The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 123 pp. $14.99.
It’s hard for me to imagine having the nerve, at the age of 56, to publish a book entitled The Art of Loving. This from a man who grew up with a mother who adored her only child to the point of worship, who proceeded to marry a woman who was eleven years older (the marriage was brief) then have an affair with a woman fifteen years older. I wonder what Freud would have thought, or did think (the woman in the affair was Karen Horney, a renowned psychiatrist). Erich Fromm then had a more successful second marriage, though his wife was often ill, and an apparently ecstatic third one, during which he wrote this book. Still, The Art of Loving. Do you really want to speak as an authority on that?
I picked it up because the book and its author were mentioned in a brief biography of the brilliant Charlotte Selver, a longtime teacher of Sensory Awareness, which is a kind of Zen in motion. (My Zen teacher often quotes Selver in her dharma talks, and recommends the book of her teachings, Waking Up.) Selver apparently regarded Fromm as a “brother,” and felt he had many of the same ideas as she about people being alienated from nature and from their own bodies. He felt that a key to learning how to love was being comfortable with oneself. So I thought the book might be worth a look.
We had a copy around throughout my youth in the mid-sixties; my brother bought it in the hope that it was a sex manual. I had the same vain wish. Imagine our horror when we consulted the volume and found sections on maternal love, parental love, even—egad—brotherly love, as well as the love of God. We dropped it like a hot potato.
I enjoyed reading of the book some fifty years later, though I didn’t agree with every word, and continued to be struck by the hubris of the whole enterprise. Fromm sees maternal love as completely unconditional; apparently he was thinking of his own mother, not any number of other mothers throughout the world (including mine, who loved you unconditionally if your manners were superb and you dressed in exactly the right way). Paternal love needs to be earned, through correct behavior and some level of achievement. Erotic love, he felt, should reflect a larger love for all humankind; it is a problem when we adore one person and don’t find in that love our feeling for the human race in general. It is therefore brotherly love that Fromm sees as the largest and in a way the most important. He seems to be referring to kind of human fellow feeling that Whitman expressed ecstatically in Leaves of Grass (though Whitman felt it mostly for men). If our love isn’t all pervasive it isn’t the real thing.
Fromm came from a line of rabbis (though his father was a businessman) and flirted with being a rabbi himself, though he abandoned belief in God in his mid-twenties. His section on the love of God is one of the longest in the book and for me the most interesting. He says that religions begin in a maternal, all-encompassing kind of love, then proceed to a more paternal faith, where people need to earn the favor of God (it seems to me that the Judeo Christian tradition goes in the opposite direction, but maybe I’m missing something). Eventually, though, as religion progresses and becomes more subtle, God is less personified, less anthropomorphic, seen more as an emptiness, not a being at all. He mentions Buddhist and Taoist thought in this regard, also speaks of Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart. “God becomes for Meister Eckhart ‘The Absolute Nothing,’ just as the ultimate reality is the ‘En Sof,’ the Endless One, for the Kabalah.”
It’s interesting to me when Taoism is spoken of as a refinement of religious thinking, when it is quite ancient; Lao Tzu lived well before the birth of Christ. The Buddha, of course, didn’t speak of God at all, though Fromm associates that reluctance with the fact that, since God is a reality and not a concept, there’s virtually nothing you can say that is correct, or shouldn’t be contradicted by your next statement. I’m a little surprised that Fromm, who speaks knowingly of these more subtle views of God, didn’t find any of them palatable. He wrote about them at length but apparently didn’t buy any of it.
Fromm runs briefly through various false forms of love, which involve attachment and neurosis. He also speaks of self-love—which is not narcissism, but an acceptance of everything about the self—as a necessary condition of really being able to love. It is in that connection that he talks about people’s inability to spend time alone by themselves, to get to know themselves in simplicity and silence (and commends the work of people like Charlotte Selver); he outlines and recommends a primitive kind of meditation, but doesn’t go into detail.
The thing that surprised me the most was when he said that, finally, love is an act of will. We don’t fall in love, helplessly and hopelessly (that kind of thing is immature and short-lived) but make a conscious decision to love, not only one person in a special way, but also all of humankind, and all of life. That is a beautiful vision, and agree that he is describing a mature and ideal kind of love (which he exemplified in his later life, according to people who knew him). But can we bring that about through an act of will?
What I’ve found in my own spiritual practice, as incomplete and imperfect as it is, is that through a deeper and more intentional kind of meditation than what Fromm recommends, we discover, or at least sometimes glimpse, a love that is at the heart of all creation. It’s both inside us (as it sometimes seems to be) and outside; it’s everywhere. It isn’t that we are loved, or that we love it; it’s just love, radiating everywhere. I don’t see how you can will yourself to love in that way. But if you abandon your will to that larger thing, if you practice that abandonment on a regular basis, that love begins to permeate your life. You feel it and act from it. Acting from it is the important part.
That’s the love that Jesus saw; it’s why he told his disciples to love God and love one another, not just because that’s the best way to live, but because that puts you at one with the nature of things. The Buddha saw it too, and taught his followers a method for seeing it themselves; love would follow from that. People want to name this love, or enumerate its characteristics, but that’s all talk. The important thing is to live it.
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