As with one of my previous posts, which dealt with love as “madness” or being in a state of head over heels disorientation, this post will explore metaphysical principles of love, with some surprising conclusions. This will also loosely follow from my recent series of posts including: Anti-Anthropocentrism, No One to Love, and my Nihilism playlist.
So: What is “possession”? What do modern and metamodern worldviews say about possession in the context of romantic relationships? Is it necessarily a part of love? And is it a good or bad thing?
To begin, let’s give a definition of possession from the modern and metamodern standpoints. Modern possession can be thought of as: To own; to have in one’s control; to be an autonomous and conscious agent in a unidirectional, power-based relationship with an object, or an objectified person.
“1a: to have and hold as property : OWN b: to have as an attribute, knowledge, or skill 2a: to seize and take control of : take into one's possession b: to enter into and control firmly : DOMINATE c: to bring or cause to fall under the influence, domination, or control of some emotional or intellectual response or reaction.” - Merriam-Webster
Similarly, “possessiveness” is often characterized as a negative trait of relationships in our current menagerie of worldviews. It seems to float in a word-cloud which contains others like “jealousy”, “codependence”, “control”, and “distrust”.
“The quintessentially individualistic act…[is] the claim that one has, by ‘possession,’ separated for oneself property from the great commons of unowned things.” - Carol M. Rose
We are going to focus on possession in a romantic context. But it is, undoubtedly, a concept contextualized by our ideas about possession in other areas, along with adjacent “modern” ideas—namely those involving power, freedom, and property. Let’s explore why that is, and how it contributes to an unfavorable attitude towards possession in romantic love.
To fall madly in love, in today’s world, is to plant an aesthetically beautiful but economically unproductive garden. The garden is surrounded by properties with owners who would love to expand into the space occupied by the garden. Even the two lovers are tempted to replace their intrinsically rewarding landscape with something profitable. The lovers are essentially pitted against each other due to the wider context in which their romance is situated. The default is a utilitarian and often ruthless will-to-power; and selfless and self-sacrificial romance has been deemed an antinomy.
This immediately sets up possessiveness as a trait connected to ownership and power. The ontology of a worldview tends to, one might say, possess everything within its own idiosyncratic hierarchy—a power ontology will hungrily reframe love and beauty in its own terms. Possession, in that case, is thought of as an attempt to control and, ultimately, objectify another individual—to make land of someone, and do what one wishes.
“The term land necessarily includes, not merely the surface of the earth as distinguished from the water and the air, but the whole material universe outside of Man himself, for it is only by having access to land, from which his very body is drawn, that Man can come in contact with or use nature. The term land embraces, in short, all natural materials, forces, and opportunities.” - Henry George
In other words, modern possessiveness is the tendency to objectify and instrumentalize another person (or the planet as a whole). Modern possession in romance mirrors our broken and antimoral relationship to land. It is rightfully scorned.
All in all, “modern” lovers are immersed in a culture which rewards those who are ultra-individualistic, and they will be opposed to possessiveness for the same reasons they must seek power over all else. The general attitude towards love, dating, relationships, sex, and so on is one of contempt for any signs of possessiveness, because it is antithetical to the power-ontologies which form the foundation of many modern worldviews. In particular, these nihilisms will tend towards despising anything which threatens one’s individual sphere of power. And worldviews which include power-ontologies are essentially opposed to love, and so must be opposed to possession.
In other words, nihilism says that power is both the first principle and the purpose (or telos) of everything. It says there is no real value, meaning or beauty in love, because all of these are ontologically recast as faces of power.
“The traditional opponent of moral realism is the nihilist...who denies that there are moral facts or true moral propositions or, as a result, any moral knowledge... The nihilist thinks that moral predicates such as ‘good’, ‘fair’, and ‘wrong’ fail to refer to real properties.” - David O. Brink
Possession, in that case, would be just another ploy—under the guise of what the nihilist considers morality-clothed power—to maximize one’s control by absorbing another person. This is a good enough reason to justify the negative attitude towards the strawman version of possession which is set up by nihilistic metaphysics. And, it’s necessary to note, this version of possession is used in lieu of a much stronger, more inescapable, and more benevolent version of possession. We can tentatively call the latter “metamodern possession” to distinguish it, and allow it room to take on more positive connotations, which follow from its basis in natural law and dominion under absolute perfection.
