Love: Thick and Thin

In philosophy it is not uncommon to apply the words thick and thin as descriptors of ideas. Philosophers talk then about a thick view of humanity, meaning there is depth of nuance and meaning that need to be understood when discussing humanity. Or a thin view of God meaning that someone’s understanding of God might be overly simplistic or limited to certain attributes. I think it is fair to say that most people today have a rather simplistic or thin view of love, which is odd because it is clear that we put a heavy burden on love, the typically thin view does not have the metaphorical shoulders to bear such a weight. 

Thin Love

In a recent article at The Wall Street Journal, Jeanne Safer wrote about the “bleak picture of modern love” as it is presented in two high profile films—Fifty Shades Darker and La La Land. I have not seen nor read any of the 50 Shades series, though I am familiar with the controversy over its success as, essentially, mainstream erotica and depiction of romance and relationships. Safer writes:

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the monochromatic “Fifty Shades Darker” returns to the first movie’s sadomasochistic themes. Though it presents itself as a soft-core porn fantasy, the movie is conventional at its core. Whips, chains, leather straps and riding crops may have become the aphrodisiacs du jour in some circles, but this time around the plot—heavier on melodrama than the first—leads inexorably to the oldest trope in movies, a marriage proposal. It’s “Pride and Prejudice” redux, without the wit or the wisdom.

“La La Land” is more radical in its way. It’s a genuine departure from the typical romantic formula because ambition, in the end, trumps love. The seemingly ill-assorted hero and heroine encourage and applaud each other—he tempering her insecurity and she his grandiosity—but they can’t figure out how to stay together through a temporary separation. When lovers are too immature to deal with conflicts, love does not conquer all. It is a darker but perhaps more realistic view of the two-career relationship than we usually get at the movies.

Despite their self-consciously naughty accouterments, the “Fifty Shades” movies are actually a steamy variant of a very old fantasy: the idea that the love of a good woman—and in this case, her submission to degrading sexual practices to save her beloved from his tortured past—can transform a cold man into a warm one.

But it never does. It’s a pernicious fantasy of relentless hope, whose harmful effects I see every day in my psychotherapy practice (and experienced, fortunately long ago, in my own life).

— Safer, What ‘La La Land’ and ‘Fifty Shades’ Get Wrong About Love”, Wall Street Journal

Much has been written about the troubling content of 50 Shades, so we’ll skip to La La Land and content ourselves with Safer’s critique.

I saw La La on an anniversary date with my wife and we both enjoyed it. My wife told me that she was hoping the final scene, where we see how Sebastian and Mia turned out five years later would reveal that Mia (SPOILERS) had ended up with Sab and that the husband and child were revealed to be actors on Mia’s latest project. Instead, as Safer notes, what we find is that Sab and Mia had gone their own ways and whatever future they could have had—as displayed in the imaginative ‘what if’ of Sab’s final turn at the piano—was sacrificed at the alters of their careers and dreams. Yes, a modern love story indeed. Safer, here again makes an interesting point:

Even though the relationship between the struggling artists in “La La Land” has the ring of truth—their dialogue could have been lifted verbatim from the conversations an actress patient of mine reports having daily with her actor boyfriend—its denouement depends on an utterly improbable plot twist. It’s hard to imagine that a famous casting director would really show up at the one-woman show of an unknown actress and then build a movie around her.

In other words, sacrificing a year long relationship may or may not be the right thing to do, but not all opportunities pan out and not all dreams are what you would have hopped they would be. Which brings me to my reason for enjoying the film. It was well done, but no where in the realm of Best Picture until the final look between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Having laid down the tragic and regretful and beautiful reoccurring theme—the song that Mia had first seen Sab playing early in the film—Mia and her unawares husband go to leave, she turns for the classic last look, but Sab just stares at the piano, until a smirk manifests and he looks up, with a nod and smile. That look, for me, undid years of painfully cheery rom coms. Sebastian doesn’t get the girl, he got his jazz club instead. Mia didn’t get the boy, she did get a boy, a baby, and an acting career though. So everything is okay. Its not how it was imagined, its not perfect maybe, but its okay. Acceptance the final stage of grief. 

In this sense I have to disagree with Safer about La La, it does present a immature version of love, a thin version of love, but that is the very tragedy of the film, the thing which makes the film great—thin love fails. If Mia and Sab had been together at the curtain call, then all would have been lost. No Academy Award. No one would care that Stone was the second Emma to be considered for the role. No post cinema sales. La La would have been another reel to toss on the heap of Nicholas Sparks films in some producer’s dumpster. You need Mia and Sab to fall apart in order for the film to make it because the love is thin. It couldn’t survive the tumult of immature aspiring artists in a city that takes hopes and dreams and reverse cinderellas them into cocktail waitresses and valets. Such love would fail the higher stakes travails of marriage too.

