Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance we have been loving an imaginary being. It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent the beloved from having lived.
That is the punishment for having fed love on imagination.
Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace
A similar thought is found in Roger Scruton’s study, Sexual Desire, where he observes that erotic love must be attached to a particular person. An exact copy of the person will not replace that person for the lover. We really love a person – an irreplaceable soul – not a thing that can be copied and replaced.
This same thread of thought is also found in Martin Buber’s profound mediation on the human condition I and Thou. Buber explores the dichotomy between these two approaches to the world:
The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic world is the word pair I-You.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.
From Martin Buber’s I and Thou
Buber does not deny that sometimes we do treat other people as ‘Its’ [or as Kant would put it – as means rather than ends] but Buber argues that our ability to see the ‘You’ in another person is essential to our moral nature. Without this ability to engage in a real I-You dialogue, to see in the other a reality which is equal to, or greater than, our own, then we become an empty vessel.
But we do lose touch with the reality of You. (A reality which is at its most profound and mysterious in our relationship with God – where any possibility of experiencing an ‘It’ is missing).
A profound choice lies before us. The grave possibility of human existence is that we lose touch with the personhood that is essential to love, and essential to our own sanity. We can simply feed on others, losing sight of the inherent dignity of the human person, and in the process we lose the grounds for our own moral dignity.
What we love truly is real. But we can corrupt love not just by failing to love, but by loving what is empty, what is unreal. At our worst we are tempted to love evils, shadows, fantasies and idols. But even when we love people, things or ideals we can still lose sight of their reality.
People turn into relationships; things become our possessions, and ideals are just values. And so our imagination obscures reality.
It is not God, love, personhood or the soul that are imaginary. These are the real things. Rather it is our imagination which can hollow out reality and replace it with things that are more convenient to the self – things that are much easier for us to face, to consume or live up to.
We are offered wine; but we can choose to drink only water.