Sunday, April 20, 2014

Love is overrated

Makes for a nice poster, but no, no it isn't.
Love is not the be all and end all of everything, but you could be forgiven for mistaking the concept as a panacea for the universe. From literature to film, television to song, religion to philosophy and everything in between, "love" is popularly represented as the ultimate value' surpassing even life itself. In fact, to be without love is held to be one of the greatest tragedies one can have occur during the course of ones life, and to some extent I agree with such a sentiment. Yet the hyperbole and fervor with which western culture has come to understand and laud "love" is so excessive that other values and pursuits utterly pale in comparison. Honour, Justice, Valour or Wisdom? Fuck all of that shit, all the world needs is love. Well, I beg to differ, but as always a caveat, lest you think me curmudgeonly.
I am in love, have been in love and will likely continue to be in love until I die. I am happily married, and in my wedding vows expressed the depths of my commitment and love for my wife. This is not a polemic against the idea of romantic love, or love in general. Rather, my goal is to explore the culture which has been built up around the centrality of love as the singular goal worth striving for in ones life, and argue that for GRP's this model is untenable and other values are just as, if not more important than love. Remember that love is important, just over rated.
Popular fiction is the flagship for so many of a societies' values, of its aspirations and dreams, that it is difficult to find a more staunch proponent of love as the be all and end all of human endeavour. I realize, as a matter of course, that outliers in both forms of media exist, but they remain outliers; exceptions to the rule remain just that, exceptions. While it is encouraging to see satirical and critical examinations of this cultural obsession with love, they have remained ineffectual in shifting any paradigms beyond sub genre and subculture (even the disparate counter cultures that have arisen have accepted love as a central value, if slightly redefined to buck the mainstream).
Fiction and music, on the whole, emphasize love and in the broadest sense this is meant as eros, or romantic love. It is remarkable enough if a film or story does not contain some element in which the male and female leads become romantically involved. Or, to put it another way, while the quest element of a film may not be romance in and of itself, said romance often enough supplants the quest, to become the real point of the story. Let's look at one of my favourite of the current Marvel Studio's films, 'Thor", to showcase this perspective. "Thor" is a very basic story at it's roots, it is a component of the "hero's quest" where as a consequence of the hero's vanity or hubris, conflict emerges, the hero is removed from his lofty position and forced to redeem himself through trial and tribulation. Yes, the film cuts out the element of the origin story involving the crippled doctor, which was essentially retconed away in the later comics anyway, substituting pathos for slapstick, but I digress. Thor, in his very brief jaunt on earth, also falls in love, and while it is a subplot to the greater narrative of the film, by the time the credits begin to roll, the love between Jane Foster and Thor frames everything which is to follow (and indeed does in the sequel.) Thor, then has redeemed himself in the eyes of his father and community, yet he remains distraught because he was forced to (temporarily) sacrifice the aforementioned love. So here is the first really solid point; even when there is no "happy ending" (where the couple is together at the end of the film), the act of sacrificing that relationship has untold power and value. So much so that this romantic love supplants the value of compassion and leadership; a lesson is learned, but the cost is great (too great it seems). What is the point of all this new found wisdom, if Thor can't be with the woman he loves?
Now, this is but one example of the multitude of film, and I could go on and on about romance supplanting the original values sought, but I'm fairly certain that as far as film and romance goes, it is self evident. So I turn now to other variations of love in other films: Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
The LOTR films cover an enormous swath of geography and characters, if a short period of time (in the main narrative anyway). The upshot is that that while the romantic elements were heavily expanded upon in the films (particularly the Aragorn, Arwen, Éowyn love triangle) it never manages to eclipse everything else that happens. So while Jackson did his best to shoehorn in romance (after all, audiences crave it) the kind of love that was the focus of the film was philia and agape (or friendship and selfless devotion). I think the films did an admirable job of translating this component of the novels, if only to be utterly misunderstood by audiences and relentlessly mocked. Modern movie going folk were so utterly ignorant of concepts like philia and agape (outside of a very famous, yet specific context) that they themselves invented their own romantic subplot, homoerotic as it may have been. Of particular note is the relationship between Sam and Frodo, an exemplar of agape love if there ever was one. Sam is utterly devoted to Frodo, is willing to travel the breadth of the world they inhabit, to the very source of the evil they seek to destroy, to the extent of being willing to sacrifice his life should the need arise. Such devotion is admirable, especially since it is reciprocated by Frodo. Yet the framework for such a relationship, the means of understanding and explaining such selfless devotion between two people who were not blood relatives, was for the vast majority of people, eros. Or more accurately, since no physical expression of this love occurs, the subtext was held to have been extremely homoerotic. So while it is a subtext, and such is usually the source of humour, the point remains that agape love was the linchpin of the entire story; "Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam."

