Well first post of the year... a L'Epouvantail website is close to being launched, watch this space as wonders await. in the meantime though, here's an interesting tome that's recently passed my way.
The Curious History of Loveis a fascinating, erudite book. That's not to say it is without its flaws- which I'll mull over later- but it is an intelligent and supremely human attempt to understand the origins of this thing we call Love, the various forms it takes and, very interestingly, how it has been the most important of metaphysical forces at work in shaping our society through the ages, and how it dictates the very form it takes today.
In fact it is in this latter area- how our current societal structure has developed since the Enlightenment through the historic prism of Love- that for me was the most fascinating. Before the Enlightenment, various forms of Love jostled with each other and were philosophically analysed and debated for centuries- the religious [primarily but not exclusively Judeo-Christian], all-encompassing Love for All [`agape']; the more individualistic, unpredictable passions; the medieval courtly love that put women centre-stage in the sexual power game and the revolutionary tendencies of Romanticism. Kaufmann explains how society however came to be centred on a certain model of the self-absorbed individual by a very clever establishment trick applied over quite a short period of time. As the rigidities [and certainties] of feudal times dissolved, the threat of Love in its various guises to the governing establishment - particularly in the area of the Passions- was conveniently neutered by elevating what was previously thought of as a grubby vice- namely self-interested greed- into a societal virtue. In the great scheme of the human timeline, this was achieved with an obscenely, speedy absolution.
As such the current dominant societal and economic model- namely that of free market capitalism, which until the enlightenment period had been a marginalised, localised aspect of society- came into its own and as Kaufmann says, it didn't need to be asked twice to take centre stage.
To my mind this is a really fascinating area of socio-economic investigation. It has led to Big Business now trying to impose its management principles into all areas of our lives and an economics based in mathematical calculations has now become the dominant social science. It has led to a society where our economics is now based on the total assumption that humans are cold, calculating animals living within a matrix of equations and one in which, as Kaufmann points out, a stock trader driven by no other urge than personal accumulation, is worth many thousands times more than say, a dedicated youth worker.
However, human beings are not as efficient and calculating as economic models would like; people are actually sentimental creatures continually looking for meaning in life. We cannot be reduced to an Excel cost-benefit analysis spread sheet.
As such Kaufmann goes on to show that economic models are actually themselves no more real than dreamy expressions of romantic passion. They are not based in any reality; mathematical models are, like romantic passion, ideals that flit around just out of reach.
And this is no more apparent than right now, today, as the markets plead that to get back to normal, all we need again is trust. That the economic meltdown was simply due to a failing of trust, and if we get that back, all will be well again.
But what is trust, if it is not a human feeling, perhaps one of the highest feelings humans enjoy? It is certainly not a cold economic equation; the whole economic system therefore runs on this dichotomy and so no wonder it is in a mess. To my mind, the part of the book that efficiently outlines these ideas- through the filter of the previous discussions of the form of love in our society both past and present- are the most powerful.
It would be a mistake though to make out the book is overly concerned with Big Issues and the wider, corporate world as viewed from the European Left. Kaufmann does gets intimate with his analysis of the love between couples and within families and how society at a number of junctures, has missed a trick by rejecting more `emotionally' based mechanisms into the day-to-day running of our world, and he does it deftly without straying into `relationship self-help' territory.
As I said above though, the book has its flaws. It meanders a little too self-indulgently towards the end, although I personally forgive the author for this as it is such a huge, challenging subject that he does immense justice too for much of the book, I think he deserves to be allowed a little slack in that area. I can't help feel though a bit of judicious editing, reducing the book by a third to an even more handy 100-125 page treatise would have been more effective. Kaufmann also airbrushes over a few complexities in places- the most glaring one is his assertion that the contemporary neoliberal economic system is exclusively ran by passionless mathematical models- true enough on one level, but one cannot say the vagaries, guesses and gambling instincts running rampant through our stock exchanges are not based in some good old fashioned, largely testosterone driven passion. But, on the whole, he has to be given credit for tackling such a huge, amorphous and let's face it plain scary subject, with a sound intellectual but also accessible approach.
But this is a book that although accessible, demands to be read carefully and given some thought. In fact some of its conclusions may well be uncomfortable to the 21st century, Western individualist, yearning for a return to business as usual. Maybe that's why it has received some patchy reviews around the place.
For me personally though, Kaufmann nearly pulls off the impossible: a neat assessment of Love in all its complexities, with an élan that, it has to be said, is achieved through an unashamed application of passion. Bravo.