Lefebvre on Love

In April this year I got married. We had already had a legal ceremony the previous year, and with the freedom to organise our own ‘fake’ ceremony on the day of the wedding, I chose a short passage by Henri Lefebvre as a reading by my sister.

Lefebvre is not usually known for his writing on romantic love (especially in the context of geography), and its appropriate to his style of writing and thinking that the passage I found occurs as a tangent in the middle of a piece of writing which is really about something quite different. It also required a fair bit of editing and pruning to make it suitable as a wedding reading. The passage in question came from Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life in the essay ‘Marxism as Critical Knowledge of Everyday Life’, originally published in 1947.

The version of this paragraph which my sister and I eventually agreed on is heavily truncated from the original, and takes a lot of liberties in cutting down on Lefebvre’s characteristically florid prose:

Regarding love, the term “to possess” (for example, to possess a partner) brings with it a long procession of feelings, aspirations, prejudices and myths. Still too frequently the myth of possession is countered by the myth of non-possession, according to which love is just a function, an inessential activity which does not involve the human being in their totality. The truth is that a person’s relationship will be richer, more human, more complex, more joyful, with someone who is free than with someone who allows themselves to be “possessed”. The tendency of this relationship will be to enter everyday life; to allow their presence to instill other relationships, which will be created through them, but not without them.

The full text of this diversion about love (when he is meant to be writing about economic alienation) goes like this:

I chose this passage partly because it has a lot of quite pithy lines — the bit about love being more jofyul with someone who is free than who allows themselves to be possessed is ripe to be repurposed for a valentines day card or similar — but also because it expresses the strange contradictions between public relationships and private relationships that an event like a wedding invokes. It suggests that love is something which happens publically despite being simultaneously deeply personal and expressed through private metaphors (of posession, having and holding). The idea of love which Lefebvre is describing is of something that is negotiated and given meaning through everyday life. Love which did not change the possibilities of your daily life would not really be love. And he counterposes this to a romantic idealised vision of love as total union or posession with another being, and to a purely functionalist reading of love as something which satisfies some private impulse and is essentially hedonistic. This is something which also reminded me of the book Conditions of Love by John Armstrong (which my sister gave me a few years ago) and its perspective on love as a long-term process defined more by creating yourself and altering how you engage with the world around you than by finding or desiring something external to you.

This passage though comes in a section entitled ‘Critique of Money’ in an essay where Lefebvre is arguing that Marxist thought should be primarily concerned with matters of everyday life. In this section Lefebvre criticises a sentimental attitude to money which disparages it as vulgar and unimportant in favour of praising the nobility and soulfulness of poverty. He argues for a rehabilitation of wealth: “Wealth is neither an evil nor a curse. Wealth, like power, is part of man’s greatness and of the beauty of life.” The problem is that the wealth that we typically encounter is privatized, rather than social and universal (as Lefebvre thinks it should be, and will increasingly become). But this also requires a change to our understanding of how wealth is accessed and enjoyed. In the time Lefebvre is writing he sees “posession” as the only way in which a subject has a relationship with an object outside of itself — we enjoy wealth by posessing it. But this is hugely limiting, and closes off humans from the diversity of complex relationships they can have with the objects and people and the ‘wealth’ of the world, and the network of different relationships they could encounter and remake the world through. At present, Lefebvre writes, it is only money which allows humans to actively enter this huge network of relationships with the world around them. Money is uniquely positioned as the only way in which most of us can access the beauty and wealth of the earth, and so limits us to a narrow and myopic way of experiencing the relationships, objects and places we encounter (and a narrow conceptualisation of what it then means to be human).

The analogy of love comes in to illustrate this point — that if humans only view love as a relationship defined by either by posession or by non-posession, then they are likewise limiting the possibilities of love, which can and should be a way that humans come to know the world differently. They are limiting themselves to being a private individual, who remains separate (inaccessible, indifferent) from the networks around them. We are social creatures, Lefebvre argues, and it is only through and with other creatures that we can realise ourselves.

Lefebvre’s humanism here looks a little old-fashioned and sentimental in its own ways in 2022. The passage on love is especially coloured by his disdain for ’emanciptated feminine personality’, his praise for jealousy, and some of his language choices. This is a text that was very influential in the French left of the 1960s and you can see the roots of some of the misogyny, romanticism, naivety and Beautiful-Soul-ism which characterised that movement. But for me it is also valuable and read a defence of love in these terms, as a public yet personal relationship which ‘humanizes’ (in diverse and plural ways) its subject and object at the same time. I’m not sure whether Lefebvre is writing about purely romantic love here, or about companionship, friendship and the other loving ways in which humans enter into relationships — but I read it as the latter, as a statement on the diverse ways of loving and being human.

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