Before his untimely passing earlier this year, political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler offered up some timely reflections on Allan Bloom’s “souls without longing,” the elite students who comprise the bulk of Bloom’s study in his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. As Lawler describes them, these souls are racked with longing and hunger for something they know not how to name. “Not only are love of God and romantic love alien to these young people, it would seem,” writes Lawler, “so is any form of heart-enlarging experience that would threaten one’s independ-ence and personal survival. They are, deep down, social solitaries, and that fact informs every facet of their lives.” They are the victims of a great flattening that has turned the “polymorphous eros once thought to be characteristic of human beings as such” into something entirely one-dimensional.
I don’t know whether to be surprised, reassured, or frightened to find so many echoes of Bloom and Lawler’s diagnosis of the spiritually hollowed-out modern soul in the cloistered world of continental European philosophy, yet the parallels abound in The Agony of Eros, a slender philosophical tract first published in German in 2012 and translated into English this year by MIT Press in its new “Untimely Meditations” series. The author, Byung-Chul Han, is a German academic by way of Seoul billed by the publishers as “one of the most widely read philosophers in Europe today.” I can’t help but wondering who it is who’s reading Han—serious philosophers? University students? Young urban professionals attempting to cultivate an air of erudition?
In any case, it’s easy to see the allure of a writer who treats with such intellectual seriousness the claim—common to think pieces, self-help books, podcasts, and prestige TV sitcoms—that love in our time is in crisis. Conventional wisdom has it that modern love is most endangered by the personal freedom and limitless variety of options that technology have placed at our disposal; Han has a thesis to the contrary. “The crisis of love does not derive from too many others,” he begins, “so much as from the erosion of the Other.” And so in the dense and breathless pages that follow, Han will go on to synthesize an argument with materials as wide-ranging as the philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber, observations about social media, and remarks on the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s a strange mélange—one that, true to the allusive style of continental philosophy, barely pauses to interpret or engage any of the thinkers cited, save for a brief and pointed jab at Foucault—yet it offers a different kind of language for articulating the very problems that concerned Bloom and Lawler.
Han relies on highly specific terminology, but his writing is not impenetrable. Central to his philosophy is a concept of the Other, which he, following Levinas and Buber, defines as that which is necessarily outside of the realm of the self. Relatedly, eros is the force that brings us outside to make experience of the Other possible. A threat to eros is therefore a threat to relational love, and Han sees no greater oppositional force arising to challenge the power of eros than depression. Some of Han’s most scintillating thinking happens around this topic. He finds the roots of modern depression in narcissism, the “overwrought, pathologically distorted self-reference” that flourishes in cultures that valorize personal achievement and consequently flatten out our relationships by changing how we think about other people: as mere sources of validation at best, objects to compare ourselves to at worst.
His line of inquiry produces many such brief moments of enlightenment on hot-button topics. Take, for instance, Han’s digressions on pornography. Because porn is a necessarily self-serving venture, it poses an existential threat to true eros by reframing sex as simply one more commodity to be put on display for comparison and consumption. “What is obscene about pornography,” he writes, “is not an excess of sex, but the fact that it contains no sex at all.” Devoid of the spiritual dimension of a properly understood, other-centric sexuality, the sexuality on display in pornography is nothing but a shadow of the real thing. Yet the wide availability of pornography today is quickly erasing this distinction, for as Han notes, “even real sex is turning into porn.”
The emptying out of spiritual and other-centered meaning that Han finds at work in pornography extends to other aspects of life as well. In modernity, man’s metaphysical purpose has been redirected from pursuit of the Other to pursuit of accumulation and growth as bulwarks against physical death; therapy replaces theology, health fetishists multiply, and tourism takes the place of sacred pilgrimage. In such a world, certainty, routine, and information counter mystery, spontaneity, and fantasy at every turn.
Han isn’t in the business of offering solutions or proposing plans of action, but he does send his readers out from the world of ideas with a renewed spirit of curiosity and intellectual vigor. Most readers probably will not find much solace in his concluding exhortation to redirect our aimless erotic longings toward philosophy. I at least was inspired to rethink a passage from literature that had always struck me as both astonishingly beautiful and astonishingly simplistic. It occurs near the middle of E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, in one of those grandiloquent narrative asides not unusual in Forster’s writing:
Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. . . . [O]ur national morality . . . assumes that preparation against danger is itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. . . . Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.
Our knowledge of what followed in the century after Forster’s writing—two world wars and rampant politicization of life’s every little conflict—might seem to render the life-as-romance worldview blissfully naïve. But perhaps he really was onto something, and perhaps we owe it to ourselves to step outside of ourselves and think more carefully about what it truly means to live and to love. Han, to his credit, acknowledges that to love is to open oneself up to mysteries beyond the realm of cognition. “To be able to think,” he writes, “one must first have been a friend, a lover.” Donning the sword and shield of philosophy may help us to confront life’s challenges, but only by loosening our armor can we open ourselves up to love in the first place.
Tim Markatos is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard