Limits, the Penultimate, Thesholds. Love Part 2.


A mediocre love is worth more than a great friendship because love is rich in signs and is fed by silent interpretation...a mediocre or stupid person, once we love that person, is richer in signs than the most profound intelligence.
Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs

Writing about love last time reminded me of something Deleuze and Guattari wrote a few years back, which had a profound effect on me. If you have no idea who Deleuze and Guattarri are, Google will reliably tell you. Deleuze in particular has written some of the most important books in the past 100 years, in my view. He died tragically by falling from a window, which the coroner called suicide but which friends such as Michel Serres claimed was more likely a result of him losing his breath and stumbling (he had a respiratory condition).

One of Deleuze and Guatarri's insights was into the nature of limits, and how important they are to the way we value things. We use limits in every part of our lives, usually without realising what we're doing. For example following on from the picture above, how does a person evaluate (i.e. value) how much to drink at a party? Normally they will have some sort of rough limit or limits that they've set for themselves, often consciously, based upon things like whether they're driving, whether they're sick of hangovers, how much money they have with them, whether they don't want to be 'out of control' etc. Those limits will at the same time define their values in that situation - the limit and the value are really one and the same thing. A limit marks a penultimate point, the step just before you cross a certain threshold. Most if not all of our valuing takes place at this penultimate point, where we assess, consciously or not, whether we want to cross certain thresholds.

What's important in this way of looking at values is that it plugs them back into real-world situations, rather than making them abstract principles which you might 'apply' to a situation. Our values emerge directly from the way we live our lives and the real-time assessments we make about consequences. They're sitting there, part of us, we don't have to 'think' about these things, and they evolve over time as our experiences change.

For alcoholics this diversity of limits tends to collapse into just one - an evaluation of their 'last drink'. Alcoholism is a sophisticated game of this one limit, the alcoholic constantly evaluating which drink should be their last, before they would cross a threshold that scares them. For example which drink would tip them over into a new type of alcoholic life, like hospitalisation, AA or homelessness. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about this. Alcoholism is an -ism because the diverse range of values that might normally be used to guide our drinking behaviour are all swept up into that one question of the last drink.

The same applies to love and relationships in general. We all have a range of limits built into the way we interact with other people, which constitute our values in these relationships. Proust's great (or at least stupendously long) novel talks about this a lot in relation to love and jealousy. Proust noted how often love is 'serial', meaning that it manifests itself in a person having a succession of partners. And how often people seem to repeat the same 'love' over and over again, with each new partner, with the same basic pattern and outcome each time. Each time they're in a relationship it seems brand new and exciting, but take a step back and it's the same pattern being repeated.

You can see this in well established, or new relationships. Where a couple has been together a while they have a very real sense of where the limits are - what things they could say which would create certain reactions, good or bad, in their partner. What sentences or phrases would evoke passion or rage, or which would threaten the relationship itself. For new relationships the limits are still being tested and even created, as the couple feel out the boundaries and limits of the other person. It's usually not until each person has a true sense of the limits or boundaries involved that a relationship could be said to be bedded down, and relationships don't survive when those boundaries are beyond the threshold of what one or both partners can tolerate i.e. it goes against their values, which in practical terms means it would force them to live in a way which would be impossible for them. It would force them to cross a certain threshold.

The many people who have serial relationships i.e. a succession of partners, tend to bring their 'limits' into the relationship and play them with minor or major variations, until the same inevitable outcome is reached i.e. separation. Each love repeats its own ending, what ends one relationship becomes a dominant theme of the next relationship. For example somebody with jealousy issues will tend to repeat the same jealous behaviours that they have with previous partners, maybe transformed from one partner to the next in subtle ways. The more they repeat the pattern with more partners, the more they may tend to introduce this limit at an earlier stage in the way they interact with the other person, as an attempt to control the outcome in ways they've never managed before, and won't again.

(Or it's quite possible some are as Socrates implied, quite content to live the completely unexamined life. In which case the series doesn't end.)

Deleuze's use of the word 'sign' is important. A sign isn't language or a symbol, it's a meaningful event in a life. Like a gesture from a person. A person in love 'reads' signs from their beloved constantly, their face and body and actions - all point to meanings which the beloved is constantly trying to interpret (and which the person emitting the signs may not consciously know either, just as liars are usually not aware of the signs that betray them to good observers). Most importantly a sign forces the person taking it in to think. It's not an intellectual act, it's an experiential reality which the person feels compelled to respond to. If you're in love then the signs your lover emits will force you to think, because your passion will be driving you to find out 'what this means'.

This is why Deleuze says a 'mediocre' love is superior to even the best friendship, because it forces a change upon a person, whereas friendship is normally more about shared ideas and likes and dislikes, which don't require much movement outside a comfort zone. Friends often become friends through just these shared likes and dislikes, which is why they are attracted to one another. Love is a more profound 'spark' where the other person emits signs whose meaning to you is unknown but which you feel compelled to discover. In exploring those signs you are forced to change in ways a friend could never bring about.

For Proust jealousy was absolutely central to love. Why and how it links to the above will wait until next time.

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