What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?
The last time I was dumped I thought I was the one leaving. For months I had been trying to get rid of this woman. We were living together. She herself said, “I’m like an albatross around your neck. When we finally break up, you’ll be free, and I’ll be devastated.” That should have been my first clue. But there was no question in my mind that I no longer loved her, and that I could never love her, because she didn’t love my daughter; that I had moved across the country just to get rid of her at a distance, where she couldn’t be a menace to my family and ex-wife. I didn’t love her, I hated her. I knew this with such sincerity and transparency of self-knowledge that I would have laughed if someone suggested otherwise.
There was a moment, though, when I had an intimation of what was to come. After the U-Haul was loaded, and we had split the money and kissed goodbye, she said, “So you really are going?” We both cried, and I gave her something — I don’t remember what it was — and she turned and walked down the sidewalk, going to work, and just as she walked over the crest of the hill, before she would disappear out of sight, she turned and waved. It was a May morning, and she was beneath a tree, and the green-and-yellow light was across her face and in her hair, and for a moment I felt a pinch of what would become, in a few weeks, that vise of loss and despair and debilitating grief and craziness that is heartbreak.
In a month she was already in love with someone else, and I would have told any wild lie, I would have robbed a bank if she’d asked me too, I would have cut off three fingers with a kitchen knife — I really believe I would have — just to have her back again. We’ve all been there, you all know what I’m talking about. As a parent it’s terrifying: you know you’ll be useless when your children are having their hearts broken. And it has to happen; it will happen, and probably more than once.
* * *
Marcel had come to despise Albertine. He told himself that she provided at best a little pleasure while preventing many wonderful pleasures and real happiness — until he heard the words “Mademoiselle Albertine has gone.” He was certain that she meant nothing to him, that he had self-knowledge at least on this score: “I believed that I had, like a precise analyst, left nothing out. I believed that I knew the very bottom of my heart.” Then she left, and his pain was so wrenching that “wondering retrospectively whether or not she looked at a woman on a particular day in the corridor of a little seaside railway train causes one the same pain as would a surgeon probing for a bullet in one’s heart.”
There is a debate in the philosophy of emotion about the level of cognition in our emotional experiences: it began (in American academic philosophy) with the work of my own mentor, dear friend, and co-author, the late Robert C. Solomon, and in the context of love it has been forcefully investigated by Martha Nussbaum (my thinking here is indebted to her). Part of the debate is about whether one comes to know love in heartbreak (that is, I was wrong in thinking I didn’t love my girlfriend, just as Marcel was wrong in thinking he didn’t love Albertine) or whether the suffering of heartbreak is in fact constitutive of the love (that is, I came to love my girlfriend in a different way when I lost her, just as Marcel came to love Albertine in his agony). There is also a third option: the pain we suffer in heartbreak is yet another layer of self-deception. While pain, real suffering, seems to bear the mark of undeniable truth (“the lies I told myself just because I was happy!”), the pain may nevertheless be one more half-truth, false belief, or strategic self-deception.
Back in my college drug days — now very far behind me, thank God — I remember the end of a crack cocaine binge in Miami. I was sitting on the railing of the balcony of my hotel room, confronting, as I felt then, the irrefutable and unbearable truth about myself and my place in the world. I was trying to let myself roll off the railing. The mental anguish I was in seemed to reveal the triviality and deceptiveness of my ordinary life. But in fact, I was just coming down. The reason cognition matters here, is because pain seems primitive (and thus somehow “truthful”) in a way that thinking does not. If emotions are involved with thinking, if they are, as Solomon first put it (following Sartre), “judgments,” or “evaluations” (Sartre described an emotion as a “magical transformation” of the world, and that is better than either judgment or evaluation, I think), then they are slipperier than we suppose. And they are that much harder to grasp when they are swimming in the muddiest pond of them all, self-knowledge.
But if we can’t know ourselves when we are and are not in love, what can we know? Could it ever make sense for you to approach me and say: “You think you love her, but you don’t”? Could your arguments ever persuade me? We know from experience that arguments of that kind tend to have the opposite effect. And if we can’t know whether or not we are in love, does it make sense for us to say that we are self-deceived in love?
Maybe heartbreak is not so much a state or a judgment as it is an activity, and so our usual way of thinking about the emotional condition (“truly loved,” “falsely loved,” “the truth of my love was revealed”) does not fit heartbreak very well. There are certainly lots of judgments that go into heartbreak: “She didn’t love me as much as I thought she did!” “I’m unlovable!” “I am a different person than I was before, part of me is gone!” “He is too good to love someone like me!” “If only he could see how much I really love him, if only he could hear me, he couldn’t help but love me back!” And of course there is a small subgenre of art, literature, music and film devoted to this subject (as in like, half of all of it). Take that brilliant image of heartbreak from the late eighties: John Cusack standing in the rain with his boombox over his head (the real reason we still love Cusack after so many badly chosen roles). Judgments are part of the activity of heartbreak, I think, but are not sufficient to its description (the judgment without the heartbreak, Kant would say, is empty); just as heartbreak without judgments — what I have called primitive pain and Proust calls simply “suffering” — would be blind.
So what is heartbreak? We have broken some ice, but haven’t made as much forward progress as I would like. Please look for “Heartbreak Revisited” in two weeks.
Photo by suez92
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