Love, Pain, and Growth: The Forgotten Philosopher, Poet, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Activist Edward Carpenter on How to Survive the Agony of Falling in Love
“Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’”
By Maria Popova
“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin reflected in his final interview. “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her superb meditation on the dignity of love. Both the danger and the responsibility of love lie in this refining of truth, which is at bottom a refining of self, for we are the sum total of the truths by which we live. In love — in the beauty and brutality of it — we can come completely undone. But we can also make and remake ourselves. From our formative attachments to our great loves, relationship is the seedbed of our becoming, the laboratory of our self-invention and reinvention.
Nearly a century before Rich and Baldwin, the English philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) examined this eternal question of how we grow and refine ourselves through the turbulent process of love in his uncommonly insightful 1912 book The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration (public library).
A correspondent of Gandhi’s and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who also believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance” — Carpenter was one of the first Western thinkers to incorporate ancient Eastern philosophy into his moral universe. Entwined in mutual admiration with Walt Whitman, he went on to influence writers like D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster.
Carpenter composed his treatise on love two decades after he met his own great love, George Merrill, at the ripe age of fifty. They would spend the remainder of life together. Several months after Merrill’s death, Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke. He died a year later and was buried next to his beloved.
Our first experience of great love, Carpenter observes, always shocks and unsteadies us, for universal as the experience may be, it “cannot very well be described in advance, or put into terms of reasonable and well-conducted words.” (In that sense, perhaps, love shares a great deal with loss — we can never prepare for either, and each snatches the reins of our psyche to govern us on its own non-negotiable terms.) He paints the delicious and disorienting madness familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love:
To feel — for instance — one’s whole internal economy in process of being melted out and removed to a distance, as it were into the keeping of some one else, is in itself a strange physiological or psychological experience… To lose consciousness never for a moment of the painful void so created — a void and a hunger which permeates all the arteries and organs, and every cranny of the body and the mind, and which seems to rob the organism of its strength, sometimes even to threaten it with ruin; to forego all interest in life, except in one thing — and that thing a person; to be aware, on the other hand, with strange elation and joy, that this new person or presence is infusing itself into one’s most intimate being — pervading all the channels, with promise [of] new life to every minutest cell, and causing 25 wonderful upheavals and transformations in tissue and fluids; to find in the mind all objects of perception to be changed and different from what they were before; and to be dimly conscious that the reason why they are so is because the background and constitution of the perceiving mind is itself changed — that, as it were, there is another person beholding them as well as oneself– all this defies description in words, or any possibility of exact statement beforehand; and yet the actual fact when it arrives is overwhelming in solid force and reality. If, besides, to the insurgence of these strange emotions we add — in the earliest stages of love at least — their bewildering fluctuation, from the deeps of vain longing and desire to the confident and ecstatic heights of expectation or fulfilment — the very joys of heaven and pangs of hell in swift and tantalizing alternation — the whole new experience is so extraordinary, so unrelated to ordinary work-a-day life, that to recite it is often only to raise a smile of dismissal of the subject — as it were into the land of dreams.
And yet, as we have indicated, the thing, whatever it is, is certainly by no means insubstantial and unreal. Nothing seems indeed more certain than that in this strange revolution in the relations of two people to each other — called “falling in love” — and behind all the illusions connected with it, something is happening, something very real, very important.
Carpenter then makes an astute point that remains thoroughly countercultural in the context of our rather limited and limiting romantic mythologies: He argues that whatever the outcome of a great love, whatever its duration, it is still a triumph and a transformation to be celebrated.
In Figuring, reflecting on Margaret Fuller’s remark at the end of a significant love affair that “the union of two natures for a time is so great,” I wrote:
Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only ‘for a time’? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite — like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity.
I find such consonant consolation in Carpenter’s words:
The falling-in-love may be reciprocal, or it may be onesided; it may be successful, or it may be unsuccessful; it may be only a surface indication of other and very different events; but anyhow, deep down in the sub-conscious world, something is happening. It may be that two unseen and only dimly suspected existences are becoming really and permanently united; it may be that for a certain period, or (what perhaps comes to the same thing) that to a certain depth, they are transfusing and profoundly modifying each other; it may be that the mingling of elements and the transformation is taking place almost entirely in one person, and only to a slight degree or hardly at all in the other; yet in all these cases — beneath the illusions, the misapprehensions, the mirage and the maya, the surface satisfactions and the internal disappointments — something very real is happening, an important growth and evolution is taking place.
