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In Literature, Considering Love as Both Attention and Absorption

Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko on Iris Murdoch, Cormac McCarthy, and the Cultivation of Love

In her essay “The Idea of Perfection,” philosopher Iris Murdoch gives the example of a mother-in-law who outwardly acts as though she loves her daughter-in-law but inwardly despises the young woman. She also realizes that she ought to love her daughter-in-law. The mother carries on a dialogue with herself internally: “I am old-fashioned and conventional. I may be prejudiced and narrow-minded. I may be snobbish. I am certainly jealous. Let me look again.” She keeps asking herself to reconsider her daughter-in-law, and over time she makes progress; she learns to tolerate and then, eventually, love the woman. And that, for Murdoch, is a significant moral achievement for the mother that doesn’t involve acting at all. She learns to love her daughter-in-law by learning to look at her the right way.

There is a temptation to think love is all about how we act. You love your friend if you go out of your way to arrange a surprise party for her. Paul’s love for his children is expressed in hugs and snuggles. When we want to encourage people to improve their love lives, we typically give action-oriented advice. Our action-oriented lives can seemingly be optimized and made more efficient, especially with technological off-loading. But for Murdoch, love is a virtue we cultivate by working on our capacities for attention rather than action. How do we improve on this dimension?

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One of the most read New York Times stories in 2015 was not news at all, but rather a list of questions: “36 Questions That Lead to Love.” The article described an exercise proven to cultivate intimacy between two people, including complete strangers. The exercise was based on a provocative study by a team of social psychologists at SUNY Stony Brook led by Arthur Aron. Aron and his team were trying to come up with a task that could help relative strangers “simulate” the intimacy of a close relationship in a lab setting.

They discovered the key was to find a structured activity that encouraged “sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Participants in the study were chosen to be paired with strangers who were told ahead of time that they shared the same outlook on daily life (e.g., about whether smoking is okay, or how to dress) and they were likely to like each other. They were told explicitly that the goal of the experiment was to provoke feelings of closeness with the other person. Some of the pairs were male-female and some were both female.

For Iris Murdoch, love is a virtue we cultivate by working on our capacities for attention rather than action.

The questions started off light—“Would you like to be famous? In what way?” But they got increasingly serious, ending with high-vulnerability questions like “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?” (The control groups were given only easy questions to stimulate ordinary small talk.) All of the experimental questions were “strong” in the Platonic sense we described in the chapter on truth—in that the participants were not very likely to know how their partners would answer. The exercise ended with participants staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes.

The results were significant. After the experiment, partners were surveyed on their feelings of intimacy. When asked to think of their most important relationships, participants typically rated their intimacy around 4.65 out of 7 on the scale. After performing the forty-five-minute question test, 30 percent of the experimental subjects gave their partner a score at least this high. The mean score was 4.06 (compared with 3 for the small-talk groups). Moreover, when asked what they thought about participating in the study afterward, the vast majority of participants indicated it was highly enjoyable. One of the original experimental pairs eventually married.

Of course, this is an exercise for promoting feelings of intimacy, not long-term relationships. Still, it works, and Aron and his coauthors support what Aristotle, Murdoch, and other philosophers in the virtue tradition have long hypothesized: Self-disclosure and self-expansion are the first steps in establishing feelings of intimacy. Sharing our “inner worlds”—not just acting—is a crucial building block of love. Aristotle puts this point beautifully in his lectures on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics:

Perceiving that one lives belongs among the things pleasant in themselves, for life is by nature a good thing, and to perceive the good present in oneself is pleasant Accordingly, one ought to share in the friend’s perception that he exists, and this would come to pass by living together and sharing in a community of speeches and thought—for this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of human beings, and not as with cattle, merely feeding in the same place.

One of the most remarkable features of the human mind is this capacity for attention. We can become utterly absorbed in a colorful bird outside the window. In a joke or a memory we enjoy completely privately. In the sheer joy of being a conscious existent. And—and this is Aristotle’s point—through attention we can be a part of our loved ones’ “inner lives.”

This passage helps us see why it is probably unfair to attribute to Aristotle the view that friendship requires us to look at people as just walking virtues. You can’t read virtues just off behavior. This process of attention is inherently particular—it takes time, the right kinds of attention, and the capacity to get absorbed in the weird distinctiveness of another person’s inner good life. And this is why our friends are not easily replaceable or upgradable. When we love someone, we are not just loving what they do, we love the thoughts they give us access to. These inner lives are so unique that they avoid easy substitution or comparison. And even getting access to them in the first place requires commitment and trust.

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The attention theory insists that love requires coming to see another person’s mind: their intentions, their desires, and the unique ways they think. But we might worry that this philosophical approach makes love far too brainy—too much of an intellectual accomplishment. It requires tremendous cognitive capacity to be able to monitor even your own thoughts. Very few of us would seem to have the ability to keep track of the thoughts of our loved ones at the same time.

