"Can Love Last?" by Stephen Mitchell

A philosophically inclined psychoanalyst's daring final work explains that the ecstasy of romantic love doesn't fade away over time -- we kill it.

Published February 8, 2002 6:58PM (EST)

Sometimes, on a bad day, I start to think that the only people who really believe that love endures are the guys doing the ad campaign for de Beers. You know -- the urgent violins, the silhouettes of middle-aged but glamorous people gazing passionately at one another and exchanging gifts involving many carats. Oh, sure, I find myself muttering. As if anybody past 30 could be that beautiful! More to the point, as if any man as fabulous as that would be giving important jewelry to his original, doubtless slightly shriveled partner, instead of to some taut young lovely! As I said, a bad day.

But now, having read psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell's thoughtful, compassionate and profoundly optimistic "Can Love Last?" I think my bad days may be behind me. Because Mitchell isn't trying to sell me anything, yet what he says affirms the message of the throbbing strings. Love can last, he says, if you have the courage and the imagination for it.

Mitchell, who died in December 2000, announces at the outset that his book is about "romance and its degradation." Romance he defines as "a particular sort of love in which there are erotic currents"; degradation, I think we're all familiar with. Why, Mitchell asks, should romance so inevitably wane, to be replaced -- and this is if you're lucky -- by something solid, steady ... and slightly-to-excruciatingly dull? Popular explanations are thick on the ground: Romance depends on mystery, but long-term relationships depend on understanding. Romance gets its fizz from sexuality, but partnership demands tenderness and caring, not lust. Romance is based on idealization of the other, and idealizing anyone is asking for trouble. Freud described his yearning patients neatly: "Where they love, they have no desire; where they desire, they cannot love."

The problem is real, and all the explanations are true, Mitchell says, but only partly, inadequately true. His own view, both warmed and deepened by a 30-year clinical practice of what came to be called "relational psychoanalysis," is that romantic love doesn't die a natural, inevitable death: We kill it, out of fear. It's just too dangerous, he says, to experience erotic currents toward somebody you actually know, somebody who shares not only your bed but the chores and the cable bill. What if he or she stopped desiring you? Compared to the emotional risks of long-term domestic passion, Mitchell observes, the zipless fuck is as daring as oatmeal.

Drawing on case histories, as well as sources as disparate as Heidegger's "Being and Time" and Presley's "All Shook Up," Mitchell builds a quirky, original and ultimately convincing case. His is emphatically not a glib, accessible self-help book, which makes summarizing his argument hard; everything is connected to everything else. Still, the overall freshness of the thought is unmistakable.

Take his dissection of idealization, for example. Traditional analysis has "generally taken a dim view of the romantic, idealizing dimension of loving, understanding it as fundamentally regressive and defensive." Not so, says Mitchell: Idealization is wonderful, as long as you choose your object wisely. Idealizing the beloved isn't a recipe for heartbreak; the real killer is idealizing movie stars and mysterious strangers. OK, so you're kidding yourself when you let yourself believe your partner is the funniest guy in the world. But you're kidding yourself even more if you believe that there are guys out there who are both funnier and who don't, say, screw up the crossword in ink, or insist on leaving for the airport three hours early. Both are illusions, but only the second one will lead you, inevitably, to lonely perusal of the personals in the New York Review of Books.

Perhaps the most counterintuitive of all Mitchell's ideas is his take on the role of will in love. He agrees with the poets and songwriters that chemistry is real; you can't make yourself love anyone. On the other hand, you can't sustain love without making a conscious commitment to do it. Mitchell draws a lovely distinction here between deciding to do something -- rationally weighing the pros and cons -- and choosing one path or another in the face of some "fundamental ambiguity."

Even though Mitchell is a philosopher, not a pop psychologist, he does eventually outline some strategies for identifying and neutralizing our impulse to murder love. For instance, recognize that the security and predictability so often seen as passion's enemy are themselves illusions; anything can happen, anytime. (This sounds eerily prophetic, in the wake of The Events.) When you feel romance going stale, don't engage in a "labored struggle to contrive novelty." Instead, think about your ingrained patterns of loving. "Spontaneity is discovered not through action but through refraining from one's habitual action and seeing what happens next."

If you were having a bad day you could find fault with some details of "Can Love Last?" For instance, in his eagerness to make a point Mitchell sometimes sets up straw men and false dichotomies: He ascribes our own era's fascination with spirituality, for instance, to the waning of confidence "that science itself will generate wisdom." Somehow I doubt that astrologers and practitioners of hot yoga ever gave the contributions of science much thought. And he drags out Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and, later, Heisenberg's tired old uncertainty principle to prop up the droopy observation that "what one discovers in another person depends a good deal on who one is."

But in the end, it seems ungrateful to quibble with a thinker so humane and large-hearted. Romance, Mitchell concludes, is a "sandcastle for two," a structure that requires constant rebuilding, an awareness of life's fragility and the mindful interweaving of reality and fantasy. And though important jewelry isn't actually necessary, what could it hurt?

By JoAnn Gutin

JoAnn Gutin is a writer and anthropologist who lives in New York.


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