Noting that understanding this bewildering phenomenon, having even the slightest sense of “the points of the compass by which to steer over this exceedingly troubled sea,” is an operative imperative for any human being’s personal maturation, Carpenter adds:
Love is concerned with growth and evolution. It is — though as yet hardly acknowledged in that connection — a root-factor of ordinary human growth; for in so far as it is a hunger of the individual, the satisfaction of that hunger is necessary for individual growth — necessary (in its various forms) for physical, mental and spiritual nourishment, for health, mental energy, large affectional capacity, and so forth. And it is — though this too is not sufficiently acknowledged — a root-factor of the Evolution process. For in so far as it represents and gives rise to the union of two beings in a new form, it plainly represents a step in Evolution, and plainly suggests that the direction of that step will somehow depend upon the character and quality of the love concerned.
One of our greatest misunderstandings about love, and mispractices of it, is the tendency to focus on only those aspects of the other that rivet us most intensely — only the physical in an attraction dominated by lust, only the mental in an intellectual crush, only the emotional in a romantic infatuation. Cautioning against such fragmentary simulacra of love, Carpenter writes:
Love is a complex of human relations — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and so forth — all more or less necessary. And though seldom realized complete, it is felt, and feels itself, to be imperfect without some representation of every side. To limit it to the expression of one particular aspect would be totally inadequate, if not absurd and impossible. A merely physical love, for instance, on the sexual plane, is an absurdity, a dead letter — the enjoyment and fruition of the physical depending so much on the feeling expressed, that without the latter there is next to no satisfaction. At best there is merely a negative pleasure, a relief, arising from the solution of a previous state of corporeal tension. And in such cases intercourse is easily followed by depression and disappointment. For if there is not enough of the more subtle and durable elements in love, to remain after the physical has been satisfied, and to hold the two parties close together, why, the last state may well be worse than the first!
But equally absurd is any attempt to limit, for instance, to the mental plane, and to make love a matter of affectionate letter-writing merely, or of concordant views on political economy; or again, to confine it to the emotional plane, and the region of more or less sloppy sentiment; or to the spiritual, with a somewhat lofty contempt of the material — in which case it tends… to become too like trying to paint a picture without the use of pigments.
He notes the necessary complementarity of these elements in a truly satisfying love — a simple and rather obvious point, yet one to which we so readily turn a willfully blind eye when governed by a strong attraction:
The physical is desirable, for many very obvious reasons — including corporeal needs and health, and perhaps especially because it acts in the way of removal of barriers, and so opens the path to other intimacies. The mental is desirable, to give form and outline to the relation; the emotional, to provide the something to be expressed; and the spiritual to give permanence and absolute solidity to the whole structure.
More than a century before the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asserted that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Carpenter argues that love is not merely an internal state — it is also an outward practice, to be mastered and refined by engaging every aspect of oneself and the beloved:
Love has its two sides — its instantaneous inner side, and its complex outer side of innumerable detail. In consciousness it tends to appear in a flash — simple, unique, and unchangeable; but in experience it has to be worked out with much labor. All the elements have to come into operation, and to contribute their respective quota to the total result… Love searches the heart, drags every element of the inner nature forward from its lurking-place, gives it definition and shape, and somehow insists on it being represented.
If this holistic satisfaction of the soul is the one leg on which love stands, time is the other. In a sentiment that calls to mind John Steinbeck’s beautiful letter of advice to his lovestruck teenage son — “If it is right, it happens,” the Nobel laureate wrote. “The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” — Carpenter urges:
For any big relationship plenty of time has to be allowed. Whichever side of the nature — mental, emotional, physical, and so forth — may have happened to take the lead, it must not and cannot monopolize the affair. It must drag the other sides in and give them their place. And this means time, and temporary bewilderment and confusion.
A century before the Lebanese-American poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran contemplated the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, Carpenter adds:
For the complete action of that creative and organizing force plentiful time must be given; and the two lovers must possess their souls in patience till it has had its full and perfect work… A long foreground of approach, time and tact, diffusion of magnetism, mergence in one another, suffering, and even pain — all these must be expected and allowed for — though the best after all, in this as in other things, is often the unexpected and the unprepared.
