Skye Cleary’s book Existentialism and Romantic Love is a philosophical piece aiming to resolve the problematic nature of defining and participating in what we call romance. She posits the greater question of how is one to love and how can existentialism elevate or deconstruct the semantic and phenomenological conceptions of Western-romantic loving. To resolve such dilemmas Cleary points towards an array of existentialist thinkers and highlights their conceptions of love and relationships in order to provide new avenues for romance. By unhinging romantic love from its preconceived dispositions, Cleary argues that existentialism can establish new passionate matrices providing individuals new modes to conduct and construct love through meaningful and impassioned practices. All of course emancipated by the preceding cliches and social constructions about how lovers should love.
While reading her work, however, I could not help to recall the opening scene to David Fincher’s Gone Girl in which the protagonist Nick Dunne (portrayed by Ben Affleck) describes his relationship with his wife as a morbid enigma:
When I think of my wife I always think of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains, trying to get answers. The primal questions of any marriage. What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?
If anything can be extrapolated by such an introduction is that marriage, or perhaps, romance is indeed a battleground. Within its nature is a force of primal violence and struggle based on extracting intimate truth and correlating what is said at face value to the deep and inner convictions of each partner. Romantic love is infatuating, exhilarating but as Cleary claims through existentialist philosophers, it is also filled with anxiety, shame — complicated by its ephemeral reality and the anticipation that romantic love does ineluctably fade away
Such ideas of love’s inherent violence are traced in the existentialist thinkers but the objective of Cleary’s work it still locate where existentialism can free love from the chains that its preceding manifestations have been locked within. Her attempt to reconcile existentialism with romance is truly an admirable one. Drawing on Max Stirner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sarte and Simone de Beauvoir, it is apparent that Cleary has done her philosophical homework and has the adequate tools to pinpoint and connect the dots between these authors both within in and outside their own texts.
Each chapter draws on various pieces from each existentialist’s oeuvre and each text is equally justified to expand upon the philosopher-in-question’s convictions on romantic love. Cleary outlines that the book aims to elaborate on existentialist thinkers and this does not mean trimming away against their non-philosophical works. For example, the chapter on Sarte draws on fiction pieces and her acute analysis works to pick a part the philosophy on romance that lays suspended beneath the literary characters such as Roquentin and Anny in Sarte’s Nausea.
In conjunction, Cleary delineates between the philosopher and the text being analyzed but refuses to ignore one over the other in the totality of her critique. In Existentialism and Romantic Love, authors are held accountable for their perceptions of romance, both in regards to their written works but also in regards to the successes and failures of their own personal and private romantic endeavors. For example, if Max Stirner’s nihilistic philosophy claims we should egotistically love others only as objects, does such an attitude hold up against his real-life failed marriage and his documented overly selfish behaviors? While Stirner preached a preservation of autonomy within practices of romantic love, such philosophies enacted seem to expose a selfish life with little financial, romantic and social gain.
Cleary pins philosophers’ work to their private, historical practices, showing a true desire to uncover authentic attitudes towards how love should be enacted and understood. While Nietzsche praises the alluring power of femininity, he simultaneously places such notions on a misogynistic pedestal in which women are challenges to do be conquered by the Übermensch. Yet, Cleary is keen to point that such bold claims about love and the female condition cannot ignore Nietzsche’s own social awkwardness and the scholarly accounts that his lack of a father figure was the cause of his misogynistic tendencies. How could we ever claim to learn about love from a man with such nefarious and sexist dispositions?
It is clear that in Cleary’s book philosophers must account for their own philosophies — that their positions on love must be analyzed in regards to their own personal, romantic bouts.Yet, this book is not a simple philosophy project to point out contradictions between the philosophy and the philosopher, instead Cleary is keen to highlight where these existentialist thinkers can simultaneously hold conflicting notions of love as well honing in on how they each try to resolve such paradoxes through rationalizations of their own philosophical middle grounds. All five of the thinkers do indeed claim that love is a real emotion that stirs all the senses, but if the world is inherently meaningless, then what meaning can and should we apply to such emotions of infatuation both in terms of love as a musing passion and as a sexual drive?
The book also offers a critique in which philosophers are subject to scrutiny both within and outside their own metaphysical landscapes. For example, Cleary identifies the components of Kierkegaard’s conception of romantic love, specifically his advocation for love within a religious sphere, yet she also criticizes Kierkegaard’s analysis of the Don Juan characters Don Giovanni and Johannes by claiming that these characters are actually highly self-aware despite their use of women as objects to primarily fulfill selfish needs. Giovanni’s actions of vain fornication as a hedonistic satisfier and Johannes romantic courting as Lacanian jouissance are criticized under Kierkegaard who claims they are merely stupid men indulging in ephemeral pleasures against true love. Yet Cleary argues that these personas are highly cognizant of their actions and that they may actually have a greater grasp on the limits of love and romance by their refusal to assume to romantic conventions and their revolt to siphoning their passions into a religious sphere.
In all of these philosophers, however, there are various contradictions and reparations that are trying to make sense of love, how it should undertaken and whether or not it can be given eternal meaning. Cleary’s strongest analyses are her chapters on Sarte and de Beauvoir who were real life philosophical lovers. While she references their actual relationship with its flawed attempts to enter some sort of a polyamorous field, the idea of anxiety and the Other capture the hesitance and fear we engorge ourselves with when approached to give and receive love to someone that is not oneself. Love is a war game and we seek the validation that the effort and passion we are putting forward is equally reciprocated.
While Sarte tells us to embrace anxiety and take a leap of faith for romance, de Beauvoir points to utopias of commitment which can lead to revolutionary and existential transcendences between two lovers. But greater issues arrive between the attempt to retain oneself and become completely assimilated into the Other. The question is if existentialism unchained love how can we set definitions that simultaneously permit existentialism’s emphasis of self while continuing to accepting the embrace of the Other? If we reference the introduction to Gone Girl and the contradictions Cleary identifies within these five philosophers then love can become a guessing game, a battle, a gain of self, a loss of self, a war and concurrently a tranquil sea.
If anything, existentialism has provided a landscape for a concert of positive and negatives, assertive claims and shaky denials but maybe that is the point of it all. Existentialism reveals love’s true colors as a field of paradoxes where objectivity seems to wither. Maybe we are supposed to embrace love’s meaningless at times and leap into the Other, not thinking about the fear but knowing that romance brings a sense of unknown and abyss and that is why it is such a fascinating domain to enter. If preconceived notions bring about romance’s positives, then existentialism brings about its negatives and tries to reconcile the two. But if one part does not fit into the other, that may be all fair. Love is not simple and romance is complex. It is not a space for the status quo but a domain where the self is consistently losing and gaining itself through the Other and romantic love is this retention of such passionate transformations.
Cleary’s book is a wonderful introduction to some key philosophical thinkers. Even if readers are searching for minor exposures to existentialism, Cleary ties together a lot of their larger ideas under the umbrella of romance. As for the solution to romantic love, it seems somewhere between passion and criminally insane yet all wrapped up on a leap of faith and knowing that each romantic relationship is unique. The book is a step in unhinging love from its banality and its honest and accessible approach should be an interest philosophers of relationships and love.