Ulitskaya:Affairs of the heart

Affairs of the heart

Annie Proulx, Ludmilla Ulitskaya, Nicolas Fargues and Alissa York will meet at Lyon's International Forum on the Novel later this month to debate the power and purpose of love in fiction. We present exclusive extracts from their answers to the question 'why so much love?'

Thursday May 15, 2008


Ludmilla Ulitskaya

The formulation of the commandment to love your neighbour is highly portentous: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself". The suggestion is, then, that a person should first learn to love himself, and then to love his neighbour no less.

In the years after the Second World War an immense change in attitudes came about, with people being taught to love themselves. This was done scientifically. Physics was brought to bear, and chemistry and biology, and medicine with all its remarkable achievements in stomatology, cosmetology, and surgery. Psychology raced ahead with persuasive arguments. A multitude of ways were found to assist in the expression of self-love. Factories began producing, representatives started selling. This was a gold mine! Biochemistry devises creams and lotions, designers create sketches of new, even more comfortable trainers, chemists make new anti-allergenic materials, couturiers produce their latest fashion collections. The whole enormous industry seductively whispers, gradually raising its voice to a bellow, "Love yourself! Indulge yourself! Give yourself pleasure! You are worth it!" And how else can anyone express love of themselves?

To go back to the beginning: has happened to the vertical? What has happened to the horizontal? Everything merges in a single focus, love of oneself. A whole civilisation has grown up which urges the individual on to a sterile, aimless love which leads nowhere. "Narcissism" is a term introduced by the world-famous doctor from Vienna, who was highly knowledgeable about the classical world, and here too we find the ancient Greeks were ahead of our own times.

The mythical youth Narcissus was in love with himself, and to this day such infatuation is known as Narcissism. The wise in all ages and all nations have known of this deadly disease of love.

Love is reduced to a solitary point, and all its variety and its nuances vanish: no verticals, no horizontals. There is no longer any creativity, or gratitude, or delight at the world. Even the instinct of love dissolves, the erotic love which urges people into embraces. Love of children, of parents, of friends is blunted. Dr Freud designated the early phase in a child's development "auto-eroticism", a primary emotional discovery of oneself and the surrounding world. As the child develops, this phase passes and the first promptings of the emotion of love directed beyond oneself appear. What happens to Narcissus can be seen as a pathological regression, not evolution but inversion. Are we here on the verge of a discovery? The optimistic notion of eternal progress, of movement in some generally forward direction, seems to have taken a knock. In these deliberations, however, we are concentrating on just one aspect, difficult to define but definitive of the very characteristic of being human, and associated with the ability to "deliver" love. But where is it to be directed?

"Why, love yourself, my own dear reader!" Russia's great poet Alexander Pushkin exclaimed sarcastically. The sarcasm passed unnoticed, but the call was heard and understood only too literally. A new literary hero appeared. In the English-speaking world he was Byron's Childe Harold, in the Russian-speaking world Yevgeny Onegin. Both were among the cleverest people of their times, but unquestionably ideologists of egotism, and both had an unenviable fate. Alas, what a bunch of admirers they have spawned, who lack their undoubted merits. "You can be a thoroughly sensible person and think of beautiful fingernails," Pushkin claimed, but someone who thinks of nothing but beautiful fingernails cannot be a sensible human being.

There is now a whole army of people of very varied nationalities, educational levels, professions, and ages. The assistant in the food shop and a great actress, the sportsman, the businessman and the plumber, the schoolboy and the old age pensioner each to the best of their ability and financial means tries to respond to the siren call: "Love thyself! You deserve the best! You're worth it!"

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