A century earlier, the philosopher William Godwin had written in his stunning love letters to the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft as the two were forging the first true marriage of equals in the history of letters: “We love… to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.” Carpenter examines this most bewildering aspect of the experience — the curious interdependence between love and pain, which seems to be an inevitable function of the growth process love effects:
Love, if worth anything, seems to demand pain and strain in order to prove itself, and is not satisfied with an easy attainment. How indeed should one know the great heights except by the rocks and escarpments? And pain often in some strange way seems to be the measure of love — the measure by which we are assured that love is true and real; and so (which is one of the mysteries) it becomes transformed into a great joy.
Pain and suffering… have something surely to do with the inner realities of the affair, with the moulding or hammering or welding process whereby union is effected and, in some sense, a new being created. It seems as if when two naked souls approach, or come anywhere near contact with each other, the one inevitably burns or scorches the other. The intense chemistry of the psychic elements produces something like an actual flame. A fresh combination is entered into, profound transformations are effected, strange forces liberated, and a new personality perhaps created; and the accomplishment and evidence of the whole process is by no means only joy, but agony also, even as childbirth is.
In a passage evocative of Charlotte Brontë’s lament, penned in the grip of an unrequited love, that “when one does not complain… one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle,” Carpenter counsels the love-anguished:
All one can reasonably do is to endure. It is no good making a fuss. In affairs of the heart what we call suffering corresponds to what we call labor or effort in affairs of the body. When you put your shoulder to the cart-wheel you feel the pain and pressure of the effort, but that assures you that you are exercising a force, that something is being done; so suffering of the heart assures you that something is being done in that other and less tangible world. To scold and scowl and blame your loved one is the stupidest thing you can do. And worse than stupid, it is useless. For it can only alienate. Probably that other one is suffering as well as you — possibly more than you, possibly a good deal less. What does it matter? The suffering is there and must be borne; the work, whatever it is, is being done; the transformation is being effected. Do you want your beloved to suffer instead of you, or simply because you are suffering? Or is it Pity you desire rather than Love.
As useless as the protesting and complaining, Carpenter argues, is any effort to put into words the density and magnitude of one’s feelings — an experience this vast must only be expressed in the language of life itself. More than half a century before the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm published his influential book The Art of Loving, Carpenter writes:
Love is an art… As no mere talk can convey the meaning of a piece of music or a beautiful poem, so no verbal declaration can come anywhere near expressing what the lover wants to say. And for one very good and sufficient reason (among others) — namely, that he does not know himself! Under these circumstances to say anything is almost certainly to say something misleading or false. And the decent lover knows this and holds his tongue. To talk about your devotion is to kill it — moreover, it is to render it banal and suspect in the eyes of your beloved.
Nevertheless though he cannot describe or explain what he wants to say, the lover can feel it — is feeling it all the time; and this feeling, like other feelings, he can express by indirections — by symbols, by actions, by the alphabet of deed and gesture, and all the hieroglyphics of Life and Art.
Love can only say what it wants by the language of life, action, song, sacrifice, ravishment, death, and the great panorama of creation.
Carpenter insists that in the experience of love, however imperfect and tortuous, we learn more about ourselves and the world than any didactic form can teach us:
Love — even rude and rampant and outrageous love — does more for the moralizing of poor humanity than a hundred thousand Sunday schools. It cleans the little human soul from the clustered lies in which it has nested itself — from the petty conceits and deceits and cowardices and covert meannesses.
In fact, he argues, the teachings of our civilization have been detrimental to our mastery of love. In a sentiment that calls to mind E.E. Cummings’s assertion that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Carpenter writes of the art of love:
Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’ … And so too the whole modern period of commercial civilization and Christianity has been fatal to love… They have bred the self-regarding consciousness in the highest degree; and so — though they may have had their uses and their parts to play in the history of mankind, they have been fatal to the communal spirit in society, and they have been fatal to the glad expression of the soul in private life.
Self-consciousness is fatal to love, which is the true expression of the soul.
In the remainder of The Drama of Love and Death, Carpenter goes on to examine what it takes to make love last over the long arc of a shared life, unwearied by friction and unblunted by habit. Complement it with Hannah Arendt on how to love despite the fundamental fear of loss, Rilke on the difficult art of giving space in love, and Jane Welsh Carlyle on loving vs. being in love, then revisit Carpenter’s contemporary Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage.
Published March 31, 2019