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Philosopher Judith Butler on Doubting Love

“Love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.”

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination,” John Keats famously wrote. John Keats, who also argued for the gift of “negative capability” — the intricate art of embracing uncertainty and living with those shaky in-between states, echoing Einstein’s contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” Still, we’re creatures incredibly susceptible to cognitive dissonance and painfully prone to paralysis in the face of ambiguity, especially when it comes to the most tender and vulnerable corners of our inner worlds.

In her poignant essay titled “Doubting Love” from Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — the same anthology that gave us Martha Nussbaum’s exquisite advice on fully inhabiting your inner life — philosopher Judith Butler examines the question of uncertainty in that corner of life where we most long for security and grounding conviction. She writes:

On occasion when I am getting to know someone — when someone seeks to know me or, indeed, find in me the occasion for love — I am asked what my idea of love is, and I always founder. There are clearly those who have their ideas of love, who enter into their conversations, their letters, their initial encounters with an idea of love in mind. This is admirable in a way. And I am somewhat embarrassed by the fact that I have no answer, and that I cannot, in the moment of potential seduction, [have] an entrancing view of love to offer the one with whom I speak. … One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love.

Butler then describes herself as a “secular Kierkergaardian when it comes to love,” but also sees Freud as her guide:

[Freud] is the one who writes, ‘A man who doubts his own love may, or rather, must doubt every lesser thing.’ And this is the line I return to in my life, a line that cannot be read once, at least not by me. Freud is making a statement, but he is, implicitly, delivering as well a warning and an admonition. The one who doubts his own love will find himself doubting every lesser thing.


There is no way around it: If you doubt your own love, you will be compelled to doubt every lesser thing and if there is no greater thing than love, you will be compelled to doubt every other thing, which means that nothing, really nothing, will be undoubted by you.

After examining the oscillation of certitudes and uncertainties in love, Butler returns to Freud:

It would seem that for Freud the goal is not to doubt one’s own love, to come to have certainty in it, and to somehow know oneself in the dispossession that love provides. I am the one who loses myself here, in this way, under these conditions, who finds the following irresistible; who falls then and there; who wants, who idealizes, who pursues; who cannot forget this or that kind of thing, wants it again, cannot stop wanting it easily; who wants to be pursued, or to become unforgettable, irreplaceable. One finds that love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.

And yet, what Richard Feynman knew about science, Orson Welles knew about film, and Rilke knew about life might indeed be true of love as well — that faulty vision, that state of doubt, seems absolutely necessary for complete love:

If one becomes somewhat savvy about one’s love — ‘ah, yes, there goes my love again, what will it bring forth this time? What havoc will it wreak?’ — does this mean that one ceases to doubt it, or that one knows it with certainty for all time? Or is this the distance that one takes from what one cannot do, an instance of the doubt that goes along with love? We might think Freud is saying that to doubt one’s own love is to doubt it in a very fundamental way, to call the most important matters into questions, and to not let assumptions go unquestioned. It is, in a way, to become philosophical in and about one’s passions. And this does not mean that one ceases to live them or that one kills them by thinking them into the ground. on the contrary, one lives them, and seeks to know them, but only by bringing one’s questions into the practice of love itself. I cannot pretend to know myself at the moment of love, but I cannot pretend to fully know myself. I must neither vacate the knowledge that I have — the knowledge, after all, that will make me a better lover — and I cannot be the one who knows everything in advance — which would make me proud and, finally, lovable. Love always returns us to what we do and do not know. We have no other choice than to become shaken by doubt, and to persist with what we can know when we can know it.


Changing New York: Berenice Abbott’s Stunning Black-and-White Photos from the 1930s

A breathtaking time-capsule of this ageless, ever-changing city.

New York City loves its streets, loves its dogs, loves its heat waves, loves its apocalyptic fictions — but, above else, loves its timeless dignity. Between 1935 and 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) made 307 black-and-white prints of New York City that endure as some of the most iconic images of city’s changing face. In advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, 200 of them were gathered in Berenice Abbott: Changing New York (public library), along with a selection of variant images, line drawings, period maps, and background essays — a lavish time-capsule of urban design organized in eight geographical sections, documenting the social, architectural, and cultural history of the city.

Many of the photographs are now in the public domain and have been made available online by the New York Public Library. Here are some favorite images Abbott took between November 1935 and May 1936, as part of the Federal Art Project (FAP) — a Depression-era government program related to the Works Progress Administration, enlisting unemployed artists and workers in creative projects across advertising, graphic design, illustration, photography, and publishing.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan
Gasoline Station, Tenth Avenue and 29th Street, Manhattan
Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan
Ferry, West 23rd Street, Manhattan
Henry Street, Manhattan
Fulton Street Dock, Manhattan skyline, Manhattan
Cliff and Ferry Street, Manhattan
23rd Street Surface Car, West 23rd Street, Manhattan
Oldest apartment house in New York City, 142 East 18th Street, Manhattan
Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, Manhattan
‘El’, Second and Third Avenue lines, Bowery taken from Division St., Manhattan
Lyric Theatre, Third Avenue between 12th and 13th street, Manhattan

And, hey, is that time-traveling Don Draper?

Department of Docks and Police Station, Pier A, North River, Manhattan

A few blocks around my studio:

Jay Street, No. 115, Brooklyn
Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn
Warehouse, Water and Dock Streets, Brooklyn

A Short Poem from Kurt Vonnegut

“And what, and what / Do the two think of?”

The recently released Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library), which gave us the beloved author’s curious daily routine, is a treasure trove of nuanced insight into Vonnegut’s life and character. Among the seemingly mundane epistolary chronicles lie gems that shimmer with Vonnegut’s reluctant warmth and peculiar brand of sullen optimism — gems like this delightful short untitled poem Vonnegut sent in a letter to his friend Knox Burger in June of 1961:

Two little good girls
Watchful and wise —
Clever little hands
And big kind eyes —
Look for signs that the world is good,
Comport themselves as good folk should.
They wonder at a father
Who is sad and funny strong,
And they wonder at a mother
Like a childhood song.
And what, and what
Do the two think of?
Of the sun
And the moon
And the earth
And love.

Complement with Denise Levertov’s poem “The Secret,” which bears a certain resemblance of subject and sensibility.


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