Turning now to Harry Potter, the power of love, particularly storge (or familial love), is hammered home again, and again, and again. An old and powerful magic, a mother putting herself between harm and her child; powerful enough to destroy the most powerful dark wizard of all time. Throughout the novels, this protection remains until it transforms into something different. It is at this point that we can move away from looking at fiction to sourcing the centrality of love to something else. In the last film Harry sacrifices himself to save his friends, the order of the Phoenix and everyone else at Hogwarts. He purposefully seeks out his own death in payment for the protection of those he loves. Note, however, that it is not simply Ginny Weasley he seeks to protect, but everyone. What is not presented in the film, however, is the result that his sacrifice has (other than destroying the penultimate Horcrux). In the novels, his sacrifice literally protects everyone from Voldemort's magic, which is rendered utterly ineffectual. Is it any wonder than that there exist books like "Jesus Potter Harry Christ"?, because the only way the parallel could have been stronger is if Harry had of been crucified (well he was crucio'd...). The day is saved by love, agape love, and this is precisely the sort of love which is exemplified in the central figure in the Christian religion, Jesus Christ.

Here we come face to face with that "very famous, specific" example of love understood outside the confines of romance or kinship. The love of Christ, the love for which his apostles forswore all else to seek after him, and which he ultimately sacrificed himself for, was one of utter devotion. An utter devotion so intense that it spread to the whole of humanity, for all of time. So while the precise term agape may be relatively underutilized in common parlance; the value and significance of what it represents has been one of the singular forces shaping western culture for the past two millennia. Christians are theologically conditioned to recognize that sacrifice as the most important single act in human history, and western culture certainly follows suit. There are few acts held to be as noble or inspiring as the willingness of someone to give up their own life, for that of another. So while sacrifice is by no means unique to Christianity, as far as cultural underpinnings go, it is difficult to escape the impact this model of sacrifice has had upon western culture in general. So to by proxy the value of love as expressed through the teachings of Christ ( "But now faith, hope, love abide these three; but the greatest of these is love" Corinthians 13:13, "...thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" Mark 12:31) have also had a profound impact upon the culture.* This is the "love" so often sung about, so often expressed across religious bounds, which has over time mingled, very gradually, with the idea of romantic love.

