Hello and welcome to my 12th annual April Fool’s Day observance. For those of you new to this tradition, the idea is that I try to pick a topic close to my heart, then tell you how foolish it is to invest in this topic, then tell you to do it anyways. I try to pick a new topic every year, except in years when I don’t, and also if you think too hard about it all of my topics are really the same. But some of you keep coming back and listening, so maybe I’m not the biggest fool in here. (Also, expect to be listening to me for 11 minutes).
Today I’m repeating a topic which I covered 6 years ago, and I’ll admit that I’ve got a lot of fear about repeating this topic. Don’t get me wrong-- I love it, I’m committed to it, and I’ve prepared as much as I can, but we just never know what the future will hold, do we? So how can I just return to this topic and hope everything will go better this time around? At least you’ll all be with me, right?
Also before beginning, I’d like to thank the following people who have served as consultants for this speech: Mimi Arbeit, Fonda Lowe, Yotam Schachter, Naomi Zaslow, and my therapist Mjriam.
When I last spoke about the folly of love, I closed by noting how “sometimes love makes me feel like I’m two things, like I’m one thing, like I’m one-half, and like I’m nothing.” I quoted my partner at the time, Mimi Arbeit, who once asked me: “So if I’m yours, and you’re mine-- whose are we?” Throughout that speech I was realizing, without fully diving into, the fact that the follies of love are just propped up on top of follies about the self. Questions about love expose problems in how we conceptualize ourselves. So I’ve been wanting to pick this theme back up by going into the deep end of relationship as a dilemma of self.
I find “Who am I?” to be a rather difficult question. My current favorite philosophical answer to this question is that I am a shifting bundle of characteristics. This answer allows me to gesture vaguely at myself, while leaving essentials of “who I am” undefined. I resist talking about anything “essential” for two reasons: (1) The deepest parts of me may not actually be accessible to my own consciousness, so I may not know my own essence, so, strangely enough, I can’t factor it into my sense of self; or (2) There may be no such a thing as “the deepest part of me.” I really can’t say whether I have some solid unchanging core. My sense of self is as a shifting bundle of characteristics, some of which stick around longer than the others; beyond that, or deeper than that, I don’t have much to say. To paraphrase Augustine, I know who I am, until you ask me, and then I don’t.
In facing the challenge of lasting partnership, these poorly defined dimensions of self are leading to a lot of anxiety. How does one commit to a long-term relationship when self-knowledge is so limited? And the word “love”-- to me, it’s a word that expresses deep resonances, contact between the deepest parts of two people-- what can “love” mean if one’s own deepest parts are inaccessible or simply an illusion? In my last speech on this topic, I noted Ayn Rand’s wisdom that “To say ‘I love you’ one must first be able to say ‘I’”-- so if we believe that the self is folly, then love must be folly too.
I mean, I’m not saying that the self is folly, I’m saying that self-definition is folly, and since loving partnership (or any collective identity) is an attempt at constructing a compounded-self and therefore an attempt at compounded-self-definition, it is a compounded form of foolishness.
We could think of self and love as mereological dilemmas, that is, dilemmas of parts and wholes. To say “I” about myself is this attempt to muster all the parts of me together into a whole. To say “We” is to do the same, except to include a whole extra person in the claim of wholeness.
Existentially-speaking, this is all fraught with risk. To say “I” or to say “We” is to commit to an identity, which means tending it, defending it, and facing its loss. To have an identity means to be jerked around emotionally by it, to feel threatened by anything that threatens that identity. To choose to be part of a couple or a group is, in one sense, to reduce myself to a part, and to attach my individual destiny to the destiny of a larger unit. Do I really want to do this?
Plato says yes. In the Symposium, he has Aristophanes tell the story of human creation, one echoed in Midrash, in which humans begin as double-sided, four-legged creatures later split up by fearful and jealous gods. Love, according to Aristophanes, is “the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.” There are two key statements in here that I question: (1) that we are essentially united, with the individual as only a fragment of that larger whole; (2) that each “I” is better off united into a “We.” How much do we actually want oneness with others, and how much might we simply prefer individuality? And am I being more “true” to my “original nature” by seeing myself as a part of a larger whole? Am “I” better as a “We”?
I keep returning to this one question split into two-- how is the nature of self fulfilled or troubled by engagement in partnership? Is the self in partnership a fragment finding its whole or is the self in partnership a whole risking fragmentation? This is exhausting, and I don’t feel like I’m getting any closer to making sense.
Naomi gave me an engagement ring with an inscription referencing a page of Talmud-- Sotah 2a. In a passage on that page, one rabbi claims that God matches partners according to their actions, and another chimes in that this task is as difficult for God as it was for God to split the Red Sea. The text brings in a third rabbi who states that people are actually matched before they are born, and so they are not matched according to their actions. So which is it? Does matchmaking happen by a simple divine command before birth, or does it happen through the complex algorithm of some divine matchmaker? The text reconciles the two sayings by explaining that first marriages are decreed by heaven, and second marriages according to one’s actions. Which is fine-- except is the upcoming wedding for Naomi and me a first or a second wedding?
