“You alone are responsible for your own happiness” is today’s mantra, loud and clear. To think, let alone say, that someone else completes you has become something of a modern day taboo. Self-reliance and independence are in. Farewell dependence, so long ‘missing halves’!
While the idea of finding your missing half – the idea that there is someone meant for you – might seem outdated, the wish to understand the origins of love and desire has not gone anywhere. We are still intrigued by why we desire a particular person and not the next. Is it all merely chemical reactions in the brain? Are neurons really to blame?
If you have ever found yourself madly in love, you know that the rules by which you normally abide can suddenly seem far less irrevocable. People in love famously do crazy things. Love and desire affect our perception of things, our own selves included, and often reveal the limits of our self-sufficiency. The world is suddenly full of what-ifs and if-onlys, and beauty (as well as pain) can suddenly be found in the smallest, most insignificant things.
While choosing a life partner based on feelings (rather than on practical grounds) is, historically speaking, a fairly recent practice, the romantic idea of “the one” has been since forever – or, at least for some two thousand years. Evidence can be found, for example, in Plato’s Symposium, where the playwright Aristophanes explains the origins of love by recounting the following myth:
In the beginning, humans used to be round creatures with four legs, four arms, two heads and two sets of genitals. There were not two sexes but three: man-man, woman-woman and man-woman. These creatures were cartwheeling around the world, and gradually became more and more powerful — a bit too powerful for the liking of the Olympian gods. The supreme god Zeus did not want to get rid of humans entirely, since they offered sacrifices to the gods. He therefore decided to cut them in half so that they would diminish in strength but increase in numbers. Less turbulence and more offerings — problem solved!
It was thus that the cut-in-half humans became possessed by the uncontrollable longing to find and be united with, quite literally, their missing half. Depending on their original partner, some men looked for a man, some for a woman, some women looked for a woman, some for a man. Time passed, and the humans kept looking. Once Zeus found two lovers, who had managed to find their missing halves, in a passionate embrace in bed. He asked them if they would like to be melted back together, so that they would be not just united but one. While the lovers’ response to Zeus was an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ his promise of merging them into one – the ultimate completion – did, of course, come at the price: the loss of individuality.
As comic as the idea of round, cartwheeling, two-headed humans might first sound, Aristophanes’s story is felicitous. First, it refreshingly portrays – unlike the majority of the subsequent attempts to explain desire – different sexual orientations as equally ‘natural’. Second, its tragic undercurrent captures the crux of the human condition: our forever-present desire to bridge the gap between the ideal and the real, our search for completion where it can seldom be found: in life.
Indeed for some, desire only seems to exist when it is not fulfilled – you want what you can’t have, and the moment you have it, it is no longer what you want. In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the protagonist has this very problem: his longing for another person is born primarily out of his own interpretations and wishes – what he imagines the objects of his desire to be, rather than who they actually are. “The bonds that unite another person to ourselves,” he laments, “exist only in our minds. Man is the creature that cannot emerge from himself, that knows his fellows only in himself, and when asserts the contrary, is lying.”
Whether we are ready to accept this degree of cynicism or not, the Narrator seems to be right about one thing: with desire, ‘possession’ is never quite where the happiness lies – at least not in any permanent way. While Proust’s masterpiece portrays relationships governed by domination and possessive jealously, it is far from advocating such attitudes. Rather, everything about In Search of Lost Time warns us against thinking that we can ever fully possess another person. What lies behind Proust’s proganist’s inability to love happily is ultimately his lack of compassion for the women he idolises and idealises.
Compassion is willingness to view the world through the eyes of the other, to understand and relate to – or at least respect – the feelings of another human being despite being different from them. As the origin of the word itself suggests – Latin compati for suffering with – compassion is not a walk in the park. It does not happen overnight. Desire and willingness to please can happen at first sight, compassion is something you need to cultivate.
It is such sensitivity to life, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, that Vincent van Gogh was referring to when he wrote to his brother Theo that “there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people”. And one thing is sure: without compassion, no man or woman, or love, is complete.