Having established how love is represented and why it is held among moderns to be the ultimate pursuit, let us turn our attention to sources from Gaelic myth which touch upon and explore the importance of love (in its various forms). The two tales I would like to focus on are: ""Longes mac n-Uislenn " and "Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne ".
Longes mac n-Uislenn, or "The exile of the sons of Uisliu" is often grouped among the remscéla (or fore-tales) of the "Táin Bó Cúaligne". The purpose of the story, as it relates to the Táin, is that it explains why Fergus and other Ulster heroes are fighting for the Connachtmen during said story. The basic plot revolves around Deirdre, a maiden betrothed to Conchobar, falling in love with Noisiu, their elopement, trials in exile, eventual return, betrayal and violent deaths. I certainly do not do it justice here, but the reason the tale is relevant to this discussion is the action/decision upon which the bulk of the narrative hangs; Deirdre's and Noisiu's elopement. The "young lady intended for an old man, falls for young man, and they run off" trope is of a rather ancient pedigree, and this tale is a shining example of that trope. Deirdre is raised, almost to the extent of being cloistered, for the sole purpose of becoming a wife of Conchobar. She by chance happens to see Noisiu, and his beauty overwhelms her, and despite his initial protestations he too falls for her beauty. They elope, and flee Ireland to settle in Scotland, and the tale goes on. Conchobar is understandably furious, and being a schemer, arranges for their return that he may have his revenge. Noisiu and his brothers are eventually killed, and as punishment for her crimes Deirdre is made to marry Eogan mac Duthacht (the man who killed Noisiu), upon which she kills herself by leaping from a chariot and smashing her head against a rock. The tale is rightly so grouped among the "three most sorrowful tales of Irish literature", and we as readers cannot help but feel bad for Deidre and Noisiu, and hate Conchobar. Except Conchobar is in the right.
That's right, Conchobar is totally justified in his anger at this betrayal, by his own nephew even, and that his intended bride ran off with another man. His later actions are abhorrent, his eventual betrayal of Fergus unforgivable, and his final treatment of Deirdre terrible, but he is initially right. Deirdre and Noisiu both knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway regardless of the very dire consequences sure to happen. Noisiu's brothers both try to convince him that his actions are folly, that death and disaster would pursue them, but being unable to convince him, go along with him. Conchobar's honour is impugned, and the honour price is steep. This entire calamity could have been avoided if only two young lovers had resisted their passion, and acted according to their duty. I realize this is anathema to modern sensibilities, but there in lies the rub. Romantic love trumps duty and obligation now, but that shit did not fly in Iron Age Ireland. So, lets move on to the next tale. 
The second tale to examine is Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne , or "The pursuit of Diarmuid and Grianne", which is part of the Fenian cycle. One of the more widely known Fenian tales, and great favourite of folklore (considering how many stones are recounted as "beds of Diarmuid and Grianne" which dot the Irish countryside). The motif is the same as the tale above, but the consequences play out slightly different. Grianne is yet another Irish beauty of legend, and is also intended to Fionn mac Cumhaill (again in this narrative considerably older than Grianne). The other figure of note in this tale is Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, one of Fionn's retainers and core member of the Fianna under Fionn's leadership. Grianne, being disappointed with the prospect of becoming the aged Fionn's wife, places a sleeping draught in the cups of the Fianna, and leaves only a handful of them awake. She asks each of the still conscious men to elope with her, but they all refuse. She then places a geis upon Diarmuid, that forces him to run off with her. Diarmuid is reluctant but has little recourse, and they flee. Fionn awakes and in righteous anger pursues the couple across the whole of Ireland, with many interesting events occurring, including the continued aid of Aengus Og, Diarmuid's foster father. Eventually Fionn pardons the couple, and they marry and have several children. The addendum to the tale involves the culmination of this and another tale, where Diarmuid is gored to death after slaying a giant boar. Fionn has the chance to heal Diarmuid, three times even, but each time declines to do so, and Diarmuid dies.
So the end result is tragic, but not nearly as tragic as the tale with Deirdre and Noisiu, as Diarmuid and Grainne do wind up together and have children. Fionn is represented as the primary antagonist throughout the narrative, and is made fool of on many occasions. Yet, the entire affair began because of the decision of Grianne to abandon her sworn oath to marry Fionn, because of her love for Diarmuid, and their fate was sealed the moment she placed a geis upon Diarmuid to elope with her. As much as the reader is meant to root for the young lovers against the aged rival, that Fionn's anger and pursuit of the pair who wronged him is never in question. Fionn is utterly humiliated and disgraced by those whom he trusted, Diarmuid breaks his own vows of loyalty to his leader, and disharmony abounds. As light hearted as the narrative is, and despite the initial positive result for the lovers, Diarmuid's death is a direct result of this tragedy. Both men are good and just, fair and honourable, yet because love is allowed to supersede duty and obligation, tragedy (eventually) comes to pass. 
The singular point which leaps off the page, one of the central "morals" of the tales, is that when romantic love is placed before duty, grave consequences follow. This is again not to under value love, as the motif of "wasting" or "love" sickness is common enough; the power of love is undeniable. Only that from the perspective of the culture, when romance is placed above all else, disaster and tragedy are the consequences. As difficult as it may be for modern sensibilities about the role that romance and individual choice play in marriage, such was not the case during the period in question. I have long argued that the values, the core ethical framework which bound pre-Christian Gaelic society together (and for a considerable time after the conversion to Christianity) were communal in nature; the good of the group came well before the good of the individual. While it would be foolish to seek after a return to wholly communal values (individualism is far too ingrained in us now), as GRP's we ought to be doing our best to restore and live by the ethics which are the legacy of our forebear's. Indeed if any form of love I have discussed above was held to be important, it would have been storge, or kinship. The loyalty to ones family, the family's loyalty to the clan, the clans loyalty to the tuatha; was the microcosmic supporting the macrocosmic. Considering how great a crime like kin-slaying was, this comes as no surprise. Romantic love, also, has its place and is the focus of many tales, but you will note that in such tales where it is treated as noble and worth striving for, it is never at the cost of honour or society in general.
There needs to be a balance between ones passion and ones duty, and we see time and time again in the tales the consequences of passion gone too far. Ruination follows in its wake, primarily because it stands against tradition and the right order of things. We may root for the lovers, sympathetic as they may be, but their transgressions threaten not only themselves, but their communities as well. Here then is the dissonance between modern sensibilities inherent in the over culture, and our adopted values as GRP's. In the sort of generalized ethical modes, or categories present in CR, of the values espoused by the texts, love is notably absent. Wisdom, Justice, Honour, Loyalty, Courage are however all present, and certainly love can have a place within such concepts (particularly loyalty and courage), but it ought not to supersede them. Honour, for example, is one of the most romanticized virtues and values, yet it is so misunderstood that it is rejected out of hand. Honour necessarily exists only where the is community to render an individual as honourable. It is a virtue that can not exist alongside rugged individualism, because honour is inexorably linked to reputation. How often in films or fiction does ones reputation count for nothing, how easily is it abandoned for the sake of love? Remarkably simple really; reputation counts for nothing when it stands in the way of love, and so to must honour.
If we are to openly and fully live as GRP's, then there will be times where we are at odds with our families, friends, cohorts and society at large; at least when it comes to ethics and behaviours. Many of our values overlap, but often enough they are at odds with positions so taken for granted, they are the default. The first step is to recognize that these differences exist and that the default cultural conditioning needs to be overwritten. As I mentioned in my previous post, given that we have already bucked the trend of a monotheistic approach to deity; that other conceptual changes need to occur should be obvious, but not terribly difficult to accomplish. This may cause some friction with other people in our lives, yet if we really do seek to fully embrace GRP then it has to extend beyond our devotions to the na trí naomh. It needs to encompass our very way of seeing and being in the world and this extends to how we comport ourselves, the values we embody and which we need to transmit to future generations.
We can not turn back the clock, and there is a multitude of reasons that even if we could, we would not want to. It is important to recognize that we do not live in the Iron Age, just as it is important to recognize that reconstruction in not re-enactment. Not every scrap and every practice is valuable to a 21st century worldview, but this does not preclude that the values of our ancestors which may have been placed on the cultural back burner should also be forgotten. There is so much value in restoring, well, more antiquated values and these values naturally flow from our more overtly religious devotion and the tales which inform that devotion. So enjoy romance, celebrate friendship, reinforce ties of kinship, and devote yourself to those who are worthy of your devotion. Just be mindful that love isn't the only thing worth living for: live with honour, speak with truth, act with valour, judge with wisdom and enjoy with hospitality.
* For a slightly more in depth examination of this cultural shift, see Kelly and Dryfus, "All Things Shining".