As a general theme, metamodernism does not overwrite its cultural precedents, but rather enfolds them as systems within a newly-formed metasystem—as a city is to the people who compose and animate it. This means, particularly, that we are not ignoring the actual concern of possession’s negative face. It is obviously possible to possess in a way which harms a relationship, whether that relationship exists between two people, or a person and a planet, or a state and a population. In suggesting a more positive connotation of what it means to possess, in its metamodern context, it should be taken for granted that the pitfalls and dangers of possessiveness are included and not forgotten. Eros is, after all, a hunter. Whether or not metamodern possession is more positive than its predecessor, it is not arbitrary that the Greek god of love was also dangerous, and even reckless.
“Diotima's mythical description applies simultaneously to Eros, Socrates, and the philosopher. Of needy Eros, Diotima says: ‘He is always poor, for he is far from being delicate or beautiful, as people think. On the contrary, he is rough, dirty, barefoot, and homeless; he always sleeps on the ground, in the open air, on doorsteps and in roadways… He sets traps for noble souls, for he is hardy, brazen, and tough; he is always trying to come up with some trick; he wants to be clever and resourceful… He is a fearsome sorcerer, a magician and…a dangerous hunter.’" - Pierre Hadot
In contrast to the modern, power-centric understanding of possession, I would define metamodern possession as: The action or process of taking on the qualities of one’s beloved.
“I am yours However distant you may be There blows no wind, but wafts your scent to me There sings no bird, but calls your name to me Each memory that has left its trace with me Lingers forever as a part of me.” - Derek and the Dominos
In contrast to the lion-like love of most modern metaphysics, the symbol of metamodern love is surely the unicorn. Famously untamable, allegorically interwoven with Christ and his impossible-yet-worthwhile challenge for us (Imitatio Christi), and beguiling all beguilers, the unicorn exemplifies bidirectional possession. Any attempt to trap or control the unicorn leads to the trapping of the trapper.
In Iris Murdoch’s “The Unicorn”—a book I have already mentioned in two other posts and which is apparently bottomless in the depth of its insights—a character named Hannah is our unicorn. She is physically confined in Gaze Castle (a male-domination symbol par excellence), and yet the story unfolds around a cast of characters who are possessed by her. Possessing Hannah rather literally in a castle nonetheless makes her especially vorticial in her possessive pull. The others in the story place all of their attention on her, and largely find her to be a helpless woman in need of rescue—a woman who is, in fact, entranced:
“Marian: It sounds to me as if she were really under a spell, I mean a psychological spell, half believing by now that she’s somehow got to stay here. Oughtn’t she to be wakened up?” - Iris Murdoch
Murdoch seemed to love turning perennial narratives on their heads—in this case through love stories which feature mutual possession, rather than the unidirectional possession which is far more common in literature.
“Metamodern lovers” arrive at different conclusions from modern lovers due to a metaphysically distinct point of departure. Symbolically, I call this the shift from lion to unicorn. One significant change entailed in this is the movement beyond nihilism—which I have been exploring in my recent work. Starting from a place of metaphysical nihilism will naturally make one resistant to a kind of love which involves such things as madness, obedience, and possession. All of these threaten power.
But one might notice at this point that even modern love does not refute the presence of possession, but only warns against it. The same was said about the ‘madness’ of love.
Metamodern love, situated as it is in worldviews which do not grant ontological supremacy to power, has different ideas about romantic possessiveness built into it. In the budding new worldviews of the metamodern epoch, I see a potential rebirth of value-ontologies. Or, in other words, lovers will tend to believe that Value per se (or the Good) is the most basic, first principle of reality. Max, another character in The Unicorn, gives voice to this view while conversing another character, Effingham:
“Effingham: Do you believe in God, Max?… Max: I believe in Good. So do you. Effingham: That’s different. Good is a matter of choosing, acting. Max: That is the vulgar doctrine, my dear Effingham. What we can see determines what we choose. Good is the distant source of light, it is the unimaginable object of our desire. Our fallen nature knows only its name and its perfection. That is the idea which is vulgarized by existentialists and linguistic philosophers when they make good into a mere matter of personal choice.” - Iris Murdoch
And, because of this, the purpose or telos of love is not power, but mutual exaltation in the light of an absolute Good. To possess a metamodern heart, desire that the greatest possible perfection should reach that heart—as if it were your own. This makes Leibniz sound quite metamodern, though he wrote before the postmodern era had even begun.
