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Love opens onto a very great risk, but this risk is the measure of the incredible value we place on another per­son. We make him or her this valuable because we need to do so, because we receive something in return. Love tells us that things are never quite right with us when we’re alone. We’re not made to be alone, just as we’re also not made to be in large groups. This doesn’t mean that everything is automatically fine when we’re with another person. But when we are with him or her, we know that “something’s going on,” as they say. We are made to be in relation with another person, one with whom “some­thing’s going on”-something that’s never definable but that’s a real relation, in the strong sense of the word. I’m not saying that we are all, or always, made to spend our entire lives with one and the same person. It’s true, though, that love does say this “love ever after.” We do promise to love each other forever, but then sometimes it’s all over three days later. But that’s part of the risk of this absolute commitment.

God, Justice, Love, Beauty by Jean-Luc Nancy, tr. by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Fordham University Press, [2009] 2001, p. 76

This is a transcription of a talk given by Jean-Luc Nancy at Montreuil’s Center for the Dramatic Arts as part of a series titled “Little Dialogues.” (Petites Conférences). The talk was given in front of children aged between six and twelve years old. It is part of a series of talks about various topic which includes, as the title of the collection suggests, “God”, “Justice” and “Beauty”.

This particular talk on the theme of “Love” took place in Montreuil, on February 2, 2008. One can read a detailed review of the entire collection at the Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy: “Jean-Luc Nancy, God, Justice, Love, Beauty” by Jason Harman, Aug. 1, 2011. The talk on love was published in French in 2008 as Je t’aime un peu, beaucoup, passionnément. Petite conférence sur l’amour (Paris: Bayard).

In the passage I’m quoting here, Jean-Luc Nancy is discussing the rhyme “I love you a little, a lot, passionately, madly, not at all.” It continues as follows:

Let’s now move on to the last two parts of the rhyme, “madly, not at all.” In fact, we’ve already entered into the issue of “madly.” There is a sort of madness in the risk, the engagement, in the very act of cherishing, of giving to the other person and of receiving from the other person a value beyond all value. We depart from all that is reasonable in terms of relations between people: we are engaged with each other more than we could be in any other rela­tion. We open up to each other, move toward each other, and expose ourselves to a great deal, so it is very difficult to know at what point the other person might be asking too much. Am I right to feel that he or she is asking too much of me, or is the problem with me not knowing how to go far enough? This is an extremely delicate issue, dan­gerous and difficult. Such a powerful and unique relation between two people is very difficult. Each of them is risk­ing a lot because they must both break from their sense of self-satisfaction and from their self-containment, from what is called “narcissism.“

My calm is endangered when I’m in love, for love doesn’t make you calm. But when a bracing disquiet tips over into a tormented one, it can’t go on any longer. At the extreme, it’s even possible for two people to destroy each other. The dream of lovers in all great love stories is of dying together, like Romeo and Juliet. Very often, old couples who have lived together for their entire lives expe­rience the desire to die together. It is very difficult for these old couples to imagine one of them surviving the other and continuing alone in life. The idea of dying together sug­gests that death may be the only way of completely being together, whereas, by contrast, there is nothing more alive than love.

But there is also a sort of madness when love asks too much. Love is thrilling, and it can make you want to do anything. But in the end it can also ask too much of the other person and of yourself. It is a kind of madness, but all the same, it is a madness that shows its real worth, a worth beyond measure. Love demands a total freedom and a total devotion from the other person. Let’s face it: in a very real sense, the demand of love is a contradictory one.

In the game of the daisy, we always hope to land on “madly.” “Passionately” is already not too bad. Right after “madly,” though, you land on “not at all,” because it can all come to a halt or fall flat for no reason, just as it began. But that doesn’t mean you have to give it all up after the first minor disagreement. If you do that, it wasn’t love. But if the disagreement is greater and goes on for a while, it could be that it is both necessary and proper to break things off. The “not at all” of the rhyme means that love, even the truest love, can always be lost. It is never guaran­teed. If a love were guaranteed, it would not be love. (pp. 76-78)

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