Notice the tragic beauty of Sebastian’s re-imagining of their relationship—he imagines it all working out because in his imagination he sacrifices. He loses his the gig with John Legend (by the way the second best scene in the film is the one where Sab plays for the first time with Legend and we see his reaction to the synthesizers), he loses the club, he loses his dream for her. That is mature love, and that is what is needed in order to survive the highs and lows of life. The ‘what if’ at the end of the film is not simply ‘what if it had been me’ it is ‘what if I had been better?’ What if their love had been thick.

Thick Love

There has always been one telling of thick love that has epitomized it better than anything else I have ever encountered. The love of Sidney Carton. In the classic story by Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, the reader is transported to the days of the French Revolution and meets two remarkably similar men. They could be brothers separated at birth and distinguished only by lifestyle. One, Charles Darnay, is the upstanding French immigrant that wins the hand of the lovely  Lucie. The other, Sidney Carton, is a brilliant lawyer with low moral standards. He is a drunk. He is shabby. In a famous line he tells Darnay, upon inquiry about his drinking habits, “I am a disappointed drudge, sir. I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me.” His character description could be that of a young Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ Christmas Carol. And he too falls in love with the lovely Lucie, but he understands that Darnay is the better man.

Carton may be an excellent case for the thin love and pernicious lie of that Safer points to in Fifty Shades, that the cold heart of a troubled man may be transformed by the love of a good woman. Instead though, Carton withdraws from competition for the love of Lucie:

For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything. If my career were of that better kind that there was any opportunity or capacity of sacrifice in it, I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you. Try to hold me in your mind, at some quiet times, as ardent and sincere in this one thing. The time will come, the time will not be long in coming, when new ties will be formed about you… O Miss Manette…when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!

— Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, 149-150

Carton swears not to be a good husband, but to give his life that she might receive the love she deserves. Dickens tells us in through the story how Carton sought to clean up his life in an attempt to be worthy, not to receive the love of Lucie, but merely to love her. An interesting concept. Love, itself, is of such high value to Carton that he strives to be worthy of the love he feels not the love he receives (that of friendship and pity from Lucie). Those who have read Tale will know that he does make good on his promise. 

As the plot of the novel pushes on, Darnay—an immigrant to England—must return to France in the midst of the bloody revolution in order to save an old friend a servant in his manor home (which he had to flee in order to escape the revolution). Darnay is able to get his friend released, but he finds himself arrested and condemned to the blade of the guillotine. Carton, Lucie, and others are in France with Darnay and realize that they will have to flee in order to escape the same fate as Darnay. Carton, then, devises a plan to get Darnay out of the Parisian prison before his execution and get Lucie and co. to safety. This plan, however, requires knocking Darnay out and switching places with him (as they look very similar). Carton goes to the guillotine in Darnay’s place with no-one the wiser (including Lucie) until Darnay awakes wearing Carton’s cloths in a carriage with his sleeping wife and child headed for a port to take them back to the safety of England. Carton will die that Darnay may live, not for Darnay, however, is the sacrifice made, but for Carton’s love for Lucie. 

Carton had a view of love that was thick. In fact, it was thick enough to sustain even outside of a romantic relationship. It was thick enough to allow him to act sacrificially even when an opportunity to be with the woman he loved arose. If Darnay had been killed, it would have easily been within Carton’s grasp to honorably step into Darnay’s place for the widowed Lucie, but instead he seeks a way to spare her pain of losing her husband and to keep his promise to “keep a life you love beside you.”

Biblical View of Love

As with all concepts, simply stating various views is not enough. We have to understand our epistemology as it relates to assessment of the views. Which view of love is right? That is to say, if there is an actual thing, an reality or base of meaning that the word love relates to? Or can we apply the word love to anything we want? Is there, for lack of a better term, a platonic ideal for love? 

As Christians, the know that the Bible, the scriptures, give us our only sure foundation for how to define love or mercy or care in objective terms. There maybe nothing better to quote at length one of the more well-known and regularly quoted passages about love:

[4] Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant [5] or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; [6] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. [7] Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

[8] Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. [9] For we know in part and we prophesy in part, [10] but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. [11] When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. [12] For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

[13] So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

— 1 Corinthians 13:4-13 (ESV)

It ought to be immediately clear that the Bible presents a thick view of love. A love that is not merely romantic or sexual or about self-fulfillment, but “that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love that, unlike the thin love of La La Land, can bear separation, can bear career pursuits, can bear hardship and trials. It sacrifices, it lifts up, it does not insist or impose its will. 

You may not be fans of Valentine’s Day and all that goes with it. I understand that when we consider that much of the images of love that we see on the silver screen is thin love. But thick love, the love of 1 Corinthians 13:4-13, certainly deserves a day.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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