“There are two ways in which one can desire the welfare of another: the first, that of the scheming man, because it will lead to his own welfare; and, the second, the way of the lover, as if it is his own welfare.” - Gottfried Leibniz
This, too, resembles Plato’s metaphysics of love. Notably, he says that love (and consequently philosophy and rhetoric) are modes of “soul-leading”. This concept, like love as a skillful hunter, depicts love as having bivalence: It is the best thing in the world if you can survive it; it is dangerously transformative and can be used for more or less moral ends. It is possession in all its multicolored meanings. At best, however, it can be seen as part of the metamodern landscape of love—that part which says that souls always possess each other, and to be moral is to use this “magical” and pervasive persuasion for the good of the other rather than good for oneself. Or, in other words, soul-leading is how philosophers turn others into philosophers—which, for Plato, is equivalent to saying that love may be used to lead others towards more perfect love.
“Psychagogia, literally ‘leading of souls’, is a word used to mean persuasion, with some implication of deception or enchantment… Elizabeth Asmis gives citations and a helpful brief history of the word: ‘The earliest attested meaning of the compound psychagog- is that of ‘conjuring’ or ‘evoking’ souls of the dead. From this use, there evolved the notion of influencing the souls of living people, with the connotation of ‘alluring’ or ‘beguiling’ them'… A wise leader can use her disciple's erotic desire for beauty as a tool by which to lead him to philosophy.” - Jessica Moss
Combined with the ideas we explored previously regarding madness and obedience, this can create a significantly different attitude towards possessiveness. In metamodern love, possession is not a feature of ownership, control, property, or power; rather, it describes spiritual entanglement. If you are mine, and I am yours, possession is a word describing the inescapability of love’s tendency to unify. And it might be most accurate to say that we are both, as lovers, possessed by love—just as we are “driven mad” in a process which involves relinquishing our own power or sense of control. Metamodern possession is a mutual affair; it is sacred participation in the archetype of Love itself.
“When we are in an archetypal situation, we are effectively under the influence or compulsion of a god or daimôn. Most archetypal situations have two poles, the subject, in which the archetype has been activated, and the object, often another person, which has activated it. The subject has been seized by the archetype, and we may say they are ‘possessed’ by the god or daimôn. That is, they are…frenzied or inspired. The other pole, the person, group, object, and so forth, at which the archetypal relation is directed, is perceived as especially significant, or numinous, and the subject projects an archetypal role onto it. The most familiar example of possession and projection occurs between lover and beloved: the lover is possessed by Eros or Aphrodite; the beloved is perceived as a god or goddess incarnate.” - Bruce MacLennan
This, as mentioned above, is brought to life in the figure of Eros. It is also personified in Hannah—the unicorn of Iris Murdoch’s tale. The others need Hannah, and she needs them; it is a story of mutual (or metamodern) possession.
“Hannah: It was your belief in the significance of my suffering that kept me going. Ah, how much I needed you all! I have battened upon you like a secret vampire… I needed my audience, I lived in your gaze like a false God.” - Iris Murdoch
Love, and the metamodern possession I suggest it entails, is dangerous; but not loving at all is still more dangerous. Vulnerability is its own kind of armor—it protects one from the zombie-like condition of appearing to live, yet being fundamentally empty.
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” - C.S. Lewis
As Lewis indicates, impermeability is the sign of a squandered soul. Metamodern possessiveness is the tendency to be truly open to love, and accepting of the changes it inevitably stokes. Becoming obedient to love sets us free; love’s madness enlightens us; and possession is the interdependence which unavoidably accompanies love as a reciprocal uplifting—something which leads towards a theoretically perfect fulfillment of our individual and collective purposes.
Among the major differences in these versions of possession, it seems to be especially important that modern possession is unidirectional, and metamodern possession if bidirectional. The former is an expression of one center-of-power overpowering another, and transforming them from a conscious agent into an object. In other words, the idea carries the notion that possession is something which moves power in one direction—depleting one person while enlarging another. But the latter says otherwise, emphasizing instead how possession moves “something” in two directions, between both lovers, at once. And in this case, it is not about the transfer of power, authority, or ownership at all. Metamodern possession involves a qualitative osmosis which makes a mixture of formerly-separate bodies. And, like madness, it is an aspiration.
Possession ceases to be (at least entirely) negative or threatening once we realize that we can’t romantically possess another without them possessing us. The reciprocal nature of metamodern possession makes it a necessary part of romantic love, and not something to be avoided. It is to be used wisely; and the irreversibility of an arrow from the bow of Eros must be taken seriously.
“Have you remembered Gaspara Stampa sufficiently yet, that any girl, whose lover has gone, might feel from that intenser example of love: ‘Could I only become like her?’” - Rainer Maria Rilke
In love, I am yours, because every moment I love you, you become a bigger part of me. In incremental degrees, I take on (or possess) bits of you; or, in another sense, love, the alchemist, possesses us and makes something new using a blend of both.