Love and Revolution: an interview with Srećko Horvat

  • July 10, 2015

Care & Community

Creston Davis, Director of the Global Center for Advanced Studies, interviews the Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat about his forthcoming book on love.

The 32-year-old Croatian philosopher and activist Srećko Horvat has been described as “one of the most exciting voices of his generation.” Last year, he published a political tract, co-authored with Slavoj Žižek, What Does Europe Want? His new book, The Radicality of Love, is forthcoming from Polity Press.

Here, Srećko is interviewed by fellow philosopher Creston Davis, who is the founder and director of the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS), as well as the organizer of this month’s Democracy Rising conference in Athens.

Creston Davis: Thank you so much for being willing to talk. I had the opportunity to read your forthcoming book, The Radicality of Love. My first question is a seemingly simple one: why love?

Srećko Horvat: When I was flying over to London these days I encountered a rather bizarre advertisement in the British Airways’ inflight magazine High Life under the title “Till Death Do Me Part”. The title was already pretty weird. And I started reading and it said, “Solo weddings offer women their ideal wedding day without the hassle of actually getting married.” So, a travel agency from Kyoto has launched a two-day package that allows women to choose the dress, have their hair and make-up done and undertake a bridal photo-shoot in a traditional Japanese garden. Plus, at around £1,700 it’s far cheaper than an actual wedding. Of course, the first question I asked myself was: why would anyone make a solo wedding? But it perfectly fits into our current narcissistic culture, in which the image of yourself is more important than anything else.

Why love? Because it is in our contemporary “selfie” pandemic that people lost the capability to see another person, to relate to another being, and vice versa, to relate to themselves meaningfully through the other person. Why a book about love? Because it is love that is missing today, not sex. People are more and more in fear of falling in love. This is one of the reasons why, beside phenomenon such as the Kyoto “solo-wedding”, we recently have a new word called “masturdating”.

[Laughs] I haven’t heard of this? What’s this?

It’s coined from masturbating and it means going alone to a restaurant, going alone to cinema, enjoying reading a book on a bench in a public park; it actually means spending time with your, what they would call, “incredible self”. And you could say, wow that is cool, people are not afraid anymore to spend time alone, but, on the other hand, I would say what we have today — and that is the reason why I think we should rehabilitate love — is a depressing narcissistic culture.

Both examples, the Kyoto solo wedding and “masturdating”, are perfect embodiments of narcissism. And it is here that we should recall the fundamental lesson given by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan from his first seminar on “Freud’s Papers on Technique”. Speaking about narcissistic love (or what Freud would call Verliebtheit), Lacan shows that “falling in love” is a phenomenon that takes place on the imaginary level.

What is the exact moment when, for instance, Werther falls in love with Lotte? It’s when he sees her for the first time and she is cuddling a child. It is a moment in which the object coincides with Goethe’s hero’s fundamental image that triggers off his fatal attachment. In Lacan’s words, in falling in love “it’s one’s own ego that one loves in love, one’s own ego made real on the imaginary level.” And this is the sort of narcissistic love that is prevailing today, and the Kyoto solo wedding or “masturdating” are just radical consequences of ego’s realization on the imaginary level.

In the book you develop something of a cartology of love, and one could say a dialectic between two things. This “falling in love”, on the one hand, and on the other, there is “love” as such. What is the difference between the “falling in love” and love as you describe it?

I would say falling in love is the first step, but it doesn’t have to be the first step. People still believe that love on first sight is the only possible way of falling in love. But I would say that even “love on first sight” is always already a construction. It also happens on an imaginary level. Of course, everyone likes to fall in love since there is nothing more fatal than that. And we need fatalism today. We need something we are ready to die for. And in this sense, yes, we need falling in love — but, on the other hand, this is not the end of the story. This is the very beginning. Getting out of narcissism begins when a relationship is being constructed.

There is, of course, a beautiful characteristic of falling in love. When you close yourself with your partner in crime in an apartment and don’t open the doors, when you don’t answers calls to your family or friends; when you stay in bed with your lover the whole day; when you are ready to move your life from one country to another just because of her or him, etc. This is fatalism. However, love is something more.

It’s kind of like the anecdote that you offer in Radicality of Love, that you have to come out of the apartment, come out of Descartes’ “cogito”, or what Peter Sloterdijk refers to as the “cell-egg”  that embodies in contemporary urban architectural space the desire to return into a reptilian “egg”, or even the mother’s womb. A space of the “real” before the symbolic risk.

