Friday, December 26, 2014

In Praise of Love, by Alain Badiou

People in love put their trust in difference rather than being suspicious of it. — Alain Badiou
When I read a contemporary meditation on love—fictional, poetic, philosophical—I often can't shake the impression that I'm reading a paraphrase of The Double Flame, by Octavio Paz, which I was lucky enough to read when it first came out 20 years ago and which immediately became for me a sacred text.

Badiou's little book is no exception.

In the first place, Badiou defines love as Paz did: it's exclusive; it's transgressive; it's a power struggle; it's a journey from fate to freedom; it requires the concept of the soul.

Secondly, he sees the same threats to love that Paz saw (or foresaw): in libertinism; in the disintegration of taboos; in self-obsession; in an excess of (mostly economic) freedom; and in the demise of the concept of the soul. These historical processes are largely a product of materialistic capitalism, which has obliterated love's earlier enemies—tribalism; the Church; feudalism; sexual puritanism; 20th-century political totalitarianism—and now constitutes the greatest threat to love in the West.

Also like Paz, Badiou beautifully describes love as an encounter with—and celebration of—otherness. That encounter makes possible an aesthetic and political transformation that is difficult, exhilarating, and redemptive—which is why love has been (and should be, once again) the central value in our public and private lives.

For anyone seeking a primer on love's peculiar nature and a meditation on its place in the modern world, this little book enjoys a couple of advantages over The Double Flame's vast erudition: Badiou's book is very short, and its format (as an interview with a journalist from Le Monde) makes for straightforward reading.

So In Praise of Love might have the ugliest cover in the history of publishing, but it elegantly re-articulates the principal insights of The Double Flame, which is reason enough for me to remember it as one of my books of the year.

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