In the Celtic calendar May 1 is known as Beltaine. It’s traditionally the beginning of summer, the time for driving cattle to the summer pasture and it’s rituals are of protection and encouraging growth. Beltaine is a fire festival (the word means ‘bright fire’) and was the time for weddings and feasts. A time of fertility and love.
Love is one of those words that can mean so much and so little. It can used glibly and without much content or substance, but nonetheless, it is important.
Love as attention and imagination
There are millions of words written on love and we’ve been bequeathed romantic notions of love that seek to obliterate otherness. Romantic ideals of love propose a total union in which we are ‘completed’ by the other. And when we find that an impossible way to live, feel suffocated and/or disappointed, then love fails.
But love, whether for our most intimate partners, our family, friends, community, pets and plants, doesn’t have to be this subsuming of identities. It can also be a deep recognition of the other. A quality of attention that acknowledges difference and values it.
In Existentialists and Mystic, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch put it like this:
Art and morals are… one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.
Love is not taking the other into the self or making the other the same as the self, but getting out of our own way sufficiently to give real attention to the other just as it is. Love is an unselfing, a phrase coined by Iris Murdoch in The Sovreignty of Good, to denote those moments when the sense of ego slips away as we are confronted with the beauty of other lives, natural phenomena or works of art. Love is a form of deep attention and attention, as Simone Weil insists is
… the rarest and purest form of generosity.
… taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.
Both Weil and Murdoch note that attention, really recognising the other, is not about willpower. It’s an act of graciousness, of generosity, of openness. And it’s an act of imagination, something we know about as writers. Murdoch goes on:
The tragic freedom implied by love is this: that we all have an indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the being of others. Tragic, because there is no prefabricated harmony, and others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves… Freedom is exercised in the confrontation by each other, in the context of an infinitely extensible work of imaginative understanding, of two irreducibly dissimilar individuals. Love is the imaginative recognition of, that is respect for, this otherness.
Love as the basis for hope
When we love, we put trust and hope in something other than the self. This can take courage, but without it we wither into cynicism.
If love enables us to get out of our own way so that we can pay attention to the other, not expecting this apprehension to always be easy or straight-forward, hope helps us to realise that while the Romantic notion of collapsing the self and the other into a false unity is a blind-alley, nonetheless, the other is not alien. There is empathy and relationship. There is, as Gabriel Marcel says in Homo Viator: introduction to the metaphysic of hope, an expectation:
To love anybody is to expect something from him, something which can neither be defined nor foreseen; it is at the same time in someway to make it possible for him to fulfill this expectation. … to expect is in someway to give: but the opposite is none the less true; no longer to expect is to strike with the sterility the being from whom no more is expected. […] Everything looks as though we can only speak of hope where the interaction exists between him who gives and him who receives, where there is that exchange which is the mark of all spiritual life.
To only have hope when we have mutuality, when we are connected, is vital to the story our planet needs. And it is vital to the stories we write and live. When we forget that we are in an intimate relationship with the flora and fauna around us, with the air we breathe, with one another not only locally but globally, then our lack of expectation is mirrored back as disaster. When we don’t have the grace and generosity to expect the earth to be connected to how we treat her, then the results are catastrophic. We know this from any close personal relationship where we give up on expecting any mutuality.
It takes love to sustain such hope. It takes expectation, trust that the other will respond to that love.
When I wrote the Casilda trilogy of novels, the final part, For Hope is Always Born, took its title, like the other titles in the trilogy, from a quote from Cervantes’ Don Quixote:
For hope is always born where there is love.
This has always stayed with me and Beltaine is a good time to remind ourselves of the world’s need for the attention of love and the trust of hope.
Hope as the means to face the uncertainty
If the stories of the world are going to evolve, there has to be great hope and great expectation, whilst also being permeable to some things we might not have expected. We can give attention to and be in relation to the other, but we can never wholly predict another. We have to be willing to constantly learn, unlearn, adapt, regroup and hope again.
Writers are amongst those who witness to much that is tragic, but when we do so without giving way to cynicism and without losing hope then our writing is also a blessing on the world.
And hope, like genuine love, is neither glib looking away from reality nor Romantic wishful-thinking. Hope is vital to the story of our time. It prevents us from pretending that ‘everything will be alright’, but keeps us from the despair of ‘we may as well give up now’. It enables us to live in the tension of uncertainty without becoming despondent and overwhelmed.
After WW1, his marriage recently torn apart by his wife’s mental illness, Hermann Hesse moved to Switzerland and became a signatory to Romain Rolland’s Declaration of the Independence of the Mind, a manifesto of pacifism, which was also signed by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Rabindranath Tagore, Jane Addams, and Upton Sinclair.
At the same time Hesse wrote to a young correspondent:
You write me that you are in despair and do not know what to believe, what to hope. You do not know whether or not there is a God. You do not know whether or not life has any meaning, whether or not love of country has a meaning, whether, in the wretched condition of the world, it is better to strive for spiritual goods or merely to fill your belly.
I believe your state of mind and soul to be the right one. Not to know whether there is a God, not to know whether there is good and evil, is far better than to know for sure.
In the The Gay Science Nietzsche offers a similar thought in aphorism 268;
What makes Heroic? — To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.
Hope is not simplistic. It exists in the midst of real sorrow and doubt. It is not a claim to having all the answers but a refusal to become bitterly sceptical or to give in to desperation and utter anguish.
In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit frames this tension like this:
This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.
Uncertainty as the ground of the writer
The spaciousness of uncertainty isn’t an easy place to inhabit, but it is the space that we are always given as writers. It’s the space of the blank page, the clear screen, the whole breadth and depth of imagination.
We are living in interesting and uncertain times in which the world needs new stories. With love and hope we can inhabit this uncertainty, stay permeable to its calling and imagine those new stories. None of us as individuals have to carry this alone, but the more of us who live stories of hope and love, as well as imaging facets of how that story might evolve, the more likely we will find the myths and paradigms for this time and the future.
We may not have certainty, but as our writing bears witness to the world we find ourselve in and speaks truth to the world that might become, we can add to the ripples of love and hope.