measures lapses — in the human soul.”
The dreams and debates of modernity, cascading as they are into postmodernity, are always at the heart of the human condition. It cannot be otherwise, as we are never more and never less than sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. So we take our place as folks who long to love and to be loved. Percy understood that with an unusual eye: historically, philosophically, psychologically, politically, and, yes, theologically, seeing the complexity for Everyman and Everywoman. We want love, yet we also know how hard it is to love and to be loved.
There’s the rub. To know and to love; to love and to know. Can both happen at the same time? Can we do both? Can we have both?
Most of the time it seems impossible. For reasons beyond the scope of this short essay, I would argue that human beings more often than not choose cynicism or stoicism as alternative accounts of life and of love. Rather than an epistemology of love, a way of knowing that is manifest in loving, we choose to protect our hearts, “knowing” with the poet Byron that “he who knows the most mourns the deepest.” To know is to despair. To know is to flounder. To know is to mourn.
The country/western genre has had this right for years. From Johnny Cash’s “So Doggone Lonesome” to Loretta Lynn’s “Bye, Bye Love” to Merle Haggard’s“Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurtin’ Me” to Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” — and a million more poems of longing for love and to be loved — we all know the fragility of the dynamic between knowledge and love. Most of the time for most people, the more we know, the less we love.
Can it ever be different? Apart from the Incarnation, there are no good reasons to think otherwise. In my own reading of the human heart, cynicism and stoicism are both good answers — if there has been no Incarnation. Why would we want to open our hearts to hurt, to wound, to frustration, to misinterpretation — in fact, to injustice and evil of all sorts — if there has not been someone who shows that it is possible to know and to love at the same time? If God in the flesh has not known the worst about you and me, about the world that is yours and mine, and still chosen to love, then why would we?
Why would anyone want to “come and see” as he invites us? That is one of the most intriguing of all questions. What is it about the life of Jesus, God incarnate, that is compellingly winsome, inviting us to be like him, to be with him? There is nothing that matters more than that he knows us and still chooses to love us; that he knows the world and still chooses to love the world. This is an epistemology of love. Yes, I suppose in its own way, it is “a qualitative/quantitative ontological lapsometer,” but it does not only measure but makes healthy your soul and mine. There is nothing deeper in us than our longing to be known and to be loved.
In the last novel that Percy wrote, The Thanatos Syndrome, Tom More is again the central character. He begins to think that the patients who come into his practice are “nicer” than usual, and slowly finds out that enlightened bureaucrats have decided to put something into the water so that people will be less troublesome to society. Pondering his responsibility, now that he knows, More’s pilgrimage into an epistemology of love is the thread that connects the story from beginning to end. The great question that Percy raises is at the heart of More’s life, and every life: "Now that I know, what will I do? How will I translate what I know into how I live?" In the end, this is a question of whom and what I love.
The great playwright-become-politician Vaclav Havel once wrote, “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” With a keen sense of history, watching the 20th century’s violence to his nation through the Nazis and the Communists, he knew that unless the victimized Czech people could find their way to responsibility for their future, there would be no future. He was exactly right.
But responsibility must be born of love, if it will transform those who offer it and those who receive it. What Percy gives to us in Tom More is a man like you and me: a pilgrim in the ruins. Yet, the secret of your life and mine is that we are responsible for the way the world is and the way it ought to be. Knowing the ruins for what they are among family and friends as well as in the wider communities of our lives, locally and globally, we decide that we are responsible for history — for love’s sake.