Srećko: Yes, it’s best embodied in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. You have Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider falling in love in an empty apartment. So each time they are at the apartment no names are allowed. Marlon Brando says to Maria: ‘I just don’t care about your career if you have a boyfriend or if you don’t have a boyfriend. When we are in this apartment it is just the two of us.’ It functions for several weeks and it’s a beautiful love affair and everyone likes the Last Tango in Paris because you can inscribe your own fatal relationships inside the movie.

But what happens at the end of the movie? I think it is precisely the end of the movie that gives us the true meaning of the whole story: they come out of the apartment and during the whole movie Maria Schneider was very curious about the background story of Marlon Brando, she wanted to know who he really is… Does he have a wife or not? What is his career? Etc. So she is very curious and that is a normal feeling. And Brando finally admits: “I’m 45. I’m a widower. I own a little hotel. It’s kind of dump, but not completely a flop house. Then I used to live on my luck and I got married, and my wife killed herself.” And what does she do? She kills him.

I would add the truly tragic character of the movie is not her, but it is actually him. He was ready for love — she wasn’t. For her it was just a narcissistic affair. In order to be ready for love, you need to have the guts to eat, to swallow, more than just your narcissistic image in the mirror. The first test of love is not whether you’ll answer the phone or not while you’re having sex with someone. The real test of love is when, for instance, your grandmother is very ill and she ends up in hospital but your partner is completely focused on her career and she just doesn’t care. This is one of the tests of love: what the other does in such a situation. In this sense, love is work, it is something that is built. It is not something just given on the table. I think that this is the true radicality of love. The beauty of it actually lies in the hard and difficult work.

And you also, in the very beginning of the book, talk about the difficulty of the subject itself, and in fact you say something like a paradox, perhaps it’s not, in the end one. To write about love, you say, requires a certain solitude. How is it that reflecting on love in your book requires this solitude?

Well, solitude is necessary not only for writing but for love as such. I strongly believe only in love where you can preserve your own solitude. Rainer Maria Rilke has a beautiful definition of such kind of love, when he says that love consists in this: “that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” There is no radical love without solitude.

Okay, that’s why I asked the first question, why love? Was it something that you were inspired to write in the context of recent uprisings? In your book, you carefully weave the subject of love and revolution together. Can you talk a little bit about this?

This actually brings us back to solitude in a way. I tried to dispute the thesis that love and politics are opposites, or oppositions. That, on the one hand, you have solitude of the lovers who are isolated from society, and that, on the other hand, you have social upheavals, millions of people protesting on the squares and on the streets. We know very well that people who fall in love tend to escape into isolation or solitude. Take another Bertolucci’s movie, this time The Dreamers. It perfectly illustrates that point. You have a trio, two French youngsters joined by an American and the whole movie is about their sex triangle. But at the same time, a revolution is going on. It is, of course, the French ‘68. Bertolucci shows this as an opposition: on the one side there is their isolated fantasy world, and on the other there is revolution. What I attempted to show in my book is that it doesn’t have to be an opposition.

But first let’s try this: just put “career” into the sentence instead of “revolution”. There are certain people who still believe that love can be an obstacle to their careers: they have to choose between their partner or their career. Some people even split because the other person was only focused on his or her career. And the same happens in revolution, when someone is completely committed to a cause. What I tried to develop with the Radicality of Love was a sort of roller coaster ride through the revolutions of the 20th century in order to examine this fundamental dilemma: love or revolution? Either I will be completely committed to revolution or committed to love: this happens quite often. But I think instead of love or revolution, we should insist on love and revolution.

Yeah, too often loving relationships — whether romantic or familiar — are dictated by the framing of the economic, or by a desire for social justice that emerge in exclusive terms: ‘You must love or you must be a revolutionary, but not both.’ Or even: ‘You must work on a career or be part of a family, but not both.’

There is a well-known anecdote about Lenin told by Maxim Gorky, which is a nice illustration of this false dilemma “love or revolution”. Lenin was listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata at Gorky’s home and he remarked: “I know nothing that is greater than the Appassionata. I want to say gentle stupidities and stroke the heads of people who, living in this dirty hell, can create such beauty. But it is necessary to beat them over the head, beat without mercy, even though in our ideal we are against the use of force against people.” In other words, Lenin had problems with emotions. And what if the Appassionata really stands not only for the “terrible beauty” of the music but for Lenin’s mistress, Inessa Armand, who beautifully played his beloved Beethoven and died just before Lenin visited Gorky?

