By Tom Ribitzky
“Love Trumps Hate” is a common refrain at every anti-Trump protest I go to. While the message of inclusivity is easy enough to get behind (even CNN’s Van Jones is spearheading a #LoveArmy to promote dialogue with Trump supporters), perhaps it’s too easy and too reductive. Every time I hear this chant or see the phrase written on a placard, I wonder: does it? How is love sufficient? And what kind of love are we talking about?
Plato thinks of love as the ultimate principle of pedagogy in Phaedrus, as steering someone’s soul through dialogue toward a recollection of cosmic beauty and one’s role in the universe. In his 1956 speech, “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” Martin Luther King draws on this concept, understanding love not just as a means of reconciliation, but as a form of cognition, of understanding itself. In the history of thought from Plato to King, there is a pattern of identifying love as both the material and the method of teaching, especially in times of political crisis.
But how? What does it mean to teach love, or at least texts about love, in the age of Trump? In my Great Works courses (it’s difficult to say that first word without cringing now), I teach poems from Ancient Egypt that describe love as a mortal illness. The entire Trojan War is chalked up to Helen of Troy’s love affair. In The Song of Songs, we see love as something that warrants state-sanctioned violence. We all know what happens to Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra don’t fare much better, and neither do Troilus and Cressida.
If there’s anything to learn from these works, then, it’s that love is horrifying, a criticism that my students tend to be initially resistant to until we reach the unit on the Tristan legend. What makes the discourse of love even more alarming is its history of being easily manipulated by reactionary forces. When Hitler was 17, he went to see a production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and was inspired with ambitions to be an opera director. In many ways, he realized this goal: taking Wagner’s aesthetic of the total work of art, he ended up orchestrating a state to the tune of his totalitarian megalomania, aiming to entrance the masses the way Tristan and Isolde are drugged by the love-potion, dictated by apocalyptic forces beyond their control. Every iteration of the Tristan legend is always an expression of apocalypse, of fulfilling a love at the expense of the world (hence Lars von Trier’s opening of Melancholia: a vision of a planet colliding with earth in a “Hollywood kiss” to Wagner’s Tristan Prelude).
When I teach the reception history of the Tristan legend, I bring up Adorno’s essay “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” where he observes that, under Hitler, the “concept of love was relegated to the abstract notion of Germany. […] The mechanism which transforms libido into the bond between leader and followers, and between the followers themselves, is that of identification.” In the image of the Führer, the Nazis fell in love with themselves. Quite the Love Army, indeed.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, this thought goes back to Plato, who establishes the template for this narcissistic dynamic as a universal model of love. I recently taught his Symposium for the myth that we are all descendants of astral beings with four hands and four legs, severed in half before tumbling to earth. We continue roaming the earth searching for our other halves—which is to say, searching for ourselves. The delusion is that we have another half to search for; too many generations have already elapsed from that primordial separation, but we preserve the inherited trauma in our quest for what we call love. Derrida carries the critique of this logic further, asking whether Narcissus and Echo, perhaps the only lovers ever to have (not) existed, can even love at all.
If love is a trap of narcissism, is it really the answer to a country ruled by a man who exhibits the traits of a clinical narcissist? Does “understanding” the other side necessarily translate to love? I’m less than convinced. The love that can come to our aid, though, is the love at the core of education, what Simon Critchley calls the “philosophical eros” for works that open us up to different possibilities of being in the world, of conducting ourselves alongside others. What I teach in the humanities, in the tradition that stretches from Plato to Martin Luther King, is the capacity to be receptive to these possibilities. When my students read the Tristan legend again this semester, I’ll take extra pleasure in teaching the European texts alongside the original Persian one, Vis and Ramin, pointing out that these quintessential European lovers are actually immigrants from Iran. In an age of heightened border tensions, teaching this love story—and hopefully getting my students to love it —promotes the kind of understanding that is jeopardized by the immigration bans of the current administration, including the new one that was just passed yesterday.
Tom Ribitzky is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and a Contributing Writer to Visible Pedagogy.