The Rationality of Sentiment

The inspiration for the name of this blog, and of this particular entry, is a recent paper I wrote for a seminar I did this past semester on stoicism and pragmatism. The paper's title was "The Rationality of Sentiment and the Sentiment of Rationality," itself derived from an essay by William James entitled "The Sentiment of Rationality."

In the latter, James argues that rationality is fundamentally affective. That is to say, a certain kind of experience comes with the perception of rationality, a feeling that something is clear, or simple, or just right. It is a profoundly aesthetic experience that, in the rarer moments of intense insight, might even be described as proto-religious. Anyone who knows me or my blogging elsewhere is well aware that I've had a number of these experiences which verge on the mystical.

In my essay, I was contrasting James' account of the relation between reason and passion with that of the stoics. I tend to side with those, like Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, James, and Freud, who do not posit a sharp separation between reason and passion, as do thinkers like Descartes or Kant. (I put the stoics in the former camp, despite their reputation for suppressing emotion.)

Nevertheless, I find that in practice there is sometimes a significant gap between the two. My thoughts were recently motivated in this direction after watching 2 movies last night, both non-standard love stories starring Natalie Portman: Garden State and Closer. If you've not seen them, I encourage you to do so.

While the former shows how love is still possible in a tragic world that is not as we would prefer, the latter refuses to pull its punches. The characters in Closer, Dan, Larry, Alice, and Anna, are truly remarkable and undeniably human. Each has his/her pathological tendencies that forego all possibility of lasting happiness; all are profoundly irrational. They would almost serve as case studies for the stoic: "See, this is where following your passions without self-control will lead you."

I find myself at a loss to make sense of the situation. I suspect that "understanding" may not even be the proper approach to this film. Nevertheless, this issue of passion and reason is central in my life now, both intellectually and personally.

I only just finished teaching a fantastic class on the ethics of love and sexuality and I feel myself moving in the direction of passion/reason as a dissertation topic, since it is of the utmost importance to my favorite thinkers. I am particularly interested in its ethical and political dimensions.

Likewise, although I leave detailed elaboration to other fora, this has been one of my major introspective and therapeutic concerns. As an individual who is if nothing else rational, it has been harder to come to terms with the affective aspects of my life. In particular, I feel a deficiency in the love department, largely due to a lack of experience. I know--that is, I have read--far more about love than I have experienced, which makes me wonder if I really know anything about it at all.

I suppose I am fairly cynical about love. I am not reductionistic about it, but I do not suppress the biological aspects of it. I am still largely influenced in my thinking from a book I read entitled The Mating Mind by biologist Geoffrey Miller.

Passionate love evolved, I am convinced, largely as a result of the need for shared parental investment because of the prolonged immaturity of human beings. The differential levels of investment, however, lead to divergent psychologies between the sexes in matters of love. For instance, in women (generally speaking, but keep in mind this will not apply to all individuals) jealousy tends to be more over infidelities of emotional commitment, while men care more about sexual infidelities.

This is evident in the characters of Closer. Dan and Larry are obsessed with knowing the truth, sometimes in miniscule detail, about the sexual liasions of their lovers with their rival, while Alice and Anna downplay the significance of brief flares of sexual passion.

Prior to advanced civilization, biologists suspect that human beings were serial monogamists and polygynists. In cases of the former, partnerships tended to last only about 4 to 7 years (I don't precisely remember where I came upon this figure), just so long as the passionate love remained strong. (The events of Closer take place over the course of about 4 or 5 years.)

Only with agriculture and the extra effort it required was a more stable, lifelong marriage desirable. It is certainly no surprise today that divorce is so common given our prehistory of serial monogamy. The marriages that last tend to be those in which some kind of friendship replaces, or at least supplements, sexual passion.

Nevertheless, we have a certain ideal in the West about what a happy life should be, and this includes a happy marriage in which a deeply passionate love persists. I contend that it is this expectation--and the failure to recognize it--that ruins the lives of the characters of Closer. Each is so obsessed with love at first sight, the random encounter with the stranger that leads to instant mutual attraction. Each is pulled by passion in all directions without restraint. This is what makes each ultimately so unhappy, but also so interesting.

I just marvel at the irrationality of it all. Jude Law's character, Dan, in particular fascinates me. He is simultaneously in love with 2 women at once but convinced that he can only be with one of them. Anna has a similar predicament, complicated by her inability to resist what Larry calls "a guilty fuck."

If not for a pathological commitment to honesty, Dan could be with Alice and Anna with Larry while Dan and Anna fucked surreptitiously on the side, and all would be content. Even if Larry and Alice knew, so long as the infidelity remained unspoken they would not feel a need to stir up troubled waters. Or, as perhaps supported by the proto-sexual tension between Larry and Dan, the four could probably coexist as a polyamorous foursome if not for their equally pathological commitment to exclusivity.

Honesty, sexual exclusivity, and fidelity are key components of Western sexual mores. The logic of these values is what really prevents the characters from fulfilling their desires and being happy. The viewer rails against these characters--"What are you doing? She's not the one you really love!" "No, don't go back to him!" "Why can't you just forgive her?"--but if the spectacle were not so perverse it would not be so entertaining.

Here we come to one thing I like about Garden State. (This is a spoiler, so don't finish the paragraph if you haven't seen the movie.) Andrew, played by Zach Braff, gets this crazy idea into his head that he has to go figure himself out before he can be with Sam (a more light-hearted Natalie Portman) because he's afraid of screwing things up with her. As he's about to fly back to LA, he realizes the irrationality of his idea and gets off the plane to go back to her, citing that his love for her is the only thing he's really ever been sure of in his life. It may seem that passion triumphs over reason here but really it's just one passion defeating another. To me, it seems he acts more rationally by choosing as he does.

Yet even if happy endings occur, if Romeo and Juliet were to stay alive together, or if we follow the lives of those in Garden State, down the line we may just find something more like Closer. We do not wish to admit it to ourselves, but we have unfulfillable ideals. Intense passion, especially one that is mutual, is by its very nature short-lived. In some cases it may be prolonged, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Nevertheless, in countless novels and films we are presented with this not simply as a prominent ideal, but as the norm, as a prerequisite of happiness. Of course, this is just one among the numerous sources of alienation and anomie in our social milieu.

Even recognizing this, I sometimes feel a deep sadness about never brushing up against this dimension of life. I have never known the bottomless melancholy of requited love's inevitable woes. Much like Braff's Andrew, I lament a numbness more wretched than the lover's all-consuming anguish. I desire to ride the rollercoasters of life, to know what it's all about.

Of late, I have been happier than perhaps ever before. But isn't there more to life than happiness?

I am now convinced that suffering is the precondition of beauty.

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