I SOMETIMES think about how religious people must look at atheists and have difficulty comprehending the basic foundations of how they interact with and read the world — the grounding, organizing premises of their universes being so mutually incomprehensible.
Similarly, I remember once betraying my lack of understanding of the elemental world around me when I asked a biophysicist about salts and their nature. He looked at me as though I were an alien, as it dawned on him that I was seeing around me a completely different world than that which he could see from his viewpoint. That is kind of the beauty of things—realizing that what each person interacts with is different in some way from what you are interacting with, lighting up different clusters of associations and plumbing different neural networks. It is what makes coming to know another human being so eminently worthwhile.
People did not always enshrine this kind of subjective, variable reading of the world. In Europe it was only in the eighteenth century that theories of individualism became predominant and that the individual stood alone—interpreted in philosophy as unique and apart from social standing, as a being of his/her own singular fullness. Only from this position could there then emerge a concomitant understanding of the subjectivity of one’s view of the world. In particular, theorist Niklas Luhmann writes in his book Love as Passion that it was through German Romanticism that “the concreteness and the uniqueness of the individual could be raised to the level of a universalistic principle,” endowed in all as a rule. According to Luhmann, following this theoretical move, Romanticism came to regard two souls as constituting two (different) worlds. From there, in its theorization of love, German Romanticism “progressed from seeing the world only in relation to another person, to a revaluation of the world through that person;” and, in this, “the world of objects…became the sounding board of love.”
German Romanticism imagined that one saw things anew in this separate sphere (in the experiencing of love), and that there was a refreshed enchantment with the world around as the site through which “lovers experience[d]their love in relation to one another.” But I think that this focus on the external-made-new misses the deeper salve that the experience of love uniquely offers. If we imagine that we can never truly inhabit another person’s world, never see nor know exactly what another person does, what stays the bleakness of existential solitude is the experience of being in love. Because for the duration and possibility of a certain purity of love (leaving aside, for the moment, cynical understandings of inherently unequal interpersonal power dynamics), being together in love with another is the experience of confidence that for some moment another person is seeing and feeling what you are seeing and feeling. You are looking at and loving a person who is looking back at and loving you. You are buoyed and giddy in that what you are feeling as you look out at that person is returned as that person looks back out at you. In this the two bridge a shared plane between each other. Perhaps it is never fully equal, but for some moment there is the faith that it is—and that is the salve, the reason you feel suddenly less irredeemably alone.
And as you sit with it and live with it, even when that person is not immediately present, you begin to consider the world around with two sets of eyes, thinking, in full simultaneity, at each turn of the material: ‘what do I think of this?’ and ‘what would he/she think of this?’—both questions at once. And the two questions become conjoined and inseparable, even as the answers to both questions must invariably differ. Therein, love can encompass the beauty of the eminently subjective, unique worlds to be discovered in another human and, also, the suspension of such distances between the two. Indeed, for an atheist there may be no other such easing of existential solitude. Perhaps it is never perfectly suspended, and an equal meeting of lovers is impossible, but isn’t that what makes continuing a love so pained? To remain together in synchronic, shared love embeds in that love acts of faith.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University