  1. ....Did my comment get sent through, or did cyberspace eat it up?

    1. Looks like it is presently in the belly of the beast.

    2. Ugh. Well, lemme try to rewrite/remember what I originally wrote...

      The idea that romantic love isn't the greatest virtue is something I've agreed about for a while, particularly because of how grossly overplayed it is in media. There are several feminist reasons I also hate the trope, but also because it ignores how important and vital non-romantic love (like friendship and family) is. I also have several friends who are aromantic asexuals and the pop culture's insistence that romantic love is vital for a happy life harms them. (Also, Star Trek Next Generation I remember mentioning as being an awesome outlier to how pop culture handles virtues.)

      I also had a question about honour, and since you talked about it, I thought I'd bring it up. I don't know if you plan to explore the virtue of honour further in another blog post, or have done so in the past, so these questions might be ill timed on this entry. Feel free to link me somewhere else or what-have-you. But you write, "Honour necessarily exists only where the is community to render an individual as honourable." And I agree with that. But unlike the stories that tell of honour, I'm not personally part of one community. I'm part of multiple communities, most of whom don't even recognize honour. Does honour only get to be a virtue I can achieve with Gaol Naofa, then?

      I don't know if that question(s?) makes sense... It's something I've been wondering though. It may also be more of a personal problem and not something other people worry about, too.

    3. I haven't written extensively on the subject, but below is a link to all of my posts that have been tagged with "honour", which touches on the concept in a tangential way.

      Honour as a virtue, as a concept in Gaelic and other cultures (some related, some unrelated but have (had) developed very similar ideas about it,) directly corresponds to ones position in a community/society, and the value ascribed to that position. Obviouisly the concept thrives and is much more easily enforced in relation to the degree to which said community/society is stratified. The more enforced the class/caste/functional role is, the more simple it is to ascribe values to those positions and codify them in laws, and in the case of medieval (and arguably Iron age) Ireland, tie them to economic status as well.

      The concept of an "honour price" is one which is found among the Brehon laws (and elsewhere) , wherein actions which resulted in defamation, humiliation, shaming, or other attacks on ones character/reputation were (if judged to be unfounded) also economically damaging, monetary recompense was required. So in the more ancient understandings, if not directly translatable to modern sensibilities, economies or social organization, still defined the concept of honour as the value of ones reputation.

      My point in speaking about folks not understanding the concept of honour, stems from a romanticized notion of honour being about comportment and a personal code of ethics; or rather only being about those two things, and wholly ignoring the social component. Honour is something bestowed upon an individual who is deemed worthy and respectable, based on what is known about their words and their deeds. While ones reputation is necessarily linked to the ethics one follows and the way in which one behaves, without a community, peer group, familial group or what have you, honour is meaningless because what is reputation without judgement? Why would a rugged individual care about the opinions others have of them, unless they shared a similar framework of ethics?

      Now having said all that, and getting back to your question; kind of. Honour is not possible without some sort of social context, but this does not necessarily mean that it requires membership in a small or specific group (though it would certainly make it easier). One can act and hold themselves in such a manner that necessarily makes anyone they interact with notice their behaviour and show themselves to be worthy, and honourable.

      I suppose in my exhortation to "live with honour", the expectation would be to live in such a way as to maintain ones reputation and perhaps even to build upon it. While groups may be diverse and have a variety of measures and values, there are always the na trí naomh (and in particular the ancestors) to which we are joined and can do right by, and thus live honourably.