Let’s ignore that last question, because I’d rather unpack how this passage actually incorporates and organizes the elements of my talk so far.
One scenario is that God announces the partner of an individual before they are born. I’ll label this scenario “essentialist”-- God proclaims the person’s identity and, in doing so, associates their soul with some other soul. The essence of one paired with the essence of another; soulmates before the rest of the self even forms. This understanding of partnership stems from the framework of essential selfhood, and suggests a framework of essential couplehood. Being my partner’s partner would thus be essential to who I am.
The other scenario is more complicated to unpack, so bear with me. In the second scenario, people are matched according to their actions, which is described as “as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.” Now, what’s going on here? If you’re God, what’s so difficult about splitting the Red Sea? Also, what sense does it make to compare the pairing of two people to the splitting of other things? Rabbeinu Tam, a 12th century French Rabbi, provides commentary which I find useful-- he explains that the difficulty for God in splitting the sea wasn’t producing the miracle, but choosing to save some of his creatures while killing others. Rabbeinu Tam makes the analogy more direct by providing the specific example of a 2nd marriage between a widow and a widower; it’s super-morbid, but it’s an example of God bringing two people together while having to ‘sacrifice’ their previous partners. Ok, that’s very morbid, so let’s abstract it extensively-- a match is difficult for God, and for the partners, because it necessitates sacrifices, requiring each person to cut off possible partners, possible paths for themselves, and even parts of themselves that might not be nourished by this particular partnership. If I called the first scenario “Essentialist,” we’ll call this second scenario “Existentialist”-- just as God at the Sea faced the anxiety of choosing some and nullifying others, a person choosing a partner faces the existential anxiety of affirming and rejecting parts of themselves.
And the heart of existential anxiety in coupling is built on our uncertainty about self. If we have an essential self, it’s hard to access it. If we have no essential self, then it’s our responsibility to create ourselves, and that can be overwhelming. Somehow, acts of self-creation in one regard are acts of self-destruction in some other regard. Among all the parts of ourselves, how is it that we’re able to choose who lives and who dies?
This is very real, and it’s inescapable-- that is, it’s an anxiety built into both marriage and divorce. There’s a violence in self-creation that makes me cringe because it’s coupled with such uncertainty. I’ll quote Garnet from Steven Universe, who captures this feeling: “Why am I so sure that I’d rather be this than everything I was supposed to be, and that I’d rather do this than anything I was supposed to do?” Can you feel that? I feel it when I face the decision to leave Boston after 10 years, just to follow Naomi to New York City. What identity, what self-knowledge, what attempt at self-- what is it that is enabling me to choose this person over my life here? I also felt this when I was going through the split with Mimi-- I felt exactly that, split, having to choose between parts of myself as individual and parts of myself as the couple. Heart-breaking choices. How did I choose? How did I know, or think I could know, what of me was ok to leave behind?
Can you see how both pairing and divorce involve sacrificing parts of self, making decisions about who I am and who I will be? What qualifies me to make these decisions? Whether there is or isn’t an essential self, how can a person wisely commit such acts of self-reckoning?
Ok. As I say every time, but more and more in recent years, this is getting long. If I recall correctly, my responsibility is now to convince you all to engage in the folly of love, despite (and probably because of) its foolishness. And, this year, I think I have a double burden, which is to also endorse continuing the folly of self.
I think I’ve got it. There are two follies involved in both self and love, and I think I can explain both their foolishness and then endorse them anyhow. These follies go together-- they are called “objectification” and “attachment.” The folly of objectification occurs when we try to fix in place something that changes, and the folly of attachment quickly follows, when we become emotionally invested in that illusion of a permanent thing. In the long run, there is no Matt Lowe, and in the short run, Matt Lowe changes-- so, in a sense, I’m more of an event than I am a thing. The same is true for our partners and our relationships. But I easily forget this, and so I get invested in these things, and then threatened when these things change.
We become foolishly attached to illusory objects, whether the object be ourselves or our partners. Caught up in attachment to these illusions, we face striving, suffering, existential dilemma, loss, and death. If it’s so foolish, shouldn’t we drop the charade?
(Sigh.) Of course not. We love objectification; we love to do it to ourselves, we love to do it to others, and have it done unto us. Naomi has fallen in love with an image of me, and I’ve encouraged that illusion every step of the way, because her loving image of me is a major factor in the image I attempt to use to love myself. The same is true for how I’ve fallen in love with her. And if there is no essential self, then this is the best we get. If the loss of these illusions leads to a feeling of foolishness and senselessness, that’s because the only meanings we do get in this world are the ones we build and prop up ourselves, as long as we can. The illusions are the meaning. If it is foolish to invest in our sense of self or in relationships, it would be far more foolish to forego these things and simply begin and end with meaninglessness.
I’ll close by ripping off and corrupting a Tibetan story about illusion and attachment. Let’s say you see me, sometime around the wedding, looking very, very happy. And you might say, “Matt, why are you so happy with yourself? You teach that the self is an illusion.” And my answer is: “Self is an illusion. And the love of another self is an even greater and wonderful illusion!”
Thanks for your time today.