Thursday, February 14, 2008


What Jessica Benjamin writes in her first book The Bonds of Love (1988) Chapter 1 "The First Bond" about love is appropos to quote on Valentine's Day, when Cupid, or Eros, is celebrated at the fore front:

the sensation of love: relaxing the boundaries of the self in communion with others

requires an awareness of one's own internal experience, a recognition that others have it too, and the possibility of sharing these. The attunement of two separate subjects who can momentarily share the same feeling brings joy, increased by the simultaneity of connection and separateness.

Perhaps the greatest struggle in a relationship is the one which strives to balance the tension between two, separate subjects, each with her/his own desire and agency. The human desire to assert one's self, one's autonomy, will, agency, subjectivity is at odds with the desire for recognition, connection, communion, attachment. This tension is so precarious that some find themselves believing that to love is to submit one's will to the other, or have the other submit her/his will.

As in therapy, where one can be oneself, be authentic, and accepted for whom one is, warts and all, many long for love which includes security, safety, feeling important and special to the other, as well as the newness and unpredictability that comes only with another subject, not from a love object,

and, (Benjamin) in erotic life:

"when we experience together the gulf that separates us, we recognize our mutual condition...[thereby] creating sexual excitement."

In erotic union we hope for transcendence, a connection to the outside world. We hope for completeness of our inner world, a "true self" [Winnicott] experience. The other can become for us a "transformational object" [Bollas], helping to regulate the discomfort generated by the everyday activities which may be dissonant with our authentic feelings. We, as well, can participate in an act of creativity, affecting the other and creating a new space for relationship.

In Like Subjects, Love Objects Benjamin writes, "One must recognize another other as another subject to fully experience the self in the other's presence."

Benjamin writes that pornography uses both the intrapsychic fantasy of relationship with an (idealized or denigrated) object as well as an intersubjective acknowledgement of an other, and the erotic transference must look to both the intrapsychic forces as well as the intersubjective.

History (in case you were wondering)
There are numerous legends about St. Valentine, who may or may not have been more than one person, but, in general, Claudius II Emperor of Rome was the Scrooge of love: He forbade marriages and engagements because they interfered with military recruitment. So, the Bishop Valentine married young couples in secret. For this, or perhaps for refusing to denounce Christianity, he was martyred in about 269 AD. While awaiting execution in jail, he befriended, or fell in love with, the jailor's daughter Asterius. Allegedly he performed the miracle of restoring her sight (helpful if one is to be sainted later), but, at any rate, signed a farewell love note to her: "Your Valentine." Voila! Now we all can send valentines to our friends and loved ones. (Thank you, Hallmark.) By the way, the relics of St. Valentine can be found buried at the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, moved there in 1836 courtesy of Pope Gregory XVI.

Valentine's Day falls, as every school kid knows, on February 14th. This was another conflation of celebration by the (Catholic) Church, this time with the Roman pagan Feast of Lupercalia which fell on February 15th and followed Juno Februa (Juno the purifier, the queen of the Roman pantheon) which fell on February 14th. In the 4th century, young Roman men and women celebrated with a lottery where couples were paired off as a rite of passage. Pope Gelasius frowned on this encouragement of carnality and so in 496 AD replaced the diety Lupercus with St. Valentine. Young Roman men, having given up the Lupercan, and adopting St. Valentine's name, now courted young women with their handwritten declarations of love.

This exhibition of love from antiquity was revived in the Middle Ages, compounded with the, then, belief that birds chose their mates in mid-February, and promulgated by the likes of Chaucer (1382). Even Ophelia remarks on St. Valentine's Day (Lucky Tampa, discussing Hamlet on March 15). In fact, many poets, Dayton, Donne, Wadsworth wrote of birds and Valentine's Day. The printing press allowed for anonymous, and, therefore, risque, declarations (which would later scandalize Victorians) and, by the 16th Century, Cupid the son of Venus the Roman goddess of Love adorned valentine cards along with the heart shape we know today. (Freud preferred the Greek Eros, son of Aphrodite. For an interesting take off from Eros and Psyche, read C.S. Lewis' novella Till We Have Faces.)

Clinical Questions (ala J. Benjamin):

1. How does one recognize the other as an equivalent center of experience?

2. In any relationship, how does one contain, rather than resolve, contradictions?

3. How do we recognize the other with her/his differences without assimilating or repudiating the other, without turning the other subject into an object? [Identification preserves difference by allowing for different "self-positions" even while relating to the other as an object. It also helps with empathy and acceptance of difference.]

4. How to we accept the unknowability of the other?

5. How does one balance the desire to be connected with the wish to be independent and separate?

6. How do we help our patients "acknowledge the value of what has been banished?"

7. Does the inability of our patients to allow for love and nurturance from others reflect a defensive clinging to an [American, and some psychoanalytic] ideal of self-sufficiency and omni-competence?

8. How do we recognize the mutuality of influence between patient and therapist even while acknowledging the assymetry of our roles?

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