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« McEwan and the Progenitors of the Novel | Main | FUN HOME, Virginia Woolf, and the End of our Literary Sequence »

McEwan and Love (Among the Ruins)

This summer, we're turning to six books about love, starting with McEwan's ATONEMENT, a book much invoked in this group without being read.

A moment of confession: we've been leading up to ATONEMENT for a while--first with McEwan's SOLAR in the fall of 2010 and then ENDURING LOVE this past January. I had wanted us to read THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS before we got to ATONEMENT, but it just seemed the time was right. (If you want to see some of the discussions of McEwan on this blog, including a terrific interview with Richard Dawkins, click here and here.)

OK, about love. Most consider it the foundational or essential human virtue. Surely three centuries of novels should convince us of that, if not a hundred years of movies and many more centuries of theater. Dante makes it so in his DIVINE COMEDY, as does Saint Paul ("And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.")

Still, I would ask you three questions:

1. Why is love the foundational human virtue? Or is it at all? We could name others: faith, fidelity, safety, loyalty. We could even build a case that one of these is more important than love. Would not selflessness be a more important virtue than love? Or is selflessness another way of talking about love?

2. Is love a virtue? I don't mean "is it virtuous?" I think we could all agree that it is. But is it really a virtue at all, but rather an emotion? That's certainly been the trajectory of the last three hundred years in the West. Love has morphed from a volitional virtue, something you choose because it's the right thing to do, into an emotion, one that knocks you on the head at inopportune moments, an all-consuming feeling touted by Hallmark, Hollywood, and every teenager out there. Is it an emotion? And if so, is it then an effective cornerstone for human contact and progress, as so often claimed, whether implicitly or explicitly? Do you want to build a society on an emotion? (This question, by the way, will dog us all summer.) Put simply, is "falling in love" the same thing as "an act of love"? And if not, why are the two so often confused?

3. Finally, is love inherently self-contradictory? It is often thought of as selflessness, yet selfless acts are more often than not tragic acts (throwing yourself on a grenade to save others, donating a kidney, forgiving infidelities, handing over copious sums of money to your children). Even so, let's grant that love is selfless. It's also selfish, no? Love as an emotional attraction, love as sexual attraction, love as the basis for marriage--these are all selfish acts, fulfilling personal desires. Even the idea that love and marriage form the basic social contract--that is, the foundation of social stability (hello, Shakespeare, and every comedy you ever wrote)--is selfish, for my benefit. I claim it's selfless but it sure makes a strong social structure for me.

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