This is not just speculation. If you do serious research on the October Revolution, you will find very interesting stuff. For example: did you know that just before the revolution there was a discussion between Lenin and his fellow communists on whether it is allowed to have flowers in communist offices? The thesis of the contra-flower communists was that if someone has flowers in an office it is directly linked to emotions and you can easily end up as a typical British gardener who just cares about flowers.

And if we go on, you will see that this is not only something on the anecdotal level, such sorts of discussions — from flowers to “free love” — were part of the revolution. At the very beginning of the October Revolution you have an incredible figure like Alexandra Kollontai, who was the first woman minister in Europe ever, she was the minister of welfare where she administered the most radical laws. It was during the October Revolution, already in December 1917, that the Bolsheviks implemented laws permitting gay marriage or laws permitting divorce. In other words, an inherent part of the revolution was sexual emancipation.

But then, already at the beginning of the 1920s, a counterrevolution started, with the thesis that sex and love are dangerous. Already in the early 1930s, the laws against gays are once again reinforced. And what I try to show is that Engels was right when he said that “it is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary moment the question of ‘free love’ comes to the foreground.” Maybe this is the measure of a “great revolutionary moment” and a possible answer to why today the question of love is missing: is it because there is no great revolutionary moment today?

Why? Because in your view, love and revolution are bound up together?

Yes, because love and revolution have something in common. The first thing which happens in revolutions is very similar to what happens when you fall in love. You find yourself at a public square and you experience an intense moment which is very specific, because it happens only in that precise moment, maybe only once in a lifetime. But in a way, this very special moment is already universal. And the same happens in falling in love: you can, of course, only fall in love with a person who is very specific, special and unique, but at the same time this is precisely the moment when you enter universality. And to truly arrive to the level of revolution or love, after the fatal Event, there is something Alain Badiou calls Fidelity. The true test of a revolution is the day after, and not the day in which the occupation is happening. The true test of a one-night stand is always the day after, or even the very moment after orgasm. The true value of love is to endure.

Right. I am going to shift a bit and talk about your writing style. Your writing style is kind of a mixture between two things, it seems to me. On the one hand, you have a very clear analysis — you are following a thread, a hypothesis that you are chasing after — yet on the other hand the way that you flesh it out is through examples. For instance, religion often appears in your work: religion of culture, film, and so on.

So I guess my question then is, which comes first for you: the example or the analytic hypothesis? Do you think of these examples and then relate them to the curiosity thread that you’re chasing after? Or do you have an analysis first in place and then you look for examples of how to flesh out that analysis?

That is a good question. Let me first answer through something which might sound like another “example”, but you will see it is much more than that. I’m quite often in Vienna, but this April, for the first time, I went to the Leopold Museum because of an exhibition about the fatal relationship between the Austrian painter Egon Schiele and Wally Neuzil, a woman he met in 1911 when she was only 17 years old. She was the model for Schiele’s most striking paintings and at one point he dumped her. He just married another women, out of the sky. And although Wally was still very young at that time, she wasn’t devastated; she became a nurse for the Red Cross and ended up in the country where I come from, in Croatia, Split. There she caught scarlet fever from one of her patients and died at the age of 23.

Schiele died only three years after his breakup with Wally, in 1918. What you could see at the exhibition in Leopold Museum is that he was, all the time, haunted by his first true love. And I was dwelling through the museum until — I don’t know how or when it happened — I found myself in front of a painting called Death and Maiden (Man and Girl), standing there for half an hour or so. The man is completely sucked up, he doesn’t have a face anymore; he looks inward, but he is still embracing her. She hangs onto him as if he were her final anchor. They feel themselves to be a couple, while each of them is simultaneously driven into inner loneliness by the course of events. And it is a fatal separation of two people who know they must let go of each other, but they just can’t.

The painting actually represents the fatal break-up of Schiele and Wally — and I think it was the first time in my life that I started crying in front of a painting. Why? Was it because a suppressed feeling of one of my own fatal separations, in which we just couldn’t let each other go, arrived to my consciousness? Or was it because my last separation wasn’t fatal at all, and there wasn’t this feeling that we can’t let go? A stupid kiss on the cheek and that’s all. It was Schiele who unexpectedly gave me the answer that you usually get at a psychoanalytic couch.

Now, if you want, you can interpret this encounter with Schiele’s painting as an “example”, but for me it is much more — it was really an Encounter. And if I succeed to weave such Encounters into my own theoretical work, then it is much more than pure “theory”. Theory is always experience as well. And love is always already political. The way you treat your partner, the reason why you choose this particular person and not some other, the kind of sex or the kind of love only the two of you can construct. Love is always political.

Creston Davis

Creston Davis is Director of the Global Center of Advanced Studies.

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