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Head Over Heels

This post follows from my previous two posts which dealt with different aspects of freedom, as well as themes I explored musically in my nihilism playlist. Today, I’d like to talk about the very old and still popular idea that there is little difference between falling in love and losing one’s mind—and why such madness is desirable.

Something happens and I'm head over heels…

The equation of that crazy little thing called love and the experience of losing oneself to madness is something which jumps out in much of our language and imagery. This is the case in the disorienting phrase head over heels. And a similar sentiment is reached with the phrases love drunk or drunk with the wine of love. And from there it is a short step to comparisons between love and drugs (or addiction)—though the sentiment of being overpowered is the same throughout these. This post will explore why it can be good to be overpowered, and how it can be destructive to attempt to overpower certain things like love.

This theme goes back quite far. An old Greek poet named Anacreon wrote about being mad with the sting of love. And a love potion, a symbol dating back many hundreds of years, might otherwise be used to express being overwhelmingly enamored. Drinking a love potion is a unidirectional ritual, which, once done, was thought to form a bond that not even God could break. John R. Haule writes:

“In the Middle Ages, one way of indicating that two people had fallen irretrievably in love was to say they had drunk a love potion. This meant that they were no longer in control of themselves. Their entire beings were bound to one another in a mystical and magical way, to be sure, but also in a physical way. As lead into gold, they were transformed by the alchemical draught they had imbibed so that they were no longer two. They were now entirely of one single substance, bound in such a way that even God could not separate them without abrogating the laws of Nature.”

One can even recall cartoons from childhood where a character’s eyes were overtaken by big red hearts as they floated ethereally through the air towards their beloved. So even children can appreciate how love is like being swept off of one’s feet and carried by something more powerful than you.

Overall, there seems to be a strong correlation, historically and in the public imagination, between love, madness, disorientation, and being a relatively helpless sailboat to love’s infinitely willful winds.

A pressing concern naturally arises from the intersection of these ideas and the different understandings of freedom which I explored in my last two posts: If love is a maddening, disorienting experience which makes you lose control, then it is at odds with modern freedom (which equates to power). But it is not at odds with metamodern freedom, and, in fact, they are strongly correlated in the worldview which sees the ascent to freedom as an unfinishable but always-worthwhile progression towards perfect obedience to one’s true purpose.

To expand on this, take modern freedom, first. It says that freedom is the presence of options, combined with a willful consciousness to choose between them. The more choices there are, and the fewer restraints on your power to choose, the more free you are.

And then along comes love.

You may tell yourself you still retain the power to negate love by exercising your “freedom” (as choosing to stay with someone or leave)—even as it may remain obvious that you love this person regardless of these decisions. So, if love hovers above whatever blind and frantic movements constitute modern freedom, it will appear to a freedom “modernist” that love is as a dark cloud portending oppression.

The most straightforward point to make about this necessary conclusion, that love is to be passionately avoided—which follows from modern freedom’s metaphysical premises—is that it is preposterous. It loudly and dissonantly clashes with the intuition that love is perhaps the greatest thing any person can experience. And yet, with its nihilistic core, modern freedom has no choice but to twist itself into a pretzel of incomprehensibility when it attempts to reconcile love and freedom as both concepts and actual human strivings. This should be taken as further evidence of a point I made in my previous post: Metamodern freedom is a more coherent idea than modern freedom not only because of its universal applicability and non-anthropocentric point of view, but also because pursuing it harmonizes with the pursuit of love—instead of violently and paradoxically clashing with it as modern freedom does. In a metamodern worldview, love and freedom are as they should be: Partners.

Metamodern freedom warmly accepts love’s benevolent madness; while, in a complementary sense, love relies on freedom as part of its telos. Modern freedom is a philosophy of dogmatic option-maximization and coercion-minimization, and makes essentially no demands on the presence of ends to which means are attached. In contrast, metamodern freedom considers ends (in metaphysical first principles) prior to considering ways of reaching those ends. Thus, love and freedom have much in common. Love is the energy which connects means and ends. And freedom is the property taken on by subjects as they orient this energy towards more or less perfect objects (such as, for example, physical items, people, or ideas). And if we are born into distraction, then falling in love is arguably a desirable disorientation—a movement from a large pool of plentiful but meaningless choices to a singular obedience towards the most meaningful possible ends. A freedom “metamodernist”, being lifted off the ground by love, would exclaim “carry me away!”—for staying is nowhere, says Rilke. Freedom, it turns out, is the fruit of madness.

Modern freedom has a knife at the throat of love, and, with violently imposed safety, keeps it at a distance. The separation grants us power, but costs us that which is far more dear: value, meaning, and purpose. We fear love’s madness, not knowing that we need it.

A reader who commented on a draft of this post used the expression “having one’s cake and eating it too” to describe the landscape of modern love. And this is exactly right. So I want to conclude this post with a few thoughts on love and freedom in our present cultural context, and, most specifically, the way in which the Sisyphean tendency to murder Eros is currently taking place.

This post may seem, to some, to be placing love in a negative light. That is not the intention, and a proper understanding can only be reached when you strip away some of the negative meanings of “madness”.

Patrick Harpur writes:

“‘Our greatest blessings’, remarked Socrates in the Phaedrus, ‘come to us by way of madness.'… [And] if the denial of divine madness leads to insanity, so, conversely, the cure for insanity is to convert it into madness, which is initiatory.”

Indeed, we are facing a spiritual and moral crisis of our own making through repression of necessary madness which continually “initiates” is into new and better versions of ourselves. And it is insanity, not madness, which is our ailment.

As such, the point should be made that all of the language (like “head over heels”) which conveys love’s madness should not be taken as an indictment or warning. To be lovingly enthralled is a blessing which only a nihilistic and metaphysically flat worldview could mistake as a curse. Which is why in today’s world we see a glorification of power which masquerades as love.

One prominent case of this is the phenomenon of online dating. It is straightforwardly an appeal to those who wish to have: the maximum number of options, the fewest number of constraints, and the power to exercise control over love as easily and completely as one may block a number from one’s phone.

To the app-immersed generations currently coming of age, perhaps few things could be as uncomfortable and antithetical to modern freedom as the idea that falling in love is the genesis of obedience. But it is just this shift in mindset that will save us from our insanity. We must allow love to retake its place as the energy which connects us to our true selves and thus, by driving us madly, drunkenly in love, leads towards the perfection of ourselves and all of reality.

In an upside-down world, falling head over heels means seeing things as they truly are. Love may yet be salvific if we can trust the method of its madness over our own tendency to desire power (in this case as the desire to control something—love—which by its nature is beyond our control). So this post is not a warning against love or madness, but an invitation to both.

This point, that love-as-madness carries us somewhere we must go, is a logical deduction based on simpler metaphysical principles. Love connects our actions with something, and that something is ontologically more fundamental than either our actions or love as interaction between these. To be brief about it, that something is approximately "value per se", the "possibility of perfected value", or simply "perfection". In my upcoming book, and in a long history before it, this is also called the Good.

As such, to experience anything at all which is valuable, meaningful, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and so on, one must be a living point of connection between action, love, and perfection. And, since qualities of experience such as meaningfulness seem self-evidently desirable, we must embrace love's so-called madness; which is really another way of saying that, based on these basic premises of reality, to be truly ourselves, and to participate in the perfection of everything, obedience to love is necessary. It is not to be brutishly overpowered—because this would cut our connection to everything good. We would gain power, but, by giving up benevolent madness, succumb to true insanity.


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