In a tragic turn of events, Iris Murdoch succumbed at the end of her life to Alzheimer’s disease. When she died in 1999, she had been married for more than forty years. Her diary entries tracked her decline, growing shorter and less coherent each day. She stopped being her usual charismatic self. She began declining food and drink. She told a friend in 1997 that she was “sailing away into the darkness.” Murdoch stopped speaking, communicating by kissing the hands of her friends or bowing with her hands in the prayer position. Almost as if she were a child again, she spent her final days with a teddy bear named Jimbo by her side.

The attention theory of love would seem to imply that Murdoch at the end of life (and any cognitively disabled individual) wasn’t capable of love. We think this is the wrong approach to the theory. It is true that a seriously cognitively disabled person cannot do much by way of reasoning, calculating, choosing, acting, or storytelling. But crucially, they can still be thoughtfully absorbed in other people’s minds. At her philosophical height, Murdoch thought this absorption capacity is also one of the distinctively human capacities for love. Murdoch’s authorized biographer reports that in the final stages of her illness, Murdoch was utterly absorbed in her surroundings: “There was a sense that she was experiencing a new way of knowing.”

That said, we need to develop the attention theory still further, because we need to be able to distinguish good love from the kind of absorption that comes with pathological obsession or even hatred. Loving attention must take a particular form. For Aristotle and Murdoch, learning to love also requires learning how to “unself” (Murdoch’s term); it requires joining up your own inner life with others’, taking on their good lives as your own. This is where virtue comes back into the discussion. When we are lovingly absorbed, other people’s pursuits of the good life successfully merge with our own.

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Loving someone for the sake of their own soul requires the ability to see someone’s life from the inside and to empathize with the particular ways they are pursuing eudaimonia. It requires getting access to inner worlds. But it is admittedly difficult and rare to find a friend, a child, or a romantic partner who is both willing and able to bare their soul. Most of us develop such relationships over long periods of time. Until the real thing comes along, one way we get practice occupying the detailed inner lives of others is through literature and art. Excellent stories describe action “from the inside out.”

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seems, at first, an implausible plot for a book about love. It is the antimatter to romantic comedies. The novel takes place in a postapocalyptic southeastern United States. A father and his young son are traveling from the mountains to the sea, desperately searching for food and avoiding cannibal tribes. There is absolutely no reason to believe they will be safer by the ocean. Early in the book, we learn that the boy’s mother has killed herself, seeing no hope of a good life. She urges the father to do the same, but knows he will try to live as long as he can because of the boy.

As with Iris Murdoch, vision plays a critical role in how their love is portrayed. “He saw the boy watching him. He was what the boy thought about. Well should he.” The son, for his part, persistently asks the father what they (collectively) are in the world. Are they the good guys? Are they robbers? There is no question that their moral fates could be anything but intertwined. And this keeps the father going.

Loving someone for the sake of their own soul requires getting access to inner worlds.

A persistent theme in the book is the father and son discussing how they are “carrying the fire,” a metaphor that recurs in ancient virtue ethics. For example, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius uses this as a metaphor for holding on to what’s truly valuable (good souls) even in catastrophic circumstances. In his review of The Road, novelist Michael Chabon characterizes this kind of horror novel as a form of Stoic virtue ethics “with a taste for spectacle.”

There is no more efficient way to ruin a wonderful book than to critically dissect it. So we’ll just report that the experience of reading The Road and occupying the father’s world for however many hours was a small but powerfully effective way for us to learn what it is like to love as a father. McCarthy’s beautiful depiction of the relationship between a father and his son made Paul start to see fatherhood as an essential part of his goal in life. For Meghan, the experience of reading the book was like opening a new mental door: Oh, that’s what it must feel like for dads like mine.

How exactly literary stories are able to do this is contested, though the history of literary criticism and commentary leaves no doubt that literature does succeed in this way. One recent and growing research project in neuroscience offers us data and a potential model that is hard for the follower of Murdoch to resist: brain scans of readers, and of those witnessing the actions and episodes of another, reveal that the same parts of our brains light up when we envision another perform an action as they do when we perform it ourselves. Vividly watching a friend chop an onion activates “mirror neurons” that allow us to process this as if it were our own action. As one group of researchers puts the point, “John grasps Mary’s action because even as it is happening before his eyes, it is also happening, in effect, inside his head Mirror neurons permit an observed act to be directly understood by experiencing it.”

Similarly, seeing a character experience heartbreak in a film induces a miniature version of the experience in ourselves. If we are fortunate enough to have access to rich stories in our lives, via the experiences of our friends, or through classical or contemporary literature, we can experience, in an indirect way, the most powerful and most human emotions, without, or before, having to encounter them firsthand.

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From THE GOOD LIFE METHOD: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko.






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